Warp Records

Warp came to be in 1989 because two important things happened at the same time: the gear developed and the beats changed. There was a larger scene, across Britain, labeled “acid” or “house” or those two words plus “rave.” It was driven by kids without money who wanted to dance in abandoned spaces and use new machines to make records that didn’t refer to music they already knew. The technology they needed was modest, and the beat patterns were derivations of house music that floated somewhere between 120 and 130 BPM. The trademark sound of the moment was the rubbery and abrasive burp of a Roland TB-303. Some of the biggest changes in style came from the small lines of instruction wired into drum machines and keyboards. 

Warp Records began when two friends who worked in a Sheffield record store called FON—Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett—put out a single produced by their friend, Rob Gordon. That first single was a rudimentary acid house workout called “Track With No Name,” credited to The Forgemasters. Warp slowly released more singles, all of them suitable for clubs and raves. These weren’t complicated records, initially. You could hook up a Roland 808 drum machine to a keyboard or even loop a few small samples on a Casio SK-1 keyboard and be done. Things could get wiggly or loud or strange but they had to keep up a pulse for the dancefloor. 

Remember the context—in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the British did lots of important work simply by pushing American boats a little further out. Acid, electro, and Soul II Soul’s records were all extrapolations of trends that only lasted for a few months in America. In England, moments become genres and parties lasted for days. The dancefloor environment was a key frame and even if the 1989 version faded from view quickly, it’s essential to remember that this physical way of interacting with music opened up the world of electronic gear to a million options. In practical terms, the dancefloor was ruled by the house beat and the music in the chill out room was called ambient, for lack of a better word. (Often, it was just music with no beats.) In the early days of Warp, LFO mangled and reimagined house while Nightmares on Wax turned hip-hop into a variant of instrumental mood music. 

In 1992, Warp released a compilation called Artificial Intelligence, which kicked off the next phase of productivity. The label’s two main stars, Aphex Twin (as Polygon Window) and Autechre, led the compilation into a style between the physicality of acid and the calm of ambient. That style went on to be called, disastrously, electronica. This music no longer needed you to be in the club, or coming down from the club at 4 AM. The machines started to make their own patterns and, as the software got more powerful, it became almost impossible to characterize the music. Which is, of course, where a term like electronica came in. It made sense at the time to simply indicate what machines were being used, since there was no longer a dominant beat pattern or cohort or lifestyle. God knows Aphex and Autechre and Warp didn’t invent any of this, but for a moment, this label was the best way to keep track of an immensely important development.  

The album art design of other electronic labels used lots of Area 51 bioforms and curvy fonts ripped from Alvin Toffler paperbacks. Warp distanced itself from that by working in muted colors and stretching quiet sans serif type across photographs. None of it would have been out of place on an ECM release, nor would the technical skill and engineering quality of most Warp releases. In a 2007 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Warp cofounder Steve Beckett said that the label signs artists who “have mastered the instruments for whatever form they’re working in, so the instruments and technology don’t get in the way of their personality.” He elaborated that “the personality of Aphex Twin or Boards Of Canada start uniquely coming through the music they’re creating, so people can hear that direct emotional contact with the artist, rather than just hearing what the equipment is.” Kelly Moran, now signed to Warp, told me that “technical proficiency on my instrument is key to my identity as a musician. I would say all of the Warp artists are technically proficient in their own way, even if it doesn’t apply to playing an instrument traditionally.” Additionally, Beckett and cofounder Rob Mitchell encouraged people who had been making twelve-inch singles for the dance community to take a cue from indie rock bands. “With the rock labels we looked up to from the indie side, like Mute and Factory, they had a whole look and really developed the artists, recording albums, sending them out on tour,” Beckett said. “We took that model and applied it to dance music, so LFO were the first people we worked with where we were like, ‘Come on, guys. You’ve got to make an album.’”

Tom Jenkinson, who does business on Warp as Squarepusher, started releasing records in 1995. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe him as a fundamentally indie artist: fully himself, unlikely to have a radio hit, and immensely hard working. In his hands, the hypersonic breaks and jigsaw edits of drum and bass became expressions of fractal possibility rather than triggers for dancing. Turning the form into some variant of jazz wasn’t Jenkinson’s idea alone, but he’s stuck with it longer than almost anyone. His recent album Be Up A Hello recharged the sounds he made twenty-five years ago, and was even made with some of the same gear (including a Commodore computer). About half of the 2003 Squarepusher album Ultravisitor could be ported out onto any number of jazz labels, especially the delicate, almost madrigal instrumental “Andrei,” played on fretless bass and acoustic guitar. That kind of wide range adaptability is fairly representative of the 21st century Warp catalog.

