But Portishead’s relationship with hip-hop has always been symbiotic; its music is synonymous with the flickering, noir sense that rappers have been trying to evoke for years. The band has been dutifully sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and a young Timbaland, not to mention flipped on records by Slick Rick, Three 6 Mafia, and Canibus. (Barrow’s favorite Portishead rework is the Cincinnati DJ Ill Poetic’s mash-up of their music and the vocals from Joe Budden’s mixtape Mood Muzik 3.) The band has curated two days of this weekend’s All Tomorrow’s Parties–produced I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park, and the bill contains gloomsplosion merchants who file nicely alongside the hissy, doomy, analog night-terrors of Portishead’s most recent album, Third: Swans, Mogwai, Battles, Earth, a collabo between Simeon of electro-psych pioneers Silver Apples and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of krautrock dreamweavers Cluster. But Portishead has also invited a formidable, pan-generational lineup of New York’s hip-hop pioneers. Public Enemy will perform their iconic 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet in its entirety; Kool Keith and the rest of the Bronx’s ill-angled Ultramagnetic MCs will make the most of a reformation; and New York murk-hop iconoclasts Company Flow will emerge from a 10-year hibernation at Portishead’s request.
“Portishead gave us the excuse to do it,” says Company Flow producer and MC El-P. “When I found out years ago through the grapevine that they were fans, it kind of blew my mind. They were just so clearly influenced by hip-hop. . . . It was amazing to hear this group paying homage to that vibe in a way hip-hop fans and producers could really relate to and making a record that every red-blooded rapper would gladly murder a child for if they could get the rights to sample it back.”
“Hip-hop is kind of my punk, really,” says Barrow. Like many members of his generation, the first time Barrow heard hip-hop was through Herbie Hancock’s wikki-tastic 1983 crossover hit “Rockit.” After his parents divorced, the 11-year-old Barrow and his mom had left the valley-set village of Walton-in-Gordano for the comparatively bustling, urban fishing town of Portishead, where breakdancers showed off their moves to the sounds of compilations put out by the U.K. label Street Sounds.
A preteen Barrow popped and locked in “the worst crew in the world,” the Freaky Fresh Four. “The craziest thing is that living in a place like Portishead, there’s a little town called Clevedon next to it, another little town called Nailsea, a little place called Pill. The only reason you used to go to those towns was to have a fight,” he recalls. “And through that period, people went to have breakdance battles. And I’m not talking about kids. I’m talking about guys who had spent time in jail. Proper, hardcore guys that got into breakdancing. You’d be surrounded by the hardest kids, but they wouldn’t beat you up because it was a kind of rule of breakdancing that it didn’t turn to violence.” Barrow was a self-described “fucking terrible” dancer, the little guy the bigger dudes would throw around. “That’s why I moved to the decks.”