The Bleepography returns after a short Easter break, with Matt Anniss focusing on the record that brought the world Warp Records, Forgemasters’ superb ‘Track With No Name’
We need to talk about Warp Records. So far in this series, I’ve covered a couple of the label’s releases, but steered clear of the long running imprint’s biggest Bleep-era hits and most celebrated releases. That’s partly because they’re mostly very well known in comparison to some of the material profiled in the Bleepography series, but also because they’ve received plenty of plaudits over the years. Even so, this cannot continue for one significant reason: Warp was the label that defined the Bleep sound more than any other, and without it the style may never have taken off the way it did.
In its formative first two years, Warp was a label shaped by the dance music scene blossoming around it, not only within the city of its birth, Sheffield, but also the wider Yorkshire region. It was born in a record shop, whose bosses, Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett, could see the growing commercial potential of underground dance music.
It helped though that they had one of the Sheffield club scene’s prime movers and shakers, popular local DJ and pirate radio host Winston Hazel, working as their dance buyer. Like a lot of people within the Steel City’s music community, they also were on friendly terms with the team behind the FON studio after which their record shop was named. That meant a link to fast-rising producer Rob Gordon, an audio engineer, beat-maker and soundsystem enthusiast who was good friends with Winston Hazel.
The latter had stepped foot in the FON studio a number of times in the years leading up to 1989, and even showcased his scratching on one of Rob Gordon’s productions for Pop Will Eat Itself, the 12” version of 1988 single ‘Def Con One’. Beckett and Mitchell were frequent visitors to the studio too, having graduated from being in indie bands together earlier in the decade. This link to music industry infrastructure, and specifically a studio as well-regarded and equipped as FON, gave what would become Warp Records a head start on many of its rivals within British dance music.
Then there was Hazel’s links within the Yorkshire club scene. He was one of Sheffield’s hardest-working DJs at the time, and one that serious dancers – footworkers in particular – would follow around the region just as he had followed Colin Curtis and Jonathan Woodliffe during his days as an enthusiastic jazz-funk dancer. Although Ecstasy and the acid house movement had altered the make-up of clubs, serious dancers were still a significant presence on the northern club scene. DJs who pleased them by playing tracks they could perform fast footwork to, such as Hazel, Nightmares on Wax, DJ Martin and Unique 3, were those whose clubs were packed week in, week out.
The gestation of what would become Warp Records most likely began when Edzy from Unique 3 first walked in to FON Records with a box of copies of their first self-released single, Bleep & Bass blueprint ‘Only The Beginning/The Theme’. It was a record every bit as ground-breaking, alien and alluring as A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’, and it blew Winston Hazel’s mind.
In our first interview in 2014 Hazel told me that he was a fan as soon as he listened to it while working at FON. He played it as much as he could in clubs, could see that the footworkers ‘went mad’ when he put it on, and wished that he had made it. With no equipment of his own or music-making experience of note, he wasn’t in a position to create a track to rival it on his own. But the impulse was there and soon enough he would be involved in making the ‘answer track’ that would put Sheffield on the Bleep & Bass map, even if the creation of said tune owed more to spontaneity than planning.
Both Edzy and Steve Beckett have said in the past that Unique 3 were offered the opportunity to sign for what would become Warp Records when it was merely an idea, presumably sometime in late 1988 or early ’89. Quite whose idea it was to launch a label, initially to focus on pioneering mutations of techno birthed in Yorkshire, is unclear, primarily because Steve Beckett, the late Rob Mitchell and Rob Gordon – the trio who ultimately put the plan into practise – have all said at various points that it was their idea. You can read all three versions of events in the epic oral history of Warp Records I wrote for Resident Advisor last year.
Whatever the real truth, Warp only came in to being when they had a reason to do it: a track made by one of their own that could give the label the kind of start that all newborn imprints dream of.
A few months before Warp came in to being in the summer of 1989, Rob Gordon invited Winston Hazel round to his house in Talbot Gardens, a scruffy side street on the hill above the sprawling “streets in the sky” of the Park Hill estate, in order to show off some of his new toys: a small collection of electronic music-making equipment he’d bought using the money he’d made from a high-profile major label production job at FON.
Gordon was particularly keen to show Hazel his new AKAI sampler. He explained how it worked, before telling Hazel to come back the next day and bring something to sample. The following evening Hazel returned clutching a copy of Manu Dibango’s electro-fired 1985 single “Pata Piya”. When he got in to the house, he was surprised to see Gordon’s old school friend Sean Maher – a fellow soundsystem enthusiast – sat on the sofa smoking a spliff.
‘Me and Rob were just chilling, having a smoke, listening some tunes and playing around with his new equipment,’ Maher explained in an interview for Join The Future in 2018. ‘Then Winston came over carrying this record.’
Gordon asked Hazel what section of the Manu Dibango record he wanted sampling. He selected a snatch of a track on the B-side, the “85 Remix” of ‘Abele Dance’ – a killer electro cut that had long been a favourite of the footworkers who flocked to hear Hazel play.
‘My idea was that we should make something like the Manu Dibango record, not sample it,’ Hazel told me in 2014. ‘The sample we ended up with had a bit chopped off the end. We then worked out how to make it tight.’
The sample in question was taken from the breakdown of the Manu Dibango track and is little more than body-popping electro beats, a simple synth melody and a female voice saying: “I hear you”. In the final version of the track Gordon, Hazel and Maher made that night, the sample is looped and played in full a number of times as a footworker friendly percussive breakdown. More significantly though, a shorter, chopped-up section also forms part of the main rhythm track, alongside TR-909 beats that were programmed a little differently to the house and techno cuts Hazel often championed in his sets.
