As our friends at Bido Lito! reveal an exclusive listening party for new albums from Battles and Darkstar, Getintothis’ Paul Riley muses on the cultural impact of Warp Records and compiles a top ten of some of the label’s essential releases.
Vinyl Station is the brainchild of grassroots culture champions Metal and our fellow music publication Bido Lito! Every second monday of the month sees them present a vinyl listening party at Edge Hill Railway Station. This month, they have teamed up with Warp Records to present exclusive previews of two forthcoming releases, Battles‘ La Di Da Di and Darkstar‘s Foam Island.
Warp Records is a legendary label with an artist roster that is practically unrivalled in the world of the indie. In a game of top trumps, they’d kick the shit out of any major you’d care to name. Let’s take Sony for example. Yes, they have acts such as Tyler, The Creator, Jimi Hendrix and System of a Down, but then they also have feeble cards aplenty – i.e. George Michael, Ricky Martin and Celine Dion. Bleugh. Warp have a relatively small, but perfectly formed portfolio of some of the most exciting and sought-after artists on the planet. There are no duff money-spinners, not a Backstreet Boys in sight. Rather like a Fabric Live album, the name Warp is synonymous with musical brilliance.
This writer stumbled across a number of Warp artists by coincidence, before really paying attention to the whole label thing. Bands were bands, and that was it. Beyond Sub Pop, who gained a young teen’s attention after buying an early imprint of Nirvana’s Bleach, labels didn’t really mean much.
Fast-forward to My First Glastonbury. Walking past a stage that was pouring with dry ice and bristling with lasers, our small group of starry-eyed wanderers were pulled into the crowd by the music – the band were playing something quite indescribable, featuring an insane amount of slap bass samples. Pushing to the front, slack-jawed and gobsmacked, we realised that the band was in fact just one person, and the samples were actually live. Squarepusher literally blew my mind.
Similar experiences surround my first exposures to Aphex Twin, Battles, Nightmares on Wax, Flying Lotus, Death Grips, Luke Vibert and Jamie Lidell. It is difficult to say why Warp’s artist roster has such cohesion; as well as their electronic dance offerings they have released hip-hop, ambient, math-rock, chamber pop and jazz fusion.
From my own experiences, and before I realised that so many artists I loved were supported by the same resolutely innovative and subversive label, perhaps the one quality they all had was this: the first time I heard them, I thought ‘Holy shit, what the hell is this? I need it in my life.’
Warped Records started life as a small record shop in Sheffield circa 1987. After the name being repeatedly misheard over the phone, it became Warp. They started up in a time and place that was perfect for a tiny indie to take advantage of the acid house club scene, something that was so quickly evolving that it slipped through the fingers of bigger, unwieldy labels.
Warp founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell, along with producer Robert Gordon, made the move from store to label in 1989, when they made a small run of Forgemasters’ Track With No Name. They distributed it by driving around in a borrowed car.
In one of those fairytale moments that remind us what we love about the nuts & bolts side of the music industry, Warp’s second release shifted 30,000 copies, without even the benefit of a promotional/marketing campaign.
That release was Dextrous by Nightmares on Wax, an artist that would become ubiquitous in the record collections of nicely stoned students throughout the land. The purple sleeve, which would become instantly identifiable as a Warp release, was created by a small local company called the Designers Republic. Chosen because they were local, and because Warp didn’t know anyone else, this was another instance of music industry serendipity as tDR, resolutely staying a Northern company when everyone else moved to London, quickly became one of the most sought-after design houses in the world, counting Adidas, Sony and Coca-Cola amongst their clientele.
As fans of retro-futurist racer series Wipeout will attest, there is something deeply beautiful and irresistible about tDR’s artwork, which helped cement Warp’s brand image much as Peter Saville did for Factory. Not only noted for the musical content, your average Warp record is a thing of beauty.
The Warp record store linked the Sheffield label with two other industrial cities. Warp worked with importers to bring Detroit techno and Chicago house music to the UK. As there was obviously no digital access to these tunes, collectors and DJs would queue around the block for the latest releases from labels such as Metroplex, Transmat, and Underground Resistance. This influx of exciting new sounds from across the pond was evident in subsequent Warp releases, with artists such as Sweet Exorcist and LFO incorporating deep, booming bass, bleeps and drum machines into music that was both enticingly exotic and stolidly Northern – Sheffield Techno. It was around this time that John Peel picked up on the label, and began playing their releases on a regular basis.
LFO album Frequencies was the first long-player by a British techno artist, and this was swiftly followed by Artificial Intelligence, the first of two stupendous compilations which brought artists such as Richie Hawtin, Autechre, Black Dog and FUSE into the fold and heralding the beginning of the ambient and intelligent techno movements – both aimed at creating electronic music that was to be listened to at home rather than in a club setting.
Artists who appeared on Artificial Intelligence I & II went on to release their own full-length albums on Warp, the most high profile of which was Aphex Twin. Ably assisted by stunning videos from longtime Warp collaborator Chris Cunningham, tracks Windowlicker and Come to Daddy did the improbable and broke weird, abrasive and distinctly un-radio-friendly electronic music into the mainstream.
The first time you hear it, Come to Daddy is an unforgettable experience. Similarly Windowlicker is over six minutes of bonkers which topped our recent Aphex Top Ten. Its video comes in at over ten minutes and is far too graphic and downright weird to be shown on your average music tv show, and yet it won an award for Single of the Year. From the NME.
With a gleeful air of mischief, Warp have continued with flagrant disregard for convention, genre and industry etiquette, releasing whatever music they have felt deserved support. Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children was released in 1998, and is one of the most brilliant debut albums of all time. Flying Lotus tramples all over every genre you’d care to name, mashing them together into albums of beauty and astonishing musical agility. They signed a publishing deal with Californian Hip-Hop mentalists Death Grips and brought Maximo Park, Clark, !!!, Grizzly Bear, Hudson Mohawke, Darkstar and Battles to our ever-so-grateful ears. Oh yes, we also forgot to talk about Brian Eno.
If a label, which is essentially a business whose purpose is to release music and try to survive financially, can ever be said to fizz with excitement and passion, it is Warp. We haven’t even begun to mention their collaborations with Chris Morris, Warp Films, who we can thank for This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes, their albums with the London Sinfonietta featuring Steve Reich, John Cage and orchestral versions of works by Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. They have released soundtracks for films such as Donkey Punch, and then there is catalogue number WARP666, Satanstornade, an album of noise art for those of you who really like to push the limits of your music collection.
From the humble beginnings of a mate’s car and 500 records, they have left a gigantic footprint in the music industry and continue to release music that may not have found a home elsewhere, but deserves to be heard. What is more, they have managed to make it as one of the most successful of indie labels. Warp Records – uncompromising and brilliant.
Sign up for free tickets to Monday’s Vinyl Station listening party here.
A buyer’s guide to Warp Records
10. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
9. Nightmares on Wax – Smoker’s Delight
8. Battles – Mirrored
7. Autechtre – Gantz Graf
6. Sweet Exorcist – Testone
5. Grizzly Bear – Veckitamest
4. Aphex Twin – Drukqs
4. Squarepusher – Do You Know Squarepusher
3. Forgemasters – Track With No Name
2. LFO – Frequencies
1. Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children