Warp, home of the articulate machines, has actually signed a number of live bands. Battles, one of the best to ever combine the physicality of instrument-playing with the liberating jail of the sequencing grid, is maybe a logical choice. But Warp also has Gravenhurst, who might even be folk, and Squid, who are some version of rock, and Yves Tumor, who is maybe one of the last rock stars.

What feels most relevant about Warp is their old school, 60s major/80s indie sense of loyalty. Think of Atlantic or Blue Note or 70s Columbia, where artists would be signed and go through multiple flop eras and still have a contract. My favorite recent Warp moments are from Aphex Twin (a rollicking live show in Brooklyn) and Autechre (Sign and Plus, a pair of transcendent albums). Maybe that’s just the luck of the draw, but I’d posit that having a label stick with you no matter what is more or less the point of labels, a genre agnostic observation.

Frequencies cover

How to understand something as important as LFO’s 1991 album, Frequencies? Originators—the ones who get there so early you can’t call them early adopters, as there’s nothing to adopt—have to grind to make anything happen at all. The pioneers have nothing to consult but a handful of things that already exist. Gez Varley and Mark Bell, rival breakdancers in Leeds, met in 1988 and formed LFO. “Techno was an extension of hip-hop,” Varley said in a 2019 interview, which explains some of it. The records that inspired them were not anything you’d call techno: “King Kut” by Word of Mouth with DJ Cheese, Schoolly D’s “P.S.K.,” Pink Floyd’s “On The Run,” Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “It Is What It Is,” and The Unknown DJ & 3D’s “Beatronic.” They teamed up with a local DJ named Martin to make their first single, “LFO.” Cassettes of the track were played out at raves in and around Leeds and Sheffield. (Williams only stuck around for this song, the group’s only real hit.) Rob Gordon got the LFO demo and brought it to the other two-thirds of Warp, Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett. LFO was one of the first signings to Warp and Frequencies was the label’s first big album (and their first album, period). Varley and Bell used the Roland 303 and Roland 808 and a Casio CZ-1 (and a few more bits) to make this weird new electronic music that had no name. Frequencies sounds intermittently like Kraftwerk, but it’s too loose and scrappy to be mistaken for anything that came before. You can hear whispers of hip-hop and house, in a rhythmic move here and a brief sample there. “Intro” lays out a sort of manifesto, read by a voice going through an effect. After trying to define house, the voice goes on to shout out “the pioneers of the hypnotic groove—Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and the Yellow Magic Orchestra.” That helps a little. The rave ethos is in there, too: “We hope our music will bring everyone a little closer together. Gay, straight, black or white. One nation under a groove.” Hard to imagine anyone being that sincere now. This is rudimentary stuff, nothing too lush or complex. It just goes, and it sounds like what it was—two nineteen-year-olds playing with relatively new gear in an entirely new setting, with nobody to worry about but a few folks dancing in abandoned warehouses.

You’re Dead! cover

Steve Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, is important for being a nexus in LA for a vibrant young American jazz community. Many of them students of Horace Tapscott, the crew around Ellison is a heavy cohort and they make You’re Dead! a lunatic overflow of skill. Thundercat co-writes and plays bass on almost every track, and you get lots of saxophonist Kamasi Washington and drummer Deantoni Parks. Herbie Hancock plays electric piano on several tracks, along with Brandon Coleman, and Kendrick Lamar and Snoop each pop up for a song. It’s LA, and it’s a fairly insane record, sort of an instrumental partner to Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, which came out exactly a year later and features many of the same players. The mood here is excess—jazz at its most layered and bonkers. It would be an insult to the players who have been playing and recording within the pre-existing jazz network to say this cohort ‘revitalized’ jazz or some such, but there is a sort of electric green halo to this music, a sheer buzz from the energy flowing through it. Thundercat is part of the Jaco lineage as passed down through Squarepusher, and the prominent string arrangements are a nod to Ellison’s great aunt, Alice Coltrane (who Ellison is likely tired of hearing about). The more you listen, the more you hear. Genuinely rich and wild music, which originated with a guy who did it all with samples for years. And there is a light framework of computer music running under it all.

