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October 12, 2001

++ Without Whom

++ Rob Mitchell, co-founder of Warp Records, the UK label responsible for introducing the world to electronic music luminaries like Autechre and Boards of Canada, passed away on Monday of this week. Early Tuesday morning, Warp posted this notice on their Web site: "It feels strange posting this news on our website but we want to stop any unnecessary speculation. Co-founder of Warp Records Rob Mitchell passed away on Monday morning 8th October after a hard fought battle with cancer. This is obviously a very sad time for us and all who knew Rob. Everyone here at Warp will continue to build on what Rob has given us."

I never met Rob, or at least, I don't think I did. (There was a chance encounter with someone from Warp at Sonar last summer, but for the life of me I can't remember the name. If it was Rob, I guess I'll never know.) But for someone I never knew personally, he had an immeasurably great impact on my life. Jim O'Rourke occasionally uses a phrase in his liner notes that's always struck me: "Without whom," followed by a simple list of names. Those without whom the recording would have been impossible, unthinkable, incomplete. Warp Records, in so many ways — and, by extension, Rob and his partner Steve Beckett — is my "without whom."

++ I still remember buying my first Warp album, as vividly as if it were yesterday. It was Autechre's Amber, 1994. I bought it in Providence, R.I., at Fast Forward, the record store where I bought all my emo and hardcore and indie rock. It was run by an eccentric pair: Judy was the "metal chick" there, the expert in all things hard and fast and loud; Ron was the "techno guy," a veteran of acid house and basically the only person in Providence who knew anything about experimental techno. (Of course, at the time I didn't know from experimental techno — staunch rocker that I was, I thought it was all "rave shit.") I'd gone in one day for my weekly stock-up — doubtless to buy the new release on Gravity, or the new Man Is The Bastard, or something similar. On any normal week, I'd file through the new releases, listen to a few selections on the turntable, then sprawl out on one of the torn couches in the corner to stain my fingers on back issues of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. That day, though, something interrupted my routine: staring up at me from the racks was an LP emblazoned with a photograph of camel-colored hills thrown against a vivid blue sky, a bushy splash of green at their base. It stopped me in my tracks. I knew this landscape: it was Cappadoccia in Turkey, a dreamlike valley carved into bizarre, sandy formations. In Biblical times, early Christians had sheltered in caves here; now, people lived in carved-out dwellings inside these tufa domes. I knew this because I'd just returned from Turkey — I'd hiked in Cappadoccia only a month before. Jesus, I might have stood on the very hill I was looking at now. I squinted at the text, a silvery sans-serif font. "Autechre. Amber." It meant nothing to me, but I decided to take the risk. I brought it home, put it on, and quickly had my mind rearranged.

That was my first "electronic music." It wasn't an overnight conversion, of course — I still hoarded my hardcore 7-inches, unwound to my Unwound. But something had opened up. Somewhere between the lush landscape of the record cover (courtesy The Designers Republic, an outfit whose impact on design was similar to Warp's on music) and the crystalline tones of Autechre's music, I glimpsed a new formulation about nature, beauty and art that had nothing to do with "that rave shit." (Of course, years later I can see where I was mistaken in my critique of dance music; but for a white suburbanite of my generation, raised in the "disco sucks" mentality of the '80s, a catalyst was needed.) Autechre led to Aphex Twin's Selected Analog Works Vol. 2 — another Warp record. And then to Seefeel, and Speedy J, and Black Dog... a lengthy genealogy that would be tedious to recount, but as crucial to my understanding of music as my upbringing is to my understanding of the world.

++ In the same way, I can say without any exaggeration that the label has had just as profound an impact on the world of electronic music. A quick look at their roster offers immediate proof: early signings like Autechre, the Black Dog, B12 and Speedy J were integral to the development of the style that became known as IDM, or "Intelligent Dance Music." (The term itself, for better or for worse, was derived from Warp's groundbreaking Artificial Intelligence compilations.) Aphex Twin's SAW II became the contemporary template for ambient music, and his successive records like I Care Because You Do and The Richard D. James Album, as idiosyncratic as they were, advanced a model for electronic music that transcended genre, playing with formlessness and spontaneity instead. With artists like Broadcast, Warp made early forays into the merger of electronic music and pop — a merger that continues to flourish, from the indie scene to mainstream radio.

Not many fans know that Warp's roots were in dance music — rave and pirate radio, and the style pioneered by LFO and Nightmares On Wax called bleep. But this week, as IDM list-members recalled their first purchases from the label, many fans across the Atlantic remembered their first experience of the label as an aftershock of acid house, in contrast to many Americans' introduction via Autechre or Aphex. "The first one I bought was Tricky Disco's 'Housefly' quickly followed by Tuff Little Unit... back in my raving days, mostly after hearing them on pirate radio in Dublin," wrote an Irish list-member. An English fan chimed in: "First heard Sweet Exorcist's 'Testone' on a pirate radio station in the West Midlands area of the UK. Then LFO's 'LFO' hit the top forty charts in the UK and all the commercial stations were playing it. Quite funny to think that Warp's first few releases actually managed to get into the charts."

Through a combination of inspired A&R and brilliant design, Warp built one of the strongest identities in electronic music. People might talk about the "Warp sound," but it goes beyond that — Warp is an ideology: independent, irreverent, unpredictable, and almost always very, very good. (I also don't think it's a coincidence that Warp was born in Sheffield — not London — thus inserting a significant "outsider" perspective into the equation.) But the label's most important accomplishment was to move electronic music away from the dance floor and into homes and headphones, a move that would define much of the shape of today's electronic music market. Not that techno needed "liberating" from the sweaty, libidinal confines of the club — Simon Reynolds' Generation Ecstasy offers a compelling critique of the spurious opposition between dance music's physical nature and IDM's "cerebral" pose — but Warp managed to simultaneously expand the possibilities of the form and convert droves of new listeners. Many of them (especially in America) would eventually graduate from the home listening of Aphex Twin to the libidinal funk of house, techno, jungle and the like. In the same way, Warp played an enormous role in breaking electronic music for North American audiences — first through licensing deals with TVT, turning Skinny Puppy fans on to Autechre's metallic syncopations, and later licensing Boards of Canada's debut album to Matador, giving a generation of indie kids their first exposure to electronic music.

++ The label has expanded into distribution in the past year, bringing American hip-hop to the UK and vice versa; it's vaulted over even its own tenuous boundaries, signing oddballs like Vincent Gallo and Chris Morris. So what now? Label reps say they'll continue to build on the foundation that Rob helped to lay, and that's reassuring news. The label, doubtless, will move forward as boldly as it always has.

But at times like this, a little reflection is called for. I put on Amber last night for the first time in years. It hadn't aged at all. It brought back everything from its first listens, and in the meantime it had built up layer upon layer of further meaning and nuance, not unlike the hills pictured on the cover, sedimented over thousands of years (and, sometimes, sheared away in a single rainstorm). But I also heard something else this time, a dark new shape outlined in the shifting mass. Amber's always been one of Warp's saddest records; it's impossible this week to listen to a track like "Teartear" — one of the most literal track titles in all Autechre's catalog — and not think of Rob Mitchell, without whom the record, and so much else, certainly never would have been the same.


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