Matt Black and Peter Quicke talk us through 25 years of their award-winning label and their 13 seminal releases.
"Sorry, but this just isn't music". How many times have you heard someone say that in reaction to new, 'unfamiliar' music? Subverting the retrograde sentiment behind that phrase, UK 'instrumental hip hop' duo Coldcut decided to put it on the sleeves of their early 12" releases, chop n' paste classics such as Beats + Pieces (1987) and Doctorin' The House (1988). Pioneers in establishing the sampling technique (or what came to be known as sampledelia) "as an art form", Jonathan More and Matt Black would go on to found Ninja Tune in 1990, a fully independent space to experiment on their own terms and with no pressure from majors.
25 years later, Black, More and longtime label manager Peter Quicke received the Innovator Award at the 2015 AIM Independent Music Awards. The award not only celebrates the label's musical innovations across genres, but also its contribution to live music, technology and multimedia: the visual sampling behind Vjing, iconic DJ nights like STEALTH and Xen, mind melding live shows and interactive releases that predated today's apps.
Initially a place for artists who didn't quite fit with the 'purist' take on hip hop of other labels, but who were active at the intersection of hip hop and jazz which came to be known as 'trip hop' in the mid-1990s, Ninja Tune soon began to radically diversify its output through a system of side-labels that continues to this day. Alongside masters such as Coldcut, Amon Tobin, Machinedrum, Actress, Mr Scruff, Kid Koala and The Cinematic Orchestra, amongst recent Ninja signings are Evy Jane, Lee Bannon, Illum Sphere, Kelis, Dorian Concept, Martyn, Falty Dla and Beat Spacek. Hip hop imprint Big Dada (founded in 1997), home to mavericks such as grime prophet Wiley, Roots Manuva, Busdriver and Run The Jewels, today nurtures the talent of breakthrough artists like Kate Tempest and last year's Mercury Prize winners (and DiS favourites) Young Fathers. With other imprints like Technicolour, Actress-founded Werk Discs and Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder fairly active in their own terms, there's much to be said about Ninja Tune's eclecticism in 2015.
We caught up with Peter Quicke and Matt Black for a chat on the past and present of the label(s) and asked them to pick 13 key NT releases. Whether you're trained ninjas or neophytes, there's no excuse not to dig in.
The word 'independent' can mean a lot of different things to different people in music culture - a form of production, an ethos, a guarantee of quality for listeners and so on. One of the early NJ press releases said: "Don't drink from the mainstream, son. (...) If the marketplace is now a security zone, stop buying stuff, and grow yer own". Can you remember what 'going independent' meant from you when you decided to found the label? What does it mean now that NJ is one of the most influential 'indies' out there?
PETER QUICKE: Being independent means that we don’t answer or report to anyone else. We control what we do. We have no external investors or shareholders or holding company to tell us we can’t release this or that piece of music. It means we can ensure that the label is true to our instincts. And I guess it means we don’t chase pop music to compete in the charts which is all about hyping records for a few weeks rather than growing with artists over a longer period.
Looking at the list of recipients of the AIM Innovator Award from previous years it's tempting to say that all the labels in question have a strong identity. NT has been associated with turntablism, jazz-influenced instrumental hip-hop, 'trip-hop' etc. at different times, but in the name of eclecticism it never registered as a 'genre-purist' label. Were there key moments in the label's history when you thought the idea of a 'Ninja Tune sound', while very important, could become a limitation in itself?
PQ: We always felt the idea of a single ‘sound’ for the label was limiting but we wanted to retain some coherence to what we did. We’ve been guided by what feels right for the label. There were times when this coherence prevented us from releasing everything we wanted, so we started Counter Records and Technicolour both of which allow us to release music that doesn’t fit on Ninja Tune. Counter Records allowed us to work with (for example) The Heavy and ODESZA and continue working with Andreya Triana all of whom are important to us. Techicolour allows to indulge in our secret love for techno in various forms :) We started R’COUP’D (with Fink) so that we could keep working with the inimitable soul machine he is, whilst ensuring Ninja Tune itself remained focused. And of course Big Dada continues to be our powerhouse of maverick lyricism…
In a 1996 Wire interview Matt said: "Who knows what fragment of our music will be picked up as the most influential in a few generations. Terrifying, really". Is the prospect still 'terrifying' 20 years later? Where do you think the influence of early NT releases is most visible today?