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 cover

The most famous album in Warp’s history isn’t on Warp—it’s on R&S, and was released in 1992, a year before Richard D. James joined Warp. As has been pointed out many times, this album isn’t much like other music that gets called ambient. There are rhythms on almost every track and the music doesn’t really recede the way “traditional” ambient does. (Selected Ambient Works Volume II does that.) “Heliosphan,” for instance, is a kind of uptempo breakbeat track, without the breakbeat. What SAW 85-92 laid the groundwork for was the lo-fi-chill-beats-to-study-to nation, where structures and sounds are all pleasant and things are neither upsetting nor boring. You find your brain being lightly palpated when this is on. There is a relation of form to boutique hotel soundtracks and trip-hop and the fringes of acid, all of which is more demonstrative than anything on this album. Apparently James played this at the end of gigs while his friends were coming down, and it would have been perfect for that. It’s just one or two clicks east of anonymous, like a really good restaurant.

Phantom Brickworks cover

Stephen James Wilkinson has made a gang of records as Bibio, none of them much like the others, beyond some kind of “mellowness” and a palette derived from English folk like Pentangle. Phantom Brickworks is openly and proudly ambient, in the most classic sense, or the most easily seen within genre. His jumping off point seems to be Ambient 1: Music For Airports, insofar as the whole album is slow and soaked in echo, much of it sounding like live instruments (possibly hammer dulcimer and piano, though it’s not clear). No beat, no vocals, just a very misty mountain drop here.

Feed Me Weird Things cover

The pretext for Tom Jenkinson, or at least what walked before him, was Aphex Twin’s programming and the mad rush of drum and bass. If Aphex has one main heir, it’s Jenkinson, who brought to the foreground what all the mechanical skill was implying. As a live bassist, Jenkinson filled in the blanks: What if all this machine music had a live counterpart? And of course, it already had, and that was called jazz fusion. So Feed Me is Jaco over Amen breaks and gnarly MIDI sizzling, much of it too fast for humans to track, though Jenkinson keeps up on bass even when it seems impossible. It’s like one big hymn to the potential of human flow and machine curves. Feed Me is often showy and virtuosic to the point of irritation, which does not stop it from being luscious and fully formed. Squarepusher’s debut works, as a mood and a manifesto. Hyperactive crayon black brilliance, bristling with life and busting with bravado. He would appreciate the corny alliteration.

The Noise Made by People cover

Trish Keenan and James Cargill are Birmingham natives who did something, on the surface of it, that isn’t all that remarkable: mined the Sixties for inspiration. In a radio interview, Keenan told an American radio DJ that she thought Broadcast was “traditional, compared to most experimental music.” We lost her suddenly in 2011 to pneumonia, but she leaves behind a remarkable catalog that is anything but traditional. She and Cargill brought up their influences before anybody else could guess at them: The United States of America (a psychedelic one-off album that seemed perfect to them, and us), Czech experimental film, witches, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and psychedelia in the broadest sense. The Noise Made By People is a bit like Dusty Springfield singing over industrial shorts from the Fifties. Sort of? If Boards of Canada made nostalgia an animate force with their machines, Broadcast did it with the voice and instruments. But one thing about this band is that it rarely sounds like they’re playing anything traditional. Beyond Keenan’s singing and the drums, it’s hard to say what is going on, not because it’s so odd but because it all sounds like nature documentaries or French movies. Keenan sang at a completely even level, determined to prevent emotion from wobbling her boat. When she sings “come on, let’s go,” in the best known song here, there’s no pain and no hurry. It’s just time to go. Joe Meek producing someone reading Auden, slowly? Maybe it was that. Or try another song, “Until Then,” where Keenan is the only identifiable source, aside from an electric bass. The rest could be strings or string samples or electric bouzoukis or clavinets or walkie talkies. The sparkly toys of mid-century modernization slowly melting through a table made of ice as a long, slow theater piece plays out of a cassette machine sealed into the wall.

One Word Extinguisher cover

Warp really likes one man bands, like really—Aphex Twin, Bibio, NOW, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, and Scott Herren, known as Prefuse 73. There is a constellation (a big one) of producers who learned sampling the way DJ Premier taught it, as a way of assembling delicious rhythm pixels into something disorienting and fun. Plenty of people, like DJ Shadow, made something kind of like hip-hop with that idea, and others, like Herren and Evelyn of NOW, went further out along the orbit path. One Word Extinguisher is a glittering quilt stitched from little swatches of raw material, which occasionally bunches up and gets a rapper stretched across it, for a moment of actual rap. Not often, though— this is a mostly instrumental ribbon that winds around itself and plumes upwards. The closest analogue is maybe Four Tet’s Beautiful Rewind, though this album hits fairly hard and has some real stake in being a head-nodding affair. All done with an MPC, this can sound entirely like live music, or lost movie music, or small soul operas.

