Elite frequencies

Sheffield has produced some of the most consistently brilliant pop music of the last 30 years. But a

Warp 20

Various locations, Sheffield

At the centre of Steel City is something called the Cultural Industries Quarter. This contains the former National Centre for Popular Music, two steel blobs designed by Nigel Coates, a somewhat faded "Millennium Project" which closed within a couple of years, now used by Sheffield Hallam University for offices. There's the long-standing Leadmill Club, the Site Gallery and for some reason a branch of Spearmint Rhino. More to the point, it contains a 1930s building housing the Showroom cinema and Workstation, home of Warp Films, the only part of Warp Records' media empire that is still based in the city.

The very name "Cultural Industries Quarter" (one of ten "quarters" in the zoned city) is bright, Blairite nu-language that seems a bad joke amidst the recession's foreboding harshness. The notion that an economy can run itself through the "creative industries", financial services and tourism has taken an extremely heavy knock. It's particularly ironic that it sits next to the rail station of a once-proud heavy industrial metropolis, which has never quite worked out what to do with itself since the steel industry's "restructuring" in the 1980s (unlike South Yorkshire's coal mining, steel never ceased production, and the city makes as much of it as it ever did - only with a fraction of the workforce). What Sheffield has had since the late 1970s is perhaps the most consistently brilliant popular music of any city outside of London.

The city's electronic music, from The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire to early Warp artists Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist, took palpable inspiration from the cyclopean factories of the Don Valley and the fearless, grandly scaled 1960s architecture built for their workers. It's no surprise, then, that Warp Records' 20th anniversary celebrations in the city the label left in 2000 take place in the disputed remnants of a council estate and a steelworks, with film screenings in the former and a rave in the latter. The proceedings are assisted by the local regeneration quango, which bears the instructive name "Creative Sheffield".

That this is not entirely benign is obvious as soon as you get to the first of the two events, a Warp Films showcase in the magnificent, mostly disused Park Hill Flats. Once a gigantic declaration of Sheffield's pride in itself as a centre of municipal socialism, only one wing of this snaking, complex building is inhabited, while on the other side the Mancunian property developers Urban Splash are stripping the block to its frame in preparation for transforming it into barely recognisable upmarket apartments - with the assistance of state money. In between is dereliction. It's this boarded-up part which was used by Warp for this showcase of their film production arm, and given the sheer quantity of public space that defines Park Hill, you might assume the pedestrian could just walk in. Instead, metal fencing marks off the film event from the inhabited parts of the estate, with police watching from the walkways. Even the playground is fenced off. As a preview of the "mixed class" estate promised by Urban Splash and its public sponsors, it is not encouraging.

Nonetheless, once inside the films (mostly) fit the space well. A film on the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival is about as interesting as someone else's home movies, but Warp's music videos, remain playful, ambitious and intriguing. Warp's videos, from Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace's early efforts for Sweet Exorcist and Tricky Disco, to more extravagant works like Alex Rutterford's "Gantz Graf" for Autechre, or Chris Cunningham's bling absurdist film for Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker", are mini-masterpieces of the form. Certainly the futurist melancholia of the latter record feels appropriate for this tragic, sublime building.

The main event takes place in - again, note the already dated nomenclature - the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a Stirling Prize-winning building in 2001. Again we have a perfect meeting of place and sound, and again an overwhelming reminder of the area's class conflicts and disputed transformations. Magna was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, part of the industrial zone that stretches between Sheffield and Rotherham. Next to business parks, retail parks and still functioning (if recession-threatened) steel plants, Magna offers up steel as a spectacle - and it's an awe-inspiring one, a superhuman process whose eventual lack of use for human workers seems entirely unsurprising. Inside a hangar-like space, reached through views of the overwhelming machinery, are the hilariously tiny DJs.

Warp is now a decidedly international operation, lacking the regional sentimentality of, say, the late Tony Wilson's Factory Records, which has spared Sheffield the tedious myth-making of the Mancunian music scene. The label seldom signs local acts. Nonetheless, it was Yorkshire producers who created Warp's most enduring, powerful music in the early '90s: the precise, compulsive techno of Sweet Exorcist's "Testone", LFO's Frequencies, Nightmares on Wax's "Aftermath", or Forgemasters, named after a Sheffield steelworks. Nightmares on Wax feature at Magna, billed as a reformation of their original lineup - after several singles in a Yorkshire techno vein, they split in 1991, leaving one member to pursue a rather less interesting trip-hop direction. At Magna their DJ set starts worryingly with a couple of tracks from later albums, but after interspersing Nitro Deluxe's "Let's Get Brutal" it becomes a techno set, concentrating on the cavernous, concussively physical, spacious sound they pioneered 20 years ago. It's awe-inspiring to hear it in a space like this, although the irony that it would have once occurred in disused warehouses and factories illegally, but is now doing so with local government assistance is doubtless not lost on some of the older participants. Alongside this controlled ferocity, the juxtaposition with the whimsical, wistful electro-jazz of Chris Clark or Squarepusher is not kind to later Warp, with their prettiness woefully inappropriate to the context. Nonetheless, Hudson Mohawke's set of mutated, maximalist hip hop shows they can still make some adroit signings.

Sheffield does not lack new electronic music. Yet it's a very different kind, the sort I heard teenagers play off their phones that night on the Rotherham-Sheffield train - bassline house, Yorkshire's brutalist version of 2-step garage, which owes much to the tinny bleeps and enveloping bass pulses of early Warp, splicing it with a far from minimal commercial crassness. Yet rather than being quango-funded, Niche, the club where it started was closed by South Yorkshire Police in 2005, in the tactfully named "Operation Repatriation". There wasn't a hint of bassline at Magna. "Creative Sheffield" remains a divided place.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" (Zero Books) is out now. He blogs at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy For more information about Warp's 20th birthday celebrations, click here.