Soundtrack in my head: Thievery Corporation, “The Richest Man in Babylon”
No review of my musical influences is complete without a review of Thievery Corporation, arguably my favorite all-time band for when I’m behind the DJ boards. They have been influential taste-makers for over a decade and a half, serving up a delightful blend of dub, jazz, lounge, Latin and other musical influences from around the world.
Eric Hilton, half of the duo making up the core of Thievery Corporation, was, like me, born in 1967. That year witnessed the release of many groundbreaking record albums, such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, and debut albums by The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, and Love. Musicians born that year include Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson of Lush, and LTJ Bukem.
The Thievery Corporation story began in Washington D.C. in 1991 with a warehouse club night called Exodus, started by Hilton and Fari Ali. This acid jazz event featured Hilton and Ali’s personal influences, which included jazz, ska, 70’s funk, mod, bossa nova, salsa, Latin jazz, reggae, and hip-hop. This party moved from warehouses to the Eighteenth Street Lounge, a club in the Dupont Circle neighborhood which Hilton and Ali started in 1995. The event’s music styles were captured on Exodus Quartet’s one and only album Way Out There in 1996.
I was somewhat familiar with Exodus Quartet’s work due to my interest in acid jazz but had not known about the connection between Exodus Quartet and Thievery Corporation until, oddly enough, my mother’s passing in 2007. I found a copy of Way Out There when I was going through her music collection, While browsing through the liner notes, I was surprised to find Eric Hilton’s name in it, since up until then, I was only aware of Hilton through Thievery Corporation. The liner notes also talked about Hilton’s love for Gucci loafers, Lambretta or Vespa motorscooters, and included a thank you to a guy by the name of Rob Garza, who in the liner notes was nicknamed “The Freshmaker.”
I had difficulty finding bio information on Garza prior to Thievery Corporation. Per the bio on Thievery Corporation’s website, Garza had been doing some production work in one of Hilton’s studios, but had never met Hilton personally until introduced by a mutual friend at Eighteenth Street Lounge. Garza was impressed by the atmosphere at the club, and the two musicians also realized they had a mutual fondness for The Clash, local punk label Dischord, bossa nova, and topics that, per Hilton, “other people aren’t interested in talking about.”
Hilton and Garza decided to collaborate and record together, and under the name “Thievery Corporation” released Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi in 1996. The video below for the song “2001: A Spliff Odyssey” reveals the mixture of dub, world music and lounge that would be part of their signature sound for years to come.
Rather than sign on to a record label, Garza and Hilton decided to start an independent recording label called ESL Music (ESL standing for Eighteenth Street Lounge). Artists on the currently label include Afrolicious, Ancient Astronauts, Nickodemus, Thunderball, and Ursula 1000.
In 2000, they released The Mirror Conspiracy, which has a very understated lounge music feel through it. The video below, “Shadows of Ourselves,” features Iranian-born Lou Lou Ghelichkhani, one of the regular vocalists featured on Thievery Corporation’s records. In the screencap for this video, you can also see Hilton’s cameo role of a creepy stranger staring at Lou Lou.
Thievery Corporation’s 2002 release The Richest Man In Babylon went in a more overtly political direction as indicated by the title track below featuring Jamaican toasters Notch and Sleepy Wonder, both of whom, like Lou Lou, have been regulars with Thievery Corporation throughout multiple albums. There was also a stronger reggae influence in this album for the first time. Concerns about social justice would continue to be a theme through their subsequent albums. (Hilton’s penchant for Brooks Brothers suits seems to provide a fascinating foil for his more radical politics).
In 2005, Thievery Corporation release The Cosmic Game with an even larger Rolodex of guest artists, including Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Perry Farrell, and David Byrne. The album continued to feature Thievery Corporation regulars such as Sleepy Wonder and Gunjan in the below video. The diversity of music widens significantly, including a harder and noisier edge with “Warning Shots.”
The album Radio Retaliation, released in 2008 featured a digital image of Subcomandate Marcos, the enigmatic ski-masked spokesperson of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico–an indigenous revolutionary movement whose uprising began on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement first went into effect in 1994. Garza wrote in a press release, “Radio Retaliation is definitely a more overt political statement […] There’s no excuse for not speaking out at this point, with the suspension of habeas corpus, outsourced torture, illegal wars of aggression, fuel, food, and economic crises. It’s hard to close your eyes and sleep while the world is burning around you. If you are an artist, this is the most essential time to speak up.”
The album has the same level of diversity as its predecessor, but there’s something about the album that causes one track to flow naturally to the next. Despite being highly political in its content, the below videos from the first and last tracks of the album highlight both the “in-your-face” and tender aspects of their music. “Sound The Alarm” features Garza and Hilton in a live performance that shows a stunning example of how modern DJs mix modern DJing technology and performance. “Sweet Tides” once again features Lou Lou in one of Thievery Corporation’s most beautiful and sublime pieces.
Culture of Fear, released in 2011, did not let up on the political commentary. The album features a picture of modern-day security camera in a design that almost seems to anticipate two years in advance the recent discovery of the U.S. government’s mass surveillance system revealed less than a month ago. The video below features Mr. Lif, a Boston-based hip-hop artist. The album has a somewhat more dark and ominous theme.
Thievery Corporation has also put out a number of compilation albums and remixes featuring music that has influenced them or remixes they have been involved in producing.
Eric Hilton also produced an independent film in 2010 entitled Babylon Central, which weaved together Hilton’s love for Washington DC’s street life and potpourri of cultural influences with political concerns. The accompanying soundtrack featured not only a couple of tracks from Thievery Corporation, but contributions from Bad Brains, Butch Cassidy Sound System, Western Roots, and an interesting mix of other dub and lounge bands. The trailer is below.