MATT BLACK: I was partly referring to a time still to come. Some aspects of our work, perhaps unknowable still, will inspire the AI equivalent of crate digging for breakbeats, an aesthetic somewhat removed from the original. This is at once terrifying yet exciting. I truly believe that future generations, including AIs and augmented Intelligence post-humans, will collect and enjoy our 'primitive' electronic art and music. They will be able to take in 1000 films, 10000 photos and 1000000 pieces of music in a simultaneous datamoshup, savouring the connections between the component 'samples' that big data will make available but we cannot, yet, see. I'm confident that Ninja Tunes will be in that mix as the AIs think "yer man these early heads really had the right idea on order vs chaos".
I think Ninja's influence can be seen in various areas today. The idea of instrumental hip hop, labelled accurately as 'trip hop' in the 90s, has not gone away with the phrase's overuse and its identification with muzak for stoners. FlyLo's [Flying Lotus] music – which I rate – originates from the same root, IMO, yet is seen as contemporary, even futuristic. Instrumental music from Ninja has also been very popular with people working in creative industries as the music they can work to yet not be distracted by. The idea of music to work is of course more attractive to people who enjoy their work and are doing their own thing... Ninja fans tend to be creatives...
The clashup between Jazz and Ninja has been pretty fruitful…the Jazz festivals getting our crew in because they needed some new blood and excitement was a good call. As was the film festivals' openness to Ninjas experimentation to visuals and 'live cinema'. TCO [The Cinematic Orchestra] have epitomised both these intersections and helped the idea of new and live soundtracks for film classics become well established, even penetrating high culture venues rather than just clubs and raves.
Coldcut and Hexstatic's fascination with the relationships between sound and vision, has had something of a slow burn. First by literally applying the DJ techniques of real time sound manipulation to visuals, and then branching out to multiple types of AV mappings, IMO this has helped signpost the way to todays AV installations. The value of electronic visuals as a key part of electronic music performances has finally become accepted after 25 years of torch (projector?) carrying. With the help of visual 'mapping', basically VJing with fuckoff projectors on interesting shaped objects, and state of the art shows such as Amon [Tobin]'s ISAM, the game has been well and truly upped.
This convergence always seemed natural to us, as has the connection between music and computer games. Coldcut's Let Us Play! with its free CDROM of music and art 'play tools' prefigured todays apps. We're taking this forward with our app Ninja Jamm which is a new interactive music format and designed as the ultimate toy for beat junkies. The toys of today are the tools of tomorrow, hopefully Ninja will continue to keep playing.
Big Dada has been crucial to the growth of underground hip hop in the UK, despite the recurrent narrative of hip-hop being a tough sell in the UK and UK hip hop artists struggling to find an audience across the Atlantic. Were there key moments/struggles in the history of Big Dada and what do you think is the current situation?
MB: Roots Manuva was a key signing. For my money him and The Streets best defined authentic and unique UK rap to date. Rodney [Smith] has a charismatic vulnerability which is a refreshing change from the scripted machismo and narrow subject matter of the US blueprint/straitjacket. Wiley also reps UK rap in an inimitable style. Now Big Dada has bust the box further open with Young Fathers and Kate Tempest, music we're thrilled to be giving a platform to, full of soul and ideas, politics, poetry and passion. These artists have true charisma, an attraction which arises from love of people and natural fire, not some sorry materialistic ersatz posturing. They actually care. This is what Big Dada, and hip hop generally, is really about. Will the USA ever buy it? We live in hope but we don't need US endorsement – for any aspect of our culture or lives.
Stevie Chick's 2010 tome Ninja Tune: Twenty Years of Beats and Pieces ends with a quote by Strictly Kev [DJ Food] saying: "It's a label with Attention Deficit Disorder, because tomorrow it will wake up and hear or see something else that will change its mind". Were there any notable 'changes of mind' in the past 5 years that new listeners 'should' know about to get a sense of what NT is today?
PQ: Ninja Tune is more focused on being an electronic label than it was 5 years ago, that was a conscious decision, so in itself its perhaps has less attention deficit than before – but that's because we can express our attention deficit disorder across more labels! But also we are more focused that ever before on getting the best music for each label – we spend more time looking and listening than ever before – there is more to listen to than ever before.
