Warp at 30

Warp records has rewired me. In 1991, two years after the label launched, I was a student in Sheffield. Bleep techno was environmental in Sheffield in 1991, the year after LFO had reached number 12 in the charts. Local heads had known Fon, the record shop from which the label was born, for years: the first track ever released by Warp was by an act named after the Forgemasters factory you saw from the train as you came in from Leeds.

Newer arrivals to the republic of SoYo heard bleep at house parties, where there was always some geezer in a back-room playing DJ Mink and Sweet Exorcist while the jump-up styles of local DJs Astrix and Space – watch yer bassbins, I’m tellin ya! – played in the front; I went to NYSushi, a club-night I associated with Warp because they had Designer’s Republic-designed flyers, and wobbled about to the programmed soul of Nightmares on Wax in the early part of the evening.

Aphex Twin woozed into my world the following year. One of only two CDs I owned was Selected Ambient Works, a perfect record to listen to on CD, endlessly loopable into the lysergic dawn: a record not actually released by Warp but one that seems to have become a Warp release by osmosis. With the Artificial Intelligence comp they put out that same year Warp became pioneers of what would morph into IDM and sure enough, 1993 saw Aphex find his second home at Warp with his Polygon Window album. Only four years in and already Warp were owning multiple styles of techno.

While the tones of SAW were deeply woven through 1992, it was also the year I procured some “second-hand” 1210s from a Sheffield friend whose brother had “sourced” them in Bradford. I started buying 12” vinyl too: Coco, Steel and Lovebomb, Kid Unknown. My friend Rory hammered Lex Loofah. These records underpin the Warp sound: bass heavy, a fusion of the deep, bin-rattling tones of electro records that DJs like Parrot had been spinning with the rave that was occupying the north.

By the time I was in London in 1996 I’d become a music writer, largely because of a burgeoning obsession with this kind of music. While I’d bought more progressive house tracks than one person should ever own in the previous years, I’d picked up a few more Warp 12”s along the way. Joey Beltram in a Designer’s Republic sleeve; Weatherall’s Sabres of Paradise haunting the dancehall; Autechre’s increasing abstraction. Warp was like a honeypot for inventive, dedicated, electronic music artists and the relationship with the Designer’s Republic ensured that there was always a shard of the future, unevenly distributed, jagging out from Sheff.

The years 95-96 were a hot streak for Aphex on Warp: Donkey Rhubarb, the Girl Boy EP, the Richard D. James album. I remember weeping, hungover, in a car at 8am, driving through Streatham listening to Milkman. I remember sifting through the racks at Beggar’s Banquet in Putney, wondering if I could afford to become a Warp completist: I wanted all those purple sleeves and it was only the fact that not all of them were purple sleeves that saved me. I bought the Mike Inc. Paroles twinpack there and discovered a trak that absolutely kills to this day. Warp has always had a backbone of choice, dancefloor-slaying techno.

The curiosity and exploration, meanwhile, was veering in all directions: Finnish lounge-techno hepcat Jimi Tenor on 7” – they were early to the smaller format revival, natch; the bassline-heavy, backroom smoke-jazz of Red Snapper; insane Max Tundra electronic freestyles. It felt like every single release was essential. I was introduced to Richard James at a RePhresh night at the Soundshaft and bumped into him again skulking through the back streets around Elephant. I met label founder Rob Mitchell in Rough Trade in Notting Hill and fanboyed him. He was an absolute gent. I almost met Bjork at a Warp party at Elektrowerkz that Rob gave me a pass to: Mark Bell of LFO was producing her stuff. I had slipmats that informed me We Are Reasonable People. I played Autechre alongside a pre-Actress Darren Cunningham on an internet radio station broadcasting from under the arches in Old Street: “Nice’n glitchy!” It’s safe to say I was a groupie.

1999 saw the Aphex boom. Come to Daddy followed by Windowlicker, a double whammy that shifted the gears of Electronica into sports mode. Alien future music, thrash and funk. Viral image distortion that infected the United States. There was always a sense that they knew how best to nourish the vision of their artists. By this time Squarepusher was also a Warp artist and they protected him from interview – no need to protect Aphex, who just didn’t show up or spat back chewed up text collages. Autechre had begun their steady domination of underground digital musics. I interviewed Jamie Lidell at their offices, now in Kentish Town. The move to London made them no less urgent. Fuck, we’d all moved to London.

I even stuck with them through Maximo Park. If Warp was putting it out, I’d have a listen. I’m still quite fond of it because they’re geordies, but it doesn’t stand up so well, that one. Warp had branched out into film without missing a beat but the resurgence of guitar music was trickier to navigate. The post-punk revival lured them towards the rocks but the twenty-year anniversary releases in 2009 showcased what was already a frankly astonishing back catalogue. I wept again, joyously, at Milkman, this time covered by Born Ruffians in a stomp-folk style. Autechre reworked LFO in a dream-team pairing.

I gave up on the dream of being a completist back in the late 90s and it’s just as well because they’ve put out more than 400 records since, but I still cane Warp like no other label. They keep drawing those bees to the pot, remaining one step ahead, describing the landscape of the most innovative electronic music in the most emergent and idiosyncratic styles. OneOhTrixPointNever, Gaika, Kelela, Fly Lo, Lorenzo Senni. Brian Eno, ffs. And still Aphex, Authechre, Nightmares on Wax.

Warp records make up about 10 per cent of my record collection and gave the blueprint for much of the rest. And now they’re 30 and weirdly it makes me feel timeless rather than old or young; it makes me feel like I’m still riding that shard of the future.

A spine of techno, dancefloor killlers. LFO’s Freak. Have that. That’s my dancefloor, right there.

(June 2019, unpublished)

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