In the late summer of 1989 a hand-stamped record started to appear in dance shops, first in the north of England, then gradually permeating its way into the whole country. This record heralded the birth of a new label and confirmed the emergence of a new form of twisted British music inspired by the house pioneers in Chicago and Detroit. The label was Warp and the record was Forgemasters’ Track With No Name.
Forgemasters went on to sell 11,000 copies and the next record simply walked in through the doors of the Warp shop that Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett had set up two years previously. George Evelyn brought the Nightmares on Wax Dextrous white label into the shop hoping to sell a few copies and walked out with a record deal. The new scene, centered around legendary clubs Jive Turkey and Occasions started to inspire the old hands, with Richard H Kirk (of Cabaret Voltaire) and local DJ Parrot producing the bleep anthem Testone as Sweet Exorcist (a tune famously sampled by the KLF for ‘3am Eternal’).
Around the same time word got out of a taped track played at The Warehouse in Leeds- a track with a subsonic bass that threatened to blow club systems and shatter windows and eardrums alike. The track’s creators were hunted down and immediately signed up. The speak-and-spell mayhem of LFO by LFO was unleashed on the nation’s dance floors and raves, and from there romped up the national charts to peak at No. 12, selling 130,000 copies. LFO went on to record the era-defining album Frequencies, one of the first British house/techno albums, still sounding fresh and influential today.
The next week, “Tricky Disco” by Tricky Disco entered the charts, followed six weeks later by Nightmares on Wax’s Aftermath. No-one knew it at that time, but this was to be the last hit off the label for 3 long years. Warp would have to reinvent itself to survive and continue its mission: to release music from the most exciting and original musical minds on the planet.
The Rave scene exploded in ’91/92 and the club sound moved on. With 12” sales dropping by the day, Warp hatched a plan born of frustration, a plan that would give the artists room to let their vision shine through in its fullest. They compiled an album of the best electronic music around, powerful emotive music too subtle to breathe among the inane hardcore anthems of the moment. The album was called Artificial Intelligence. The sleeve featured a spliff-smoking robot crashed out in his armchair, with reference-point records scattered on the floor, Kraftwerk “Autobahn”, Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” and the Warp classic “Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove”. What started out as a musical protest became a musical movement and brought the next wave of artists to the label. Aphex Twin, The Black Dog, Autechre, FUSE (Richie Hawtin/Plastikman); all went on from having tracks on the compilation to releasing full albums on the label and kick-starting the ambient movement.
Bands like The Orb, System7 and others went on to take ambient up and into the charts, but it seemed the scene was descending into parody and new-age cliché. Although it still debuted at number 11 in the album charts, the release of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II (a worthy successor to the more accessible but era-defining “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”) took things back to the darkside, with its sparse and edgy dreamscapes owing more to Brian Eno, field recordings and power station hum than the ubiquitous dolphin-noises and cod-Indian mythology. It was from this landmark album onwards that Aphex began to be widely touted by the press as a kind of crackpot genius, and has since delighted in alternately wowing and confounding both his harshest critics and his diehard fans, constantly evolving his sound to encompass everything from symphonic strings, caustic industrial techno and the frenetic breakbeat of his most recent output. Impossible to ignore, Aphex has indelibly changed the musical landscape forever, witnessed by the 2003 double album “26 mixes for Cash”, an eye-opening roundup of remixes done for everyone from David Bowie and Philip Glass to Beck and Jesus Jones.
Back to the early nineties, and cue the first of a new breed of fusionists, The Sabres of Paradise. Taking incompatible musical styles and ruthlessly throwing them in a blender, The Sabres were the brainchild of legendary producer, remixer and acid house hero Andy Weatherall. In their brief but spectacular reign, the Sabres merged rock, dub and acid house leaving two classic albums and singles like Smokebelch II and Wilmot as their legacy. The Sabres legend lives on in the shape of Two Lone Swordsmen, the duo of Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood who continue to play live and release unparalleled dub-fuelled machine funk from their East London bunker.
