When it comes to Warp, yes, I was that dork. I was 16 years old, and falling hard for what all my mates were already calling "bleep music", when LFO came out, and it was the perfect record to cement it. I was already massively into Depeche Mode, old Eurythmics, Human League and co., I was getting to grips with reggae and dub, and thanks to John Peel and crackly recordings of Kiss FM made by mates with houses that faced London I had a tenuous grasp of what Chicago house and Detroit techno were. Then along came this signal, chirruping and booming out of speakers, that was all of those and more. It was screamingly obvious that we had something as big as punk rock had ever been a generation before – and there was no going back.
I went to Glastonbury for the first time that summer, and to my first acid house club, and the bleeps and sub-bass were inescapable at both. Being that dork, I needed to analyse what this was about home. I worked back to the start of Warp, doggedly tracking down copies of 'Dextrous' and 'The Track With no Name' (remember: there were no online stores, no Discogs, no way of knowing where you could find it beyond ringing around all the shops in a 50 mile radius, hoping they'd remembered to keep a copy for you) and played them over and over - much to my parents' and neighbours' chagrin. In that one year, they kept rolling out: 'Aftermath', 'Testone', 'Clonk', the wild breakbeats of 'Hey! Hey! Can U Relate?' - all stunning, all heavy, all able to send a shiver down my spine even now.
Warp wasn't the be-all-and-end-all - 1990 was the year of 'Energy Flash', of 'You Got the Love', of 'Radio Babylon', of 'Cubik', of 'We are IE', of 'Age of Love', of Primal Scream's 'Come Together', of Massive Attack's 'Daydreaming', of untold white labels with just a phone number in Doncaster or Stuttgart scrawled on them – but it was a label like no other. Those early bleep 'n' bass tunes were rugged grassroots hardcore rave music (without them, hardcore simply couldn't have happened in the way it did), yet also cool and clever records, acting as gateways into Detroit techno and the long, deep history of Sheffield's experimental scene. Warp's development perfectly mirrored mine and my friends as we grew up, moved around the country, broadened in our tastes and started to understand the deeper, longer history of electronic music beyond the rave.
Those perfect, purple-sleeved 12"s formed pillars of my collection. They made the idea of a section linked by look, sound and attitude essential and, as my tastes diversified, so did the label; rapidly growing up and out into albums and album series. In 1991, LFO and Nightmares On Wax's debut albums blew the idea that rave had to be a 12" single genre way out of the water. By 1992, I was a student in Brighton, doing all the things that students do, and the albums that begin to roll out of the Warp factory – both the Artificial Intelligence releases, and others – were the omnipresent soundtrack of life both inside and outside of clubs. On my 19th birthday we rocked body and soul to The Aphex Twin playing live at Brighton Event, and a year later we moshed with his teddybears across the road at The Paradox.
Richie Hawtin's Dimension Intrusion album as FUSE was the absolute essence of grot-soaked, techno sweatpit sounds we were absorbed into several nights a week, while Black Dog Productions, Autechre, B12 and Kenny Larkin floated through our daylight hours. These sounds were completely woven into the fabric of everything I learned about drugs, girls and social circles. Again, there was plenty else happening (Hardcore! Jungle! Glam house! Drug dub!) and the endless to-and-fro of rave's networks meant it was possible to get stuck into all of that too, but there was no other label that had an identity so clear and so deeply woven into everything in my life.
As the 90s progressed and even as the dreaded term "IDM" started to become chucked about (not by us, I hasten to add), Warp's music still reflected the "D" part of that: the dance. My social life was anchored around the fact that going to see something like an Autechre live show wasn't a chinstroke-fest – it was still a rave, a place where you would melt down and mingle with all sorts until the small hours. There was complex, strange, geeky stuff going on that you could peruse for hours, sure, but the scene I was falling into was still massively about the party. It's not surprising, then, that by the time I left university in 1995, my life was consumed by electronic music, and a lot of the people I was around day-to-day were deep into it as practitioners as well as ravers.
And so I started to try and find my way in life (aka "arseing around on the dole", as my dad would have it) the relationship with the music started to become symbiotic, not just a one-way thing. Friends were putting out tunes, including the boys who started the Spymania label and before I knew it, people I knocked about with – notably Squarepusher and Jamie Lidell – were signing to Warp. The glorious thing was that this didn't feel like crossing some invisible boundary. It felt like a natural corollary of the rave ethos, where even as a humble punter you weren't just a fan, but a key participant. Warp was the archetype, the prototype, the one that showed the way from the pure, perfect dance 12" outwards to life-encompassing aesthetic sprawl.
It was a long and somewhat tawdry few years before I ended up working in music in any professional capacity myself, over which time Warp continued to occupy more space across the cultural board. As it settled into becoming a more diverse and perhaps more "normal" label, such as bringing in guitars, my relationship with it became more complicated (I loved Broadcast, for example, but I never got Tortoise), but I would come back to it again and again, still. The Brainfeeder raves they threw with Flying Lotus proved to me that exactly the spirit of exploratory partying the label had always embodied was still strong.
The way that my and others' relationship with one record label in the first half of the 1990s developed remained as a map of how things can and should work in music. Warp's ability to evolve so quickly from banging out the rave anthems to becoming an integral part of all aspects of my contemporaries' lives – absorbing all of us dorks into its machine in the process – was precisely what has embedded it so firmly and uniquely within the industry and wider culture, and is precisely why we're writing about it now.
You can follow Joe Muggs on Twitter: @joemuggs
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