Music has always been a regional art form, with the likes of Detroit techno or Chicago house becoming shorthand for specific styles. Yorkshire, in the north of England, isn’t the obvious choice as a hotbed of electronic music, but in the late ’80s it played host to the birth of a micro-scene which was hugely important in the development of UK dance music.
A thriving subculture of hip-hop and electro existed in the UK by the mid ’80s, based around imported US records. Across the north of England in the late ’80s, breakdance crews began to discover the new sound of house and techno as records began to arrive in record shops alongside imported hip-hop and electro.
Around 1988 to 1989, producers in Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Huddersfield began to create tracks which melded influences of reggae, hip-hop and electro with the new sounds arriving from the US.
Whereas producers in other parts of the country leaned heavier towards the sampled breakbeats of hardcore, the Yorkshire sound was defined by cold, sparse instrumentation, repetitive electro-influenced melodies played with simple synth tones (the eponymous ‘bleeps’), deep sub-bass inspired by reggae sound systems, and breakbeat-inspired drum machine patterns.
The aesthetics of bleep are best defined by one of the earliest tracks associated with the scene, Bradford group Unique 3 & The Mad Musician’s The Theme (1988), which combined ground-quakingly deep sub bass with bleepy melodies, shuffling TR-909 rhythms and weird synth tones.
Similar sounds quickly began to emerge from other cities around the North: Forgemasters’ sinister calling card Track With No Name (Sheffield, 1989); the vaguely motorik brutalism of LFO’s LFO (Leeds, 1990); the Detroit-inspired throb of Nexus 21’s Self Hypnosis (Stafford, 1990 – Nexus 21 would go on to become rave hellraisers Altern 8).
Call it bleep techno, Yorkshire bleep or bleep and bass, the new sound dominated northern clubs and raves for a couple of years before mutating and evolving further. In his 2019 book Join the Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, writer and DJ Matt Anniss argues that the influence of bleep is vastly underestimated, not just in terms of the syncopated rhythms of jungle and garage which followed, but in terms of the obsession with bass weight which went on to inform dubstep, grime, UK funky and more.
If one place in particular really latched onto the sound of bleep, it’s hard to look past Sheffield. The South Yorkshire steel city has a lot of superficial similarities with Detroit, in the sense of its proud industrial heritage and strong musical tradition, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why this uniquely English take on techno struck a chord, from the early days of Warp Records onwards.
An honourable mention must go to Richard H Kirk, who sadly died in September of this year. A founding member of Sheffield group Cabaret Voltaire, Kirk was a mainstay of avant-garde music since the early ’70s.
Not content with being pioneers of post-punk provocation and industrial music, Cabaret Voltaire also dipped their toes into bleep and house in the late ’80s. Kirk was a key figure in bleep, forming Sweet Exorcist alongside fellow Sheffield stalwart Richard Barratt (aka DJ Parrot); the duo’s Testone (Warp, 1989) and the CC EP (Warp, 1991) are bleep essentials.
Music journalist and rave historian Simon Reynolds describes bleep as “the first uniquely British twist on house and techno”, defined by British DJs and producers forging their own take on imported sounds, merging house and techno with hip-hop and reggae influences. Bleep may not be a household name like house, techno or jungle, but its long-term impact can be felt throughout dance music.
Three bleep production essentials
Roland TR-909 drums
The mighty 909 casts a huge shadow over bleep, helping to define the sound. Originally released in 1983, the drum machine was a mainstay of early house and techno but the way it was used in bleep was a bit different: rather than sticking to rigid drum patterns or using it as a solid background for other percussion instruments, bleep producers liked to push the machine to create an almost breakbeaty syncopation.
It would be misleading to characterise bleep as a lo-fi genre, but there’s a certain spontaneity which helps to make the sound vital and organic. Recording a few carefully chosen pieces of hardware to cassette is a way to capture some of that energy – although by no means were all the bleep classics recorded in that way. Think of it more like a reminder to keep things simple and harness that raw power rather than sticking rigidly to any particular workflow.
Mentality was always just as important as equipment in defining the unique sound of bleep. Creativity and thinking outside the box played as much of a role as any drum machine or synth.
For example, Unique 3 collaborator David Bahar (aka The Mad Musician) claims that the legendary low-end weight of The Theme came from recording speaker feedback onto a cassette then resampling it as a subby bass tone. If you want to channel the spirit of bleep, then think laterally, mashing genres and influences as much as production techniques and equipment.