Ninja Tune turns 20 this year, and to celebrate, the label has just released Ninja Tune XX, a two-volume compilation featuring new and exclusive material from all the Ninja regulars as well as a host of friends, peers, and influencers.
In recognition of their achievements, we spoke with co-founders Matt Black and Jonathan More—aka Coldcut—whose enthusiastic, opinionated, wry, and ultimately optimistic attitudes have helped guide the label along its incredible two-decade run. Today we conclude the interview; if you missed yesterday’s installment, be sure to read it here.
How would you describe the evolution of the label’s vision over the years? Today you have full band projects like Jaga Jazzist, or Fink, a singer-songwriter. Have there been distinct eras or phases for the label, over the years?
Matt Black: I think there are eras, and definitely errors. The obvious answer is that it started out just as a way for Jon and me to release our own music. And then we attracted other people on some kind of similar mentality. We also had the vision to make Ninja Tune an artists’ label, where the artists had the priority rather than the dollar sign, and I think that attracted a certain number of people who were perhaps dissatisfied—who were suspicious of the normal, run-of-the-mill music business, wanted something else, and could see that maybe Ninja Tune would provide that. More broadly, there’s a certain free-wheeling attitude among all the Ninja Tune artists. We are kind of a collection of oddballs, and that’s what unites us. It’s just grown into a massive, sprawling tribe of oddballs.
We like to think that all the artists on Ninja have a mutant gene of some sort or another.
There has been that evolution. When we started our publishing company all those years ago, we called it Just Isn’t Music, based after a review of a hip-hop record by a soul magazine that just said, “Sorry, this isn’t music.” We stuck two fingers up at that and said, “Well, we like it, and if enough people like it, it is music.” So there was a reaction against bands and guitars. It got very clichéd, the whole rock thing. But dance and electronic music gets clichéd, everything comes to a trend, you said, Jon.
Jonathan More: You can’t hear the music for the sound of people jumping on the bandwagon!
Matt: So we’ve sort of moved into the middle. We’re not extremists of electronic music, we’re appreciators of all music and all sound. And that’s a really good place to be operating from, and that’s what Ninja has become.
It’s striking that you’ve had so many artists stay with you over the years. I can’t think of many who have left; it’s like a ball of twine that just keeps gathering mass.
Matt: I think the relationships are very symbiotic. Roots Manuva is an interesting example. Everyone was saying, this is the savior of British rap and a phenomenal talent, which he is. But actually, he was offered a major deal, he went and hung out with Sony, I think it was, and he didn’t like it. He saw through them. He saw that it was fake, and he came back to Ninja Tune. It’s a riff he’s used in one of his raps. That was a good feeling, because he’s someone we admire very much, and a great talent to have on board.
Speaking of Roots Manuva and hip-hop generally, and you mentioned Steinski—I believe he appeared on Ninja Tune, right?
Jon: He did, yeah.
Matt: I just listed his track, actually, as one of my five forgotten gems from the Ninja archive, a track called ”It’s Up to You.”
What’s your relationship to hip-hop today? Obviously it’s a genre that’s changed a lot over the years.
Jon: Yeah, that’s a difficult one. Because hip-hop has become such a McDonalds style of music, and a way of selling product. But it still does apply to some great things, and everyone on Ninja Tune is a hip-hop fan in one way or another, or of one era or another. I think, Matt, you mentioned this and made me think about it: the thing about hip-hop is that it’s a diverse genre. It’s not just music, it’s graffiti, and it’s movement, dancing, breakdancing. It’s quite a social thing as well.
Matt: Even the style and the clothes—hip-hop’s a strong culture because it’s not just about a style of music. I think that’s kept it going, that’s kept it vibrant. But it’s like a lot of things, it’s like religion, it’s like Christianity—the original message is good, but the dogma and crap that get bolted on top by various overblown egos can be very unattractive. I think, on the one hand, one wants to get away from it, but on the other hand, the original energy and soul, the true core of it, remains the same. That original core is always throwing up new artists and new ideas, but it can get very hard to find them because of the enormous amount of, as Jon says, McDance.
Jon: Boil in a bag, actually, is my phrase.
I’ve been listening to some of the Chicago juke releases that Planet Mu is putting out, and thinking about some of the post-dubstep releases from London, and there’s a lot of hip-hop energy in it, but it’s mutated in a way that has moved away from the egocentric MC model.
