To celebrate the fact that our first book Join The Future: Bleep Techno & the Birth of British Bass Music is out now in all good book and record shops we have an exclusive excerpt from the title.
Introduction: Weight From The Bass
‘There are many imitators, but we are the true creators’ LFO - We Are Back, 1991
It is a bitterly cold Sunday night in February 2018, and just over 600 people have squeezed into a former industrial unit in Attercliffe, once the beating heart of Sheffield’s steel industry. This is the Southbank Warehouse, one of the city’s newest club spaces, and the excitable throng has gathered for that most modern of phenomena: a party and live internet broadcast by online dance music channel Boiler Room.
In keeping with tonight’s self-consciously retro-futurist theme, the post-industrial space – an unashamed throwback to the formative years of British dance music culture in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, when attending legally dubious parties in abandoned factories and warehouses was a rite of passage – is lit only by a handful of blue and red lights. Occasionally, projections light up a makeshift screen on one wall, while piercing green lasers fizz into life at crucial moments.
In the centre of this stripped-back pleasure palace of corrugated iron, steel and concrete is a hastily erected DJ booth. Stood over the turntables is Winston Hazel, a smiling 50-something who has been making Sheffielders dance since the dawn of the 1980s. Tonight, he’s not the headline attraction – that honour goes to his sometime Leeds breakdancing rival, George ‘E.A.S.E’ Evelyn of Nightmares On Wax fame – but he’s clearly the person the hometown crowd is most eager to hear.
As Boiler Room’s MC introduces Hazel in the manner of a ringside announcer hyping the imminent arrival of a prizefighter, the assembled partygoers let out a wholehearted roar befitting a local legend. Hazel smiles, then presses play on the turntable to his left. Out of the venue’s sizeable sound system comes the distinctive futurist shimmer of Ability II’s celebrated early UK Techno anthem, “Pressure”. As the spacey intro bubbles away and the drum hits get louder, the eager punters closely clustered around the decks shuffle forwards in anticipation. At the back of the room, propped up against a stack of industrial-strength speakers, I await the inevitable bass drop.
When it comes, the pulsating, bone-rattling assault of subsonic vibrations almost knocks me off my feet. The crowd surges forward virtually in unison, a messy throng of flailing limbs, spontaneous cheers and serotonin-fuelled momentary bliss. Were it not for the flashing smartphone cameras and live Internet stream, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d travelled back to the summer of 1990, when clubs, warehouses, fields, factories and forests reverberated to the sounds of Britain’s first authentically homegrown dance music movement: Bleep & Bass.
Hazel is here primarily to celebrate the enduring legacy of that sometimes overlooked sound, a heavyweight style first forged in the bedroom studios, illicit after-hours ‘Blues’ clubs and sneaky raves of Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield. By any stretch of the imagination, this was an unlikely musical revolution spearheaded by young men who had grown up in some of Yorkshire’s most notorious, poverty-ridden inner city suburbs.
Away from the media spotlight – to begin with, at least – these unassuming heroes crafted a futuristic style of dance music every bit as forward-thinking as the revolutionary sounds that had emerged from Chicago and Detroit earlier in the decade. Like their celebrated contemporaries across the Atlantic, Bleep’s early pioneers created music that transcended cultures while instinctively reflecting the suburbs and cities they grew up in.
Back in the present, Winston Hazel is in his element. He’s surrounded by a mixture of misty-eyed Sheffield scene veterans revelling in a rare chance to revisit their youth and eager young ravers who have discovered the genre’s key records through more recent productions made in tribute. Fittingly, it’s not long before Hazel unleashes the record that first drew up the Bleep blueprint, Unique 3’s “The Theme”. Raw, minimal and blessed with unspeakably weighty sub-bass, it remains a landmark record: a track equal in significance to A Guy Called Gerald’s near peerless “Voodoo Ray”, which had been released six months before it in June 1988. These two records, more than any other, proved that British dance music was finding its voice.
As his set progresses, Hazel unleashes a swathe of similarly important records that “Shaped the Future”, as tonight’s event is themed. There’s Forgemasters’ ghostly and intoxicating “Track With No Name”, a record Hazel wrote and produced with his friends Robert Gordon and Sean Maher in early 1989, Nightmares On Wax’s “I’m For Real” and “Aftermath”, and the commercial and critical high point of Bleep, LFO’s sublime “LFO”. Naturally, each is greeted with a rapturous response.
Now peering down on the action from a mezzanine high above the dancefloor at one end of the warehouse, I’m struck not only by the timeless quality of these 30-year-old records but how powerful and intoxicating they still sound all these years on. And, boy, is the sub-bass heavy.
This, of course, was the key part of Bleep’s revolutionary appeal. Before the style’s inception, such obsession with low-end frequencies was a niche pursuit for Reggae soundsystem enthusiasts and, to a lesser extent, those raised on beatbox Electro. Since then, this obsession with heavy bass vibrations has become the defining characteristic of almost all new styles of electronic music birthed in the United Kingdom.
