20 years of Ninja Tune
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Now hitting its twentieth year of releasing groundbreaking tunes, it's time to reflect on the shockwaves caused by this band of pioneering aural assassins.
It's two decades since the duo known as Coldcut (Jonathan More and Matt Black), disillusioned with the major label culture their pioneering success had brought them, embarked on setting up a label to release music they believed in.
Speaking to Jon More about the impending birthday, he explained why they started the label; "It's a label that Matt (Black the other half of Coldcut) and I formed when we became disillusioned with the major record industry. So for those who weren't around in 1988, we were successful as Coldcut, we were signed on an independent label and then we got signed to a major and it wasn't happening for us so we wanted to move from that and set up something that reflected more of our taste and we felt there was music that wasn't getting the exposure that it deserved. We wanted to chill out from the whole major label thing. The aim was to create a record label that could bring together like minded people and interesting music that doesn't fit into any particular niche, but have an overall relationship if that makes any sense."
From their inception Coldcut always went against the grain, created their own game, played by their own rules - in many ways it is strange that the attitude that got them noticed by the major record industry was the same one that saw them become disillusioned and start Ninja Tune.
"We had a bit of experience starting Ahead of Our Time, our initial foray into the record industry and then we got signed to a proper, proper label and they asked us 'how many records did you sell?' We said 'oh we sold around 4,000' thinking that that wasn't very much , a bit embarrassed. They didn't let on at the time, but told us after they had signed us that we had sold more on our own, through our distribution network through clubs and people we knew, than they had on some of their big acts that they were spending large sums of money on. So we obviously got something right and we hoped to continue that when we started Ninja."
Much of the labels sound-clash ideology can be traced to Coldcut's ground-breaking radio show, Solid Steel, which began on, then pirate station, Kiss FM in 1988 and continues today as a podcast. The pair were able to broadcast their cut-up technique to the capital.
The duos early work on the label under the alias DJ Food on the Jazz Breaks series of releases changed the face of dance music forever, with the early volumes of breaks, loops and samples created for use by DJs acting the blueprint for much of the dance and breakbeat innovations that followed. The most successful in the series Volumes 4 and 5 (taking DJ/producer PC into the crew) transcended the breakbeat compilation format to stand as albums in their own right - helping forge the sound that would be called 'trip-hop'.
"Let me just go and get a fine selection of trumpets for my fanfare and I shall start parping away. I think like a lot of things that are going on we provided some colour and interest, in particular in the Jazz Breaks and the DJ Food area and what it did for trip-hop, that dirty word, that is actually coming back in a new style. Some of these 'wonky' or whatever they are, LA bands are taking from that which is a good thing."
The influence and success of these releases set Ninja off as a legitimate label, who stepped forward with releasing the work of other like minded artists, with an ever growing family of Ninjas to get the sounds out.
"Certainly [we had a] comradery, that works well. It's enthusiasm and like-minded people who aren't happy in a kind of corporate, which is often an easily bandied about word, in a normal office environment where creativity and motivation aren't necessarily encouraged," says More.
This focus on creativity saw early 90s releases from the likes of downbeat maestro Funki Porcini, the subtle acid-jazz of 9 Lazy 9, turntabalist Kid Koala and sample wizard Amon Tobin (often cited as a creator of the later trip-hop sound).
Ninja Tune were undoubtedly a driving force in British clubland, creating sounds and driving electronic music forward but they were not alone - other labels popped up also pushing the boundaries of sound, namely Warp (home to the likes of Aphex Twin) and Mo'Wax (home of DJ Shadow). Did competition with these labels drive Ninja forward in what they were doing? More suggests not, "Jealousy is not really my strong point. I recognise it as a very strong guiding force for a lot of people. Admiration for other labels that are doing the right thing in what they are doing, but not trying to copy what they are doing. Jealousy tends to begat copying rather than appropriation which is something that Coldcut have always been much better at. Warp for example are a fantastic label, Mo'Wax were great - people tried to get us and James (Lavelle) into a Mo'Wax versus Ninja Tune war but we weren't having any of that because I recognise the difficulty, along with Matt and Pete (Quicke - Ninja label manager) at the label, that you have to go through to succeed. We've done it over a period of years when some people have had to do it a lot more quickly and become more successful sooner. I just like to figure out how they do it and see if there are any lessons to be learnt."
The lessons learnt by 1997 saw Ninja step into a period of astounding productivity with the label churning out classic album after classic album. That year saw Coldcut's first for Ninja under their own name, Let Us Play which put the band back into the charts with a brilliantly experimental mash of sound. The Herbalizer's Headphone Sex album with its marrying of hip hop and live funk proved the label were taking on acts who were forging experimentation in to fully formed album experiences.
