Ninja Tune is an institution. It seems quite peculiar to think that a label that has always operated like its namesake, making unexpected moves in the shadows, circumventing usual music industry mechanisms, could have become so established — but 20 years on from its inception, there it is: a bona fide British musical institution. And at the heart of it, still, are the label’s founders and self-styled “funky John Peels on four turntables,” Matt Black and Jonathan Moore, better known as Coldcut.
Sitting in the teeming offices/studios that Ninja occupies in an unassuming south London street, Matt and Jon personify the label’s always-different-always-the-same identity. Despite all they’ve achieved, they are still, as Jon puts it, the “middle class boys who liked to get stoned and have a party” who fell in love with London’s pre-acid house warehouse party scene of the mid ’80s. The droll Jon is still every inch the rare groove digging soulboy, in flat cap and Prada trainers — while Matt retains the long-haired anarchist professor look he has rocked since his earliest days of becoming obsessed with sampling and recording technology.
Everything that Coldcut and Ninja Tune would come to represent was there in that party scene. The attitude and techniques of hip-hop, a psychedelic sense of mischief and adventure and, above all, a revelling in what happens when London’s cultures collide. “It was just a bunch of next-generation kids,” says Matt, “of all races and classes, who simply wanted to get together, have a party and swap jeans” (that last pun on “genes”/”jeans” is typical of the multilayered wordplay that appears throughout Ninja’s history). And having accumulated around them musical mavericks from Roots Manuva to Toddla T, Cinematic Orchestra to grime lynchpin Jammer, it’s clear that they still believe in this ethos to their very bones.
On being Ninja:
Jon: It was born of discontent and willfulness I think. We’d started a label — Ahead Of Our Time — and hadn’t really got any idea then; we signed that up to another independent, which got taken over by a major, thus finding ourselves part of a much larger machine which we didn’t feel that happy with. They did a lot of things that were good for our career, but equally a lot of things that weren’t, and it was difficult. Then in ’89, ’90, we went off on a tour of Japan with Norman Cook in his Beats International incarnation, something like “London Nights,” in these chain nightclubs in department stores. We’d had hits at this point, been on Top of the Pops, been in Smash Hits, and we had had [uncomfortable look] stylists at certain points, but we just weren’t comfortable. But Japan was such an amazing cultural shift — enjoyable, hard work and quite bonkers, and we both got into the ninja vibe. I watched old black & white 1960s Japanese ninja programmes with the sound off, which was interesting because without the distraction of the noises you just see more of the construction and the cracks and the sleight-of-hand that goes on behind the TV magic. And it just reminded me and Matt a bit of us, a lot of what we did was sleight-of-hand and smoke and mirrors and flashing lights. Because that is what nightclubs are too!
Matt: Also the ninja has this semi-serious, semi-cartoon image in Japan. And to us this was a new archetype, something really fresh; Japan is well, different, and you get a blast from high-intensity sensory input, and from the people as well. So we adopted that archetype, that bit of cultural symbolism. Of course, it was just a good name, and a good image at first, but there was more; we can bolt on the justifications for why we’re like ninjas later. It was a good bit of marketing, a good symbol which we could enjoy together, a good badge to stick on the spaceship that we were building to escape from the music industry con and back to the underground. Or that’s one truth, anyway: The other truth is that we are totally ninja.
Matt: I think you can trace a pretty convincing thread from our first days in the warehouse party and rare groove scene, and even back before that. When we were schoolboys and students there was really healthy, culture-blending British music: A Certain Ratio, Rip, Rig & Panic, the Pop Group, Dennis Bovell, Throbbing Gristle and before that The Sex Pistols, and Daniel Miller, reading about him and being at school, building a synthesiser with my mates…
Jon: And when we started going out and I started DJing, everything was thrown in: hip-hop, of course, but rockabilly, go-go, early house, early acid through funk, soul, African, Latin jazz — I think the only things that didn’t get played were country and heavy metal…unless it had a break in it or was a cover version of a soul song.
