Ninja Tune is celebrating 20 years of underground grooves with gigs around the globe. Let us reminisce a wee bit about some of its outstanding records and the politics of sound behind Britain’s coolest music label.
Matt Black looks gleeful as he recounts how Ninja Tune got its name: He and label co-founder Jonathan More were gigging in Japan in 1990 and had come about a beautifully crafted cardboard toy house. Behind its windows a ninja figure appeared, then quickly retreated, leaving the onlooker marveling as to which window the shady warrior would appear in next time.
Both More and Black liked the idea of the surprise attack enough to name their freshly founded label after this cheap, apparently traditional toy.
Matt, a supersmart computer programmer and Jon, a patient minded art teacher with a passion for collage and cut-up approach to literary and visually associative artworks (like William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin) started their now legendary weekly Solid Steel Radio Show on then pirate station KISS FM in 1987, known for airing "The Broadest Beats in London".
In the same year they produced their first underground hits Say Kids, What Time Is It? and a 7-minute ace remix of Erik B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full:
They began running their collaboration under the name Coldcut and are equally successful and artistically demanding to this day.
In 1990, after having produced an album for a certain Lisa Stansfield, the pair founded their record label Ninja Tune. The first releases by DJ Food soon gained the label a reputation for releasing funky, eclectic stuff. Soon other Ninjas started gathering in the old warehouse on the banks of the Thames: Dj Food, Hexstatic, Funki Porcini, 9 Lazy 9, Amon Tobin, Dj Vadim, The Herbaliser, Wagon Christ, DK or Fink:
Apart from their huge, high-quality musical output, Coldcut continue to pioneer audiovisual entertainment to illustrate their live gigs. Their softwear Vjamm can be downloaded for free here.
How does the true Ninja like to see himself? The liner notes of 2000’s Xen Cuts compilation informed us: “Modesty, a lack of pomposity, humility. Skipping through a field of stiff upper lips with a twinkle in the eye.” In 2010, 20 years into the game, this statement still rings true for the label that makes the most of the difference in Britain's independent music landscape.
“There was a kind of freewheeling, alternative philosophy that we stood for, and I think people really knew that Coldcut were holding up the flag, and saying fuck off to the music business and that we were gonna do it ourselves,” Matt says, “I think the reason we’ve survived is because we do actually have a certain pragmatic understanding of the music business whereas a lot of the other more hippy labels don’t.”
Specialising from the beginning in underground/dancefloor/hiphop/chillout, the Ninja back catalogue was steadily extended with experimental electronic music and jazzy dance music (through their sublabels NTone and Mr.Scruff's Ninja Tuna), hiphop (via sublabel Big Dada) and even rock (check out Counter Records) what the ninjas describe as “post dubstep diaspora”. Which means? Hybrids between dubstep and influences from diverse genres:
For their 20-year celebration, Ninja Tune is partying around the world, in the process releasing a deluxe package of fresh music, remixes and goodies:
Enjoy a Red Bull Music Academy Radio show with DJ Food live at Mephisto Club in Barcelona and get your flavours of indispensable Ninja sashimi on the following label compilations. Don't forget your chop sticks...
Ninja Cuts Funkjazztical Tricknology (March 1995)
Xen Cuts Missed Flipped and Skipped (September 2000)
You Don't Know: Ninja Cuts (March 2008)
Ninja Tune XX Vols 1 & 2 (September 2010)