In our latest Bleepography article, Matt Anniss discusses the creation, influence and impact of Unique 3’s ‘The Theme’, the track that forged the Bleep & Bass blueprint…with the emphasis on “bass”
When it comes to chronicling the story of how a sound and scene develops, it can often be the little moments that end up seeming the most significant. Over the course of the five years I spent actively researching and writing Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, these revealing moments were mentioned sporadically, and in some cases their relevance took a little while to sink in.
In the summer of 2018, I headed up to Leeds for the first edition of Inner City Electronic. I was due to host a panel discussion at the Wardrobe Theatre on the soundsystem roots of British dance music, with Mark Iration, DJ Martin and Prince Fatty on hand to discuss my then rarely aired view that UK bass music owes much to the scene in Yorkshire in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That wasn’t due to start until late afternoon, so I took the opportunity to stroll around Leeds city centre with former Nightmares on Wax member Kevin ‘Boy Wonder’ Harper and pose a few questions about the band’s formative years.
At one point, we went and stood outside what was once the backstreet entrance to Ricky’s, the club where Nightmares On Wax made their name as resident DJs of the popular Saturday night party Downbeat. Kevin shared some of his memories of the event, including an anecdote that included his former Solar City Rockers break-dancing crew mates, Unique 3.
He didn’t offer this story unprompted. As I mention in the book, I’d previously been contacted on Twitter by a former Downbeat regular, who revealed that he’d been there the first time Unique 3’s self-released debut single, featuring ‘Only The Beginning’ and ‘The Theme’, had been played to a packed crowd. According to this source, Unique 3 had entered the club, squeezed their way through the packed dancefloor, and handed Harper a copy of the record. According to folklore, Harper mixed it in almost straight away and pandemonium ensued.
To my delight, Harper confirmed that the story was indeed true: ‘The reaction was so great that I ended up playing it three times in a row. The funny thing is, I put the wrong side on. I played ‘Only The Beginning’ instead of ‘The Theme’, which is the one I’d heard before [off cassette at Benson’s in Bradford]. I still went off though.’
It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether this was the first time either track had been played by a rival DJ crew to Unique 3, but given the links between the two outfits – they’d previously been in the same breakdance crew and Unique 3’s mic man Patrick Cargill was Harper’s cousin – it could well have been.
Either way, the pioneering, never-heard-before sound of ‘Only The Beginning’ and the more sparse, stripped back and tight ‘The Theme’ had a profound effect on Harper and Evelyn, as it would do other rival DJ crews across Yorkshire (and, later down the line, far beyond). In one of our interviews, Evelyn explained:
‘Everything’s responsive, right? We were representing Leeds. If the next man comes from Bradford, Manchester, Huddersfield or Sheffield with a tune that’s his, you could guarantee someone from one of the neighbouring areas would be straight into the studio trying to create a rival tune.’
Around the same time as they dropped off that copy of their debut 12” at Ricky’s, Unique 3 – and specifically Edzy, the most driven member of the crew and their de facto manager – were busy visiting record shops in the north of England trying to sell copies direct to the stores. Future LFO co-founders Gez Varley and Martin Williams (AKA DJ Martin), both recall Unique 3 coming into Crash Records in Leeds, where Williams worked part time as a dance music buyer, with copies of the record.
Varley said: ‘When they played it, I stood there open-mouthed. I knew them from the breakdance scene and thought, ‘fucking hell, I’ve got to do this – if they can make a record so can I.” It was local lads who had made this great record. Before that, I never believed it was something that one of us could do.’
Sheffield DJs DJ Parrot and Winston Hazel also remember Edzy appearing in front of the counter at FON Records – later to be renamed Warp Records– with a box of 12” singles. They were naturally flabbergasted by the track’s raw bass power – created by sampling feedback coming from Unique 3 member Ian Park’s monitor speakers – and the intoxicating, bleeping melodies that sounded like they’d been beamed down from another galaxy.
As Parrot (real name Richard Barratt) said: ‘It was mind-blowing. The first time I heard Winston play it in the shop I said straight away, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It’s interesting that ‘The Theme’ and [A Guy Called Gerald’s] ‘Voodoo Ray’ dropped within a few months of each other. They fit with the Chicago and Detroit records we’d been playing [at Jive Turkey], but they were different. They sounded like they’d been made by people like us. You can hear that in the sonics and the way that they’d been put together.’
I’ve had arguments before about the extent of the impact and the importance of both ‘The Theme’ and ‘Voodoo Ray’ in the story of British dance music. In terms of the inspiration they provided to would-be house and techno producers in the UK, and the distinctly British sound that developed in their wake, you’d have to say that they’re two of the most important club-focused records ever made within these islands. From ‘Vooodoo Ray’ and ‘The Theme’ flowed a river of creativity and the UK’s first truly homegrown style of electronic dance music, Bleep & Bass. Or, as it was initially called in the wake of ‘Only The Beginning’ and ‘The Theme’, “Bradford Bass”.