A Word of Science cover

Despite the fact that all of Warp’s early artists namecheck hip-hop, none of them really went on to make hip-hop for the label. (You might want to check the label’s fourth release ever, DJ Mink’s “Hey! Hey! Can U Relate,” a lesser-known bit of Sheffield rap that the label never pursued beyond the one single.) George Evelyn, and for this album, also Kevin Harper, are Nightmares On Wax, and are the label’s very notable exception. Or, more specifically, NOW took the same samples being used in hip-hop songs and looped them up into a kind of ambient music, sometimes punctuating them with house rhythms. This is a sort of sketch album, the various parts of NOW and the scene popping up. “Mega Donutz” is their approximation of a Jungle Brothers track, hip-house edition. Evelyn and Harper are kind of scrolling through the sounds around them, occasionally sampling Bristol, and then trying on a bit of Aphex. “Aftermath,” the second single on Warp, is like a rework of A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray.” It’s a trip hearing these two look around their moment and pick out the bits they like and need. “Back Into Time” is a stoned breakbeat, and “Dextrous” is straight acid house. “E.A.S.E.” sounds like the kind of sun-damaged beat photo that Boards of Canada would be taking a few years later. What this really sounds like is a sampler of the entire Warp catalog, years before it existed.

Strictly 4 Groovers cover

There are few better Nineties rave documents than this compilation. DiY was a Notingham dance collective that held long and druggy parties in and around their city, and this album is their entire recorded output, give or take a few singles. Nobody on this album will likely be known to you and if the average Warp head starts talking about the early Nineties, they probably won’t mention this album. That’s a shame because, in its own modest and anonymous way, Strictly 4 Groovers is perfect. You get those Orb-y spoken word acid monologues on “Orange Is Orange” and plenty of denatured acid house throughout. There’s also a slow chillout deep cut here that could easily become something  big— “Eve’s Theme,” a simmering vamp that sounds equally like a Michael Mann soundtrack and an Arca outtake. DiY ringleader Peter “Woosh” Birch died in October of 2020, sadly. I think there’s going to be a DiY revival and I hope the rest of the gang gets to see it.

Amber cover

This is the last album before the fractals bloom and break everything apart, before our boys become the kings in the North. Amber is sort of an implicit response to SAW 85-92, not that this was ever stated, but it’s the other great “kind of ambient” of the time, and Amber is my favorite by a hair. Because Sean Booth and Rob Brown went into a zone where they made it common practice to shave time signatures and individual drum hits down into parmesan, it is very easy to think they did not have time for melody or harmony. If you tuned in to something new-ish like Sign, you will know that is not true. Amber is the last genuinely delicate Autechre record, and for a ten-year stretch, they didn’t touch anything like this at all. You can also hear quite clearly, and to be fair you usually can, that Autechre came out of hip-hop rather than house. In some very sideways manner, this is very pretty instrumental hip-hop. Kind of.

Gloss Drop cover

Guitarist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier both trained in a specific subset of Eighties and Nineties indie music, usually called math rock. This isn’t that helpful. Don Caballero (the band Williams was in) was built around the minibar-falling-down-stairs thunder of drummer Damon Che, and Stanier was the hydraulic press at the center of Helmet. These are rhythm bands, and sometimes they subdivide beats and build songs from tricky time signatures, sure, but it’s not an academic kind of music. In the early aughts, Williams and Stanier found each other and formed Battles, which has added and subtracted members over the last twenty years. Gloss Drop is one of the albums done as a trio with bassist Dave Konopka. Almost every Battles song is a series of rhythmic patterns expressed on different instruments and cycled through, together, as a tandem task. Battles go in and out of being instrumental; in their quartet formation, with Tyondai Braxton, there were vocals as often as not. On Gloss Drop, there are only four guest singers, but Matias Aguayo gave the band the closest thing they had to a hit, the delirious “Ice Cream.” (It also has one of the best videos of the aughts and the Barcelona firm behind the video, Canadá, went on to work with Rosalía). Gloss Drop is immensely fun, a bit like a bass tank designed by Jean Dubuffet, spewing sparks and blasting circus music around the bottom of a quarry.