Bleep the Faith - A Brief History of Warp Records - Articles - Soundblab

Bleep the Faith - A Brief History of Warp Records

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

It has become a byword for both musical innovation and eardrum shredding noise, from Aphex Twin to Squarepusher. But Warp Records, which is 21-years-old this year, was actually started by two guys in Sheffield who sold their first release out of a car. How did they get here from there? Richard Morris takes a look at one of the UK's greatest record labels.

It Came from the North

The nucleolus of what would become Warp Records was formed in the heady post-'second summer of love' atmosphere of 1989 at a clubnight called Downbeat in Leeds, where George Evelyn and his mate Kevin Harper played a mix of hip hop, dance and rare groove. Inspired by British electro records such as 'Voodoo Ray' by A Guy Called Gerald, they decided to have a go at making their own, brewing up the primitive-sounding, bleepy 'Dextrous' and calling themselves Nightmares on Wax. Failing to generate any label interest, the duo pressed up a white label single and took it to Fon, an independent record shop in Sheffield run by Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell. Having handled a number of people bringing tapes and white labels to the shop, Beckett and Mitchell made the decision to start a label with the aid of a £40 Enterprise Allowance grant. After distributing Warp's first single, 'Track with No Name' by Sheffield techno group Forgemasters, out of a car, Beckett and Mitchell released Nightmares of Wax's 'Dextrous' and watched it sell 30,000 copies, enough to reach the top 75 in the UK charts.

New Frequencies

Warp's first major success came with its fifth release, 'LFO' by LFO, two teenagers who created a bass-heavy techno behemoth in their bedrooms. The track sold 130,000 and hit number 12 in the charts, baffling both radio DJs and older music fans. One reason for the label's quick success was the fact Beckett and Mitchell promoted their dance acts like rock bands, encouraging them to record albums and tour. Staunch indie mags like NME started to feature Warp acts in their pages.

In a sense, the fledgling Warp was perfectly poised in time and place to bridge the gap between the proto-electro sounds of post-punk groups like Cabaret Voltaire and the early Human League, who both emerged from Sheffield in the late 70s (Cabaret Voltaire member Richard H Kirk even released an early Warp single under the moniker Sweet Exorcist), and the post-rave, mind-bending electronica which would become the label's main output in the 1990s. This fiercely experimental music, exemplified by seminal releases from Warp signings Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Autechre and Squarepusher (see below), came to known as intelligent dance music, or IDM. Despite much criticism of the term, some of it from Warp artists, IDM and Warp became synonymous in the 90s.

Further Adventures

Sadly, Rob Mitchell died of cancer in 2001, but the label he founded continued to prosper, expanding into film with the launch of sister company Warp Films. Following the BAFTA award-winning My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117, a short film by Chris Morris, the company released the critically garlanded Shane Meadows films Dead Man's Shoes and This Is England. Warp has also moved beyond its initial dance music remit. In the 90s, Beckett and Mitchell set up Gift Records, on which Pulp experienced their first taste of success, and later Lex Records which has released records by Danger Mouse and Super Furry Animals' side-project Neon Neon.

In 2004, Warp caused consternation among IDM fans when it signed Newcastle guitar band Maximo Park, whose debut album, A Certain Trigger, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Since then, the label has continued to dabble in indie and alternative rock, with recent successes including the experimental math rock of Battles and the sparse post-punk of Manchester's Lonelady, who released her debut album Nerve Up to critical acclaim this year. Further success has come in the form of LA's Flying Lotus, who has taken hip hop to new and exciting places on his album Los Angeles.

Whatever the future holds for Warp, it is one of the few long-lasting UK labels, along with perhaps only Rough Trade and Mute, which still retains an iconoclastic air and the promise of artistic freedom for its acts.

Here's our favourite Warp releases

Aphex Twin - 'Windowlicker'

You've heard it. You just have. Energetic, melodic, cool and a little bit dirty, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes 'Windowlicker' so good. Whatever it is, its appeal never dies. Tune in to Top Gear and it'll be on it. Go to a decent club and some shitty 4/4 remix of it will be playing. Released in 1999 as a single, it remains arguably the finest release in Warps 21-year history.

Squarepusher - 'My Red Hot Car'

Written perhaps as medicine against the asinine, infectious bullshit of many a lurid UK garage vocal of the time, 'My Red Hot Car' is Squarepusher's greatest work. Starting with what could be the structure of any garage tune, it introduces a funny and bizarre vocal before smashing the entire tune apart with a bombastic attack of dubby bass and intricately sequenced Amen breakage.

Battles - 'Atlas'

Locating a previously undiscovered midpoint between the glitter goon stomp of T Rex and The Sweet, and the kosmiche outer limits explored by Faust, 'Atlas' stands as a high water mark in math rock as well as being one of the most unlikely floor-fillers of all time.

Various Artists - Artificial Intelligence

One of the greatest compilations of all time? Certainly one of the most influential, this 1992 collection showcasing artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre is seen by many as the birth of intelligent dance music.

LFO - Frequencies

One of Warp's earliest releases, 'Frequencies' breathed new life into dance music. With lead single 'LFO' getting respectable chart success, ravers were finally getting electronic music that was innovative and smart as well as dance floor commanding.

Autechre - Chiastic Slide

One of the finest showcases for the various styles employed by Autechre, Chiastic Slide constantly demands attention, whether for it's grainy, disjointed beats or it's simple and affecting melodies, it's bleak soundscapes or it's odd time signatures.

Boards of Canada - In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country

Quite simply one of the most stunning EPs of all time: four tracks which are fragile in production, chilled to perfection and often profoundly moving - no doubt due to it continuous references to the tragic Waco siege of 1993.

Prefuse 73 - One Word Extinguisher

An album of short but wonderfully crafted tracks that always seem to be created to be played with on your decks in the finest hip-hop tradition. A dream for the beat-jugglers and freestylers and a great release in its own right.

AFX - Hangable Auto Bulb

Though this release will never be seen as the greatest Richard D James has to offer, it does mark a significant change in his sound. This collection of two early EPs shows the earliest days of James' manic drum sequencing and lays the foundations for the Richard D James album.

Flying Lotus - Los Angeles

Steven Ellison was only six years old when Warp first breathed life. Already a respected laptop producer and turntablist before he was signed to Warp, Ellison has since become a demigod for many a bedroom producer with 2008's Los Angeles. They all try and reproduce his glorious melding of broken hip hop beats and glitchy electronica with varying degrees of blandness.

Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children

Still regarded as one of the greatest electronic albums of all time, Music Has the Right...blended warped ambience and solid breaks and ended up with a beautiful, disjointed and harmonious LP that still can make you nod your head and shed tears all at once.

James Naylor and Richard Morris

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