Warp Speed: Stop, Sit, and Listen

In 1992 the British label Warp released a compilation called Artificial Intelligence, billed as “the first in a series of ‘listening albums’ from Warp” to distinguish it from the dance-floor-oriented singles on which the imprint had built its reputation over the past four years. On the cover, a robot reclined in an armchair with a spliff in hand, and among the artists represented were relatively unknown acts like Autechre, I.A.O (aka Plaid, aka Black Dog), and, under the moniker the Dice Man, Aphex Twin–now some of the biggest names in the sprawling subgenre that would come to be known as armchair techno, intelligent techno, ambient techno, and eventually electronica. That collection, purposely or not, set Warp on the path to becoming arguably the most lively, successful, and important electronic-music label in the world, a guiding light for true heads as well as a frequent point of departure for many curious pop fans.

On Tuesday, through Matador in the U.S., Warp celebrates its tenth anniversary with three more compilations, each containing two CDs. The first collection, Warp10+1: Influences, spotlights the late-80s sounds that tickled the fancy of founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell when Warp was still merely the name of their record store. The second, Warp10+2: Classics 89-92, collects 18 hard-to-find singles released by the label in its early days. For the final set, Warp10+3: Remixes, 26 contemporary artists–mostly electronica acts but also some electronica-friendly pop artists, including Stereolab, Mogwai, Spiritualized, and Pram–remixed tracks by current acts like Boards of Canada, Red Snapper, and Squarepusher as well as older stuff. (The roster of knob twirlers also includes Chicagoans John McEntire and Jim O’Rourke.)

Caveat emptor: while Remixes features most of the artists who have made Warp an institution, it’s in no way a comprehensive or even accurate overview of the label’s output. Beckett and Mitchell allowed the remixers to pick their own tracks, and some, like Oval, render the raw material utterly unrecognizable. It seems intended to celebrate the future of the label–a clever pomo future where stylistic boundaries continue to disintegrate into fairy dust–more than its past.

As dance-music retailers, Beckett and Mitchell were caught up in England’s massive acid-house scene in the late 80s, so not surprisingly they include among their inspirations Detroit techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May and Chicago acid-house giants like Phuture, Mr. Fingers, and Adonis. The sleek, cold precision of Detroit techno and the Chicagoans’ squelchy bass lines, courtesy of the Roland TB-303 synthesizer, are apparent on some of the first Warp singles, but an even greater force seems to have been New York’s Nitro Deluxe, whose “Let’s Get Brutal,” a hit in England in 1988 and the opener to the Influences comp, was built from almost inaudibly deep bass patterns and freestyle beats. And as Beckett consistently tells it, the track that ultimately made him want to start his own label was “The Theme,” a spartan doodle of Kraftwerkian bleeps over a repeating, descending set of four fat bass tones by English rave favorites Unique 3. “The Theme” kicks off the second disc of Influences, which is rounded out by yet more Chicagoans–K. Alexi Shelby and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk–and key British acts like 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald.

The earliest stuff on Classics–like “Track With No Name” by Forgemasters and “Testone” by Sweet Exorcist–wouldn’t sound out of place on the back end of Influences, with their electro beats, single-note synth melodies, and gut-rumbling bass. The duo Nightmares on Wax–now reduced to George Evelyn, who’s morphed into a one-man groovy sampladelic soul-jazz machine–scored one of Warp’s first chart hits with “Aftermath,” grafting the diva snippets of Chicago house to Warp’s more alien corpus.

But the arrival of LFO in 1990 shook things up, literally: the duo, Mark Bell and Gez Varley (the former was Bjork’s main collaborator on Homogenic) zoomed in on that subsonic bass, magnifying it to such a degree that it changed the way the grooves in the record had to be cut. In his recent book Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds explains that LFO would record the bass to cassette at in-the-red levels, sample it, and then repeat the process. “At this nightclub Kiki’s, there was a separate bar made of glass, and the track ‘LFO’ was actually shaking the bar,” Beckett tells Reynolds. “That was when we knew we’d got it right.” The group’s debut album, Frequencies–one of Warp’s few full-lengths at the time, released in the U.S. by Tommy Boy–remains a masterpiece of dance-floor minimalism and established a genuinely distinct sound for the label.

The club hits kept coming, from Tricky Disco, the Step, Tuff Little Unit, and Coco Steel & Lovebomb, but a change was in the air. As Beckett explains in Generation Ecstasy, “We’d seen from running the shop how dance labels had about a year of being on top. The only way to avoid that fate was to get more artist-oriented and album-oriented.”

It worked: acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre have managed to stay afloat on electronica’s fickle seas for years now, thanks to an expanded audience for their experiments. And judging from Internet mailing lists, Warp as a whole has cultivated almost fanatical brand loyalty. While Artificial Intelligence and records by Autechre, B12, and Polygon Window (yet another Aphex Twin pseudonym) were released in the U.S. through the dance-oriented Wax Trax! label in the early 90s, in recent years Warp output has been licensed by major labels and indie-rock standard-bearers alike: Sire issued the latest Jimi Tenor album; Trent Reznor’s Nothing imprint has Autechre, Squarepusher, and Plaid under contract; Drag City took the first record by the almost art-poppy Broadcast; and Matador has released albums by Red Snapper, Plone, and Nightmares on Wax. Intentionally or not, the label and its more distinctive acts–particularly the weird, funny, curmudgeonly Aphex Twin–have done more than almost anyone to give electronica integrity and staying power, translating the language of the dance floor into a music that doesn’t require drugs or strobe lights to be appreciated.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.