Matt: We bless our lucky stars that the U.K., while it’s shit in many ways, is amazing for these musical cross-fertilisations — and that we’ve managed to grow up and make a career of just that. That’s what Ninja Tune is: It’s a London label, it wouldn’t be possible anywhere else, it’s what London’s about. And whether it’s Cinematic Orchestra, or Mr. Scruff, or the Bug, even [mystical glam-rocker] Pop Levi, the same themes are still being brought together in what we do: hip-hop, oddballs, U.K. music, a huge amount of dub technique, psychedelia…and toys. And rebellion — setting ourselves up in opposition to the establishment because it’s fun and it needs to be done.
On inadvertently inventing trip-hop:
Matt: But the name [DJ Food] was because as DJs who like to mix, we needed instrumental tracks that had breaks in and the right noises to scratch and were steady BPM to mix with. The term “trip-hop” was a sort of post-fix, invented by journalists, which gave it an identity. And it was only later that we realised that we’d unconsciously given up trying to make American rap records and done something better by bringing together samples with dub techniques and rare groove attitude, the qualities that London gave us, to make a kind of U.K. hip-hop without words. And because it was the time of rave and house music, it became this ecstasy comedown music, and obviously a smokers ‘soundtrack.
Jon: But later on it became this lifestyle, bar culture music.
Jon: And it was to do with the change in licensing laws: this bar music thing took over as councils realised they could give late licenses to bars and get people away from the superclubs or illegal parties. And that brought in a whole new culture, it introduced a lot of people going out on a Saturday night in Huddersfield or wherever to something like Groove Armada, which they wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
On escaping trip-hop:
Matt: It got to the point where that was what Ninja Tune was known for too, although we put out a huge range of stuff, people thought of us as this “trip-hop label.” And perhaps some of our lot didn’t do enough to escape that: people did rely on the template we’d developed with Coldcut and DJ Food, and I did find that frustrating; I’d expected the lads to be a bit more out there, to not rely on Daddy’s wallet so much!
Jon: Anything that becomes a yoke, becomes a heavy weight on your shoulders, well — you just need to [adopts bumpkin voice] lay that burrrrden down!
Matt: It wasn’t just the downtempo that became formulaic. With IDM and glitch music, you can get plugins to do that for you — and we invented that, we invented the “Coldcutter,” which was a way to produce fucked-up beats a la Aphex and Squarepusher. Someone commented on an IDM forum that “these glitch plugins are the end of IDM,” and I replied, “Well, in that case it wasn’t that intelligent in the first place, was it, if one plugin can kill it off? Where were the actual ideas?” It’s OK [that these sounds lose their novelty] though, we’re not sitting here going “oh it was better in the old days” — fuck that. Things change, they move along, ideas come up, that energy gets harvested and commodified, there’s no point in gnashing one’s teeth about that — you just go on with getting on with what you’re interested in, which in our case is exploration and recklessness that’s kept us fresh to this day.
On staying relevant and staying angry:
Matt: Grime people like Wiley and Jammer do express a certain anger, but not enough. The Bug and Amon Tobin express anger without a doubt, but I wonder, where is the Crass of the 21st century? Is everything so perfect now that we don’t need to make any noise any more, or is the conclusion that everyone is just so fucking tranqed-out that they don’t have the energy to do anything because the system’s got them hooked up to some toxic apathy trip with sweet sugary pap fed to them? Youth should and must resist and see what’s gone wrong with previous systems — tradition can be great, but when it fossilises and loses any energy for change it’s very dangerous. It’s death, in fact.
Jon: And that means we need good artists. That sort of drive [to change things] is what makes them good artists, those people who have more character and are more driven, we tend to attract them and they attract us. Even Toddla T, he’s a classic Ninja party artist, the sort we haven’t had for a while, and he keeps the forward drive of what we do.
Matt: Ninja Tune could definitely be more of a “party political broadcast,” the party side has definitely come up, but I would like the political side to be better represented.
Jon: It’s even more important now that everybody wants to be fucking middle-class. David Cameron says he’s middle-class! If that’s middle-class I don’t want to be it. Let’s create our own class. I want another one, please.
Matt: The balance to strike is that Ninja can be a bit too serious, it’s seen as a bit too blokey and chin-smokey…oops, Freudian slip there! A nice portmanteau word that, “chin-smokey.” But that’s shifted, and we’re a lot harder to define now. Next step is to get more female artists!