By the autumn of 1989, when Forgemasters' "Track With No Name," Unique 3's "The Theme" and Nightmares On Wax's "Dextrous" were dominating clubs, illegal raves and pirate radio stations, the sound already had many names: "Yorkshire bleep and bass," "Yorkshire bass" and, simply, "bleep."
What followed was little short of a landmark shift in the fabric of British dance music. There had been British house and techno records before, but with a few notable exceptions they were generally poor pastiches of popular American hits. Bleep and bass was different. It was fresh, mysterious and distinctly British. The inspiration bleep provided resulted in a sharp burst of productivity, followed by chart success for LFO, Nightmares On Wax and Unique 3. Yet by the tail end of 1991, the style had all but died, overtaken by faster, more frenetic forms of dance music.
Bleep, though, lives on. A quarter of a century later, echoes of this first wave of British bass music can still be heard in the sparse rhythms and heavy subs of dubstep, the raw-and-stripped back arrangements of grime, and the surging energy of Paul Woolford's Special Request project.
"That period and those producers just hit upon the purest essence of club music," says Neil Landstrumm, a techno producer whose records for Tresor, Planet Mu and Peacefrog have often doffed a cap to Britain's bleep pioneers. "It's perennially valid, timeless and current-sounding no matter what stage or phase of the musical cycle you are in. For example, it sounded just as relevant in the throes of UK dubstep as it did post-acid house/Summer Of Love. It reflects and echoes the UK's long love affair with Jamaican dub, mixed with the best of New York, Detroit and Chicago. British producers and DJs just regurgitated it with a sparser, more atonal feel that would sound good in great Northern raves and clubs."
Landstrumm is not alone in his enduring love of bleep. 25 years on, many artists are still profoundly influenced by the sound. "It was a pure primitive distillation into something that was new, fresh and sci-fi," says Optimo's JD Twitch, whose label has recently released bass-heavy, bleep-influenced material from Luca Lozano and Crooked Man. "Those records still sound like the future, even though it's 25 years later. There's something so atmospheric about that music, even though the records are so raw."
Luca Lozano, who spent his teenage years in Sheffield in the aftermath of bleep, agrees. "The production values, especially on some of the Robert Gordon produced stuff, are fantastically high," he says. "When I listen to those records in the studio, they sound completely 3-D and panoramic. Many records from that period haven't aged well, but a lot of bleep and bass tunes still sound fresh. The 3-D spatial design Rob Gordon achieved on his records was completely nuts."
It's always been something of a puzzle as to why that period—so brief, yet so important to the development of British dance music—has not been explored more thoroughly. While British hardcore and later developments such as jungle and UK garage have been extensively documented, bleep has remained underexplored. Of course, many of us know the big records—"LFO," "Aftermath," "Testone" and "The Theme"—but little has been said about many other landmark records of the period.
Bleep may have been an overnight sensation, but the sound took years to gestate. The story begins in the break-dancing scene of the early-to-mid 1980s. Scattered throughout the North of England, and Yorkshire in particular, were future DJs and producers for whom hip-hop, electro and break-dancing was a way of life. There were crews in every major town and city, from Solar City Rockers in Bradford (whose members included Unique 3 and Nightmares On Wax), to Steel City Breakers and Smack 19 in Sheffield.
Some of these "breakers"—the likes of Bradford's Boy Wonder, Leeds' E.A.S.E and Sheffield's Winston Hazel—were already DJs; others would take to the turntables in the years that followed. The scene was closely knit, and those who travelled to take part in competitions (including, somewhat bizarrely, a televised contest by Yorkshire TV) became friends and rivals.
"I'm not going to lie—all of us at some point didn't like each other," says E.A.S.E (George Evelyn) of Nightmares On Wax. "I think it was mainly because we were young and had massive egos. We all loved what we did. It's like playground tactics. It's territory shit. If me and Kevin [Boy Wonder] played down in Sheffield, we were going and playing on somebody else's territory. We were aware of that and they were aware of that. When we were going down there, we were going down with a purpose."
Break-dancing and the bass-heavy sound of drum-machine electro also brought together Gez Varley and the late Mark Bell, who later joined forces as LFO. "We met as rivals on a Saturday afternoon, in the Merrion shopping centre in Leeds back in 1984," Varley says. "We were from different parts of the city so were in rival crews. It wasn't until 1988 that we met up again on a photography and graphic design course. Like a lot of our mates from the later bleep scene, we grew up on electro music, and later hip-hop and then early house."
