Bleep lives right at the heartcore of Energy Flash, my history of rave culture.
It was the first uniquely British twist on house and techno. Rave had started out as that strange thing, a subculture based almost entirely around import records. In 1988-89, DJs had several years backlog of house classics to spin, plus fresh imports from Chicago, Detroit and New York each week; the homegrown tracks, mostly inferior imitations, just couldn’t compete. But in 1989, a track called “The Theme”, produced by Unique 3–a Bradford-based crew of B-boys turned ravers–announced the arrival of a fresh UK sound merging Chicago acid with elements from hip hop and reggae. In a paradox that would endure and intensify throughout the subsequent evolution of rave, what made it “British” was its incorporation of ideas and “vibe” from Jamaica and Black America. From bleep to 2step, jungle to grime, this country would host mutations that for various reasons were unable to hatch in the more purist and protectionist U.S. house scene.
“Bleep ‘n ‘bass” was an alternative name for the wave of North of England techno that followed Unique 3. “Bleep” referred to the electro-style pocket-calculator synth-motifs; “bass” nodded to the floor-quaking sub-low frequencies. Initially inspired by “The Theme” (which they tried unsuccessfully to license), Sheffield-based Warp quickly became the crucial label. Paralleling moves being made in London by ex-B-boy outfits like Shut Up and Dance but avoiding the use of looped breakbeats, the Warp outfits–Sweet Exorcist, Forgemasters, LFO, Nightmares on Wax–retained acid’s tripnotic compulsion but programmed a skippy syncopation into their drum machine beats that looked ahead to jungle rather than backwards to house.
What’s striking about bleep listening to it today is how well-produced these tracks sound. There’s none of the low-resolution cruddiness of sample-and-breakbeat based hardcore, but a glistening thickness of texture and beat that comes from using analog synths and drum machines, and, in some cases, from making the tracks in professional studios rather than using home studio set-ups. Yet despite its time-defying excellence, bleep is poorly served in terms of compilations: basically, there’s Warp’s Classics double-CD, plus out-of-print comps from the original era. But the good news is that the original vinyl is easy to find. Because bleep dominated the British rave scene between late 1989 and early 1991, the classic tunes were pressed in large numbers, so there’s lots of copies still floating around at reasonable prices.
Bleep’s legacy? You can hear the era honored in the output of maverick producers like Rustie and Neil Landstrumm (whose overt homages include “Big in Chapeltown”, “Bleep Biopsy” and ” Yorkshire Steel Cybernetics”). But bleep’s reverberations resound most potently in UK garage’s offshoot genres, from dubstep’s cold cavernous production and fetish for “bass weight” to the sweet ‘n’ sour synth-tones and deliriously inventive bass science of bassline house. The latter’s homebase cities–Sheffield, Leeds, Leicester, Birmingham–are the exact same industrial swathe from South Yorks to West Midlands that spawned bleep. This is no history lesson, then, but a living thing.
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