The beginner’s guide to: chillout

Cafe del Mar
(Image credit: JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images)

Some might argue that chillout isn’t so much a style of music as a state of mind. The concept originated in the late ’80s, as the rave scene took hold in Britain and acid house ruled clubs. 

With tempos rising and recreational pharmaceuticals growing ever stronger, clubbers found themselves seeking a little light relief from the madness. As pioneering ambient DJ Mixmaster Morris put it, it was “time to lie down and be counted”.

In a world of opaque genre names, the origin of chillout couldn’t be much more obvious. The chillout rooms which began to appear in clubs and raves were just that: places to chill out, relax for a while, drink some water, get your head together and revive yourself.

The first of its kind may have been The White Room at London’s Heaven club, where Paul Oakenfold booked DJs to play the second room of his Land of Oz nights, including the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty, The Orb’s Alex Paterson and Killing Joke bassist Youth, spinning a mix of laidback and relaxing tracks.

There’s a clear overlap here with ambient house, the easy-going but still club-focused offshoot of experimental ambient music. The link was made even more concrete by the record which really defined the style: The KLF’s 1990 album Chill Out was a groundbreaking piece of work, stitching samples and snippets from an eclectic range of sources to create a 45-minute continuous piece.

An audio collage of everything from Elvis to the Tuvan throat singing of Siberia, the album tells the story of an imaginary night-time journey from Texas to Louisiana.

More of a post-club home listening album than a chillout room piece in its own right, Chill Out nevertheless helped to define the idea of chillout as a style of music. Before long, the concept of chillout started to establish itself as an even wider, looser term that took in everything from Balearic beats to downtempo house, ambient experimentalism, subtle jazz, mellow trance, Latin music and even soft rock.

The Ibiza connection became particularly crucial in terms of the commercial packaging of chillout, with links to Café Del Mar sunsets and images of immaculate beaches and, regrettably, bikini-clad women often being used as a shorthand for chilled vibes. Rising interest in CD compilations sparked a trend for cookie-cutter albums with predictable names such as The Very Best 100% Ultimate Chilled Ibiza Essential Sunset Chillout... Ever.

By the mid-to-late ’90s, chillout was becoming a bit of a dirty word among more ‘serious’ dance music heads, drawing the kind of ‘dinner party music’ slurs that trip-hop also attracted.

By the mid-to-late ’90s, chillout was becoming a bit of a dirty word among more ‘serious’ dance music heads, drawing the kind of ‘dinner party music’ slurs that trip-hop also attracted. Whether that criticism is entirely fair probably depends on the kind of chillout music you favoured, but it’s understandable that the idea of lazily throwing together a bit of Portishead, some Air, Groove Armada’s At The River and some downtempo bossa nova started to feel tired very quickly.

By the 2000s, the idea of chillout music undoubtedly felt a bit naff, but the fact remained that plenty of people wanted music to relax to, whether as part of a daily routine or in the context of coming down from the high of a night out in a club. You’re probably unlikely to describe, say, The xx or Burial as ‘chillout’ musicians (or at least we hope so), but the spirit of chillout maybe, just possibly, lived on through the simple act of people picking their favourite music to chill out to, even if the genre tag itself started to decline.

For the next generation, the idea returned with the creation of chillwave around 2009, to which we will return in due course. The chillout room may be vanishingly rare in a 21st century club context, but the idea of chilling out to music very much lives on.

Various artists - Café Del Mar - Ibiza, 1994

Compiled by the legendary Balearic DJ Jose Padilla, this pioneering chillout compilation set the standard for the laid-back Ibiza-inspired mix album. Including avant-pop from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, trancey minimalism from Underworld and the iconic beatless mix of Smokebelch by Andrew Weatherall’s Sabres Of Paradise project, the album became a must-have for sunset cocktails and bleary-eyed mornings.

Kruder & Dorfmeister - The K&D Sessions, 1998

Call it downtempo or trip-hop if you want, but this took chilled vibes into expansive new territory thanks to a rhythmic complexity and open-minded musical approach seldom heard in so much generic chillout. Consisting almost entirely of lovingly refashioned versions of other artists’ tracks, the two-hour set is a masterpiece.

Terry Riley - Rainbow in Curved Air, 1969

Avant-garde composer Terry Riley would be well justified in cringing at the very idea of being labelled chillout, but it’s worth looking back to the past to see how the progressive ’60s concepts of psychedelia and minimalism inform what we might now view as chillout music. Hugely influential in its own right, this experimental piece in two movements features tape loops, overdubs, improvisation and drawn-out saxophone-based drones. 

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