When founders Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell, and Robert Gordon came together to form Warp Records in 1989, they likely didn’t realize they were about to form a record label with one of the most cohesive sounds and artist rosters today. The time and place of Warp Records’ origins undoubtedly influenced their aim for its future musical sound. The three came together in Sheffield, UK in 1989. Beckett and Mitchell were record store workers (Gordon, a producer) who aimed to replicate the atmospheric techno sound that was starting to boom in Sheffield at the time. Warp quickly began to gain traction not only in Sheffield but in the United States as well as they began getting music from similarly industrial areas in the U.S. such as Chicago and Detroit.
Then, in the summer of 1990, Tricky Disco’s self–titled single “Tricky Disco” unexpectedly found success in the music market. And although Warp’s popularity was beginning to emerge, it was not without difficulties—Robert Gordon left Warp after a hostile encounter, splitting up the relationship of the three founders and leaving Beckett and Mitchell as the two in charge. But by then, Warp had come to represent everything about Northern England's independent music at the time. Despite the record label eventually moving south to London, its roots remained in the gritty, deviant, and chaotic sounds of UK electronica in the late 80s/early 90s. Many of its current artists, while not British, exemplify the same kind of dark, mischievous, and eccentric music upon which Warp Records was founded.
One of the most popular artists signed to Warp Records today is Flying Lotus. If there's a single electronic artist on this label that currently acts as both a mainstream and an individualistic figure, it’s Steven Ellison, otherwise known as Flying Lotus (or Captain Murphy, if you prefer his rap alter ego). Flying Lotus has become renowned for his dark, dazzling, and hauntingly beautiful electronic beats. His latest album, You’re Dead!, is an incredible exploration of the themes of life, death, sorrow, and mourning. And to say the man just makes electronic music is an understatement—he has forayed into hip–hop, jazz, and other genres as well. His signature sound is that of heavy–hitting drums, elements of jazz, and mournful vocals combined into either a hectic, constantly changing pace or a slow, ethereal background. Two of his most popular songs, “MmmHmm” (fiery and constantly changing) and “Coronus, the Terminator” (slow and ethereal) exemplify his opposing sounds well.
Flying Lotus clearly has the musical essence of what Warp Records was hoping for when signing him to their label. Much of his music is all over the place, leaving the listener to enjoy the nonstop switches and feverish pace of his tracks. Whatever Warp Records was aiming for when they signed Lotus, You’re Dead! must have undoubtedly exceeded their expectations, especially considering his music’s connection sonically to the chaotic–sounding electronic music from artists previously signed by Warp Records.
Flying Lotus is certainly not the first well–known and frenetic–sounding electronic artist to come out of Warp Records, as that title belongs to Aphex Twin. One of the hallmark electronic musicians of the early 90s through now, Aphex Twin’s music is confusing, challenging, and undoubtedly British techno. Born Richard David James in Ireland in 1971, Aphex Twin had little trouble rising to fame in the electronic community once his music reached enough ears.
From his brilliant ambient albums such as Selected Ambient Works 85–92, Aphex Twin soon after released Richard David James in 1995, which is largely regarded as one of the most impressive UK electronic albums of the decade. Pitchfork named it on the “Top 100 Albums of the 1990s,” highlighting its impressive duality between the album’s chaotic yet minimal sound. 1999’s “Windowlicker” was yet another widely–acclaimed single, garnering even more commercial and critical popularity for Aphex Twin. One of James’ most impressive elements is his ability to thrive in whichever genre he chooses to pursue–ambient, electronic, house, or British techno. The label unequivocally hit a home run with signing Aphex Twin, as he is still Warp Records’ standard to this day for his diversity of sounds and musical talent.
As previously mentioned, one of the first U.S. cities to embrace Warp Records was Detroit, and perhaps no single artist embodies Detroit’s burgeoning hip–hop/techno scene than Danny Brown—another Warp Records signee. Danny Brown is talented yet bizarre, lighthearted yet pained. His albums are unconventional to say the least, especially his latest album Atrocity Exhibition, oftentimes on which his songs are glimpses into the life of a drug–addled recluse.
The opening track of Atrocity Exhibition—released on Warp Records—is titled “Downward Spiral,” where Brown raps, “Been high this whole time, don’t realize what I done/Cause when I’m all alone, feel like no one care/Isolate myself and don’t go nowhere/Smoking blunt after blunt, 'til my eyes start burning/Hennessy straight got my chest like a furnace/Drowning frustrations in a ocean of sin/Thinking irrational, I have no emotions.” Saying drug abuse is a common theme in Danny Brown’s music is an understatement. At the same time, the paranoid, aberrant sound of Brown’s music pieces together flawlessly with Atrocity Exhibition’s themes of loneliness, depression, drug use, and general absurdism.
In this way, Brown’s signing to Warp Records is another precisely–executed bout of incorporating bizarre standouts into their musical roster. While at times Brown’s lyrics reflect harsh awareness and tones of self–loathing, his goofy, oddball nature is not to be overlooked. For instance, his feature on The Avalanches’ song “Frankie Sinatra” is peak Danny Brown. Over a cartoonish beat, Brown raps, “So fuck what you say, do this shit my way/Like Frank Sinatra, bitch, do this shit my way," juxtaposing his sad isolation with brash aggressiveness and outlandishness. Brown is the poster boy for Detroit rappers influenced by the hard–hitting techno coming out of the city. “Science Fiction” by Carl Craig, “Phantom Lurks” by Derrick May, and “Track” by Kenny Larkin are all Detroit–produced techno tracks that would sound equally at home sampled in a Danny Brown song as in an Aphex Twin song. And because of that, it is clear that Warp Records has managed to weave their sound from the middle of England to Detroit without missing a beat.
Warp’s range of artists does not end with Lotus, Aphex Twin, and Brown. Boards of Canada, another Warp Records signee, has had an extremely successful career, with notable albums such as Tomorrow’s Harvest maintaining a dark and atmospheric sound. Hudson Mohawke, an extremely talented rising producer, has already worked with Kanye West and notched several hits himself, including “Chimes,” “Higher Ground,” and “Goooo” under his TNGHT alias with Hudson Mohawke (also signed to Warp Records). Mohawke has crafted dark, heavy–hitting beats for Kanye West’s Yeezus standouts “Blood on the Leaves” and “I Am a God.” If there is an overarching theme behind Warp Records’ artists’ music, it is prevalent and well–executed: stimulating, often dark and moody, atmospheric, and unconventional. There will never be a Chainsmokers–eqsue artist on Warp Records, and that’s for a reason. The label has a cohesive sound to its artists, and both those artists and fans wouldn’t have it any other way.