In 1989, nearing the height of the UK’s acid house movement, a few record store clerks in Sheffield borrowed a car to distribute a single called “Track With No Name.” They sold 500 copies of that release, and by the time of their second release, Nightmare on Wax’s “Dextrous,” they sold 30,000 copies and Warp Records was off and running. For the past 30 years, Warp has been an underground force whose tremors can often be felt in the mainstream. Whether your favorite paradigm shifter is Björk, Thom Yorke, or Kanye West, each artist has taken courage and inspiration from Warp’s unslottable and uncompromising releases.
Synonymous with such descriptors as “Bleep” and “Intelligent Dance Music,” Warp has regardless defied easy characterization. Taking cues from the visionary music emanating from Detroit and Chicago at that time (which they paid tribute to on the 1999 collection Warp 10+1), they found artists that could make their machines resonate, from Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada to Broadcast and Autechre. Thom Yorke told one interviewer about such artists around the time Radiohead released Kid A: “The music was all structures and had no human voices in it, but I felt just as emotional about it as I'd ever felt about guitar music."
Warp became iconic thanks to their electronic releases, but 30 years on the label has also forged ahead into hip-hop, future R&B, modern composition, and even guitar music. Without much in the way of a chart-topping hit, Warp has not only survived 30 years as an independent label but also grown into a worldwide force, as this year’s celebratory and hefty Wxaxrxp Sessions 10xLP box set makes evident. Rare Peel Sessions with Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada are the obvious draw for the lavish box, but the set also shows the label’s astonishing range by including unreleased radio performances from Flying Lotus, Oneohtrix Point Never, and composer Kelly Moran.
To properly convey the gravity of the label and its lasting influence, we asked a new generation of artists and producers from around the world (from Egyptian producer ZULI to Italian trance master Lorenzo Senni to Portugal’s DJ Marfox), as well as some Warp stalwarts, to talk about what their favorite Warp release is.
!!!'s Nic Offer
Tricky Disco - “Tricky Disco“ (1990)
This just sounded nuts to me. If Kraftwerk was the sound of the man becoming the machine, this sounded like the lights went off and someone recorded the sound of the machines left to their own devices. I can see it in my head like an old psychedelic Looney Tunes cartoon. And what a bounce to that track! At one point, we actually tried to cover Nightmares on Wax’s “A Case of Funk” but gave up 'cause we just couldn't match it. We feel especially connected to that era of Warp as it was the stuff meant for dancing and we're glad to be part of that lineage.
The Other People Place - Lifestyles Of The Laptop Cafe (2001)
The album opens with a drum machine groove, filtered chords, and distant lead line and steadily takes off from there. Icy cold and understated, it sounds like it’s from somewhere with different laws of physics. That said, there’s a recognisably organic way in which the tracks grow throughout. The record travels at 100mph but in such a way that it feels like a cruise. An electro classic that reaches far.
Coco Steel and Lovebomb - "Feel It" (1992)
I first heard “Feel It” played by DJ Harvey at his Output residency in 2015. It sent everyone I was with scrambling around to figure it out. It took a while but a friend of a friend finally tracked it down for us all, and it was a massive moment when we all finally heard it again in full. I think Mark Leckey said something along the lines of being "haunted by nostalgia" when he made "Fiorucci," and every time I play this song, I think I feel what he's saying more and more. It samples a top line from a Paradise Garage classic called "Life Is Something Special" by the Peech Boys, and sticks it front and center around a bunch of early-90's UK acid house and rave elements to massive effect (and drum samples from Koro Koro's "No Smoke" is in there somewhere as well).
Coco, Steel, and Lovebomb were DJ's at the Zap Club in Brighton, UK, where Harvey and the Tonka Crew would DJ from time to time — and what's so special about this song, is that for that group of ravers, this song had elements of a bygone era from NYC wrapped up in the center, brought forward to another, totally different scene across the Atlantic, and the message remains the same despite the differences in the generations of people listening to it. So it's even cooler, I think, when you consider this is a song Harvey probably heard when he was around my age in 1991, and there he was 26 years or so later, sharing it with a whole new generation of dancers and it still sounded contemporary as can be.
Yves Tumor - Safe in the Hands of Love (2018)
On Safe in the Hands of Love, Yves Tumor flirts between vulnerability and violence — one song will make you feel utterly terrified (like on the brutal, intense “Hope is Suffering”), and then minutes later you’ll be wiping tears from your eyes coiled in the fetal position during the gorgeous and floaty ballad “Recognizing the Enemy.” This kind of emotional whiplash only enhances the powerful effect of the music as it shows what kind of incredible range Sean has as a songwriter and producer. The timing and pacing of the record is also perfect as Sean knows exactly when to break your heart and when to cradle you in his embrace to put it back together. One song will make you feel hopeless about the state of the world, and the next song will restore your faith in humanity by surrounding you with unyielding beauty.
