As you’ve surely heard by now, Ninja Tune turns 20 years old this year, and the crew behind the label is pulling out all the stops: events, a box set, free mixes downloadable from the label’s website, and a gigantic, inflatable ninja figure filled with helium and tethered to the label’s headquarters, beaming lasers from its eyes all across South London. (That last bit’s not true, actually—neither the lasers nor the inflatable ninja—but I like the idea so much, I’m just going to keep imagining it. Something for Ninja Tune XXV, perhaps?)
One of the cornerstones of the celebration is Ninja Tune XX, a two-volume compilation—the equivalent of four CDs in total—whose remit is not a look back but rather forward, featuring a bevy of new tracks, album previews and one-off remixes. All the Ninja heavyweights are represented—The Bug, Daedelus, Coldcut, Bonobo, Amon Tobin, you name it—and also a slew of talents only peripherally related to the label. Flying Lotus, Joker, Zomby, Rustie, El-B, Mark Pritchard, Todd Edwards, Lamb’s Lou Rhodes, Autechre, Digital Mystikz’ Mala, Floating Points, Hot Chip, Future Sound of London (in their Amorphous Androgynous guise), King Jammy—it’s almost easier to name the producers who aren’t featured here. (Hell, even the new-classical combo Kronos Quartet turns up covering Amon Tobin.)
In honor of the occasion, Beatportal rang up Ninja Tune founders Jonathan More and Matt Black—aka Coldcut—at the Ninja Towers in South London to see how they feel about the fact that their baby is all grown up. As always, the pair’s answers were as entertaining as they were edifying. Updated: Check out part two here.
How are you feeling about the 20th anniversary, and how long have you been preparing?
Matt Black: It’s all going rather scarily well. It’s been most of a year’s preparation, really. We knew that we wanted to make it really special. Put that down to Peter Quicke and the rest of the Ninja Tune tribe, who actually do all the hard work of organizing it. I guess the actual box set and the CDs and the new music and the book took up the better part of a year, and also the parties are a fair bit of organization as well. But, it’s been fun—says the man who doesn’t have to do the hard work.
What is the organization like today? What’s your involvement in the label, and how many people do you have working there?
Jonathan More: We’ve got about 12 full-time staff now. Peter Quicke, the label manager, and Will Ashton, who’s the label manager for Big Dada and the force behind that. We have our headquarters in South London, the Ninja Towers, which is where Matt and I have studios as well. We’re in here quite regularly, aren’t we, Matt—we come in for meetings once a week, definitely, on a Wednesday.
Matt: Yes, we’re all plugged into the Ninja telepathic matrix. We’ve got this lovely, kind of crummy, big old building of our own in South London, and we run everything out of there. We’ve got our studios here—I’m sitting in my studio at the moment, it’s called Space Lab; Jon’s in his downstairs. Has yours got a name, Jon?
Jon: Caveland. [Uproarious laughter]
All those people who tell you that you should just have positive thoughts all the time are talking bollocks. The power of negative thinking.
So you’re not in the same room?
Jon: He’s upstairs.
Laura Sykes, PR Manager: And I’m sitting in the office floor, which is kind of in-between…
Matt: With her lovely pink laptop stand. And then there’s the warehouse downstairs, because we do a lot of our own order fulfillment. So there’s all the stuff for the Ninja shop—loads of shirts and records and CDs and band stuff and crap. It’s like a Dickensian rock ‘n’ roll folly.
It sounds a bit like Kompakt; you’ve got the whole vertical integration thing going on. Literally, with Ninja Towers.
Matt: Funny, they keep coming up, actually. I went to a Kompakt party in Cologne recently, and they’re definitely a sort of parallel universe to Ninja Tune.
Let’s go back in time: what motivated you to start the label?
Matt: In a word: frustration, really. I think that was the initial motivation for doing it. As with a lot of things. All those people who tell you that you should just have positive thoughts all the time are talking bollocks. The power of negative thinking.