Sabres of Paradise marked the emergence of a new live aesthetic within Warp - Red Snapper proved it was possible to play live drum and bass, and were much loved on the worldwide festival circuit, while Nightmares on Wax mutated from home studio outfit into a full live band. Nightmares on Wax’s second album Smokers Delight is still one of the biggest selling Warp releases ever, a hugely influential record that spawned Nights Introlude, the evergreen classic that has became the cornerstone of many a compilation released since.
Next came Squarepusher, graduate of the Essex rave scene and virtuoso bass guitar player. Finding immediate favour with the hardcore Warp faithful for his uncompromising live approach and electrifying releases like Port Rhombus and Red Hot Car he is now one of the cornerstones of the roster, with his seventh album for Warp “Ultravisitor” due in March 2004.
Broadcast are another major addition to the label from this time - the Birmingham based four-piece whose ethereal beauty is born of a shared passion for 60’s psychedelia, John Barry and electronica. They first released records on Stereolab’s Duophonic label and were signed up by Rob Mitchell soon after. Their second album HaHa Sound was released in 2003 to a rapturous reception from their feverishly loyal fanbase.
Boards of Canada joined Warp in 1998, and their debut album Music has the Right to Children is now justly recognized as a milestone in British music, electronic or otherwise. Taking their name from the grainy, washed out nature documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada, they make music of lush life-affirming beauty, edged with a sad nostalgia, a yearning to see things with childhood simplicity and an appreciation of the inherent beauty to be found in nature and the world around us. ( Listen to Kid For Today )
In 2004, the Warp roster encompasses a myriad of widely different styles, and has a truly international outlook. In recent years, the US hip hop underground has emerged as a key breeding ground for new musical mavericks, and some of the most respected names operating in the more electronic fringes of the hip-hop world naturally gravitated towards Warp. Anti Pop Consortium, the NYC trio of avant-garde poets, rappers and beatmakers, released the widely-acclaimed album Arrhythmia album in 2002, and Atlanta based Scott Herren aka Prefuse 73 has emerged as one of the most exciting musical minds in the world.
Lex Records, a label set up and supported by Warp but pursuing its own creative path has forged yet more allegiances with the experimental US scene, and in 2003 released new albums from Boom Bip, DM & Jemini and Sage Francis.
Also from the USA are !!!, the newest members of the Warp family and the perfect embodiment of the live aesthetic that has come to be such an integral facet of the label.
!!! are an 8-piece explosion of drums and electro funk energy whose time is only just beginning, but already have ecstatic live reviews and sold-out shows under their belts, not to mention a single (Me and Giuliani Down By the Schoolyard) that topped many pundits’ best of 2003 lists.
In 1996, Warp Records extended its website further to become an online shop - Warpmart. Now well established and renowned internationally as a hub of news and links to the alternative music community, Warpmart stocks releases by many other well known independent labels (such as Rephlex, Anticon, Mush, Planet Mu, Skam, Def Jux, Kompakt) and prides itself on having a loyal customer base who are frequently rewarded with bonus freebies and artist exclusives not available in shops.
Bleep is a natural evolution from Warpmart, making it even easier for anyone worldwide to hear and purchase Warp music direct without concerns for postage or delivery, and to have direct contact and involvement with the label.
In 2001, Warp started a film company, Warp Films, earning a BAFTA in 2003 with its first short, “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117”, the directorial debut from Chris Morris.
The director Chris Cunningham has long been associated with Warp, through his infamous videos for Aphex Twin (Come to Daddy, Windowlicker) Squarepusher and Autechre, and is currently completing a DVD album project for Warp Films (of which the first ‘track’ Rubber Johnny with music by Aphex Twin is out soon).
Other projects underway include a feature-length film from director Shane Meadows (A Room for Romeo Brass, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) starring Paddy Considine, and a film in development directed by Jarvis Cocker.