As you may have heard, Björk’s latest album, Biophilia, has been specially designed to work best on an Alphasmart 2000 word-processor. This pioneering piece of multimedia is likely huge fun for tech-heads, but for music fans it might also be the aural equivalent of playing with your food. And Björk’s food is usually fine as is.
So, then, why not take the opportunity of Biophilia‘s release to plot Björk’s hip-hop connections. She said that Public Enemy’s music was a fixture on the Sugarcubes’ tour bus back in the day. Since fleeing that band and going solo, she’s maintained on-and-off collaborations with rap artists and industry figures alike. Here then are Björk’s ten most prominent connections to rap, listed in chronological order for optimum nerd-friendliness.
“Play Dead (Tim Simenon Remix)” (1993)
Björk’s first post-Sugarcubes album, Debut, saw her relying on the production savvy of Nelle Hooper, a one-time member of The Wild Bunch collective that morphed into Massive Attack. It’s a thread she mined further when Tim Simenon, the architect behind UK cut-and-paste merchants Bomb The Bass, was entrusted to remix “Play Dead,” her contribution to the Young Americans soundtrack. (Nerd note: The song doesn’t appear on the first pressing of Debut.)
“Keep Your Mouth Shut” (1996)
As Björk’s beau at the time, Tricky notched a couple of artistic contributions to her 1995 album, Post. He produced the metallic “Enjoy” and the extraordinarily intimate “Headphones,” which closes out the album with close-to-whispered lyrics like, “Genius to fall asleep to your tape last night/ Sounds go through the muscles.” In return, a year later Björk’s vocals were present on “Keep Your Mouth Shut” and “Yoga,” two tracks on Tricky’s Nearly God project.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Stressed Out (The Björk Remixes)” (1996)
In which Björk shows herself more adept at remixing rappers than hip-hop types are at remixing her. Here the second single from Tribe’s sort-of-maligned album Beats, Rhymes & Life—blame Dilla and Consequence! No, really, please do—is subjected to a triple whammy of Björk remixes: “Björk’s Say Dip Mix” allies a replayed horn-version of the main melody to a steadily lilting beat; “Björk’s Dandelions Mix” builds on this template, but adds some industrial sounding stabs as the song progresses; “Björk’s Married To The Mob Remix” heads in a seductively shifting direction, adding her own vocals and eradicating all percussion from the session. Conspiratorial jab: All versions feature only Phife’s raps, possibly because Q-Tip was too busy trying to live out teenage Janet Jackson fantasies during those days.
“I Miss You (Dobie Rub Part One Sunshine Mix)” (1996)
In its original guise on Post, “I Miss You” employed the production talents of Scottish trip-hop architect (and future UK cohort) Howie B; it sounded somewhat like Björk was excitedly singing about a future love opportunity while being accompanied by a chorus of frantic cartoon crickets. For the remix collection Telegram, UK hip-hop and soul producer Dobie wholesale switched to a melancholy vibe, wove in a sample of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” and turned the optimism into something of a lament. Long-time London rap chap Rodney P is the man obliging with a short and appropriate guest rap.
DJ Shadow, “Mutual Slump” (1996)
“Possibly Maybe” is the closest Post gets to tapping into the trip-hop sounds of the mid-’90s. Nattily, DJ Shadow was smitten with the opening riff and wove it into his own trip-hop-inspired opus, Endtroducing. The sample appears on “Mutual Slump,” which adds clattering drums to the original’s coy charm.
“Bachelorette (RZA Remix)” (1997)
RZA, who once self-consciously rapped how he “talk strange like Björk,” once claimed in an interview that he and Björk started working on an EP. Alas, it was never finished; the songs don’t appear to have leaked online. In 1997, the Wu were coming off their biggest commercial run with Wu-Tang Forever; the idea of RZA’s propensity for warped samples and Björk’s ability to coin off-kilter phrasing seemed a smart marriage. The official fruit of their tryst, however, was unfulfilling: Charged with re-shaping the epic “Bachelorette,” RZA’s contribution seemed to be little more than handing over a file marked “Bog-Standard Wu Backing Drums.” (Department of How It Should Be Done: Alec Empire’s vividly titled “The Ice Princess And The Killer Whale” re-rub.)
“Triumph Of A Heart” (2004)
Part of the tick behind Medulla was its reliance on a capella backdrops for Björk’s own vocals. One of those invited to add their tones to the mix was Rahzel, the beatboxer who formerly sparred with The Roots. “Triumph Of A Heart,” which features Rahzel among a cacophony of voices, may be the most cohesive manifestation of the album’s grand idea, with a pulsing beat annotated with freaky vocal ticks and whispers. There’s an “Audition Mix” out there, too, which strips things down even further and gives you an insight into the song’s development. Either way, Spike Jonze’s video for the song is a thing of wonderment; the cover art for the single, which features Björk smooching a cat, likely fell from a gallery in heaven.
“Oceania (Radio Mix Featuring Kelis)” (2004)
Kelis is one of rap’s favorite femmes: She was officially anointed as “the loud screaming chick with the hair” by The Clipse and married into Nas’s delusional dynasty. She also wrangled her way onto a remix of “Oceania,” from Medulla, which is hooked around both ladies singing back and forth and often layered on top of each other. Possibly to simulate water. Merrily, Kelis has since divorced from Nas, thereby preventing him from ever peeping Björk’s contribution to the Moomins movie and deciding to pen a paranoid, racially motivated concept album about the plump white blobs.
AKA the one where hip-hop hit-maker Timbaland fares better than RZA in his hook-up with Björk, at least in terms of seeing original collaborations released. In tandem with Danja, who scored pop hits for Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, Timbo was behind the boards on three tracks, “Innocence,” “Hope,” and “Earth Intruders”—although the latter just might be the most annoying thing Björk has ever signed off on (and yes, that includes Gling-Glo!). “Innocence” strikes a winning formula though, with Timbaland’s punchy, abrasive beat boosting Björk’s triumphant wail about “the thrill of fear.”
E-40, “Spend The Night” (2010)
Björk hearts hyphy! Well, possibly; she at least was gracious enough to clear samples nabbed from Medulla for the Bay Area’s ambassador, E-40, to use on his 2010 attempt at a club banger. The results are more curious than effective; it almost sounds like 40 and friends rapping over a megamix (remember those?) of Medulla. And the bar in the “Triumph Of A Heart” video clearly looks far more fun than 40’s fantasy club here.