Twenty years ago, Warp Records cagily emerged in Sheffield, funded by a British government enterprise grant and with a distribution network that essentially sold music from the back of a rental car. The founders, Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell, could not possibly have known they were beginning one of the most famous and cutting-edge independent record labels in the world. The iconic dance music label has moved from the back of a record shop in 1989 to an international influence in 2009, as illustrated by the series of 20th anniversary parties that have taken place across the globe, from Paris to New York, and Sheffield to Toyko. Parties in Berlin and London are still to come.
Warp has never stood still - and that's why it is still relevant. It became known for pushing the boundaries of electronic music, most famously signing the wilfully challenging Aphex Twin (whose tracks ended up on video games and MTV). There was chillout from Boards of Canada and "intelligent dance music" from Squarepusher. But Warp is also the label of the indie rock darlings Grizzly Bear and Maximo Park. An offshoot, Warp Films, has produced shorts from Chris Morris and feature films including Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes and the Bafta-winning This Is England. This week, The Mighty Boosh director Paul King releases his debut film, Bunny and the Bull, through Warp Films.
So the concept may have changed from inciting people to dance in the early days to developing the careers of authentic, innovative musicians and filmmakers. But George Evelyn, who records as Nightmares on Wax for Warp, also thinks there is a constant thread running through the label's 20 years. "It's soul," he says. "Everything that has been on Warp - and probably will be on Warp in the future - has soul to it."
He should know. In 1989, his song Dextrous was Warp's second-ever release, and he's still releasing records on the imprint to this day. "What has really stood the test of time is this sense that they trust their artists," Evelyn says. "Most labels have a habit of spotting talent, signing it and then telling it exactly how to be. That's exactly what Warp don't do. They nurture artists, which is key to their success, really. It's what they're doing with Warp Films now: if you're talented, you don't need hundreds of runners and cameras. You can show Warp what you've got with the creativity you have, and they'll put it out there."
Nevertheless, the label today is different from its humble beginnings. Evelyn first encountered Warp in its record shop in Sheffield, where he and a few clubbing pals asked if Beckett would be interested in selling a couple of their white labels. One listen later, Beckett didn't just want to flog them on, he wanted Evelyn to re-record Dextrous for Warp. "Our sole measure of success wasn't to get our records sold," Evelyn says. "It was to get them played in a club we might go to, and Warp made that happen. It's funny now when people complain that Warp has started releasing records by indie bands rather than dance music acts. We weren't a bleepy techno act either. We were DJs with a hip-hop background, into electro and graffiti. Our influences were soul, funk, reggae and dub."
Twenty years and six Nightmares on Wax albums later, it's been a fruitful partnership. In the meantime, Warp has sold millions of albums with Maximo Park, beaten Whitney Houston in the charts with a thumpingly uncommercial acid house track (LFO's LFO sold an incredible 130,000 copies in 1990) and cracked the US Billboard top 10 with Grizzly Bear. Its other success isn't quantifiable in terms of sales, but rather in terms of what pop music sounds like in 2009.
"What Aphex Twin was doing 15 years ago, that glitchy, electronic sound, is coming through in a lot of pop music now," says Evelyn, citing tracks by the likes of Little Boots, Girls Aloud and Roisin Murphy. Radiohead and Hot Chip have taken Aphex Twin's experimental sounds and recast them for a more mainstream audience as well. That's a good thing, because some of it was frankly unlistenable. "But a song such as Aphex Twin's Windowlicker is seminal anyway," Evelyn says. "It's up there with Track With No Name (Warp's first release) and LFO in my favourite-ever Warp songs. And the reason I like them, beyond what they sound like, is that none of them make me think they were inspired by anyone else apart from themselves. When they were released, they encapsulated what was happening in music at that time.
"And that's a more difficult thing for a label to get right than you might think." Warp, however, gets it right time after time.