We Spoke to Winston Hazel About the Birth of Forgemasters

When it comes to Sheffield, techno and the history of Warp Records, Winston Hazel is the man.

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Jul 25 2014, 2:30pm

In 1989, Warp Records came into being with the release of Forgemasters' 'Track With No Name'. The song, a dark and borderline creepy five minutes of techno, was the product of three gentlemen from Sheffield: Warp co-founder Rob Gordon, Sean Maher (aka DJ Parrot) and Winston Hazel. As part of Warp 25 Week, here's Hazel, in his own words, on the events surrounding the beginning of one of electronic music's most interesting labels. 

When I was about 5 years old, my family and I lived on the 5th floor of a house in Sheffield. In the basement was a really well known blues night called Sunny's Blues. At the weekend, we used to go to sleep to the rumble of the bass on that. I remember that being quite a sudden experience as part of my childhood, and it stayed with me for a while. Weirdly enough, though, because of that, I grew to have an aversion towards reggae music for a very long time - well into my early twenties, actually. I was strictly about funk music. I didn't like the pop charts. The odd thing would get into the charts like Kool and the Gang, but overall anything I heard more than a few times, I lost interest in. I developed a need to have new music.

When we would have family holidays, we would travel to London to see my cousins. They were into really early funk like Slade, Brass Construction and early Prince. I had already developed a thirst for new music and conventional instrumentation; P-funk and jazz-funk opened my horizons to what else might be out there. It was totally raw-edged, bass-driven, experimental music. I did a paper round to save a few quid and buy one single. It wasn't easy to get music the way you do now. You couldn't sit at home and hope to discover it. You might be able to buy some of the records in the magazine's charts, stuff you'd never heard of but that had a really interesting title. It opened up my horizons to being quite experimental in terms of what I was listening to, and what I chose to buy when I had money in my pocket.

Around 1986, I was doing house parties for people, stringing up lights, hi-fis and whatever I could find for birthday parties or leaving parties. I got a bit of reputation for having a developing record collection, and I'd been given my first break in a Sheffield nightclub called Maximillian's. After that, a few things started to happen club-wise and I started getting DJ work. The next year, I started a show at a pirate radio station called Sheffield Community Radio – and, at the same time, I started working at a record shop called Fon, as the "black music buyer".

It opened up my horizons to the power of being able to buy music into the city, for the DJs in the city and the radio in the city. Everything just happened really quickly over the next year or so, in terms of my profile. Some of the early stuff I bought in was Public Enemy's first album, KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, lots of classic, early hip-hop 12"s that came out. We were getting things in on Transmat, DJ International, Trax - all the big classic labels from the time, as well as obscure ones. We were trying to push the boundaries.

Things were starting to change quite a lot with the advent of samplers. I saw Robert Gordon, who was an old schoolmate and a bit of a techno boff, that never used to go out or anything like that. He would be fixing electronic equipment, breaking electronic equipment, and so forth. Rob managed to get his hands on a sampler, the Akai S900, and invited me round to his house to have a look at his studio. Sean was a friend of both of ours, and he would spend countless hours at Rob's house helping him maintain the studio: soldering cables, just doing bits 'n' bobs of all sorts. He made drinks when people came round to the studio, too. He was a polite friend of ours who, if we were in the studio, would go downstairs and cut us a bit of cake and bring a tea up for us.

The first time I went there, Rob brought out the sampler and we started messing around. We were excited about the possibilities of the sampling, and that's when I came back to house with this Manu Dibango track 'Abele Dance'. That night, we developed 'Track With No Name' in 4 hours. He had worked out how to do a few things, but not knowing how to trim something down properly gave us a certain glue or feel for a particular sample, which then triggered a bassline or a snare pattern. There was no thought process behind it, yet it all fell into place.

