Dog owners, so the joke goes, tend to resemble their pets. The same goes for Ninja Tune – a label forged in the image of its makers.
Throughout the eighties, Coldcut were making kaleidoscopic pop music that slung hip-hop, broken beat and Plunderphonics into an (audiovisual) blender. Since its inception in 1990, Ninja Tune has been a similarly freewheeling force for good. Its discography – sometimes arch, often kooky, invariably off-piste – remains one of the most diverse around. Artists like The Cinematic Orchestra, Mr Scruff and Bonobo have broken through into the public consciousness, but there’s always been plenty of room for oddities like Kid Koala and Daedelus. Factor in the various artists on sister labels Big Dada and Brainfeeder, and you’ve got one of the knottiest family trees around. It’s less a stable than a menagerie.
Ninja Tune have already knocked out some top releases this year: Slugabed’s Time Team, Plug’s long-lost Back In Time and a great remix set of Bonobo’s Black Sands are among the spoils. Their latest venture is their upcoming Tiger x Hidden Depths event at Fabric on May 16, which sees Tiger Beer and Black Atlantic join forces with FACT to toast the label’s output – check the Facebook page here. Thundercat will be performing his second ever UK live show, and squiggly synth-manipulator Slugabed will be performing live. The inimitable Floating Points and Big Dada’s Offshore will also be stopping by. FACT will be streaming footage from the night.
Amid torrential April showers, FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo sat down with Coldcut’s Jon More and Ninja Tune MD Peter Quicke at (the newly revamped) Ninja Tune HQ in Kennington, South London. On the agenda? Acid house, Mercury winners and the polishing of pebbles.
“We were minstrels in a way, travelling from town to town entertaining people with our skills. But at the end of the day, it was really just about a sparkly jacket and smoke and mirrors.”
Jon More: “Well, back in the mists of time, around the turn of the 1990s, we went off to Japan, Matt and I. We were having a fairly gruesome time as a lot of artists do with their major label – we were actually signed to an independent, although they acted as if they were a major label, and we were fed up with the whole thing. We went over there, got very inspired by the Japanese culture, the change of scenery. We were there for three weeks. We did thirteen gigs in three weeks, it was pretty full on.
“And both Matt and I just really got into ninjas. I saw this old television programme in the hotel room with the sound down. And when you turn the sound down on the TV programme, it takes on a different meaning in some respects. You can see the cracks, and it was just interesting how much the sound can contribute towards you not actually seeing the cardboard cut-out, homemade nature of a lot of productions. In this programme, The Ninjas, it was all smoke and mirrors, and intrigue, and popping here and popping there…and it just reminded me of Matt and I, and what we were doing. Which was that we wanted to have all these different characters. We were minstrels in a way, travelling from town to town entertaining people with our skills. But at the end of the day, it was really just about a sparkly jacket and smoke and mirrors [laughs].
“We described Ninja Tune as our ‘multicolour escape pod’. It was a vehicle for us to just really go back and experiment.”
“Matt found this cut-out-and-keep ninja in a book that we were given, and really liked that as well. So, we just got talking about it, came back here, back to our studio, and decided to form Ninja Tune. Matt did the very, very first design for it which was pretty much a stickman. It looked like The Saint.”
Peter Quicke: “It was on a white label. It was just drawn onto the first white labels.”
JM: “We made the first two albums, I think. Zen Breaks and DJ Food Vol 1.”
PQ: “They had to be under different names because Coldcut were still contracted to Big Life. I think it was Big Life/Polydor by then.”
JM: “It was, yeah. That’s when the trouble started. It was a vehicle. We described it as our ‘multicolour escape pod’. It was a vehicle for us to just really go back and experiment. Because prior to that, Coldcut had started in Matt’s bedroom above a butcher’s in Finsbury Park making records using a cassette machine. And within a ridiculously short period of time we were on Top Of The Pops, we were front page of the NME. ‘You’ve got to make an album.’ ‘Gaagh? What’s an album?’ We were DJs, we loved 12”s.
