30 years since it started life in the room above a Sheffield record shop, this iconic label continues to shape electronic music. Here's how they made it happen.
The record was Forgemasters' "Track With No Name." Within weeks, white labels of it were flying out of the shop. Mitchell, Beckett and Gordon decided to pool their resources and launch a label: Warp Records.
Today, Warp is one of the most influential and respected institutions in electronic music. Three decades since it was founded in a room above that record shop, it has grown into an international concern, having spawned a successful film division and championed some of the most groundbreaking artists of its generation.
In a 2007 RBMA lecture, Beckett said Warp's early aim was to showcase a strain of techno that had grown out of the clubs, raves and bedroom studios of Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield. This was bleep and bass, a distinctly British mutation of techno that married the weighty sub-bass of "steppers" reggae with the rush of rave culture and futuristic vision of Detroit techno.
With releases by LFO, Nightmares On Wax, Tricky Disco, Sweet Exorcist and Tuff Little Unit (all of which were given the Midas touch-up by mixing and mastering maestro Rob Gordon), Warp did more than any other label to define bleep and bass. The label's striking logo and vivid purple sleeves were instantly recognizable in an age when dance music was becoming increasingly disposable.
As bleep faded, Warp Records began to shift shape, first by championing "home listening" variations of electronic music—what became known as "intelligent dance music", or IDM—and later via all manner of experimental, progressive and left-of-centre sounds from across the musical spectrum. Warp became a label where the electronic mutations of Aphex Twin and Autechre could sit side-by-side with the post-rock stylings of Tortoise and Battles, the hypnotic pop of Stereolab, the lounge-core quirkiness of Jimi Tenor, the stoner soul of Nightmares On Wax, or the innovative hip-hop beats of Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73, Rustie and Hudson Mohawke.
How did Warp get here? For starters, Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell and their long-term right-hand man (and now label chief) Kev Fleming quickly realised that pushing artists to make albums and perform live was key. From the beginning, they knew that the way they presented music to prospective listeners was vital. They were also early enthusiasts for the internet, realising before most labels the potential of e-commerce (something embodied today by their online shop, Bleep).
Warp was always guided by an outsider ethos, something rooted in Beckett and Mitchell's punk roots, the strength of the UK's north-south divide at the time the label was founded, and an inherent desire to take on the establishment. Warp may have been based in London for the last 18 years, but it was forged in Sheffield, a steel city steeped not only in electronic music history, but also radical politics.
The following oral history is divided up into sections focusing on key aspects of the Warp story, the musical movements it has championed, and milestone records from the last 30 years. It contains excerpts from dozens of interviews with label artists conducted especially for this piece, as well as archival quotes from Beckett, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and others.
The Colour Purple
With a deal to fund Warp done and dusted, thoughts now turned to how the label's releases should be presented. The job fell to local designer Ian Anderson, whose company The Designers Republic had worked with the FON Studio's offshoot record label.
Ian Anderson: I had a background managing bands, so even before the idea of doing artwork came up they tapped me up for any knowledge I had, which I gave willingly. I was just one of the people they asked. When we had the conversation I obviously said, "Well if you need any design..." [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Steve Beckett: It felt like a lot of dance music around at the time had got quite throwaway, just white labels from people jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick £500 or a grand. It felt like somebody should start paying attention to the production and the artwork—the whole way music was presented. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Ian Anderson: What we were trying to do was something that looked futuristic that was, in some way, already dated, but dated to a degree that it had matured. I told them that they needed a colour [for the sleeves] that other people weren't using, to give them a point of difference. It was the idea of using something that's instantly recognizable. If you look at other Designers Republic sleeves around that time, there was a lot of purple being used. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Ed Handley (Plaid): The first time Warp came to our attention was through noticing the purple sleeves. Andy [Turner] and I both remember thinking that this label from Sheffield didn't only sound good, but it looked good as well. Warp releases were genuinely a big deal because you noticed the colour and the clean, futuristic design.
