The cities of Leeds and Sheffield have rarely seen eye-to-eye over anything, whether it is arena funding, the siting of the Royal Armouries or more than a century of football rivalries. Even so, the early 1990s saw a cross-city collaboration that kick-started one of the country's most influential, respected and enduring independent record labels.
Warp Records was founded in the back room of a Sheffield independent record shop called FON Records in 1989, by employees Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett. The label – which has since re-located to London in 2000 – has developed from humble beginnings to become a pioneering cultural organisation incorporating some of the biggest names in British dance music and film.
Back in 1986, FON Records also ran a record label and signed a band from Leeds called Age of Chance; a visually-arresting industrial rock/dance crossover act that used samples, wore cycling gear and had record sleeves and promo posters dripping in loaded slogans and imposing visuals.
Age of Chance recorded a version of Prince’s hit ‘Kiss’ in 1986 on FON Records, and the single’s wide success funded FON’s direct advancement of the emerging house music scene in the UK, allowing them to release ‘Hustle’ by Funky Worm and ‘House Arrest’ by Krush.
Meanwhile, 30 miles north in Leeds, a young hip-hop DJ called George Evelyn and his friend Kevin Harper were running the ‘Downbeat’ club night at Leeds’ legendary Warehouse club, playing rare groove, hip hop, funk and dance.
Inspired by 1988’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ by Manchester’s A Guy Called Gerald, the two friends experimented with techno sounds in George’s rudimentary bedroom studio and came up with a track called ‘Dextrous’.
The duo, now going by the name Nightmares on Wax, garnered little interest in the track from major record labels, but went ahead and pressed some white label copies, hawking them around independent record shops. One of these was FON Records in Sheffield.
Mitchell and Beckett immediately liked the track and compared it to the minimalist techno they were hearing in clubs around Sheffield. Inspired by this dance sub-genre and wanting to help Evelyn and Harper, the two FON employees formed Warp Records utilising a £40 Enterprise Allowance grant. ‘Dextrous’ became the second release on the label in 1989, after ‘A Track With No Name’ by electronic duo Forgemasters.
‘Dextrous’ sold 30,000 copies, and the follow-up ‘Aftermath’ also performed well. Unfortunately, Warp’s DIY approach to the music industry meant that little money was made from the project. For example, it took a while for Warp to realise that record sleeves needed a bar code in order for sales to register in the charts.
Still, 26 years later, Leeds’ Nightmares on Wax – now just Evelyn as a solo DJ – is Warp’s longest-serving act and has released seminal albums in ‘Smoker’s Delight’ and ‘Carboot Soul’, cited in the ambient grooves genre as equals to Massive Attack and Portishead’s finest work.
July 1990 was a landmark month for the fledgling dance label. Warp’s fifth release was a single by another Leeds outfit, called LFO. Taking their name from a synthesiser function known as ‘Low Frequency Oscillator’, LFO were the duo of Gez Varley and Mark Bell, who met at Leeds University and together pioneered a bass-heavy techno sound that resulted in the eponymous track ‘LFO’.
‘LFO’ gave Warp their first Top 20 hit and resulted in 130,000 sales. Its video was produced by a then-unknown Sheffield-born film student called Jarvis Cocker and the sleeve was designed by Designer’s Republic, who had moved on from the violent shock slogans of Age of Chance and now had a trademark purple sleeve design.
This soon became the characteristic for Warp’s ‘bleep techno’ sound and the experimental dance tracks they produced.
The song ‘LFO’ featured a bass sound so deep it was unplayable on radio, and at a certain volume it could rattle your ribcage and damage both the ear drums and your Dad’s expensive Kef speakers. Yet it transformed the dance scene and was the perfect sparse and doleful soundtrack for the industrial North.
That same month also saw Warp release ‘Tricky Disco’, another ‘bleep techno’ track, but so relentlessly chipper that it gained even more commercial success. Warp’s first album release was LFO’s ‘Frequencies’ in 1991, and by this time the duo behind the label had gained some business sense and a realisation that the label could work as an organisation and not just something to make their mates dance.
In Leeds the dance fraternity turned to the mass-market euphoria of clubs like Kaos, Back to Basics and Up Yer Ronson. But from such arbitrary beginnings, Warp has blossomed beyond recognition, outlived other pioneering independent labels such as Creation and Factory – from whom it copied a seat-of-the-pants punk ethos of operating – and now holds a roster of acts producing ground-breaking albums across the dance sector. Big name artists on the label include Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Battles and Red Snapper.
Warp has never toed the line and always looked forward. It was one of the first record labels to have a website, and also the first to sell music online.
It has also taken its interest in promotional visuals – Aphex Twin’s videos for ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ have to be seen to be believed – to its natural next level, branching out into film production. Most notably, Warp produced Shane Meadows’ ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ and the Bafta-winning 2006 film ‘This is England’.
Today Warp is an organisation specialising in experimentation and pushing boundaries, but still synonymous with a certain sound and a certain ambience. In Leeds, there is a pride in playing a small part in that.
A wall in Outlaws Yacht Club pays homage to Leeds’ part in Warp’s success, with the highly-collectable 12”s from Age of Chance, Nightmares on Wax and LFO lined up proudly behind glass. Exhibits in the history of dance music, the north and its people and cultures. A small gift from Leeds to the world.
Take a look here for a closer look at today's music and nightlife scene in Leeds.