As the break-dancing craze fizzled out, the nature of the scene changed. DJs began to secure residencies in local clubs. Unique 3 and Mark Iration (then running the Ital Rockers Soundsystem) made regular appearances at Bradford's Checkpoint, while Nightmares On Wax ran a weekly party called Downbeat at Ricky's in Leeds. The city's Warehouse club would later play a vital role as well.
Down the road in Sheffield, Winston Hazel was running things. He held residencies at Maximillions (subsequently Kiki's) and Mona Lisa's, and DJ'd alongside DJ Parrot at the influential—and later hugely popular—Jive Turkey parties. Yorkshire also boasted a strong "all-dayer" scene, which would attract dancers and DJs from across the North.
"The all-dayers would happen once a month in Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Huddersfield, Sheffield or Nottingham, and you'd hear this pool of DJs from all over the North and sometimes further afield," Evelyn says. "When you went there you'd hear imports—records that you couldn't even afford to buy. You'd hear fresh music, but at the same time you'd have crews battling, dancers, all of it."
These DJs took their job very seriously. In order to get ahead of their rivals, they'd spend their Saturdays visiting record shops in other cities to make sure they could secure the latest US imports. "Every Saturday, I used to go on the train to Eastern Bloc and Spinning Disc to buy records," Mark Iration remembers. "That was a Saturday ritual, so I could play the records on the Sunday at Checkpoint. Kevin from Nightmares On Wax was always at those Checkpoint parties, looking at the labels of my records as they were spinning round."
The importance of this one-upmanship and record-shop culture should not be underestimated. "It was an art in itself," says Edzy of Unique 3. "You'd get a lift off someone and go to Fourth Wave in Huddersfield, Spinning Disc in Manchester or FON Records in Sheffield."
FON was important. Initially set up as an offshoot of the FON Studio founded by industrial-funk outfit Chakk, it was later taken over by Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett, who would prove pivotal in the bleep revolution. Mitchell and Beckett realised the growing influence and importance of dance music, and employed Winston Hazel as their import buyer. Like the rest of the top underground DJs in Yorkshire, Hazel was excited by the emerging house and techno sound. Like the others, he also played a mixture of hip-hop, '80s soul, electrofunk, dub and reggae. This mix of sounds would later underpin the funky looseness of the greatest bleep and bass records.
"You just played the best of what was around," DJ Parrot, Hazel's sometime DJ partner, says. "When I first started, in 1985, I still played a lot of old stuff as well as new stuff, whereas Winston was much more current. The crowds were very different back then. It was very segregated, though it later became more mixed as time went on, with Jive Turkey and Occasions."
At the time, the Yorkshire scene was dominated by what Parrot calls "proper dancers": teenagers and 20-somethings who would show off their moves in clubs. These dancers often had a strong distaste for music that their parents liked, and demanded the latest sounds from the US. By 1988, that meant house. "House was just another step on from electro and everything else—a new dance that came in," Parrot says. "People would say, 'That's what we do now, we do that.'"
Chicago house was a huge influence on the early bleep pioneers, but the record that finally sent these DJs scurrying into the studio came not from a Chicago producer, but from a former Manchester breakdancer: A Guy Called Gerald's "Voodoo Ray." "That record just blew me away," Boy Wonder says. "It was that record which inspired us, and later what the other guys around us were doing." Fittingly, the first version of "Dextrous," released in the summer of 1989, would feature a vocal sample from "Voodoo Ray."
Unique 3 showed their hand first. Sometime in the middle of 1988, two of the trio—Ian Park and mic man Patrick Cargill—got together with a school friend, David Bahar, in the attic of a non-descript terraced house in Bradford. Using a small sampling keyboard, a Roland TR-909 drum machine, a microphone and a four-track cassette recorder, they laid the foundations of a record that would define the bleep and bass sound: "The Theme."
"I was a massive raw bass fan, and I wanted the wildest, dirtiest bass sound I could find," Bahar says. "At one of the sessions I heard low register feedback come through the speakers that shook the house to its foundations. So, I got a tape deck and plugged a mic into the mixer to record the feedback. I kept hold of that, and when we recorded 'The Theme,' we used it for the bass tone."
26 years on, the original version of "The Theme" and its overlooked A-side, "Only The Beginning," still sound prescient. The track's sparse elements—shuffling, electro-influenced house beats, a simple bleep melody, Detroit-indebted chords and a colossal bassline—provided a simple blueprint for the subsequent bleep and bass sound.
