There are four stories woven here. Those of FON Studios, Warp Records, Robert Gordon`s, and the music.
FON were the studios that Chakk built. Chakk were a Sheffield-based Post-Punk band, who might be lazily labeled “Industrial”. They actually made machine Funk, very much like A Certain Ratio mixed with Colourbox. Their first single was recorded with Richard H. Kirk at Cabaret Voltaire`s Western Works Studio and released on the Cab`s Doublevision. They released a second single on their own FON label (FON an acronym taken from some local street graffiti: Fuck Off Nazis). FON was also the name of the record shop opened by their manager, journalist Amrik Rai. Both singles did well in the indie charts and landed the band a deal and an unprecedented advance for the time, of 100, 000 gbp, from MCA. The band had always emphasized in interviews that the most important instrument was the studio itself (this is evident on the mixes on their 12 releases), and so stating that it was cheaper to build a studio in Sheffield than hire one in London they took the MCA advance and did just that. The first sessions at FON Studios were for the Chakk LP “Ten Days In A Elevator”, engineered in part by Robert Gordon, alongside Chakk`s own Alan Cross. While Chakk split in 1987, the studio continued until 1996, and nurtured other future production stars such as Steve Cobby and Charles Webster.
Robert Gordon worked at FON Studios with Alan Cross, and then with another ex-member of Chakk, Mark Brydon, initially on the projects of Chakk`s contemporaries, and Cabaret Voltaire associated groups such as Hula and The Mighty Device, and then on the Chakk-influenced sounds of Age Of Chance, and Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI might argue that they were influenced more by Public Enemy). As FON Force, Robert and Brydon remixed the US import hits of artists like Joyce Sims and Ten City for the UK market and helped experienced travellers Psychic TV and The Grid access the minds of the new rave youth.
In 1989 Robert founded Warp Records, with Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell. Steve and Rob were running the FON record shop, with Winston Hazel in charge of imports. The first release on Warp was The Forgemasters` “Track with No Name”, although it was DJ Mink`s “Hey! Hey! Can You Relate?” and the response that track received when played on demo cassette at Sheffield party Jive Turkey (Mona Lisa`s, Occasions, City Hall), where Winston DJed with Richard Barratt (Parrot), that made Rob Mitchell want to start a label. “Track With No Name” was produced by Robert, Shaun Maher and Winston, hyped on Winston`s local radio show, and the initial press of 500 paid for by an Enterprise Allowance grant. The follow-up, Nightmares on Wax’s “Dextrous” sold around 30,000 copies. In 1990 Warp`s third single, LFO`s “LFO” sold 130,000 copies (impossible today). Robert left Warp in 1991, but his A&Ring for the label, along with his own productions and engineering assistance, defined Warp`s early sound. Somebody called it “Bass & Bleep”, but really it`s all about bass: stripping the Funk back to its most basic components and letting the bottom end engulf everything.
Chakk`s “The Days I Worked” cuts the machines with the Free-Jazz of Don Cherry. Konk or Bill Nelson`s Cocteau Records` Man Jumping, or fellow groove radicals, 23 Skidoo. Nassau`s New Wave Funk (Sly & Robbie & Groucho made contributions to “Ten Days In An Elevator”). Steel City tropical. Age Of Chance took the baton from Chakk, and assimilated Public Enemy`s rage and noise, made it white and shrill. Found themselves aligned with fellow Pop terrorists, The KLF, with PE in the position of a new black Sex Pistols.
The Gordon / FON produced “House Arrest” by KRUSH (Mark Gamble, and Cassius Campbell) gave UK House its first chart hit. Chock full of samples it`s like a Jive Turkey megamix: Monyaka, Kurtis Blow, Whistle bugging out, Fab 5 Freddie`s fresh, Hill Street Blues` “let`s be careful out there”, and Beverly Hills Cop, but the b-side is darker, has Todd Terry`s Orange Lemon meet Fourth Floor on pills, accompanied by Gerald`s “Voodoo Ray” percussion and with its bassline twisted. Its hips gripped and moved. Ruth Joy was the singer with KRUSH, and had also worked with Robert, Soft Cell`s Dave Ball and Cabaret Voltaire`s Stephen Mallinder as Love Street, on a cover of War`s “Galaxy”. Her “Soul Power” mixes Hip Hop and Jazz, Wildstyle Mardi Gras breaks and scratching. It has a lot in common with Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, the Bristol sound borne out of that city`s sound systems. I am not sure of the impact of sound systems on Sheffield (I`m gonna ask Winston).
The Forgemasters seminal “Track With No Name” has angels accompanied by high hats that sound like two swords sharpening one another, squared beats, LFOs and machine code. Where did this music come from? Nu Groove? Transmat? It somehow feels much more rigid. It is unlike anything else. The two versions of DJ Mink`s “Hey! Hey! Can You Relate?” included here show how the music being produced changed in a very short period of time. The original, edited by Robert is euphoric, breakneck, danceable UK Hip Hop. Think Derek B, Silver Bullet, Black Radical MKII. The remix, by Brydon and Parrot, is bass, run through with free Folk flute dissonance / drone and computer malfunctions. How did they go from one to the other in less than a year?
Big Stick came from the NYC Art Rock underground. The FON Force turn them into something from a 1989 Boy`s Own playlist. Minor chords, Latino freestyle rhythm, sampled dialogue, squelchy b-line and an uplifting piano riff. Likewise they allow Cabaret Voltaire, with “Hypnotised” (Ten City on backing vocals), from the old school of mind expansion, for growth rather than recreation, an attempt to shake the apathy from the rave.
The Unique 3 were from Bradford`s sound systems, and went into FON Studios with Robert to “tidy up” a couple of tracks, with idea that they were going to Warp. They instead signed with Virgin`s 10 Records. Their “The Theme” sounds like “Track With No Name” Part 2, but its flip, “7 A.M.”, is rolling Techno, whose only real antecedent that I can think of is Marshall Jefferson`s Virgo`s E.P. on Trax. Sweet Exorcist`s “Testtone” was again made with Warp in mind, produced by Richard H. Kirk and Parrot and remixed by Robert. “Skeletaltronics, an experiment in how far you can gut everything out but still have enough body to dance.” Samples from YMO and Speilberg`s “Close Encounters…” Robert`s mix clips everything, making it seem more frenetic. Each element is so clean, free of bleed, in its own precise defined space.
The Step were Parrot, Winston, and Mark Brydon. Their original mix of “Yeah You” takes the same ingredients as Ruth Joy`s “Soul Power” but strips things back even further. Sparse tribal drums, wah wah guitar, ethereal vocal and that bass, fed through Peech Boys delays and with Levan`s ear for sonic separation. Robert`s mix adds a second growling bass-line, mutant Jazz keys and a synth line of eastern menace.
In 1996 Robert resurfaced on Source, as Black Knight, and worked with Move D and Pete Namlook. Currently involved with artists across a range of genres, assisting a new generation of Sheffield music makers, such as Toddla T, Robert runs his own mastering / production / mixing facility, and label “Trash & Ready”. He recently did a Boiler Room session with Winston, returning as The Forgemasters.