Steve Beckett: We got our first sleeve back and we were like, "What the fuck is Outer Rhythm? Where's our logo?" That was our introduction to the music business. We just thought, "Oh my God, what have we done?" [Richard King, How Soon Is Now: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2002, 2012]
Warp And The Birth Of British Bass Music
Thanks to the success of Forgemasters' "Track With No Name" and an eye-catching sleeve, the newly founded Sheffield label made a big impression. During 1990 Warp, notched up a number of dance floor hits, most of them made in Sheffield or Leeds, including tracks by Nightmares On Wax, Sweet Exorcist, Tricky Disco and LFO. The bleep revolution had begun.
Winston Hazel: There was a club somewhere round the back of the train station in Huddersfield called Sunset Boulevard. I used to go and play there on Monday nights. It really began to kick off and we started to get dancers coming from all over Yorkshire. There were other DJs from Leeds and Bradford who would play like DJ Martin, Nightmares On Wax and Unique 3. That was very helpful in terms of being able to break new tracks. Loads of things got played off cassette there first.
Aiden Whalley (Darkstar): When we were working on our third album, Foam Island, I shared a taxi with Steve Beckett after a gig in Brixton and we spoke about what we were doing in Huddersfield. Steve told me about the night in Huddersfield. When I went back up to West Yorkshire I tracked down building where the Sunset Boulevard club used to be. It's just another derelict building in the city centre now.
Gez Varley (LFO): When we started out, there were three of us in LFO: me, Mark Bell and Martin Williams [DJ Martin]. We used to go and record in his attic in Chapeltown. Without Martin's input, "LFO" would never have turned out the way it did. He was a very popular DJ and understood the dance floor, so knew how to arrange things. Because he was DJing a lot, he could test our tunes. One night we went over to Sunset Boulevard with him. During his set, he dropped "LFO" off our demo tape.
Rob Gordon: I'd gone up there with Sean [Maher] and Winston. When we heard Martin play "LFO" we were blown away. We went up to the decks and said, "What is this?"
Sean Maher: It sounded incredible. After Martin's set we went outside and sat in his car with Gez and Mark and listened to their demo tape. We knew Warp had to sign it.
Gez Varley: Rob Gordon was going, "We'll take that, we'll have this one, this one sounds like more of a B-side." Soon after that Rob [Mitchell] and Steve [Beckett] came up to Leeds and we signed to Warp while sat in Martin's car outside the Warehouse.
Dave Lee (Joey Negro): When "LFO" came out, it was the pinnacle of that bleep sound. It was just one of those dance records that was everywhere. Even if you liked soulful house, hip-hop or R&B, you still liked it, because it had that low bass. It was like: "Wow!" I'd never heard anything on a record that was quite that bass-heavy. It was like a whole new level of bass recorded to vinyl.
Rob Gordon: I insisted that we got the records mastered by Kevin Metcalfe at the Townhouse, so we could get a really good, bass-heavy cut. I attended quite a lot of the mastering and cutting sessions for early Warp releases to make sure they sounded right.
Steve Rutter (B12): The first things we did before B12 were as Infamix and we were basically copying "LFO." "Hypnotic FX" was a very bleepy record and that was 100 percent influenced by what was coming out of Yorkshire and what was being released by Warp in particular.
Mark Pritchard: I loved those early Warp releases, especially the Sweet Exorcist and LFO ones. I decided to drive up to Yorkshire from Somerset in my battered old Ford Escort to see of I could get any interest in the Shaft tracks we'd made from either BASSIC Records in Leeds, who were pushing a similar sound, or Warp. I tried to have a meeting with Steve [Beckett] but it didn't really happen. It was really bad timing—"LFO" had just blown up and they were really busy.
Richard Barratt: Timing is everything. Those records came out at a time when British dance music was on the up and they were all really well received and sold well, apart from the DJ Mink record.
Richie Hawtin: Records like "LFO" and Sweet Exorcist's "Testone" were incredible and they were a big part of my sets. From the beginning Warp was very influential to me. The first record on Plus 8 that I made with John Acquaviva, States Of Mind's "Elements of Tone," was really our interpretation of Detroit inspiring Sheffield, and then Sheffield inspiring Windsor and Detroit.