Behind the DJ booth positioned slap bang in the centre of Southbank Warehouse’s now writhing dancefloor, Winston Hazel is doing his best to prove this point. Amongst a fine selection of mind-altering Bleep classics, the veteran DJ drops percussive, bouncy UK Funky records from the late 2000s, weighty ‘90s Dub-House, breakbeat-driven sub-bass wobblers and, as you’d expect, a string of recent records from Yorkshire bestowed with the same immense low-end pressure and futuristic outlook as those crafted at the height of the Bleep movement. Had he been able to find space for some early Jungle, ‘90s Drum & Bass, hazy east Midlands Deep House, a spot of Dubstep and a dose of UK Garage, none of it would sound out of place.
These British-developed styles have traversed borders, inspired countless producers in far-flung corners of the globe and, 30 years after the first Bleep & Bass white labels began appearing on the shelves of independent record stores in the north of England, become part of the densely woven fabric of worldwide dance music culture.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing the part Bleep & Bass played in the development of homegrown British dance music, or its role in what author and music scholar Simon Reynolds has dubbed, ‘the Hardcore Continuum.’ The written history of British dance music is a hotchpotch of facts, myths and often-repeated half-truths.
According to the now accepted narrative, British dance music first found a distinctive voice between 1991 and ‘93, when Hardcore and later Jungle marked a clear departure from the US-derived styles that had first made the UK move. To make matters worse, most people believe that it was in London where House and Techno first took root in the UK, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It’s true that Bleep & Bass did not develop in isolation, and that the influence from soundsystem culture was being expressed in different ways around the UK (think Street Soul and ‘the Bristol Sound’, to cite just two contemporaneous examples). It is also true that Reggae and soundsystem culture had previously inspired plenty of British musicians in the Punk and Post-Punk eras, particularly those who grew up in cities with sizeable Afro-Caribbean communities.
Even so, Bleep & Bass still provided a spark for all that followed, in the process lighting the blue touch paper on a revolution that shaped British dance music for decades to come. At a time when the nascent ecstasy culture was hitting its peak and electronic music production was suddenly within reach of even those on modest incomes, Bleep offered the inspiration for countless imitations and better-known musical mutations.
For three years, the sound travelled far beyond its humble Yorkshire roots, first spreading through the Midlands, South East and London, before taking on the world. By the tail end of 1990, successful Bleep records were being made as far afield as New York, Rome and, somewhat surprisingly, the birthplace of Techno, Detroit. Each time, local producers put their own spin on it, retaining core elements while moving the sound in new directions.
Along the way, there were top 20 chart hits, in-depth features in legendary British magazines, an NME front cover for the scene’s best-known act, Leeds outfit LFO, and the elevation of Warp Records to internationally renowned dance label; Sheffield’s answer to Nu Groove, Trax or Transmat. There were sound-alike and copycat records from future British dance music legends, national package tours featuring PAs from well-known Bleep acts, and a wealth of music that inspired mutations that are still being name-checked to this day. Amazingly, all of this can be traced back to three young men with some rudimentary electronic instruments, whiling away an afternoon in the spare bedroom of a terraced house in Bradford.
Less than four months after witnessing Winston Hazel’s whistle-stop musical history lesson, I’m sat on stage at the Wardrobe Theatre in Leeds, blinking into the spotlights and trying my hardest to assess the size and make-up of the gathered audience. We’re midway through the inaugural edition of the Inner City Electronic festival, and I’m hosting Dub Roots, a panel discussion focused on the impact made by soundsystem culture on the development of electronic music in the UK.
Seated to my left are two men who contributed much to the development of West Yorkshire’s particularly weighty and potent take on Bleep: Iration Steppas main man Mark Millington and former LFO founder member Martin Williams. They’re joined on the panel by Brighton-based dub maestro Prince Fatty.
So far, we’ve discussed how these three men first fell in love with Dub soundsystem culture and the positive impact on British music made by the ‘Windrush Generation’ of Caribbean immigrants and their descendants. There’s been some discussion, too, of the nature of the scenes in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the UK in the period leading up to the emergence of Bleep between 1988 and ’90.
Millington, a man who appears to have been born to hold a crowd with hilarious anecdotes, is naturally dominating the conversation. He makes a series of pertinent points about the influence of the Soul all-dayer scene, the role of dedicated Jazz-Funk and Electro dancers, and the way the ‘Blues’ – Jamaican after-hours speakeasies that were once a common feature of inner-city Caribbean communities – helped to shape the sound of Bleep & Bass.
I spot my moment. Turning to the crowd, microphone raised, I say that I have a statement I’d like to the panel to discuss. Looking up from my notes, I say: ‘The roots of all contemporary British bass music can be traced back to Yorkshire in the late 1980s.’
Given that the audience is mostly made up of locals, some of whom have been drinking for the best part of six hours, I’m expecting a boisterous response. Instead, this statement is greeted with a mixture of gasps, laughter, groans and the occasional cheer. I mumble something about explaining this theory in greater detail in a forthcoming book called Join The Future, then turn to Millington. ‘Mark, what would you say to that statement? Can the roots of all modern British bass music be traced back to Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield in the late 1980s?’
As he turns to face the crowd, his eyes widen and his face lights up. ‘In a word, yes.’