Without exaggeration, I’ve never been so hypnotized by a performer in my life as I have been by the handful of times I’ve seen Yves Tumor perform. Whether it’s a festival or a club, they command the entire room and draw the whole audience into their set in a way few artists can. When I was watching them this summer, I felt like I was watching Bowie or Prince — that level of presence and charisma is so incredibly special that you feel a sense of deep gratitude seeing them perform because in that moment you know you are in the presence of a star.
Polygon Window - Surfing on Sine Waves (1993)
I bought this upon release on the strength of the Aphex Twin releases Digeridoo and Quoth EP, the latter of which was taken from this album. The release coincidentally synchronized with a holiday I took in Cornwall, where the front cover was shot and where Aphex was residing around that period. This album will forever be tied to Cornwall for me, a place I had holidays as as a kid with my mom and step dad; a magical area of the UK and one of my favorites. Somehow this record captures that magic and is a pioneering electronic music album: sinister, brooding, and banging, but also full of dark British humour. From here on in Warp was a go-to label for me, capturing the essence of the then new UK electronic “dance” music scene in all its non-specific / non-aligned glory.
Boards Of Canada - Geogaddi (2001)
We've had free dial-up internet nationwide since 1998 here in Egypt. I had a computer, so I would use the internet. That is how I know everything I know about music. I must have been 19 or so when I first came across this record. Only listening back now do I realize how many of the tracks I unconsciously tried to emulate over the years. Those bendy leads playing dark and uncomfortable melodies over simple yet clever drums were a perfect gateway drug into electronica for someone like myself coming from a guitar music background. It’s definitely a major influence on what I make today.
Squarepusher - Go Plastic (2001)
In sophomore year of high school I lent my friend Matt Project Pat’s Mista Don't Play Everythangs Workin. I met him in the parking lot of school the next morning and he had put the CD in his pocket with no case and it broke into a few different pieces. To make up for it, he gave me what was playing in his car at the time, Go Plastic by Squarepusher. Later that night, I put the CD on and was taken aback. Kicking off with “My Red Hot Car,” wow, I must have listened to that song a million times. That and “The Exploding Psychology.” Sick album. Thank you, Matt!
DiY - Strictly 4 Groovers (1993)
Technically, I wouldn’t say that Strictly 4 Groovers is my favourite Warp record, but I keep coming back to Nail’s “Cassiopeia,” which is on it. I always felt spiritually connected with DiY, –a collective and label who were at the forefront of the free party scene in the UK– doing all night unlicensed parties in outdoor locations all throughout the Midlands. Vancouver is situated between the ocean and the mountains, so it has an abundance of nature. It also has a lack of venues, so there's a long history of renegade parties in the forest (locally known as raccoon parties). Growing up here, you are more likely to go to a party in the park or a bonfire at the beach than a house party or club. DiY collective had their fields and we had our forest.
People often only think of Mood Hut as a record label, but we are foremost a collective and for a long time we did free park parties in Vancouver's Stanley Park. The bulk of these outdoor Mood Hut shindigs were between 2011 - 2014. We would haul the sound system and equipment through the park to a point that overlooked the ocean and mountains. Those were very formative times for us and some of my favourite Mood Hut parties. I can't believe Nail was only 18 when he wrote that track and that song reminds me of that time. Not only because it got played but I remember specifically packing ‘Cassiopeia’ in my record bag after finding out it’s a constellation in the northern sky and thought it would be perfect for dancing under the stars.
Kelela - Hallucinogen (2015)
My favorite Warp album is Kelela’s Hallucinogen. The tracks on here reminded me of what’s been missing from soul music at that time and even now. Her hypnotic voice and music had my attention as soon as I heard it. And of course I fell in love with “The High” which me and fellow Teklife member Heavee remixed.
Darkstar - News From Nowhere (2013)
This album was recommended during a visit to London’s Rough Trade by a photographer artist friend of mine, Georg Gatsas, during a weird art project we were doing around the London Olympics. It involved a tea party picnic, raw steaks, tennis racquets, the disintegration of the British dream, and eating fennel salad with Mark Stewart of Pop Group. Sadly the project is yet to see the light of day. This record is soldered to the memory of this trip, sounding at once soothing yet sharp, like beetles with small mountain picks climbing the extent of your body and having your head simultaneously massaged by a friendly bear.