“It was a crazy period and there wasn’t really a lot of time to reflect in some ways, which was a good thing. But we came to the second album, didn’t do so well, the record company had changed. The spirit had become much more commercially orientated; they wanted us to make more things like ‘People Hold On’ and ‘The Only Way Is Up’, and less things like ‘Stop This Crazy Thing’. So we thought: we’ll go back to what we know we can do, which is to make odd music [laughs]. And started Ninja, and various different people helped us out until we met Pete. Which was, what, ’92?”
PQ: “’92, yeah. September ’92.”
JM: “It started to develop. Other artists, we started to accumulate other like-minded people in some respects, and Pete was very good at developing that. And it’s been a scenic road since, really.”
It’s interesting what you say about those difficulties you had as a group in those few years. I remember reading an interview with you, Pete, where you said that there was a sense that Ninja Tune were trying to do something very different to club culture at the time. Club culture was house-oriented, the Ecstasy rush…whereas Ninja Tune were trying to do something more eclectic and diverse.
PQ: “Exactly. There were the house tunes early on, but we thought, we don’t really want to do that. Although of course we had put out the odd thing like that.”
“We thought we were going to be an alternative group, and then, ‘Gaargh!’ Panic panic panic.”
JM: “In retrospect, it’s a very handy device, and looking back perhaps we were just a little bit too petulant about out distaste for house music. But we were just being beaten to death with it by a massive great big club, as it were. Superstar DJs and la la la la. We’d get booked into major rooms in some massive cavernous space in the North of England somewhere, and the promoter would say ‘Are you going to do ‘People Hold On’?’. Well, no, actually: we’re going to play loads of ambient and slow music. We thought we were going to be an alternative group, and then, ‘Gaargh!’ Panic panic panic. We had a love/hate relationship with it.”
PQ: “That was partly because only a few years before that the scene was genuinely eclectic. You would have soundsystems playing different sorts of music in the same club or warehouse. And that all changed, so in a way it was a reaction to that change from things being eclectic to them being quite homogenous.”
JM: “Other DJs, which is totally fair enough, went from playing perhaps rare groove…that would be the thing that most DJs would play if they were on the club scene, of one type or another, which was such an elastic genre. And then they started to play house music. And the irony is that I had to wrestle the turntables with the security guards at a Caister Weekend in about 1985 when I dared to play house music in the alternative room, when ‘I Found Lovin’’ by The Fatback Band was still the major coup in the main hall. And then two years later, Matt and I and Yazz were on stage there doing ‘The Only Way Is Up’ in the main room, with bubbles and balloons, stuff like that. I was standing there thinking, ‘This is just so weird. Two years ago, I could have been severely impaired by some brutish oaf who decided that he didn’t like the house music that I was playing.’ That was the alternative room, so at that point it was alternative.
“When I did this club called Meltdown, I would do the same thing. I would play lots of stuff from Chicago and Trax music, and some pretty bonkers stuff. But there was this beautiful moment, I suppose. There was this beautiful moment, I suppose it lasted two or three years, then it just became quite genre specific. As Pete said, I think Ninja was a reaction to that, and a decision. Massive Attack were similar, they got slapped with the superclub thing. They took a different route, and they came out with that. Out of that weirdness came a lot of really good things.
“It’s not a question of shoving all the pebbles into the same big tumbler and giving them all the same polish.”
“We wanted an alternative, and we kept being told by our record label when were signed to Big Life/Polydor, ‘You’ve got to be relevant, you’re going to have to change your name, dur-dur-dur-dur…’. So on the one hand they were saying ‘Yes’, and on the other hand they were saying ‘You need to keep making music like this’. And there’s just this constant sway. I saw it a bit like – when I was a kid, I used to have this hobby, which was polishing stones from the seaside. And I’d go and find all these stones, and they’d be amazing unpolished. Then I’d put them in this polishing machine, and one out of ten would come out looking better, and the rest would come out looking worse. A lot of people liked the ones that were polished; my opinion was that they were worse. The record industry sort of does that to quite a lot of things.
“Those people that are determined, belligerent, or arrogant, or whatever – it’s enough to remain oblivious to that and not allow it to touch you. There are a few of those who are successful – but most get polished, and some come out of it far worse than others. With Ninja, anyway, to use that slightly weird analogy, it’s not a question of shoving them all into the same big tumbler and giving them all the same polish. One hopes that you treat each one in a way to bring out the best bits of them, but leaving those wonderful rough edges and bits that make it so attractive, give it friction.”