It was the influence of dub bass, though, that made "The Theme" different to any British house and techno record that had come before. It was an influence shared by all of Yorkshire's DJs and would-be bleep producers, most of whom had grown up in multicultural areas. They were either schooled in reggae from an early age, or fell in love with it after visiting illicit, after-hours "blues" clubs in places like Chapeltown in Leeds.
After seeing "The Theme" cause chaos in clubs when played off cassette, Edzy decided it needed to be released. He cobbled the money together to get 500 records pressed, and sold them directly to record shops around the North of England (a trick later copied by Nightmares On Wax). "It was just wherever we could get to on the bus or in a borrowed car," he remembers. "We got it into Spinning Disc in Manchester, and the record was passed on to Stu Allan, who was a huge rave DJ at the time. He played it on his radio show and that's when things began to kick off for us."
Another copy also found its way into the hands of Winston Hazel at FON Records. "It fitted with what we were doing and where we wanted to be," he says. "To have something that good, that had been made by someone pretty local, was brilliant. I remember thinking: 'I wish I'd made that.'"
"I remember when it came into the shop," DJ Parrot says. "I heard Winston playing it and was simply blown away. When something like that lands, you don't know where you're going, but you know you're moving forwards."
The influence of Unique 3's pioneering record was also felt further afield. Down in Nottingham, a producer called Mark Gamble was equally inspired. Having tasted success with Krush's "House Arrest," which was arguably the first UK house record to hit the charts, Gamble was invigorated by the sound of "The Theme."
"I first heard it in a club in London," Gamble says. "I can still remember the 'wow factor.' As soon as we got back from London, I knew that's what I wanted to do. It was the hook and bass that got me. I heard it and thought, 'That's the future.' The simplicity of it, the raw sound… it was just great." Gamble subsequently re-emerged, alongside his friend Leroy Crawford, as Rhythmatic, delivering a string of underground bleep hits in 1990 and '91.
In the summer of '89 "The Theme" resurfaced in remixed form, following Unique 3's decision to sign with the Virgin Records offshoot Ten Records, an indication of the growing commercial potential of Yorkshire bleep and bass. Meanwhile, a host of local DJs were busy creating their own distinctive takes on the thrillingly new formula. In Leeds, Nightmares On Wax were putting the final touches to Let It Roll, which featured the original version of "Dextrous" and was released in July '89, while Mark Iration was recording the first Ital Rockers record, the dub-flecked bleep and bass killer "Ital's Anthem."
These tunes, and others like them, were usually recorded straight to cassette using hardware. These cassettes were then taken to clubs—either the creators' own parties, or influential venues such as The Warehouse—to be road-tested on supportive local audiences. One of the key figures in this practice was Martin Williams, resident DJ at The Warehouse and a founding member of LFO. Williams would later become the go-to studio engineer for many of Leeds' bleep acts, working out of the Crash Records studio.
"I remember the first time DJ Martin played 'Ital's Anthem' straight off cassette at the Warehouse," Iration says. "I stood in the DJ booth, overlooking the dance floor, watching the reaction. It was amazing. We'd also take our cassettes to Winston and get them played at Occasions in Sheffield. That's how the tracks kicked off."
BLEEP FOR BEGINNERS
Don't know where to start with Bleep? Matt Anniss picks ten essential tracks.
Unique 3 & The Mad Musician
Man Machine featuring the Forgemasters
"Man Machine (Cyber-Subsonik)"
Outer Rhythm, 1989
Nightmares On Wax
"Take Me Back (Rob Gordon Edit 'With Extra Bass')"
"Easy Life (Jive Turkey Mix)"
"Hear Me Now"
Chill Records 1990
Further down the M1 in Sheffield, Hazel was already preparing his response. Sometime in late '88 or early '89, he headed to the home studio of his school friend Robert Gordon. A mutual friend, Sean Maher, was also there. In one productive evening, the trio created one of the defining records of the era, Forgemasters' "Track With No Name." Gordon would go on to become one of the most important figures in the bleep and bass explosion. He was a soundsystem builder and electronics wizard with a reputation as a brilliant engineer at Sheffield's FON Studio, but was in many ways an unlikely dance music pioneer.
"Rob was a reggae man, he really hated house," Hazel says. "He wasn't interested in the slightest. Robert liked the construction of techno and its minimalist form, and the sonic imprint of it. It reminded him of dub. He decided he wanted to have a go at making this stuff, because it was right up his street."
