Bleep and Bass: How Sheffield helped shape British dance music

Following five years of research, Sheffield-born writer Matt Anniss has authored a book examining how the Steel City played a key role in shaping the sound of British dance music in the late 80s and early 90s.

Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music traces the roots, birth and development of a style of bass-heavy dance music termed “Bleep and Bass” – something that provided the blueprint for later genres such as hardcore, jungle, drum & bass and dubstep.

Last month Ella Hodson spoke to Matt about his motivations behind telling the story and the intriguing background behind this innovative style of music. 

Why was it important to you to tell this relatively unknown story of Sheffield and the North’s bleep music scene?
For well over a decade I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Bleep and Bass was a key foundation stone in the evolution of UK dance music, and specifically what is now generally termed “bass music” – sub-bass heavy styles such as jungle, early hardcore, drum and bass, dubstep, UK garage, UK funky and bassline, which some in Sheffield would call “the Niche sound”. I’ve read a lot of books about the history of UK electronic music over the years and they always treat what happened in the North and the Midlands, and Bleep in particular, as a kind of footnote – something that happened but was not worthy of further investigation. I thought that it was about time that changed and five years ago set out to do enough research and as many interviews as I needed to tell the story and prove that my theory was right. As I got further into that process I realised that Bleep and Bass was a product of its environment and the people who grew up in Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford at that particular time. It was a genuinely working class musical movement whose roots stretched back to the turn of the 1980s. Without getting overly political, this was a pretty desperate time for many people in Yorkshire, but something incredible emerged from that culturally. That’s not really been talked about before to any degree and that infuriates me.

Why do you think that the dance music scene is so London-centric?

The dance music scene is actually very healthy, and has been for a long time, all over the UK. This was certainly the case in the period covered by Join The Future, when acid house culture was exploding all over Britain. The problem is the way that developments are reported and later documented. For example, trend-setting fashion and culture magazines such as I-D and the Face did report on Bleep and Bass when it exploded between 1988 and ‘91, they just gave it far less coverage than they did things happening in London and the illegal raves that started popping up on land around the M25 motorway. Since then, dance music historians have focused on that and a handful of London club nights such as Shoom, Future and Spectrum. Because of that, most people think that Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway were responsible for house becoming popular in the UK after taking a trip to Ibiza in 1987. In fact house was already becoming popular and had been a feature of clubs in Sheffield, Manchester and Nottingham since the first records landed in the UK in 1985. Unfortunately most writers and dance music historians are either too focused on London to care or simply haven’t done the research to prove it otherwise. Of course, once a myth is repeated enough times people think it’s fact, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Cabaret Voltaire (L-R: Richard H Kirk, Stephen Mallinder) by Vanya Balogh

Where did your passion for the subject of the book come from?

First of all I love the music, which still sounds futuristic and alien 30 years after the records first appeared in stores. I’ve lived in the south of England for a long time now and definitely have a chip on my shoulder about the North, and Sheffield in particular, being overlooked. The people who made the greatest Bleep and Bass records are pretty much unknown to the wider public, with one or two exceptions, and in some cases are barely known in their home cities. I was very fired up to get their stories out there, whether they were particularly bothered whether people knew of their achievements or not. They might not care, but I do – I think those who are genuine musical pioneers should be credited for their work and celebrated more than those who simply bit their style and ended up becoming famous.

What is it that you love about this particular genre of music?

Bleep and Bass to me combines lots of different musical elements that I enjoy: the warm and heavy sub-bass weight of dub reggae, the far-sighted futurism of Detroit techno, the body-popping energy of electro, the metallic clank of Industrial music, the rhythmic ticks of “steppers” style reggae and the immediacy of early Chicago house. It borrows from Jamaican and American music, but it sounds distinctively British. It sounds like music made in post-industrial cities in the North of England, which is exactly what it is. It’s an important part of Sheffield’s cultural heritage whether people know it or not. Hopefully my efforts to document it will make more people in the Steel City aware of it.

How much research did the book take? And how much time did that take up?
The research process pretty much took over my life for five years. I wasn’t working on it continuously for those five years – like everyone else I have to earn a living – but it was a constant part of my life throughout that time. When I started work on it I’d just written an article for Resident Advisor about Bleep so knew the basic story, but little else had been written about it previously so I didn’t have much to go on. I had quite a lot of Bleep records – I’m also a DJ, so play them in my sets – so started by trying to track down people who made some of those. Through interviewing these people I found others, and so on. At the same time I also managed to get commissions to write articles on some of the scenes, sounds and styles that fed into it, allowing me to increase my knowledge of the bigger picture. I also made trips to the British Library to look at contemporary press coverage, read a lot about the politics and economy of Yorkshire during that period and even looked up detailed youth unemployment figures for various Sheffield and Leeds parliamentary constituencies. It was a hell of a lot of work but I felt that’s what I needed to do to make the book strong. I didn’t want to just explain what happened, but also why and how it impacted on later musical movements.

What was your approach to writing the book?
It actually took me a while to work out how to present the story and come up with a narrative that would flow throughout the book. In the end I decided to split it into parts that dealt with pre-history and context (part one), the pioneers of the sound (part two), the wave of producers and record labels that picked up on the sound and changed it (part three) and finally the death of the style first time round and what happened next musically (part four). Once I had that structure I wrote it in sequence, regularly going back and re-writing things when new evidence or information emerged. It took a long time to make sense of the vast amounts of material I had and work out how to present it, but once I started writing it was done in a few months.

The people who made the greatest Bleep and Bass records are pretty much unknown to the wider public, with one or two exceptions, and in some cases are barely known in their home cities. I was very fired up to get their stories out there

How do you think Bleep music influenced the music genres that followed?
The most revolutionary aspect of Bleep was the heavy sub-bass. This was something borrowed from Jamaican music that had not appeared in house or techno records made before, either in America or the UK. Bleep’s emphasis on sub-bass and sparse melodic elements provided a blueprint for the many bass-heavy UK styles of dance music that followed such as jungle, drum and bass, dubstep and grime. The first of those, jungle, is a mutation of hardcore, which itself began as a mutation of Bleep. While Yorkshire-made Bleep records used beats similar to those found in house and techno records, early hardcore records kept the bass and the bleeps but replaced the drums with sped-up hip-hop breakbeats. You can therefore draw a direct line from Bleep through to jungle, drum and bass and many styles that emerged later down the line. I’m surprised that nobody has forcefully made this argument before, because to me it’s obvious. If you look at the dates when key bleep and hardcore records were released, and then listen to them carefully, you’ll find that they’re related. I’ve asked hardcore producers if they were influenced by Bleep and many said that they were trying to make similar records, they just wanted different beats. The evidence was always there but for some reason few people bothered joining the dots and making the case. Someone recently tweeted me saying that they’d been saying similar things to their London mates 10 to 15 years ago, so I’m sure I’m not the only person to come to this conclusion, I’m just the only one so far to try and prove the point by documenting the culture. Now I’ve done that I hope more people dig into the Bleep story and celebrate those producers from Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford who made pioneering records.

Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music is out now via Velocity Press

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