Rob Gordon, who had earned a reputation as a master drum programmer through his work at FON, was naturally responsible for these beats. His main influence was not Chicago house, a style he disliked strongly as he thought it sounded ‘too cheap’, but Detroit techno, a style he’d fallen in love with after hearing Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘Nude Photo’ a year earlier. There was an arguably even greater rhythmic influence, too: steppers reggae.
Listen to any Rob Gordon production from the period and you’ll notice a certain shuffle and timing to the programmed percussion, with patterns that sit closer to the specific intonation and swing of electronic reggae. As much as he loved Detroit techno, Rob Gordon was always a reggae producer at heart.
In the first of a number of interviews we did for Join The Future in 2018, Gordon explained: ‘There’s a very particular drumbeat programming style on there. It’s in the background, but it’s steppers. I did that drum programming to say, “I don’t like house music, but if I heard these beats it would get me going.” If I’m doing the drums, I’m going to do something I like. A straight four-to-the-floor like house wasn’t for me – I needed something else.’
This desire for drumbeats that weren’t “straight” and reflected the specific shuffle of dancefloor-focused reggae was something that would quickly become a trademark of not only Gordon’s tracks and remixes during the period, but also the wider Bleep & Bass sound. It’s one of the key things that differentiates the style from Detroit techno and Chicago house.
Once the rhythm was laid down, the trio added a ghostly melody – reportedly picked out by Hazel – that was then played on two different synthesiser settings so they could alternate throughout the track, and a bassline that partially used the same pattern – something used to devastating effect in Unique 3’s ‘The Theme’, the cut that inspired the creation of Gordon, Hazel and Maher’s track more than any other.
By the time Hazel left Gordon’s house later in the evening, he took with him the finished cut on a TDK metal cassette. None of the three men could think of a name, so it was simply dubbed ‘Track With No Name’. One of the earliest responses to Unique 3’s ‘The Theme’ and the first Bleep and Bass cut to emerge from Sheffield, it was spectacularly good.
While as simple and stripped-back as Unique 3’s ground-breaking cut, it was a far more polished production – as you’d expect from a producer as experienced as Rob Gordon (very few Bleep and Bass-era production crews could call on someone who worked in a professional studio). Even so, ‘Track With No Name’ managed to be both weighty and as futuristic as the Detroit-made techno records that inspired it, while still sounding like it could have been anywhere other than England’s Steel City.
Where ‘The Theme’ shocked and delighted with its fresh ideas and raw power, ‘Track With No Name’ was artful, ‘high-tech’ (as Gordon would put it) and beautifully constructed. It was the moment that Bleep & Bass became something more than a great idea executed by excited amateurs. It proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that this new “northern sound” was a vibrant art form in its own right.
Even now, Hazel remains hugely proud of the record: ‘It’s reactionary and captures a moment in time. I think it reflects what we were experiencing at the time: experiences through music, the industrial devastating, the club scene and the climate of Sheffield at the time. It had the sound of the city we grew up in implanted in the track.’
The trio’s eventual chosen alias, Forgemasters, reflected this intimate link with their home city. It was the name of one of Sheffield’s biggest steelmakers, a company whose giant steel mill still dominates the skyline of the city’s Attercliffe district. It was a nod not only to the city’s industrial heritage but also the industrial music exploits of Cabaret Voltaire, an act who had previously made their fair share of similarly electro-influenced records.
Within days of ‘Track With No Name’ being finished, the decision had been made by Beckett, Mitchell and Gordon (who would take on the role of de-facto head of A&R and in-house engineer) to release it. This was not an act of vanity, but rather the knowledge that they had a genuine club hit on their hands.
‘Track With No Name’ was first debuted on Hazel’s radio show, with the intense reaction from listeners – ‘the phones went ballistic’– and the dancers at Occasions, where it got its first club play, that made the decision an easy one.
In one of our interviews, Gordon recalled receiving a call from Hazel telling him to get down to the club he was playing at that night: ‘I wasn’t that keen to go down, but he said, “You have to come this time, something special is happening”. So, I went down there and Winston called me over to the DJ booth. He said, “Watch this,” and played the tape of ‘Track With No Name’. It tore the place down.’
Gordon says he paid for the first run of white label 12” singles, but by the time it got a ‘proper release’ Warp Records had officially sprung into life. It was run by Beckett and Mitchell in a room above the record shop, partially funded by a grant from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, and was distributed by Rhythm King offshoot Outer Rhythm.
The ‘pressing and distribution’ deal Warp received was, by all accounts, pretty bad; so bad, in fact, that Beckett and Mitchell regretted the deal almost as soon as they’d signed it. Gordon says he told them it was a ‘shit deal’ but they signed it anyway. It was the first of many arguments between Gordon and his two co-founders, who eventually voted him off the board of the company less than 18 months later. That’s a story for another day though.
‘Track With No Name’ flew off the shelves following its official release in August 1989, selling between 15,000 and 20,000 records – an astonishing return for a new label, even one backed by Outer Rhythm and Rhythm King. As well as tearing up clubs, it also introduced buyers to Warp Records’ distinctive purple sleeves and an early version of the label’s now iconic retro-futurist logo. Over the 18 months that followed, this eye-catching design would become visual shorthand for Bleep & Bass, guaranteeing that Warp – and Sheffield as a city – would forever be associated with the style (even if it did first emerge from West Yorkshire).
Before Warp parted company with Rob Gordon and the label shifted direction, it would be responsible for a string of classic Bleep & Bass cuts, making it the UK’s most celebrated and recognisable techno imprint. As Unique 3 would have put it, ‘Track With No Name’ was ‘Only The Beginning’…