More than 15 years into their musical journey, The Herbaliser just keep getting bigger, stronger and better. It all began in the early 1990s when West London duo Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba discovered a shared passion for hip-hop, rare groove, funk and jazz. James Brown, DJ Premier, Lalo Schifrin, David Axelrod and Serge Gainsbourg were their youthful heroes.
The studio became their first instrument. Both avid vinyl collectors, Jake and Ollie began using the freshest sampling techniques, coupled with Jake’s musical knowhow from playing guitar and bass. Later, they added guest rappers and vocalists. Later still, a full live line-up of brass, strings and cinematic textures. DJ Malachi plus Easy Access Orchestra players Ralph Lamb and Andy Ross became regular Herbaliser collaborators, expanding and enriching their sound.
Released in 1995, the first Herbaliser album Remedies offered an emphatically London-centric take on funky electronica packed with samples, scratches and chopped-up rhythms. It remains an influential underground classic from the urban flipside of the Britpop boom.
In 1997, the second Herbaliser album Blow Your Headphones was a more meaty, increasingly vocal affair. The US rock Bible Rolling Stone praised the album’s “smooth, nimble rhythms” and called it a “a textured, experimental valentine to US hip-hop.” Most notably the mesmerising talents of underground New York rapper and storyteller Jean Grae, then performing as What What, who remains a frequent Herbaliser guest.
Expanding their live line-up to a nine-piece in the late 1990s, Herbaliser became acclaimed festival favourites around the globe. Playing to increasingly large and appreciative crowds also helped Jake and Ollie broaden their studio working methods.
On their 1999 album Very Mercenary, they began sampling their own playing partners to produce a more organic, full-bodied sound. Alongside What What, Very Mercenary also shone the spotlight on a host of guest vocalists including future Brit-rap titans Blade and Roots Manuva. “While it’s always good to have a really hot young MC from the States, we also think it’s important to represent the UK,” says Jake.
Following in 2000, the double-vinyl live album Session One showed the world what a rousing and dynamic affair the Herbaliser road show had now become. A party pack of crowd-pleasers in beefed-up live arrangements, The Guardian called the album “sterling proof that this kind of music invariably sounds better played by musicians than by a sampler.”
The arrival of Something Wicked This Way Comes in 2002 added several new shades of light and dark to the Herbaliser spectrum. A potent cocktail of moody instrumental grooves and funky Brit-hop, it also featured another impressively forward-thinking gallery of guest vocalists including MF Doom, Phi Life Cypher and Rakaa Iriscience from Dilated Peoples. All Music Guide hailed the album as “colossal and cinematic,” while NME praised its “tough, commanding rare grooves.”
Ollie and Jake proved their DJ skills with the acclaimed 2004 mix album Herbal Blend and their 2006 mix for Fabric. In between, they returned to the studio with Take London, released in 2005. A multicultural manifesto celebrating the UK capital’s unique mix of soul, funk, hip-hop and reggae, it featured the triumphant return of Roots Manuva alongside Jean Grae, who by now had left her What What alias behind. A rave review on the BBC Urban site described Take London as “tailor-made for cruising over Waterloo Bridge at midnight, preferably in a blacked-out mini with a Union Jack painted on the roof.”
Fast forward to 2008 and The Herbaliser hit a dazzling new peak with their richest and most diverse album to date, the archly titled Same As It Never Was. With a new emphasis on classic soulful songwriting, the main vocal focus this time is on a new recruit, the supremely talented 22-year-old Londoner Jessica Darling. With Easy Access Orchestra members Ralph Lamb and Andy Ross also on board, Herbaliser now have a firm five-piece collective at their core. Glossy and gritty, organic and eclectic, Same As It Never Was is a timeless soul record for a scrambled musical era. It builds on the band’s hip-hop origins with a rich mix of jazz, funk, R&B, pop and instrumental soundtrack influences. Moving forwards, sideways, and back to the future, The Herbaliser have come full circle. “It’s still a hip-hop inspired record, but at the same time it’s a lot broader because our musical and emotional horizons are broader,” says Jake. “It’s all one big family. As teenagers in the 1980s, we were into rare groove, hip-hop, early electro and funk, soul and jazz. It’s a big melting pot.”
More than 15 years into their musical journey, Same As It Never Was marks the start of a whole new chapter for Ollie and Jake. The Herbaliser have never sounded better.