PQ: “There are a lot more smaller labels now who do obviously do all sorts of things. But at that time -”
JM: ” – we were against the grain.”
When you started, it sounds like you were doing it, to some degree, in opposition to something. Was there a clear mission statement to the label – and if there was, has it changed over the years?
PQ: “When I started, it was that we were to do anything. It was in opposition to the fact that Matt and Jon were being told to do a specific sort of music, so it was about doing any sort of music. Those original 12”s that were sort of house/techno/jungle…”
PQ: “There was a range of ambient, a range of things. I guess they are all in dance music, electronic, but then there was an indie tune too, so not even that. And then about ’94, we decided that Ninja Tune ought to be breakbeat, hip-hop, soul, jazz-based, just because actually nobody was really listening. We were thinking ‘How do we sort of break through a bit?’. We did that, and then we started a label called NTone, which was to do everything else, which meant we could still do anything we liked. That’s really when Ninja Tune broke through a bit – end of ’94-95.”
“It’s a young person’s game to a certain degree.”
JM: [with mock foreboding] “The trip-hop years.”
PQ: “Exactly, although we never used those words.”
JM: “[laughs] It wasn’t us. We weren’t there.”
PQ: “Mo’Wax, and Dorado and us and some other people.”
JM: “Acid Jazz. That was prior to it.”
PQ: “After a few years, NTone clearly wasn’t working, because no one really loved it. Not because we didn’t like the records on it, but…”
JM: “It needed a dedicated person.”
PQ: “So we folded it all back in, because by then Ninja Tune was rolling along if you like. Things were working okay.”
JM: “Something you always have to consider is a ballet, or a dance, with your audience, to a certain extent. With your original fans and with your new fans that you’ve picked up along the way, and with the way that over decades music styles change. It’s a young person’s game to a certain degree. People want people of their own age group, so that’s a thing that you have to take on board as an aging artist! [laughs] See how you can get out of that one gracefully. But there’s always a to and fro. It’s just trying to keep it as Mr Scruff says, ‘real’. Or ‘unreal’.”
PQ: “And also finding what artists you come across and following them. The label follows the artists to a large extent. Cinematic Orchestra started and they’ve moved over this way, and we’re following them if you like. We’re interested in them and we’re interested in what they’re doing, and we’re interested in all sorts of artists. So the label doesn’t really have a philosophy about what sort of music, except there are some things we don’t do. We don’t do hard rock, and we don’t do reggae, because it just wouldn’t feel right. That’s the only way I can put it really – and there’s nothing we’ve got against those things.”
JM: “You could probably pinpoint any genre if you went through the whole Ninja catalogue.”
PQ: “Of course there are bits of rock. We do have bands, who play guitars. The Invisible who we just signed – I suppose they’re a rock band really, but, they’re not.”
JM: “One would always hope there’s an edginess. I hope there’s a quality of that with the artist. I would define that edginess as ‘character’, really. Because music’s so simple to make in many respects these days (even though, saying that, often trying to do it is still quite complicated). But to get it to a certain level with all the equipment that’s available that helps you to do that…it has become a sort of churning almost. It’s trying to find, within all of that material, artists who are exciting and have an individual character. We used to say that hip-hop was at the basis of most of the artist signings for Ninja Tune, which you could argue is still true. I interviewed Slugabed the other day for a radio programme on Strongroom Alive, and he likes his hip-hop tunes. As do a lot of people. To him, probably it’s a different genre of hip-hop to me, but its still the same thing.”
PQ: “Absolutely. When Autechre did their first remix for us, they were like ‘Actually, we want to make a hip-hop tune, because that’s what we grew up listening to’. Hip-hop is at the root of a lot of it. Even the Cinematic Orchestra, actually – they’re big on house and hip-hop…that’s where Jason came from, as well as jazz obviously, he’s a massive jazz man. But there are roots of that in a lot it.”
“The label follows the artists to a large extent.”
If you were asked to pick a record that sums up what Ninja Tune do – a tricky one considering the diversity you’ve talked about – is there one, or some, that you’d feel comfortable picking?