When "Track With No Name" finally hit the shelves it was on a label that Gordon had helped set-up: Warp. FON Records owners Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett had long dreamt of starting their own imprint, and the new sounds emerging from Yorkshire fit the bill perfectly. They signed Nightmares On Wax—and got Gordon and Maher to remix "Dextrous"—and a slew of other acts from the locality, most notably Sweet Exorcist (a hook-up between DJ Parrot and Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk) and LFO.
Warp's role in the bleep explosion—and that of Robert Gordon, whose fingerprints can be found on most of the major records of the period—has been well documented. Their success in pushing the sound to the forefront was, in hindsight, remarkable. Operating out of a room above FON (which was quickly renamed Warp), Mitchell and Beckett's label shifted a huge number of its early singles. "Track With No Name" sold 20,000 copies, Nightmares On Wax's "Aftermath" around 40,000, and LFO's "LFO," the commercial high point of bleep, sold well over 100,000.
By the summer of 1990, a sound forged in Yorkshire bedrooms and home studios had become the dominant force in British dance music. In the wake of Warp's success, a swathe of labels jumped at the opportunity to unleash their own take on the sound. There was Birmingham's Network Records, whose acts included Rhythmatic and Nexus 21 (later to find success as Altern8), and the Watford-based Chill Records. Bassic in Leeds, financed by local record store Crash, released a string of landmark records from Juno (the powerful "Soul Thunder"), Ital Rockers and Ability II.
The sound was influential as far afield as New York, with Roger Sanchez (as Ego Trip), DJ Moneypenny (Chapter 1) and Bobby Konders (Freedom Authority) all releasing tracks that bristled with the distinctive, bass-heavy swing of Yorkshire bleep. There were joint Warp/Network Records tours, where the likes of Rhythmatic, LFO, Forgemasters and Nightmares On Wax would perform PAs to rapturous crowds of pilled-up ravers.
By the summer of 1991, though, the sound was changing. Yorkshire's dominance was beginning to fade, replaced by faster, ever-heavier tracks with breakbeats, Italian house-influenced pianos and sped-up vocals. It would be hardcore, not bleep, that pushed British dance music forward. And this time, the sound would not be localised: producers from London (led by Shut Up & Dance, in particular), the Northwest and the Midlands would shape the future just as much as those from Yorkshire.
"Once you get a few records that sound alike, or like a definable style, be it lovers rock or street soul in the '80s, and later bleep, it gives other people the confidence to think, 'We can do that, we don't have to sound like an American record,'" Parrot says. "Dance music went so big with ecstasy and rave, and young people with different backgrounds to us started making records. They heard these really exciting dark, bleep-heavy records and thought, 'How do we make it more exciting?' They wanted more excitement and made it faster, noisier, with more midrange. They were right to do so, too. We were all getting on a bit by then."
Regardless of what came after, bleep was the spark. That it should have emerged from the tired, post-industrial cities of the North, rather than London, remains a badge of honour for those involved. "Those records sound the way they do because of the experience of the people who were making them," Parrot says. "There hadn't actually been that much proper dance music from the UK that sounded like it came from the UK prior to that."
Hazel agrees. "I think the bleep and bass sound reflects what we were experiencing—experiences through music, the industrial devastation and the climate in Sheffield at the time. It was the first time I'd found a way of really being able to express myself, because it had the sound of the city that I grew up in imprinted within the track. I personally became quite aware of that early on."
While bleep and bass was never purely a product of Sheffield (it emerged in West Yorkshire, after all) it will always be associated with the city. This is largely a reflection of the lasting legacy of Warp and Robert Gordon. It's also true that comparisons between Sheffield and Detroit are easy to make. It's fitting that many of Detroit's early pioneers were themselves inspired by earlier bands from Sheffield, such as Cabaret Voltaire, The Future, BEF and Chakk. Yorkshire reinventing techno for British audiences was a culmination of an unlikely transatlantic exchange that started in Sheffield in the late 1970s.
Like so many people inspired by bleep, Neil Landstrumm often hears echoes of those pioneering records in contemporary productions. "Every few years it seems to pop up," he says. "Think of grime, sub-low, dubstep, garage, speed-garage, the new techno styles, new house… the ghosts of bleep are still in there, whether consciously or not. I doubt, for example, More Fire Crew had ever heard of bass and bleep, or many of the first wave of dubstep artists, but it's there."