13 SEMINAL NINJA TUNE RELEASES
A selection by Matt Black & Peter Quicke
'Witness (1 Hope)'
...also known as 'Witness The Fitness' (from Run Come Save Me, 2001)
"'I sit here contented with this cheese on toast.' With one lateral phrase poking out amongst many others, Rodney Smith re-cast the whole lyrical landscape of UK hip hop and beyond. Arguably this bruising, squelching, rearing monster is a key moment in the musical evolution that brought us grime. At the very least, it’s a dub-wise punky, synthesised retort to anyone that thought hip hop was about old funk breaks and nothing else. Powered by the devastating juggernaut of a bass line, reputedly inspired by the Doctor Who theme tune, the whole thing reels on with unstoppable energy and is a genuine UK anthem" – PQ.
Coldcut and Hexstatic
'Timber' (from Let Us Play!, 1997)
"Coldcut are among the originators of the UK sampling scene. Along with New York’s Steinski they epitomised cut & paste turntable sampling and, on their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’ they single-handedly redefined what 'remix' means. 'Timber' — made with Hexstatic — took their microdicing, looping and processing techniques and applied them to audiovisual material. The result was a political and poetic work that was an epiphany for many working in music and video and became a Greenpeace anthem. Hard-hitting, engaged and technologically advanced, it took both the protest record and the band in a new direction, the implications of which are still being explored"– PQ.
Jazz Brakes (series, 1990-1994)
"Having helped establish sampling as both an art form and a recognisable branch of hip hop, Coldcut took the technique in another direction – turning simple loops into tunes with more traditional song structures as opposed to just beats. Check out 'Dark Wheel', 'Cosmic Jam', 'Hung Up', 'Dark Lady' and many others on the classic Jazz Brakes albums, amongst Ninja’s first ever releases. The innovations here paved the way for Geoff Barrow’s Portishead, the Mo’ Wax label and a whole ‘downbeat’ scene which included many early Ninja Tune releases. Ninja's artists consistently cite hip hop as the seed from which we all sprang, and Jazz Brakes is a key reason why" – PQ.
Vapor City (2013)
"Travis Stewart is a pretty deep individual. Not content with folding the likes of footwork, trap and twisted drum & bass back into electronic music more generally, he made a concept album for his first record for us. Vapor City is the name of the metropolis Travis visits in his dreams. He claims to have spent so much sleep-time there that he can describe its geography and districts, even individual streets. Each tune on the record, then, is supposed to soundtrack one of these districts. Luckily, he doesn’t let any of that get in the way of his uniquely skewiff, strangely beautiful reboot of twenty years of club culture. 'Gunshotta' is the killer moment, but it’s the cumalative effect of getting lost in a brand new City that stays with you" – PQ.
Everybody Down (2014)
"Ted Hughes and Poetry Society award-winning poet but also Deal Real Friday session freestyle rapper back in the day, Kate commands devotion for the energy and emotion of her performances – an example of true charisma that people respond to from the heart, as I can testify from seeing here at Glastonbury @ the Rum Shack where she overcame sound problems to fully shine on us. Everybody Down is a story-album, an intimate tapestry of reality that challenges negativity with love, not through preaching but with concrete example. As in all authentic songs, each lyric repays further listening as the wordplay and sinuous cross-linking of themes and ideas delivers more depth. The one and only Mr Dan provides the perfect musical accompaniment throughout – together he and Kate lead you through a brilliant labyrinth" – MB.
"There will always be arguments about whether feel or technical skill is more important in electronic music production. Amon Tobin completely short circuits the question through his practice, where the most detailed, painstaking, perfectly designed production results in huge emotional impact. His miniaturist approach is consistently mind-blowing, never more so than on ISAM – it’s a little like having the hairs in your deepest inner ear combed, plaited and built into tiny temples. Throw in the most stunning and clever 3D mapping show and you can understand why audiences worldwide relished the raising of the live electronic bar embodied by the ISAM tour. Self-effacing, warm and open in person, Amon is a true Ninja… invisible yet invincible" – MB.