Amon Tobin aimed to make 'drum and bass music out of non-drum-and-bass source material' which made 1999's Premutation totally mind-blowing. Label staple Mr Scruff stepped into the fold with his humorous melting pot of jazz and dance cartoonery, him hitting his stride with the long-player Keep It Unreal.
The following years would see releases from Fog, The Cinematic Orchestra, Bonobo, Jaga Jazzist, Blockhead and Sixtoo. But it's not only in sound that Ninja Tune were pioneering.
The Ninjas were naturally early adopters of new technology, cutting their teeth on tape-decks and turntables and then readily embracing, and helping to innovate the digital revolutions that surrounded them.
As Ninja came to life the Coldcut duo were going into partnership with Robert Pepperell and Miles Visman, as videographics production company Hardwire (which later became Hex) embarking on several visionary projects. The first was a music video for Coldcut's 'Christmas Break' ", an animation entirely rendered on the consumer home computers of the day, followed by Top Banana, a video-game programmed for the Acorn Archimedes, and later ported to the Commodore Amiga.
Featuring a female hero that fired hearts instead of bullets, killing business men, stopping their bulldozers from destroying the rainforests - it's non-violent, eco-friendly themes were ahead of the curve of issues that would become mainstream in the following years.
This was the first in a series of acclaimed software releases from Hex, including 1993's eScape which promised a 'complete cyber-club in your living room' with pioneering graphics synced ti a soundtrack of trance, techno and ambient sounds. The company also contributed music videos and visuals for Coldcut's increasingly ambitious live shows.
Matt Black and Hex were also pivotal in creating and developing software and techniques in the emerging art of VJing, something that is common place in live performances today.
As if their own output isn't impressive enough Ninja has spawned several offshoot labels to unleash sounds in areas that fall outside of their own soundsphere. The first N-tone, was formed to release darker more experimental techno sounds from the likes of Hex and Flanger. The biggest and most successful offshoot is hip-hop imprint Big Dada.
Since 1997 the label has been responsible for bringing forth the freshest and most inventive hip hop joints from the UK with the likes of Roots Manuva, TY, Jammer and a certain well-known MC by the name of Wiley all releasing on the label. And also some of the most insane sounds from the US underground by the likes of Infesticons, Clouddead, MF DOOM, Antipop Consortium and Cadence Weapon. From France they have also released the happy-raps of TTC, as well as the best work by producer Diplo.
If a release has the Big Dada logo emblazoned on it is bound to be worth a listen. In 2009, Big Dada artist Speech Debelle was the surprise winner of the Mercury Music Prize.
"Big Dada is fantastic. That feeds some amazing stuff into the label, it's a label in its own right and as Big Dada that works really well. I am proud to have Rodney, Roots Manuva with all the different acts there's some really exciting stuff happening," says More.
The most recent addition to the Ninja label family, Counter, saw them step further out of their self-made remit.
"Counter is an interesting one because we did feel that there was a lot of stuff we were getting and stuff we were hearing, and also so offshoots from some of our associates and Ninja artists that were not quite in the Ninja frame with their sound or something about them. But I guess you could define it as being a bit more rock orientated. It's a bit of an experiment in the way that N-tone was, which had its time and then run its course. It will be interesting to see with Counter whether it will do what Big Dada have done or if it will be like N-tone - which was a useful vessel for that time but not something that is going to carry on."
On the evidence to date, Counter has much to recommend itself - the releases have seen exemplary examples of what great pop and rock music can sound like. From the day-glo, glam pop of Pop Levi to the bombastic hip-hop soul of the Heavy, when a Counter release lands on our review desk it immediately jumps to the top of the 'listen to pile'. Cougar's post-rock meets electronica soundscapes formed one of our favourite records of 2009 in Patriot, with us selecting them and Counter label-mates Spokes to feature on our first Incoming Transmissions MP3 compilation.
Between their central roster and that of their offshoots, Ninja have truly feed quality sounds into most genres of popular music.
And the future is looking bright, with current (from Bonobo, Infesticons, Andreya Triana) and future releases (check out our New Ninja's feature for a rundown of new signings) maintaining the quality. Jon More is excited about the way the label is going: "I am really into the Emika stuff at the moment. So that definitely is exciting. I mentioned the Bonobo album and it's really fantastic to have a new one from Funky Porcini out, after a quite a few years. In terms of the fresh stuff Emika is interesting and exciting."
Through fads, fashions and adversity Ninja Tune has survived to take its place amongst the great, classic British independent record labels like Island, Stiff, Factory and Rough Trade.
A further twenty years should see more innovation and great sounds, but does More think he and the label have it in them?
"I think I've got that in me - I'll be 73, but by then the drugs should be pretty good!"
Ninja Tune XX Box-Set out September 20
Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces book via Black Dog Publishing out August 17
Watch videos from Ninja Tune's first twenty years
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