Don’t stop this crazy thing: Coldcut and Ninja Tune

Don’t stop this crazy thing

Ninja Tune XX traces Coldcut’s path through decades of sampledelia

Coldcut used to brag that it was “Ahead Of Our Time.” In the late 80s, they slapped the phrase onto a host of groundbreaking forays into cut-and-paste sound mathematics like “Beats + Pieces,” “Doctorin’ the House” and “Stop This Crazy Thing,” freewheeling tunes that treated the history of sound as an enormous candy shop, copyright laws be damned.

And now? Coldcut’s long-running company Ninja Tune reflects the musical times in all its heterogeneous sub-genres and variations on familiar themes. When Matt Black and Jonathan More launched Ninja Tune in 1990, it was to create an outlet for the group’s abiding passion in instrumental beats (which the British press would soon garnish with colorful nicknames like “trip-hop” and “sampledelia”). It was built on Coldcut-related productions like DJ Food’s Jazz Brakes series and Bogus Order’s Zen Brakes. The label then flowered into a major-indie with two sub-labels (the rock and soul oriented Counter and the experimental hip-hop of Big Dada) and dozens of artists passing through its doors, from Amon Tobin and Roots Manuva to Antibalas and Mr. Scruff. It releases iconoclastic statements from the L.A. beat scene (Daedelus), the Baltimore indie/electro scene (Spank Rock and the Death Set) and London’s grime and bass worlds (Wiley and Kevin Martin’s the Bug).

During a phone interview from London, Coldcut’s Matt Black says, “All the artists on the label have their own character. It’s like a collection of audibles, really. There’s a consistency in the fact that we’re all quite out there.” He adds that Ninja Tune is more “advanced” than its first decade, when most of the roster – including production units like the Herbaliser and Funki Porcini — fit under the “trip-hop” rubric. “I felt that some of the early releases interpreted the Coldcut blueprint too literally, just getting some funky loops and sounds and stringing it out for a bit.” Part of this is due to maturity. The Herbaliser, for example, began as a maker of beat “loops” for discerning headz, but it has since grown into full-fledged producers and arrangers. Even DJ Food, which now solely consists of producer Strictly Kev, has become a purveyor of soundtrack music inspired as much by David Axelrod as Marley Marl.

The mutating Ninja Tune amoeba is being chronicled through a series of 20th anniversary promotions. The deluxe box set Ninja Tune XX includes a hardcover book, six CDs, and six 7-inch vinyl records. (The book, Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats & Pieces, was also issued separately in paperback.) “If you look at the arrangements and the musicality on the music on the XX set, I think it’s a lot more advanced than it was a few years ago,” says Matt Black, pointing to San Francisco’s Brendan “Eskmo” Angelides as an example. The range of styles on Ninja Tune XX, he adds, coincides with “a new, exciting period in electronic music. Ninja Tune is one of the labels that are most proactive in that area.”

Eskmo isn’t the first Bay Area artist to record for Ninja Tune; that honor belongs to rap experimentalist cLOUDDEAD, which released the UK edition of its 2001 self-titled album through Big Dada. However, he gives Ninja Tune a foothold in the thriving bass and organic electronic music scene.

On tracks like “Hypercolor,” Eskmo merges symphonic melody riffs with swells of booming bass. He says that signing with Ninja Tune, which just released his self-titled debut, has been “really inspirational.” “Just seeing the whole [label] team and its massive roster … It’s really a unique thing in this day and age for an independent to be flourishing and still put out really creative and unique stuff.”

According to the book 20 Years of Beats & Pieces, Ninja Tune emerged in the wake of the music industry’s brief yet disillusioning courtship of Coldcut, who dazzled with a game-changing remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” (the classic “Seven Minutes of Madness” mix) and UK pop hits like Yazz’ “The Only Way Is Up” and Queen Latifah’s “Find a Way.” It was Coldcut’s middle finger to demands that they become another group of pop-dance hacks like Stock, Aitken and Waterman. “We really liked making instrumental hip-hop, fucking around, not having to make another ‘pop’ track,” Black told author Stevie Chick. On albums such as 1997’s Let Us Play, Coldcut struck equilibrium between advocating the wonders of cutting-edge technology and vinyl consumption while promoting anti-capitalist themes.

An inevitable by-product of Ninja Tune’s success (as well as that of its great rival, Warp Records) is that its fashion-forward yet radical communalist lifestyle seems more myth than reality. In 2005, the label released Amon Tobin’s soundtrack for the Ubisoft video game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Last year, Speech Debelle won the UK Mercury Prize (equivalent to the Grammy Award for Album of the Year) for her Speech Therapy debut. A few months later, the British rapper announced that she wanted off the Big Dada label because it didn’t promote her work enough. Meanwhile, several roster artists have scored popular car commercials, from Mr. Scruff’s “Get a Move On” for the Lincoln Navigator to the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” for KIA Sorento minivans.

Black explains, “We’ve adapted our game. We’ve got a company called Sync, Inc. and they specialize in getting sync licenses, or getting our music placed in films, TV, video games, and adverts. That’s become an important part of our business.” When asked if that contradicts Coldcut’s earlier, stridently independent philosophy, he answers, “We give our artists a lot of freedom. If an artist wants to license a track to Coca-Cola, we wouldn’t necessarily block them. … Coldcut has turned down a lot of syncs, particularly car ads, ever since we did one for Ford and realized that was a terrible idea.” Ironically, the song used was “Timber,” an instrumental decrying the eradication of rain forests. Even though Coldcut gave half of the licensing money to Greenpeace, says Black, “We didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

Two decades on, Ninja Tune continues to weather rapidly changing music industry while sustaining Coldcut’s dream of an independent haven for progressive artists. But the future ain’t free. Black says, “I believe the corporations are the Nazis of our age. But you sometimes have to talk to the Nazis because they’re a reality.”

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This story was published October 26 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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