The Cinematic Orchestra
'Diabolus' (from Motion, 1999)
"Jason Swinscoe created an entirely new genre of jazz fusion when he used samples with such sensititvity and feel that you couldn’t help believing the original musicians would have loved it. 'Diabolus', from his debut album, Motion perfectly demonstrates this. This btw was made while he still worked in the Ninja Tune office, perhaps the best example yet of a Ninja fairy tale! It has a moody evocative feel, a hard-edged jazz aesthetic combined with the emotional build of classic house, and also signposted a way out of trip hop and towards the allure of real instruments and playing. Of course The Cinematic Orchestra have gone on to be a force to be reckoned with in soundtrack and electronic music history – seeing them perform Man with A Movie Camera  at the first big Barbican show was a major revelation to me, like ISAM an event which upped the ante for us all working with music and visuals – and we’re as excited to hear their new album as everyone else" – MB.
"Young Fathers kind of come out of nowhere – and also Edinburgh! With musical roots as much in 80s post-punk as moody 90s hip hop (and even Situationism) they’re truly unique. On paper it could sound like a hard sell, but the thing which struck us most when we first heard them was how much melody they pack into everything they do, so that they’re never difficult to listen to and their tunes bounce around in your head for a long while after listening. They’re also AMAZING live, like nothing else out there. And they won’t smile to order. Doomy, uplifting, they’re the sound of Britain now" – PQ.
Black Sands (2010)
"With Animal Magic  Simon Green spawned a thousand chill-out scenes. But Black Sands is the moment when he elevated the craft to an unquestionably unique, personal and yet irresistibly banging level. Melding sounds, melodies and ideas from a hundred places, this is the perfect embodiment of Bonobo, combining as it does his innate musicianship and arrangement skills with a harder-edged, more complete display of contemporary production techniques and styles. '1009' perhaps displays it best – a kind of widescreen, emotive string number driven by a monster of a beat. It's been fascinating to watch Simon build his thing internationally the old way, by consistently getting better and touring quality shows. Cool creative people everywhere love Bonobo and it’s great when an artist you’ve worked with for a while – annd one who has consistently excelled – finds a way to step it up a further gear and further surprise you" – MB.
London Zoo (2008)
"Kevin Martin has been on the cutting edge of UK music for over fifteen years, from his work as part of Techno Animal, Ice and God to projects like King Midas Sound, Razor X Productions and Pressure, plus collaborations with everyone from John Zorn to El-P to Kevin Shields. London Zoo is, though, his masterwork – a musically and politcally devastating attack on the modern state of the UK in general and London town in particular. Drawing on dancehall, grime and dub, Kevin took the consituent elements of what had become known as dubstep and put them to work in the service of pure, righteous anger. Raw!" – PQ.
Playtime Is Over (2007)
"The godfather of grime’s best album? It’s hard to say definitively, as each such release is really a collection of whatever he’s made at that point in time. However, despite a ferocious work ethic combined with a Tourette’s approach to quality control, Playtime Is Over probably comes the closest in his massive ouevre to holding together as a body of work. From paeans to his home neighbourhood Bow, Ninja Tune’s 50/50 profit split deal and his baby daughter, to the BBK anthem ‘No Qualms’ and the affecting ‘Letter To Dizzee,’ it’s an emotional, hard-hitting journey with enough clever couplets to keep most rapper’s in business for a lifetime. Listen to teacher!" – PQ.
'Get A Move On' (from Keep It Unreal, 1999)
"At the turn of the millennium this was the quintessential Ninja Tune in yer DJ box. And I still play it. A Moondog lick with vocals sampled from T-Bone Walker and an irresistible house beat, it was clever, quirky and upbeat. Very simple but an absolutely perfect mix of cool underground fave with simultaneous pop appeal, this tune is recognised worldwide for its instant good time vibe. It’s rare that an artist manages to sum up so succinctly everything that they’re about, but – from the title to the artwork to the sample-selection to the sound – Scruff did it on this one. Plus the case for this tune being the birth of electroswing is solid" – MB.
"People who only know Diplo in his latest guise as EDM/pop kingmaker are always surprised when they hear Florida. In many ways a late coming to the downbeat sampling genre, this album is nonetheless a wonderfully inspiring piece of work, and of course the starting point for the Major Lazer founder and Bieber-collaborator’s extraordinary career. Drawing on his love of Southern bounce but made in a kind of exile in Philly (where he began hosting his Hollertronix nights while finishing up the record), the record is thick with nostalgia, sly jokes, soul, epic arrangements and, perhaps most of all, thunderous drum-programming. Throw in baile funk and a truly eclectic mix of vocalists and you begin to see the vague outlines of what Diplo would become, but in sultry rather than sweaty mode" – PQ.