PQ: “There are lots actually, I don’t think you can. The first record that comes to mind is Slugabed, actually. Obviously it’s very recent, but it’s almost a perfect Ninja record. He’s doing completely his own thing. He’s not dubstep – there’s a lot of free music flying around on that record – and yet it’s still a beats record, if you like. But then the Jaga Jazzist albums. The last one’s one of the best we’ve ever put out, completely extraordinary. The spirit of that is just amazing. They’re into being experimental, they’re into rhythms and beats, but it’s completely different. But then it could be any: Coldcut albums, Cinematic Orchestra albums…”
JM: “The Amon [Tobin] box set is coming out, which ticks all the Ninja boxes in terms of branding, artwork, something that we’d always aspired to do early on in the Ninja life. There wasn’t necessarily the economic argument to be able to put out massive great lush box sets and stuff. So there’s quite an interesting contradictory record in a way. Amon’s an interesting artist as well.”
JM: “…that or Mr Scruff’s ‘Get A Move On’.”
PQ: “…or that one. I don’t know if there are any.”
JM: “They all contain elements.”
PQ: “So the answer is: there isn’t.”
JM: “It’s a bit like Ninja, really. They all contain elements of the answer, but they’ve all got something of their own.”
Talking about the variability of the catalogue, Ninja Tune have done a better job than most of being technologically inventive – everything from that CD-ROM [packaged with Coldcut’s 1999 remix LP Let Us Replay!] to Amon Tobin’s shows, the Splinter Cell soundtrack…do you see new technologies that Ninja Tune would like to plunge their fingers into?
PQ: “Always, yeah. We were looking at that technology that turns anything into a QR code. So you can put your album cover into a QR code…they’re just little technological widgets, aren’t they? I don’t know if you’d count that as a technological advance. But the Amon show, that’s amazing. Although it’s very simple: it looks so different, but it’s just a projection that’s just been done very well, just a 2D projection using 3D virtual software.”
JM: “There’s lots of exciting possibilities.”
PQ: “We’re putting out an app soon, a remixing app that’s being coded. They’re putting the finishing touches on it now. Again, really old idea, same idea as was on the ‘My Little Fun’ kit on the Coldcut CD-ROM, but completely updated.”
“Most of the thing that we do is music, and we do a lot of music, so to me it doesn’t really feel like we do that much technology.”
JM: “You could argue that it’s just a format, and that’s something Ninja’s always realised. Be it DVD, CD, mp3 – I could go on for about a week listing all the possible ways – they’re formats. And it’s good to try and get the music out across as many formats as possible. And some of them provide lots of extra activities. With artists like Kid Koala, he’s a skilled graphic artist and illustrator. If it was just vinyl, there’d be just a sleeve, but because we have all these other things that we can do…I think he did an app, way, way back. It’s exciting, it’s about using them. It’s also difficult. Sometimes I do feel like a reluctant Luddite, if that makes any sense.”
PQ: “Most of the thing that we do is music, and we do a lot of music, so to me it doesn’t really feel like we do that much technology. I know that we have done bits, and the label operates round a lot of digital marketing which uses endlessly new iterations of digital technology. So yes we do, but…Coldcut in particular have always been looking at that, and the label’s been trying to keep up.”
JM: “That’s Matt’s particular thing. He’s really into it. He does a lot of research and development in that area.”
PQ: “He was a programmer originally before he was a musician. A computer programmer.”
JM: “These things tend to come in fits and starts and spurts. And sometimes you’re ahead, and sometimes it’s better to actually let some of the other people…like when you’re cycling, hop in behind them. Take a break for a while and let them take the strain, and then carry on, maybe lead for a bit or what have you.”
The reason it feels like an appropriate question to ask is because Ninja Tune obviously has such a distinctive visual identity as well as a sonic one. How did you go about cultivating that visual identity for the label?
PQ: [Pointing to a framed sketch of a ninja] “That was the first logo, after Matt’s little drawn thing. And Marco who made that designed the first Coldcut cover actually. In the early days, there was a guy called Jim Porter, who went on to be art director for The Guardian. Then Strictly Kev/Openmind, who designed the newer logo. He did a lot of the early sleeves. DJ Vadim, Amon Tobin, those great series of sleeves. All that was him really, so he should take the credit for a lot of that.”
