Bleep Records: A Surprisingly Influential Part of Dance Music History
The simplest electronic sound there is. A pure tone: the opposite of the tonal richness that we associate with traditional musicality.
It’s the sound of digital watches, of the most primitive video games, and also of a set of dance records that genuinely changed the world.
“Bleep techno” or “bleep and bass” was a distinctly British sound, which spread out from Yorkshire in the North of England for a brief few years from 1988 to 1991, then was gone as fast as it had appeared.
A new compilation album from the Swiss Mental Groove/Musique Pour La Danse label collects some of the best of the sound of this period.
And Matt Anniss’s self-explanatory history book, Join The Future: Bleep Techno And The Birth Of British Bass Music has just been released in its expanded second edition.
This book in turn spawned its own compilation – which is just as fabulous.
Also just out is the debut album from renowned UK DJ Jerome Hill. It’s quite remarkable that it is his debut as he first started DJing in the original wave of rave, bleep and bass, and has been releasing singles for 20 plus years.
But here it is, and it is deeply rooted in that unique and pivotal UK era of 1988 to 1991.
The thing is, this music still has currency. And the reason for that is a combination of its potent simplicity and its rootedness in deeper subcultural history.
The reason for the simplicity of these tracks is… well… simple.
When American house and techno arrived on British shores, the people hearing them wanted to make their own tracks, but the tools available were minimalist to say the least.
The original bleep and bass tracks were made on incredibly basic equipment, often begged, borrowed or blagged, and they did the most they could within those constrictions.
That led to creative solutions and a rawness of approach that sound even more radical now in the age of readily available music production software – where even a beginner can sound super slick at the press of a button.
The cultural roots, meanwhile, are what gives that music its fascinating sophistication beneath the initially naive-sounding exterior.
The cities of Sheffield, Bradford and Leeds in Yorkshire had large Caribbean populations, and people were used to massive basslines thanks to reggae and dancehall soundsystem parties.
This not only lent the early bleep tracks a huge bass sound, but an appreciation of how to use simple drum machines and keyboards from digital dub and dancehall.
Electro and hip-hop were also vital in these cities.
It’s no coincidence that the bleep pioneers Nightmares On Wax and Unique 3 were effectively hip-hop/breakdance crews adapting to the new dance music: there’s a groove and danceability that came from their experience in hip-hop’s dance battles.
Last of all, there’s a post-punk experimental attitude and darkness that adds its own heft to the music.
Much of the early bleep music was made or mastered in FON studios, Sheffield – founded by the postpunk/funk band Chakk. Their contemporaries from Manchester A Certain Ration (ACR) got in on the act too, as did Richard H Kirk of the hugely influential Cabaret Voltaire.
This melting pot of Caribbean, American and very British electronic influence explains why the music had such impact at the time, and also why it echoes through the decades.
As Matt Anniss explains in “Join The Future”, the bleep and bass sound might have been short lived, but it provided the low-frequency fusion of techno, reggae and electro that would birth jungle, UK garage, dubstep, grime and all the other fusions that have followed.
So, if you want to understand how electronic music has evolved over the decades, these compilations – and Jerome Hill’s album which demonstrates how enduring their basic principles are – are absolutely essential listening.
They’re a lesson in how the most minimal of tools can produce effects that are not only instantly impactful, but sophisticated and emotionally powerful too.
You’ll be surprised how much can come from a simple “bleep”.
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
All Images: Trevor Jackson/Musique Pour La Danse, cover edit by Julian Skot Ritom/Sound of Life
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.