The music we'd made - it felt like it needed to be aired. I thought that I should play it on the radio, so we put it into cassette and decided that it needed a title in case people were interested in it. We said, "Okay, just called it 'Track With No Name' for now", and it stuck. It got played it on the radio, and the phones went mental the next day. In the shop, people were calling asking for the track that we'd made. It was very exciting – even more exciting for me, because I had played it for the first time on my radio show. On the day, I had to do a friend's dance party. When I played 'Track With No Name', people went crazy. I played it in context with loads of Detroit techno and Chicago house that Fon was importing, so it really felt like it fitted perfectly into that time and place.


Later, Rob, Sean and I got into a conversation about craftsmanship and forging. We'd gotten into a conversation about craftsmanship and forging, to take something and rework it into something else, like what we did with the sample. It started as a sample but then mutated into this new form - solid as steel, rough like raw iron, as we used to say. The name Forgemasters became stuck in our heads because, like the engineering company of the same name, we were from Sheffield. It seemed simple enough at the time but, unbeknownst to us, we really were crafting something. 

We decided that we should get our friends to go around some of the biggest record shops in the country, and ask for 'Track With No Name' in the same context as a big Trax release, or Public Enemy, without letting on that it was a local project. What happens when you do that is that, since everyone wanted to have the latest hot tracks in their shop, to be the first to hit upon something new, you got record shops asking for multiple copies to try it out. That's how we got those early pre-sales.

The distributor didn't know anything about it, so when they rang us up, we said that the track was going to be released on Warp Records. We knew our audience, because some people had called these shops asking for two very obvious records, and then 'Track with No Name', they'd never heard of. Clever little marketing strategy, there. Also, as soon as we saw the purple sleeve that the Designers Republic were behind, we knew that was it for us. We knew that wherever you put the record on the shelf, you would notice it. I was proud. 

A long time after our relationship with Warp proper ended for us, the bassline movement started becoming a thing in Sheffield. We all worked at the club Niche at some point, but Sean stayed there and became the right hand man for the club. After Forgemasters ended, too, Rob and I continued making music. Last year, we realised there were a lot of retrospectives and artists re-launching themselves, so Rob and I decided that we should dig out our material and get it out there. It's funny to think that, after all that time spent in the studio, we were actually preparing for a relaunch ten years later... We grabbed the music, compiled it, and for a month and a half I couldn't listen to anything else – just over, and over, and over again. 

We did an incredible gig at the Golden Pudel in Hamburg, and a Boiler Room live show that set a new precedent for us. I'm not a musician, I don't play any instruments and I'm not a perfect DJ either, but it worked. The music was blacker than I ever thought it possibly could be, especially in light of the way that techno has become a little diluted - not dissimilar to how jungle became "intelligent", and turned into drum 'n' bass. It was good to re-ignite the black elements of techno once again with Forgemasters. After that, we got a lot of interest generated through Matt Swift, a close friend of ours who used to run a Sheffield club called Jive Turkey, and we got to do the launch of the International Documentary Festival with Jarvis Cocker. That was our last ever gig.

Robert and I don't speak anymore. I have no idea that mine and Rob's friendship was so much on a knife edge, considering we'd known each other since we were children. I had no idea it could end all of a sudden, on stage in the middle of a gig – the Crucible, which we'd both performed on as actors when we were younger. It was mind-blowing, like a break-up with a long-term girlfriend. That's just one of those things, though, unfortunately. I can't speak for him as to why it was so final after so many years together, understanding each other and tolerating each others' differences, that all of a sudden that could be wiped out in one single instance. 

In hindsight, we could have manipulated the Forgemasters era a bit better, but I don't think the same things would have happened. It needed to be at that moment in time. It was a time of deep frustration and social unrest, where people felt as if they didn't have anything they could latch onto, and this music allowed us the freedom to develop something for ourselves. Something that we could call our own. Although we didn't know that's what we were doing, we forged that.

Winston Hazel is playing two sets at Sheffield's Tramlines Festival on Saturday – one funk-based and the other presenting "the whole spectrum of house and techno music". 

You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon

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