When Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell founded Warp Records 20 years ago, it was both daringly radical, and rooted in the traditions of their hometown, Sheffield. The label which would be home to Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada continued the lineage of electronic-music mavericks begun in the city by the Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire; sounds seemingly born from the metallic clamour of its steel factories. By 1989, those factories were closing fast, and the desolate abandoned warehouses that remained were ideal for rave culture, letting thousands dance till dawn. But Warp has survived because, while maintaining a raw and avant-garde spirit, it has left the raves behind, to sign rock acts such as Maxïmo Park and Grizzly Bear, and become home to film-makers from Chris Morris to Shane Meadows. Warp at 20 is an ongoing tribute to the adaptability and personal vision that defines every great independent label.
"The Theme", a 1989 12-inch by Bradford's Unique 3, was Beckett and Mitchell's initial inspiration. This classic of house's nascent bleep-and-bass sub-genre loaded a numbingly stark keyboard line over bowel-quaking bass. Warp Records followed suit with their first release, "Track with No Name" by Sheffield's Forgemasters. They hit their stride with LFO and Nightmares on Wax. The former took monstrous bass-lines to horror movie limits, recording them on cheap cassettes with recording levels jammed into the red. They would then repeat the process, till the requisite extremist noise had been reached. Beckett recalled those early days to Simon Reynolds, in his definitive history of rave music, Energy Flash: "A lot of it was in the cut [of the lacquer, at the start of vinyl record pressings]. You've got filters on your cutting heads. Basically, it was about taking off all the filters and all the compression, and just pushing the levels up as far as you could. The engineer, this guy Kevin, would be sitting there watching the temperature gauge go right up, 'cos your cutting heads get really hot if you haven't got the filters on. He'd be sweating, saying, 'You're gonna destroy me, ya bastards...'"
This willingness to melt studio equipment in the quest for the perfect bass sound climaxed with Leeds's more aesthetic, if still room-shaking Nightmares on Wax. Their debut album, Frequencies, saved Warp financially, after a bad distribution deal threatened to destroy the label almost before it had begun. But as the hardcore rave Warp was at the forefront of gained an unwanted reputation as a haven for topless, aggressive, pin-eyed hooligans no longer made docile by Ecstasy, the label smoothly distanced itself. The compilation Artificial Intelligence (1992) was a revolutionary turn in dance music. With a sleeve depicting a robot smoking a joint with Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk LPs strewn on its bedroom floor, the album announced dance as music for the head, not body; the post-rave comedown, not the rave itself. It was a retreat, too, from endorphin-emptying hedonism into hippie-ish home listening; from punk to prog.
But the critical legitimacy this "intelligent dance music" acquired served Warp's purpose. Beckett knew, like all the great label auteurs, that he had to evolve or become extinct. "We'd seen from the shop [a parallel Warp business in the early days] how dance labels had about a year of being on top," he told Reynolds. "We were determined that wasn't gonna happen to us. The only way to avoid it was to get more artist-oriented and album-oriented."
Artificial Intelligence also introduced three of Warp's most important acts: the Black Dog, Autechre and Aphex Twin. The Black Dog's interest in spirituality and gnomic pronouncements on one of the first serious artist websites, and Autechre's clinically cold yet abrasive textures garnered devoted cults.
But neither could match Richard D James, aka Aphex Twin (and a dozen more aliases, some amounting to little more than rumours it is him). Warp's most important artist has never been tethered to them, often returning to his own label, Rephlex. But Warp were behind his most high-impact releases, Richard D. James Album (1996), and the singles "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker". The eye- wateringly grotesque sleeve of the former put James's grinning, bearded head onto a white-bikinied female body; the video for the latter saw child-dwarf Jameses scuttling through a horror-movie landscape. Add the rumours and cheeky lies that had accompanied James's first (non-Warp) album Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and the wild, innovative range of the music itself, and Warp had another element every label needs. As the Smiths were for Rough Trade, and Arctic Monkeys are to Domino, so James gave Warp a creative and commercial core. He let his cool prankster persona slip on the piano-based, neo-classical drukqs (2001), which included a touching answer-phone message from his father, suggesting he wasn't a genius, just a naughty boy. James's apparent retirement from much more than DJ gigs since has been countered by news of a new Warp album this year.