Steve Beckett: A lot of people get confused about the sound of that time. They think it's all about the bleeps, but it had nothing to do with the bleeps for the people making it—for them it was all about the bass. I don't think people comprehend the amount of time and effort that went into making these basslines so people's balls would shake. [Red Bull Music Academy lecture, 2007]
Pioneers Of The Hypnotic Groove
In late 1990, with Warp Records riding the crest of a wave thanks to the popularity of the bleep and bass sound, a split emerged within the label's three founders. It led to the departure of in-house producer and de-facto A&R chief Rob Gordon, and an 18-month period in which the label struggled to survive after Mute's Daniel Miller helped Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell get out of Warp's pressing and distribution deal with Rhythm King offshoot Outer Rhythm.
Steve Beckett: We were always arguing, especially the two Robs. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Rob Gordon: The first big argument was after we went to see the two guys who made Tricky Disco. As well as the tracks we signed, I wanted to sign another track they'd done but Beckett and Mitchell refused. That track became a massive hit. It was GTO's "Pure."
Steve Beckett: After one big row where [Rob Gordon] threw something at me, we said we wanted him out. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Rob Gordon: I'll tell you what the row was about: I said that we should license this Chicago house track by Plez. It was massive in Sheffield. They said, "We have no money." I said, "They'll probably accept £500." They said, "No, we don't license tracks."
Steve Beckett: We did a deal and bought his shares for, at that time, a huge amount that we could barely afford. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Rob Gordon: I was ejected from the label I founded. I was young and they did a number on me.
Richard Benson (RAC): Rob Gordon is a good bloke, but he can be a nightmare to work with. He is a genius though, and most people who have a bit of genius are difficult to deal with sometimes.
Steve Beckett: The Outer Rhythm deal collapsed because we were selling lots of records and not getting paid, so we walked. [Rob Young, Labels Unlimited: Warp, Black Dog Publishing, 2005]
Gez Varley: Myself, Mark and Martin got £1000 in royalties between us for a record that sold 130,000 copies.
Daniel Miller: By 1990 [Mute Records] had parted company with Rhythm King, but I wanted to help those labels that came to me and said they were having problems and needed to get out of the deals they'd signed, like Warp. When that happened Warp came to me and said that they wanted to work with Mute. For various reasons it didn't happen. First of all, I thought that they should do it themselves as I had done, and secondly we were so overloaded at that time. Warp was growing as a label and I loved what they were doing and the artists on the label, but it wasn't something we could help with at the time. I'm delighted that they did go off and do it on their own and have become such a successful label.
1992 saw the release of Artificial Intelligence, a groundbreaking compilation of "home listening music from Warp." With 3D computer graphics on the cover and complex mutations of techno and electro inside, it introduced a number of artists that would go on to shape the label's sound, including Autechre, Richard D. James (as Polygon Window), Speedy J, B12 (as Musicology) and Black Dog Productions (Ken Downie as A.I.O). The series of artist albums that followed under helped to popularize the term "intelligent dance music," or IDM for short.
Chantal Passamonte (Mira Calix): My understanding was that Artificial Intelligence was Rob's baby. The compilation became the springboard for artist albums by people like Richard D James, Black Dog, Speedy J and Autechre.
Richie Hawtin: Rob [Mitchell] was our contact at Warp. Rob and John [Acquaviva] had a meal where they hypothesized about a new compilation series and threw ideas around. That's when the name "Artificial Intelligence" came up.
Steve Rutter: We had a label called B12 Records. One day this fax came through, which invited us to a meeting of electronic musicians in a London pub. It had a date and time on it, but it was really, really vague. I don't even think it said it was from Warp—it was just very odd and mysterious. I remember getting in touch with other producers and asking them whether they'd had the fax and whether they knew what it was about.
Ed Handley: A fax came through from Warp saying that they liked the Plaid album [Mbuki Mbuki] and asking if we wanted to meet. I don't think that they had worked out that we [The Black Dog] were working as a collective and that Plaid was just one of the things we were doing. It think that became clear after we had the meeting.