Although relatively few copies of Unique 3’s debut single were pressed – around 500 – they quickly got into the hands of the DJs that mattered in the North of England and, to a lesser extent, the Midlands and London. It became a must-play anthem at Downbeat, Jive Turkey and the Hacienda in Manchester, where A&R scouts from Virgin Records’ dance offshoot, Ten Records, saw it get a rapturous response. As a result, Unique 3 began to get offers from record companies and would-be labels.
One early enthusiast was FON Records store co-owner Steve Beckett, who reportedly told Edzy that he was in the process of setting up a label – what would become Warp – with his business partner Rob Mitchell and local producer extraordinaire Rob Gordon. Unique 3 declined their offer – something which Edzy says he now regrets – instead signing on the dotted line with Ten Records having been lured by the promise of a sizeable advance. Given that the various members of Unique 3 had grown up in relative poverty within some of Bradford’s toughest – and poorest – inner-city communities, it must have been a relatively easy decision.
While Unique 3’s Yorkshire rivals scrambled to make records in response to ‘The Theme’ in early 1989, Edzy, Patrick Cargill, Ian Park and new Unique 3 member Delroy Brown were dispatched to the FON studio in Sheffield to re-record it under the watchful eyes of Rob Gordon (David Bahar AKA The Mad Musician, who had worked on the earlier version, was by now no longer working with the group).
The Bleep & Bass blueprint they’d created – beats influenced by electro, Chicago house and 1980s dancefloor reggae, skeletal production and a bleeping top-end melody that replicated the pattern of the track’s booming bassline – remained, but the resultant ‘Unique Mix’ (it was in fact a total re-build rather than a straight remix) was an altogether more polished and sub-heavy affair, with the addition of rap verses from Cargill – replicating words he’d uttered in clubs over the record – emphasising the hip-hop aspect of the crew’s roots.
What mattered most about the remixed version of ‘The Theme’ though was the bassline, which was now so insanely deep and sub-heavy that it was capable of causing speakers seriously problems. With his reggae background, Rob Gordon had deep, weighty bass coursing through his veins. When it came to mixing the re-recorded version of ‘The Theme’ he’d worked on with Unique 3, Gordon pushed the envelope as far as he could. It was, he told me in one interview, his ‘bass statement’. And what a statement.
When the record was subsequently released by Ten, accompanied on the flipside by the previously hard-to-find ‘Original Chill Mix’ from the previous 12” and ‘7AM’ – a more jacking house workout full of clonky riffs, organ style stabs and more weighty bass – it became even more successful, reaching dancers and DJs far afield who had not heard the group’s original version. It also resulted in a flood of letters to Virgin Records complaining that the track had destroyed club speakers – the result of both Gordon’s sub-heavy mix (something that earned him the reputation as Bleep’s go-to remixer) and a vinyl cut at the Townhouse that pushed the limits of low-end acceptability.
By the time the Ten Records edition of ‘The Theme’ appeared in stores, a number of rival records had already appeared or were in the works, including Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Dextrous’, Forgemasters ‘Track With No Name’, Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’ and LFO’s ‘LFO’. Many of these received early plays at Sunset Boulevard in Huddersfield, whose Monday night sessions featuring rival DJs from the region’s emerging bass-heavy scene often played demos off cassette to try and best their rivals.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of ‘The Theme’. In early 1990, a flood of records appeared that either sampled it, tried to replicate elements of the tune (be it the bleep melody, the insanely heavy sub-bass, or both), or in some way paid tribute (a number of these will be covered in the Bleepography series later down the line). Unique 3 would go on to release some other Bleep classics, though they soon tired of the sound they created – one which seemed to sonically mirror the ghostly emptiness of the abandoned factories, mills and warehouses that dominated the skyline in the post-industrial North of England at the time.
Unique 3 also became increasingly irritated that most people believed Bleep & Bass to be a Sheffield creation, thanks to the leading role played by Warp Records in popularising it. We should never forget that it was from Bradford, and specifically the spare room of Ian Park’s mum’s house, that Bleep and Bass first emerged.
As Edzy said in one of our interviews: ‘First it was, “the sound of Bradford”, then, “the Sound of the Industrial north.” Finally, it became, ‘Sheffield bleep.’ I suppose it’s like any way: the victors re-write history.’
To purchase a physical or digital copy of Matt Anniss’s book Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, head to the Velocity Press website. To buy vinyl or digital copies of the Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91 compilation, head to Bandcamp or Bleep.com