JM: “It was based on Matt and I’s love of music labels and odd labels: Stiff Records, Factory Records, 4th & B’Way. As soon as I say those names, the logo and a list of bands just goes ‘click-click-click-click’ in my head. Def Jam: I’d get excited when one of those records came into the record shop, because I would be pretty sure that it would be something outrageous or something decent or something at least interesting. There’d be disappointments sometimes. And so when we started Ninja, it was wanting to have something like that. And coming up with a name, which was such a great hook to hang your brand hat on, was a happy accident, like a lot of these things are. The branding was about developing that logo, and being aware that it was important to do that. And Strictly Kev is just a walking art machine.”
PQ: “Since then, Kevin still does some art. We use Oscar And Ewan, I don’t know if you know them? They do a lot of art. [Gesticulating to wall of posters] They did that Spank Rock, this Wiley thing, Bonobo’s Black Sands – they do a lot. A guy called Doug (Panda Yoghurt) does some other ones. There are all sorts of people now, that’s the root of it.”
Pointing at a Wiley poster makes me think that you’ve had a lot of idiosyncratic artists on the label, and on Big Dada and Brainfeeder as well. Who have been the most eccentric figures to work with?
PQ: “Wiley’s pretty eccentric. A genius.”
PQ: “Coldcut are eccentric [laughs]. Dunno. There aren’t really any outrageous rock and roll suicides on the label. Koala’s a lovely bloke, but he’s got his own style. Mr Scruff has got his own. But who’s the most eccentric?”
JM: “There’s certainly lots of room for psychoanalysis of obsessive-compulsive behavior in the workplace.”
PQ: “The Bug’s an eccentric man, I guess. Roots Manuva. I mean, they’re all lovely people. Blokes, mostly. But not all.”
How did Big Dada originally come together, and what relationship does it have to the central label?
PQ: “Big Dada is Will Ashon really. He was a journalist writing for Trace and Muzik, and he came to us and said, ‘There’s all this great hip-hop, would you be interested in putting it out?’. And as I said, hip-hop’s a really key thing, so we said yes. And that’s how it started. He signed Roots Manuva – that wasn’t his first record, but it was one of the key early things. New Flesh For Old. It’s part of Ninja Tune, it’s part of the same company from an organizational point of view. But it’s his vision as regards music.”
“There’s certainly lots of room for psychoanalysis of obsessive-compulsive behavior in the workplace.”
JM: “It’s important I think that if we tried to put pure hip-hop out on Ninja, it probably wouldn’t have worked. There’s always been in the hip-hop fraternity – I don’t know how to describe it – they can be quite narrow-minded sometimes. Which is weird, because it came out of Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc, who are the most broad-minded people you’ll ever meet. But particularly within English hip-hop, there was a narrow-mindedness. I think, having a separate label with its own identity (and an identity that Will’s really good at honing and keeping clear), that we’ve avoided a lot of those internal UK hip-hop debates – and we’ve had a fair few of them in the past. It’s another brand consideration, in retrospect.”
PQ: “We’ve always fallen between stools all the way along, because when we first started people accused us of being ‘trip-hop’ and then quite shortly we weren’t ‘trip-hop’ enough. Then we weren’t ‘big beat’ enough. People thought we were ‘big beat’ and then we weren’t ‘big beat’ enough. Then, ‘were we drum’n’bass?’ – and of course we weren’t drum’n’bass enough, and any drum’n’bass we put out didn’t suit the real drum’n’bass. And again with hip-hop. Although we’ve had a lot of success, a lot of it sits outside of the 1Xtra idea of what hip–hop is. We’ve always sat outside. We didn’t really jump on the dubstep bandwagon, because a lot of it seemed really dull. So we’re kind of outside of that as well. So we’ve always been out, and it’s sort of willful and sort of just the way it is.”
It makes it all the more interesting that you’ve now got this affiliation with Brainfeeder. That hip-hop DNA you discussed earlier, sprawling off in all sorts of different directions – it seems that Brainfeeder is a sort of modern analogue for that.
