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Les Baxter's Tropical Trips & Space Escapades
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Les Baxter's Tropical Trips & Space Escapades

Pianist and composer Les Baxter was a pioneer in exotica. The music genre brings together easy-listening with rhythms and styles from Africa, South America, and Polynesian islands such as Hawaii and Fiji. In the 50s, Les Baxter was one of the first to ever do it, further experimenting and developing the genre from there.

By DannyVeekens
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"Any good music must be an innovation," Les Baxter once famously said. His work in exotica in the 50s sure was. But it doesn’t end there. His 1947 album Music Out Of The Moon was the first record cover that was printed in full-colour. And the pioneering use of an electronic instrument called the theremin introduced the world to sounds and vibes from outer space.

Les Baxter has been sampled by Beastie Boys, Ghostface Killah, MF DOOM, DJ Krush, Showbiz & A.G., Buckwild, J-Live & many more

That album founded the direction of “space” in the exotica music genre. The ethereal theme returned throughout his catalog on albums such as Space Escapades, a style later cleverly sampled by Beastie Boys for “Intergalactic.” An otherworldly ode to a space-age precursor.

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Next to the sounds of space, he continued to expand on exotica. His groundbreaking album Ritual of the Savage (often cited as one of the most influential exotica albums of all-time) boasts the sounds of the jungle through the use of Belgian Congo noises, symphonic strings, brass, and kazoos. The track “Quiet Village” on the album is deemed an exotica anthem, described by Les Baxter himself as a "tone poem of the sound and the struggle of the jungle." Six years later, that exotica blueprint was covered by pianist and composer Martin Denny, another pioneer in exotica, later sampled by the likes of Flying Lotus, The B52’s, and New York Underground David Shea. ‘Que Mango’ in 1970 was Les Baxter’s last exotic album.

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Les Baxter was a frontrunner in exotica, but his decades-long work in scoring movies was much more anonymous: he mostly composed soundtracks for low-budget flicks and B-movies at best to pay the bills. Still, that didn't stop artists such as Eminem, MF DOOM, DJ Krush & Kool Keith to unearth and sample a Les Baxter OST like 1969’s Hell's Belles.

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The questionable quality of most of the movies he scored aside, Les Baxter never lost musical innovation out of sight: “His spark was never completely dulled, despite that the films he worked on were generally mediocre at best,” writes Skip Heller in a biography of Les Baxter. “The 1972 shocker Frogs featured the first all-electronic Baxter score. He was constantly looking for new things to try within his own musicality.”


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