Matt: I think that’s right. We’re certainly not going to be the ones to stand up and say, “Hip-hop is dead, it’s lost it.” Yes, there’s a lot of boring commercial rap around, and it’s not our cup of tea, it’s not ever been what Ninja Tune’s interested, or Jon and me personally. But I think “mutant” is the word, actually, and a word we should use more when discussing Ninja, because we like to think that all the artists on Ninja have a mutant gene of some sort or another. I grew up on the X-Men, so…
Jon: But no turtles…
Matt: Don’t mention the fucking [Ninja] Turtles! Oh god! Right, that’s why we don’t use that word. I’ve put my foot in it again. Sorry, I’m claming the word back.
Jon: It’s been long enough.
Matt: Jay Electronica is a hip-hop prophet for today. I just love the fact that, at the moment it seems all dried up and finished, it bursts forth again, and the shoot pops up in another place, in another form, that you weren’t expecting. That’s good. Also, we’ve got Flying Lotus’ label associated with Ninja now, his Brainfeeder label, and I particularly like Lorn.
Jon: [whispering in awe] Yeeeeahhhh.
Matt: And Teebs is good as well. Actually, in fact, Gaslamp Killer’s EP is out soon, and I reckon that is some futuristic hip-hop shit right there. I think there’s a few good points that one can enjoy.
It seems like there’s a focusing of energies in this area of hip-hop—maybe a bit like the early days of Ninja Tune, when a lot of people were approaching similar ideas in different ways. There’s just a lot of momentum building.
Matt: I think Flying Lotus deserves some credit for just ripping the box open a bit, and making it more acceptable to wig out and not be so anal and constricted by the grid. A lot of the music I’ve just mentioned is coming from LA, so that’s a pretty exciting to be. Jon’s been over there a couple of times.
Jon: It’s marvelous.
Matt: The guy who’s managing Coldcut is this rather brilliant, maverick character called Don Smith, and he also manages Cinematic Orchestra and Flying Lotus. So he’s really up on what’s happening. We’ve never had anyone like that to work with before, so that’s really good. He’s definitely been keeping us up to speed on all that stuff. It’s great, with Ninja having Brainfeeder as well, lot of talent going on there—I don’t want to put down London, London’s always red hot, but LA’s giving us some serious competition at the moment.
I wanted to ask you about London; what’s happening there, and what’s Ninja’s relationship to the underground scene at the moment? Curiously, there seems to be a growing LA/London connection.
Jon: There’s an expat community over there, as well.
Matt: Soon to be joined by you, Jon? You like it over there.
Jon: The weather’s good, you know? The pace is very nice, but shit still gets done. There’s been interesting things blowing up in all places. You mentioned Berlin; Emika, who’s on the label and has got some great material, has been based in Berlin for a while. She’s UK-originated, but her music is very shaped by that city. You can hear it, feel it.
Matt: The music software scene is pretty much dominated by Berlin companies now, with Native Instruments and Ableton. I’m kind of rather jealous of that, but it’s good. We have quite close relationships with those companies, because they appreciate what Coldcut do. We’re kind of in an R&D dance with them over many years.
Laura Sykes, PR Manager: Actually, Emika works part time for Native Instruments as well.
Didn’t she create the field recordings for the new Ostgut Ton compilation?
Laura: Yes, she did.
Matt: We’re waiting to come over and play at Berghain, it’s going to happen in a few months’ time.
How have you adapted Ninja Tune to the changes in the music industry? How have you dealt with the problems of the last few years, and has there ever been a time when you just wanted to throw in the towel?
Matt: I think we’ve always had a pretty good, prescient vision of how digitization and networks would change everything, including our business, so that’s helped us keep abreast of it. Yes, there’ve been some painful shocks, but we’ve managed to keep nimble.
Jon: We’ve got several towels, as well.
Matt: Several what?
Jon: Several towels.
To throw in, you mean.
[laugher all around]
Jon: A lot of that keeping ahead of things does actually seem to stem from us wanting to do something. Matt and I wanted to perform Coldcut material live, and at the time there wasn’t really the equipment there to do it in the way that we thought was genuine, in a way that would suit us. So that was prescient of Ableton and all the DJ controllers that you get now. It was more about, we want to do this, how are we going to do it… I think having that, that frustration—
Matt: What, not having the exact tools to do what we want? I think it’s improved, though. We have to give Ableton a plug. We had our own version of Ableton that we used 13, 14 years ago, on laptops, so that we could do loop-based live sets. We even had a deal with Steinberg to distribute the software, which was called D-Jam. But it stalled out for various reasons, and Ableton came along and was the tool for the job, so we’ve kind of adopted that as the main program we use for audio performance and even production, nowadays. There are good tools out there, but it’s good to invest some time and energy in research and development. I think that’s kept us fresh and up to speed.
