Twenty years ago, two men called Jon More and Jonathan Black decided they had had enough. Returning from a tour of Japan as Coldcut, they vowed to set up a new record label to take them away from ‘major label bullshit’. Ninja Tune was born – and here it is, their very own ‘multi coloured escape pod’, as More describes it.
It was in Japan where they found inspiration for the label’s name, with Black discovering a cut out and keep ninja in a magazine. With Coldcut’s love of collecting, a button was pressed – and the idea of camouflaging themselves under new identities prompted them to form the label.
They were not alone for long, making the natural switch from recording under aliases such as DJ Food and Bogus Order to releasing other people’s records. Initially this was under the commercially friendly moniker of ‘trip hop’, but the pair’s relentless pursuit of new sounds and styles has moved them a long way musically since those days.
Twenty years is a lifetime in electronic music of course, and a long time in anybody’s life, but as Black testifies it was a case of taking one year at a time in the label’s infancy. “You hope you will be around, but you can never be sure how the landscape is going to pan out or whether an anvil will drop on your head! That’s what makes it exciting.”
At the core of Ninja Tune’s resolve through its 20 years is a restlessness to be moving on to the next stage, the next big thing even. When trip hop became a mainstream concern, the label were already on to big beat, then drum ‘n’ bass, and now they use dubstep in a way that pushes that form to the boundaries too.
The label’s early successes include Coldcut themselves, but soon moved on to take more risks. ‘Outing’ producer Fink as a singer-songwriter has been one of those, discovering in the process an artist with an unpretentious way of delivering some truly emotive material, while the Cinematic Orchestra‘s ventures into more jazz-related territory have been documented by concerts at the Barbican and the Royal Albert Hall, the second of which the label released on DVD. Throughout run constants such as Bonobo, who has continually impressed with his electronic and acoustic mastery of sound.
The present moment finds another crop of artists making their first albums for the label. As Coldcut point out, the music of Grasscut isn’t massively forward looking – but nor is there anything else like it around at the moment. The first record from Eskmo is imminent, but the second from Toddla T, due early next year, is perhaps the most eagerly awaited. Then there is The Bug, looking to follow up his towering London Zoo epic with a dub album currently under production with Adrian Sherwood, and new music from established label favourites Amon Tobin and Mr Scruff.
To mark their anniversary, Ninja Tune have released a dashingly handsome ‘XX’ box set and book, presenting close on 10 hours of previously unavailable material, some of it rare and specially commissioned. The book looks at their achievements and successes over two decades, but the box set decides not to. Refusing to rest on its laurels, it looks forward – with new tracks from artists fresh to the label, such as Zomby, as well as a gold mine for collectors to plunder. Even the rarities have a feel of the future about them, Coldcut recognising how valuable they are to completists but at the same time only including them if it makes forward looking musical sense.
Music is not the only strong element of the Ninja approach, with artwork also becoming an integral part. Black takes up the story again. “It was when Strictly Kev came on board that we took the graphics to another level. He’s a favourite son of Ninja because he’s a great musician and DJ, but has the graphic and visual skills as well. I think we realised pretty early on that Kev was a major talent.”
Five tunes giving an idea of the diversity of Ninja Tune over the years:
Mr Scruff – Get A Move On
Funki Porcini – What Are YouLooking At
The Qemists – Stomp Box
Daedelus – Make It So
Fink – Biscuits For Breakfast
The art is a big factor in the book accompanying the box set, a lovingly designed piece and executed piece of work. It also examines the contributions of artists Kid Koala and Mr Scruff, two who have lent the label their irreverent personas with animated stories, videos and clever samples. Koala, in his Short Attention Span Theatre tour of 2006, went as far as to involve the audience in a game of bingo made up entirely of his own sketches. Mr Scruff, who contributed the artwork to this feature, accompanies his celebratory Keep It Unreal nights with charming, quintessentially English animated characters, proclaiming the size of the bass line or the quality of the tea.
On Ninja’s pioneering approach to artwork, he has previously commented how “in audio visual stuff, I believe they are the world leaders in VJing. I think often with matching music up to visuals it can be very much a half arsed thing, but Ninja have gone the whole hog and made it into an incredible experience, following through to the sleeve art and the videos.”
Perhaps the most revealing tributes to the label come from the artists themselves, all in interviews given to musicOMH. Roots Manuva, signed to immediate sister Big Dada, describes it as a “general sonic pride in what we do naturally, and what comes to our creative selves”. The Qemists‘ Dan Arnold describes how, “just before things happened, I remember we would be saying ‘I’d love to be signed to Ninja Tune’, then kind of waking up and saying, ‘No, we’re a rock band!’ It’s the weirdest thing that it has actually happened now. I do think they’re showing they’re very eclectic.”
In a past interview given with Coldcut, we asked Matt Black if he thought the label’s success was in any way surprising. “Is life a surprise to you?” was his warm response, before he stated more profoundly that “we just thought that if we build it, they will come. We built it and they did come. They’re a bunch of obsessive, dedicated and lovely people. Sure, we would like to make a lot of money out of it, but it’s a lot what the climate’s like at the time. We’ve all still got the restlessness, and I think that’s a big part of it. I read an interview with Grandmaster Flash in the Big Issue, and he was saying, I want to be master of my trade and I’m not there yet. I thought it was modest and revealing. In this business you adopt it as a lifetime’s work. And as my girlfriend puts it, great artists don’t retire!” With that in mind we might expect Ninja Tune to be around for a long while yet – and can be sure that should they keep the quality they have shown thus far, we shouldn’t rule out pioneering acts to lead them to anniversaries 30 and 40.
The Ninja Tune XX box set, including a commemorative book, is out now. The book can be purchased separately through Black Dog Publishing. Our thanks to Mr Scruff for the artwork he supplied for this feature.