Autechre - Amber (1994)
The one release I go back to most and have done over the years since my teens is Amber. I think this record is a start-to-finish album and it still sounds incredible. Those very metallic hi-hats and percussive sounds echo right through the record and it’s quite a rigid feel I think for the first few listens. I remember not quite grasping it for a while, but being hooked by all the details. The pads are lovely and envelope this Amber world they’ve built and once I started listening to the movement in the synths, it becomes a very free and fluid record. It’s just juxtaposed in a way which I always think is the trickiest thing to do well when making music and there’s always elements in this record that are offset from one another but then work brilliantly in tandem.
Boards of Canada - The Campfire Headphase (2005)
Brian Eno was once quoted as saying, "Composing could consist simply of creating occasions for the act of listening." This was Campfire Headphase for me. I suppose they are the only artist on the label I purchased vinyl for and in which I have the experience of a continued listen. I was a bit late to their party, as the first time I remember hearing Boards of Canada was 2005 at a promoter’s house after a gig in Leicester. I have always wondered if they had listened to Stars of the Lid, despite the difference there is a late night melancholia kinsmanship that has always sat with me, with all of those indelibly embodied guitar bits they do. Is that why it connected with me? I have no idea. Everyone has their favorite of any artist’s oeuvre, and I suppose this one is mine.
F.U.S.E. - Dimension Intrusion (1993)
As a straight edge kid, my background in DIY hardcore bands & avant-rock scene and the university studies in Musicology with a focus on Computer Music didn't allow me to discover and explore in my teenage years certain music genres. Richie Hawtin’s Dimension Intrusion (released under his F.U.S.E. alias as part of Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series of albums) was one of the first records that introduced me to that kind of electronic music I could dance to. One of its peculiarities is that it’s a very accessible record to anyone even if they are not familiar with those specific genres.
“Nitedrive” was the first track that caught my attention and it is almost embarrassing how good this track is in its own simplicity and how perfectly it comes during the album flow. At that time I was discovering a lot of music that was an amazing balance between concept and emotionality, so I become very open to minimalistic heart-breaking pieces. Inside my copy of the album you can find a square sheet that describes in a kinda of epic sci-fi style what was going on in techno in relation to Richie’s musical output and 303 voice. I’ve been going back to this record for many years and even if there are more than a few Warp releases that I could pick up, this one is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so it’s the one I wanted to honor this time.
Plaid – “Scoobs In Colombia” / “Fly Wings” (2000)
Avant-techno dons Ed Handley & Andy Turner, more widely known for their Black Dog recordings, first released this cracking track in 1991 (it was also included on the Plaid Trainer comp). Coldcut used to play “Scoobs in Columbia” with its future Latin electro-groove at many a DJ gig - it was always a big tune for us at our Stealth Night. Plaid's AV show is also proof why they and Warp have continued to be trailblazers for UK electronic art.
Sweet Exorcist - CC EP (1991)
Back in 2011 I was hanging with a friend in Madison, Wisconsin and they dialed up "Mad Jack" from the recently released double-disc compilation "Retroactivity" of Sweet Exorcist's best material. I had always been a huge fan of Cabaret Voltaire but somehow this project of Richard Kirk and DJ Parrot had been a blind spot for me and I was completely blown away by the perfection of the sparseness, the organic quality in the clonk and bleep. I loved it all including "Testone" with the concept of building a track out of tones used to calibrate and test audio equipment, but it was the CC EP that continues to be this inspiration for me in terms of how to build a fat, organic electronic track.
Richard H. Kirk - Virtual State (1994)
A friend put me on to this Richard H. Kirk album while he was visiting the Ivory Coast last year. We were at the beach and played some of his stuff and I was flipping out. Kirk was super prolific and dipped into so many styles. I’m still discovering his music in all its diversity, and it’s dope to come across an artist who can create an imaginative storytelling effect through different genres while remaining authentic. He’s not hung up on a particular culture or style and draws from his influences without appropriating anything specific.
VA - Cargaa 3x12”s (2015)
The series Cargaa turned out to materialize in a sequence of acknowledgments from various cultural agents in the international landscape. It meant recognition and valorization. Beyond the enthusiastic appreciation for our work, I believe they wanted to explore the possibility of publishing it. Warp meant little or nothing to the artists that had tracks included on the series. That makes it extra clear to me that it is one of the most exciting labels in the contemporary panorama, because they remain loyal to their vision of embracing unconventional artistic expressions, representing this music made in the peripheries of Lisbon.