I think it’s good for an artist to make their own tools. We’ve always encouraged people to do that. It’s about not surrendering to monoculture.
Regarding the bigger picture of how downloading and digital copying has changed the music business, it’s real tough. I think in the first sort of 15 years of Coldcut’s career, even of Ninja Tune’s, maybe, we had almost no sync licenses, which is when your track gets licensed for a film or an advert. There was big money around for it in those days, and it wasn’t much known about, it wasn’t very visible. Then we realized a few years ago, a lot of Ninja tracks were getting used for TV programs on BBC, so it was obvious that this was a soundtrack that was appropriate. So we formed a company called Sync Inc, which is part of Ninja Tune, and has a couple of guys working on it pretty much full time, just to go out and get sync licenses. That is now a very important part of our business. It was an obvious thing to do, and I wish we’d done it before, but we’ve gotten into it now and it’s working out pretty well.
I was reading an old interview with you with Iara Lee, and you were talking about technology and the human condition, and some sort of techno-utopian ideas that seemed very ‘90s. I just wondered if your attitudes towards technology have changed? You mention Ableton, which is an amazing production tool, but at the same time there’s a movement in which everything is becoming much more consumer-based, and increasingly less open-source.
Matt: I think as before, I think it gets more extreme. You could come out and say yeah, it’s terrible, everything on the iPad has become more locked up and it’s all more generic, less customizable and less mutant, but that just depends where you’re putting your attention. There are also immense possibilities for mutation and individual expression in, for instance, the areas of open-source software. I think it’s good for an artist to make their own tools. We’ve always encouraged people to do that. It’s about not surrendering to monoculture. If Ableton became the only software that people used, that would become monoculture as well. And that would be a trap, and it’s to be avoided. If an artist were to program their own thing in an environment like Max/MSP, it might be limited, what they’re doing, but it will always have their own stamp, and they will know it intimately. I think that’s a really strong thing for artists and musicians to be able to do.
Jon: Daedelus is a good example of that.
Does he build his own sampling software?
Matt: I think he works with a guy who’s a Max programmer, and he had that wicked interface before the Monome which was a kind of one-off hardware interface that you could see what he’s doing. You could see that he’s actually, with his hands, producing these real-time mashups. So apart from the fact that he’s apart from the fact that he’s very well dressed, it’s a good package. He’s a character, you know? He’s a character that people can appreciate.
Where would you like to take the label next?
Matt: I’d still like to see Ninja Tune expand more into the general software market. You can regard music as software. It’s software to help you enjoy a particular kind of environment, whether it’s shopping, having sex, whatever.
Matt: But I think the work we did a few years ago on the interactive music and art toy has been quite well vindicated, and I think we could still do more with that on the label. It’s a bit of a battle I wage with the others. Pete points out, quite rightly, that music is our core business, and what pays for everything else. So we can’t afford to have a massive multimedia laboratory, which is what I’d like to have. But Warp have had Warp films, and there are iPhone apps and games by other artists and labels, and I think that’s still something we can get into. You know our piece “Timba,” with Hexstatic? That was a very literal example of audiovisual composition, but there’s a lot of other ways in which you can associate sound and images together. It’s amazingly plastic, actually. The plasticity of that relationship is huge. Film, in some ways, is the top artform, and it’s natural for musicians who are interested in visuals as well to start playing with visuals and finding ways to associate that with the music. I think that’s ongoing.
In a way, it feels like where visuals are now is where electronic music was 20 years ago. The tools are finally available to amateurs, and YouTube is there as a distribution channel. You have people screwing around with visuals and music who aren’t trained filmmakers or anything, they’re just amateurs in the purest sense of the word.
Matt: I think we can claim to have been carrying that torch for a while, and it’s still got a long way to go, so that’s a sort of exciting, unexplored territory. I think Ninja Tune can have fun there too.
If that doesn’t work out, you can always do more tea varieties with Mr. Scruff.
Matt: Of course, branching into the tea market. Coffee too.
That’s all my questions, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time. It’s been really fascinating.
Matt: Brilliant. Just to comment on the point about the changing situation—distribution networks like Beatport are very important to us, and sometimes with digital distribution, as with other forms of distribution, it can be difficult to get noticed unless you’re one of the huge players. But generally we find there are people around who do know who we are, and give us some love. So, it’s important to us. Thanks.
Jon: Thanks for the support, mate.
Ninja Tune XX: Volume One
Ninja Tune XX: Volume 2