PQ: “Definitely. Amazing label obviously, and FlyLo’s an amazing bloke. Amazing producer, amazing A&R man. It’s an honour to work with them. They need someone to help them along with the nuts and bolts, if you like , so it’s great to be able to work with them.”
Who have you got at the moment that you’re particularly excited about in the Ninja Tune roster?
JM: “There’s The Invisible…”
PQ: “The Invisible, we’ve just signed. We got the Lorn record coming out, which was on Brainfeeder. They decided they didn’t want to do a second one on Brainfeeder, so it’s on Ninja Tune which is great. The Bug’s got a very exciting new project coming up, he’s doing an Acid Ragga, acid, dancehall-heavy, nasty dark acid ragga…”
“Brainfeeder’s an amazing label obviously, and FlyLo’s an amazing bloke. Amazing producer, amazing A&R man.”
PQ: “…using acid 303s and 909s and 808s, that sort of thing, and his heavy Jamaican aesthetic, his rhythms aesthetic. So that’s going to be very exciting. Dorian Concept’s finishing his album, which we’re very excited about, and Raffertie is working on his album. We’ve got a Jeremiah Jae album coming on Brainfeeder. The Dobie EP on Big Dada is great, I don’t know if you know Dobie? He worked with Soul II Soul, and he’s put out records before, but this is really kind of great. It’s just a beats record, but really, really brilliant, out on Big Dada. What else have we got coming up? Lots and lots of stuff.”
A lot of these are quite new acts – FaltyDL, Slugabed, people like Emika as well. Do you think Ninja Tune is entering a slightly different era, compared to previous eras?
PQ: “Yeah, I think there is an extent to which we felt we came out of the Britpop era, and it felt a little bit like electronica music wasn’t as fresh, perhaps, or wasn’t so exciting. Although obviously there were some exciting bits. But right now, the last few years have been amazing. There’s an enormous explosion post-dubstep actually (although I was being quite critical of it earlier). That whole movement has blown the whole thing apart. There’s so many amazing artists now, and lots of really amazing labels. The music on Boomkat is just incredible, people like Demdike Stare, all those. Just amazing. It’s part of us being re-inspired by electronic music, if you like, and all the people we talked about.”
PQ: “And Offshore as well, who’s on Big Dada. He’s great. He’s actually half of Oscar And Ewan, who did that artwork. He’s a great producer.”
That’s an indicative night of the exciting new things the label have got going on. How do you see acts like Thundercat and Slugabed fitting in?
PQ: “Thundercat’s just an amazing virtuoso player and composer. That album is sort of an extraordinary mixture of something that could have been made 40, 30 years ago, and yet sounds like it’s really amazingly fresh. It’s a very inspiring thing. It’s great to have him there, it’s great to help Brainfeeder put his record out. The whole package really is all of our labels: there’s a Ninja, there’s someone on Big Dada, there’s Floating Points who are on a lot of labels but don’t do anything for us (we publish them as well, actually), and Offshore is on Big Dada. So it seems like a really great forward and backward-looking roster.”
JM: “Reminds me of a Stealth line-up. Flip those names around and put Squarepusher in there.”
PQ: “Put Thundercat and Slugabed together and you make Squarepusher. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure he’ll be terribly insulted by that [laughs].”
“The best thing is when someone sends you a tune. You get a new tune, and it’s just really exciting.”
JM: “I’m just thinking of the equivalent from the era of Stealth to now. What comes around goes around in some respect. That’s a great line-up. That should be a wicked gig.”
Considering we’re comparing Stealth and the Hidden Depths night: can you think of a greatest moment, or a real highlight that sums up the Ninja Tune journey?
PQ: “The 20th anniversary party at Ewer St. was…”
PQ: “It was amazing. There were so many great things there, and it was just a great achievement for everyone who works here. There was tons of work. It was brilliant, just such a great night, and it all pretty much worked out. There was the night at the Royal Albert Hall with the Cinematic Orchestra and Dorian Concept and the Amon Tobin thing – that was outrageous. Wining the Mercury with Speech Debelle was very funny. What else? Really the best thing is when someone sends you a tune. You get a new tune, and it’s just really exciting. You get something really, really good. Those are the best moments.”
Head to Fabric, London, on May 16 for Tiger Beer x Hidden Depths‘ Ninja Tune party.