Jon: It’s cool as long as you turn it into action. The worst kind of negative thought is the type that occurs on forums where people sit on their bum and just whinge all the time. If you’ve got that frustration, you need to turn it into action. It was Japan that inspired us to get out of the mire of the record label industry as it was in 1990 and get into Ninja and design. I think Matt coined the phrase, “psychedelic escape pod.”
Matt: Yep. Our psychedelic escape pod from the sausage machine of the music business. Even though we started off as independent punks, we somehow found ourselves, as many people have before, in the bowels of this rather awful, un-feeling machine that just wants to crank the handle and make more dollars.
Jon: Yeah. We got flopped on.
Matt: Flopped on by the sausage machine. But we escaped, and we’re here in one piece, 20 years later.
At the time, you were locked into a major-label contract, right? So Ninja was your outlet for everything they wouldn’t let you do?
Jon: Everything other than Coldcut as such. It took us until 1994 to wrestle that back.
Matt: Part of the Ninja idea was that we could have aliases. So it’s a disguise technique whereby we could actually do our own thing under an alias, like DJ Food, and the major label that owned the Coldcut—that had exclusivity over that name and our product—could say nothing. So we had an escape route to release our artistic constipation.
Bogus Order was one of your aliases, no?
Jon: That’s another one.
Matt: Jon, did we get that name from “Say Kids What Time Is It?” Because when we made our very first record, it was a mashup—it was really just a load of samples, not licensed, put together. And we knew that you couldn’t do that officially. We also thought that there was a lot of talk about piracy in the music business, so when we went to the pressing plant, we gave false names, and they said it was a bogus order.
You’re so rooted in sample culture—how have your attitudes about sampling changed over time?
Jon: The bigger you are, the more painful it can be. We still wrestle, don’t we, Matt, every day—
Matt: When we started off, we were just a couple of punks with big record collections, who realized that we could paste bits of sounds together to make rhythmic collages. It was very much inspired by, as we’ve said so many times, but it’s got to be said again, these guys Double-Dee and Steinski, from New York. They’re like us: a couple of smart white guys who fell in love with black music and getting stoned, and decided to have a go at fucking around with stuff and see what happened, and got a lucky break.
It was only later that journalists and other people started contextualizing it by referring it to cut-up, William Burroughs, John Cage, and I think Jon knows more about it than I did, but I was certainly very ignorant about all that kind of stuff. I didn’t know anything about it, we were just getting on with it. And then later, it became interesting and apt to realize what the bigger picture was, and trace back the roots and see what we were doing and what sampling was about had a bigger context.
That made quite a change. In some ways you could say it was bad. Jon and I have this phrase, the search for ignorance. You lose that Zen beginner’s mind quite easily, and then it can be a lifetime to recapture it. I suppose we’re still in that process of recapturing it. But we didn’t get too slick. We didn’t get too rich. So we’re still kind of restless and hungry, and still in love with messing around with sound. Which of course sampling is just one part of. We’ve always had a love live musicians, for instance. Snowboy, the Latin percussionist, came in and had a big input. It’s not just about stealing samples or old vinyl, it’s much bigger than that now.
Jon: A lot of the artists on Ninja now, they sample themselves, really, and play about with their own performances using electronic-music techniques. There’s a good lineage from DJ Food through to Toddla T—clever appropriation or homage, if you wanted to put it in a context.
Matt: I think it’s nice that it’s about recycling. Coldcut call ourselves “bag ladies of sound,” sometimes. Going down the street, finding those odd bits of things. Sometimes in the past, not all of Coldcut’s records sold that well, and they ended up in the bargain bin. Jon and I used to comfort ourselves that many of our favorite records came out of the bargain bin, for like 10 pence.
Photos: top by Steve Double 2010, bottom by Martin Holtkamp 1997. Ninja Tune logo 2000 by Openmind.
Ninja Tune XX: Volume One
Ninja Tune XX: Volume Two