Warp have anyway gathered new strange loners to their stable. Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, aka Boards of Canada are, like the Cornish James, literal outsiders, living in wild countryside in East Lothian. Their major albums, Music Has the Right to Children (1998) and The Campfire Headphase (2005), dealt, Sandison explained, in ageing sounds to create artificial memories in the listener, on the nostalgic cusp of analogue and digital technology. They are two more of the electronica aesthetes Warp has nurtured since they left 'ardkore behind.
Boards of Canada were hardly "'avin' it". But then, fewer and fewer people were, as dance music contracted in the 21st century. The foresight that has sustained Warp's identity as purveyors of intelligent dance music has been coupled to startling diversification in recent years, letting them remain above such grubby concerns. Maxïmo Park were Warp's first major rock signing in 2004. Their singer-songwriter Paul Smith, a Northern working-class intellectual fascinated with hedonism and its aching comedown, fitted the label snugly, even if the guitars did not. Grizzly Bear, the US band whose third album, Veckatimest, has gained great acclaim this year, fit similarly well. With their careful sculpting of sound and veiled emotions, they could be a warmer, softer Autechre.
Not forgetting the acclaimed live act Gang Gang Dance and earlier signings Mira Calix and Broadcast. Then, there is Warp Films. An outgrowth of Chris Cunningham's directing work on those freaky Aphex Twin videos, its first release was Chris Morris's DVD single My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117. It has quickly become the UK's most consistent and challenging indie production company, giving Morris, Cunningham, the video work of the Arctic Monkeys, Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows homes. Meadows' This Is England (2006) is its crowning glory to date: as visceral as any early Warp record, but with the bleeding humanity its best artists have found in their maturity.
Warp has outlasted all the styles it was brewed from in 1989. But its DIY attitude and desire to challenge, applied to a wide and emotionally honourable palette these days, remains intact. Another 20 years in the electronic underground? You wouldn't bet against it.
WARP'S GREATEST HITS
NIGHTMARES ON WAX - 'Aftermath' (1990)
This 12-inch landmark circles disturbingly round a mutilated house- diva vocal, metallic wheezing and clattering drums, only the bass-line resembling dance. An early sign that Warp wouldn't settle for stupidity.
LFO, Frequencies (1991)
Album-length peak of the Northern bleep-and-bass genre Warp sprang from, the success of which saved it from bankruptcy.
V/A, Artificial Intelligence (1992)
The artfully marketed beginning of "intelligent dance music", drawing on Eno's ambient ideas, and luring ravers back to album-buying. Helped make the Aphex Twin a star.
THE APHEX TWIN, Richard D James Album (1996)
Prone to mutilating styluses with sandpaper decks live, the Twin here opted for pensively thoughtful tracks such as the aptly titled, oriental-sounding "Cornish Acid".
BOARDS OF CANADA, Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
The first full album from a Scottish duo (above) who initially communicated with the media only by email, gaining a mystique enhanced by this hazily atmospheric evocation of the 1970s.
SQUAREPUSHER, Music Is Rotted One Note (1998)
Warp mainstay Tom Jenkinson ditched drill'n'bass for this fan-dizzying swerve back to jazz, multi-tracking himself as a Miles-influenced one-man band.
CHRIS MORRIS, Blue Jam (2000)
Disturbingly slurred late-night music and unthinkable thoughts from the satirist's darkest project.
!!!, Louden Up Now (2004)
The Californian dance-punk band's second album included the 'Footloose'-sampling epic "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard", and gave Warp a foothold in a newly hip scene.
MAXïMO PARK, Apply Some Pressure (2005)
These unpretentious Northern intellectuals offered Warp a bridge into indie-rock and the charts.
GRIZZLY BEAR, Veckatimest (2009)
Radiohead love these Americans' choral harmonies and lush arrangements, proving Warp's finger is on the pulse.