Ninja Tune 10th Anniversary. Seven Magazine 2000
words: Dan Gennoe
Surviving ten years is an achievement for any business. Surviving ten years in music is one greater than most. Surviving ten years without the aid of bankers, backers or pen-pushers is an achievement on a monumental scale. To do all of the above without deviating from the path of breaks & beats, jazz moods and etherial grooves, and without so much as a hit, is not just an achievement, it’s a miracle. It’s no wonder then that the label that’s done all this and more is throwing its usual quiet humility aside and, for a limited period only, revelling in its own success; giving itself a 3CD, world tour, club night extravaganza slap on the back.
In an era of dotcom millionaires, corporate supremacy and multinational dominance, their stickyback plastic success has made Ninja Tune a legend. Consistently they’ve gone against the grain and flown in the face of marketing doctrine, business philosophy and every dance floor fad to prove that big isn’t always beautiful, money shouldn’t be king and quality doesn’t have to be a luxury. Back in 1990, however, founding Coldcut duo Matt Black and Jonathan More had slightly more selfish motivations. “We couldn’t put out the music that we wanted to,” Matt Black surmises. “So we formed Ninja as a Technicolor escape pod to get out of the swamp of music business crap that we found ourselves in.”
The crap in question was the result of major labels Arista and Big Life seizing the cut and paste sound Coldcut crafted as their own and repackaging it as hit fodder. Black reminisces, “Because our music was collaged together from other people’s records, we had this feeling that a normal record company wouldn’t dig it, so we did it ourselves. Then the dance explosion kicked off and before we realised it the agenda of funking about and doing what wanted on turntables was replaced by an agenda of making money and getting on Top Of The Pops. After being on that track for a while we started to feel we weren’t getting the opportunity to do our shit and had the nagging feeling we were being taken advantage of. So we decided to go back to the DIY ethic we’d started from, to being responsible yourself for what you do.”
The thought that ten years on they would be sitting on an empire with global coverage, a roster of forward thinking beat chemists, a catalogue of the most honest music of a decade and a image to die for- from the slipmates to the skins, the sleeves to the hoodies, the lighter to the roach, the Ninja eyes are everywhere- seemingly never crossed their minds. “I don’t think we envisaged it being so large” , exclaims Matt. “Yet we always thought that if you set up a label where you put out good music and pay the artists, then you would be likely to sustain it.”
More and Black’s healthy disregard for major label methods has a lot to do with how they’ve managed to sustain Ninja. “Three out of twenty acts on majors bank roll the whole company.” More explains. “The other acts have a phenomenally frightening time of it while the three large it up. We didn’t think that was particularly healthy, so we cut our cloth accordingly.” “It’s very wasteful,” adds Black. “With us, each act is an individual, and how much money is going to be spent on them is based on the record itself and previous sales. Careful with the cash, crazy with the music, that’s the motto.”
Like the deadly Japanese warrior from which they take their name, Ninja is about strategic moves and patience. “We slowly gathered people around us who were into what are. Slowly we found the way of the Ninja.” says More. It’s Label Manager and former Devonshire cheese maker Peter Quick’s job to ensure that the slow Ninja way is also a prosperous one. “The label started funding itself quickly because we only pressed five hundred copies of an album at a time, only repressing when we’d sold the first lot. That’s the reason we’ve survived, because each record has to pay for itself. That means that if you want to put out a Flanger or a Cabbage Boy album, that you probably aren’t going to do very well with, it can still be a success. It’s allowed us to be as experimental as we want.”
That Ninja are still one hundred percent independent- not part owned by a major like many other independents, Creation, Talkin’ Loud etc- means that they don’t have shareholders looking for big returns breathing down their necks and that in turn means they can give their artist true creative freedom. “From a music point of view,” reasons Quicke, “we’ve always believed that if you give artists freedom, they’ll come up with better records and that’s all we’ve ever wanted.”
Turntabalist Kid Koala certainly appreciates the freedom that allowed him to unleash his own comedic scratch insanity. “When I first started working on Carple Tunnel Syndrome, I was like ‘What’s an album?’ And they were, ‘We just want you to do the stuff that you do, that weird shit’. They just supported and let me get that noise in my head on tape.”
But Ninja is not totally boundary free. When the label launched, open minded meant that anything went. The result of this was the label’s darkest year, 1993, a time Quicke describes as “dark but enlightening.” “We were pursuing this ideal of putting out anything,” he remembers with a pained expression. “We put out Dutch house, Canadian techno, an ambient soundtrack from meditation software Matt had been working on, and Jon did this gospel garage thing, which was cool but very cheesy. Not a good time for us.” Disastrous as the year was musically, the continued success of Ninja’s first releases, Dj Food’s Jazz Brakes Vol I & II, kept them afloat financially and prompted a swift change of tack. A truly diverse/random catalogue, didn’t work. Jazz Brake’s beats and grooves did. They were the future.
Subsequently, Ninja focused on jazz, funk and instrumental hip hop, while left-field electronica and experimental techno was taken care of by sister label Ntone and to build on it’s hip hop routes, Ninja launched Big Dada with music journalist Will Ashon in ‘96 to pioneer typically experimental and predominantly UK hip hop. The other long term lesson from ‘93 was the value of enduring music. “Now we just want to make strong records that will last. We’re always thinking what’s this gonna sound like in a year’s time? It’s those sales that are the most valuable because they’re what keep us going year in year out.”
Ninja are, of course, not the only independent label to have sold records or lasted ten years. But they did it without riding on the entrails of fashion and without a hit. Even Mute, the model on which Coldcut based their vision, had the likes of Depeche Mode to fund their avant-garde tastes. “I’d love to have a hit and sell a million records” admits Quicke. “I’ve got no problem with selling shit loads of records, but we’re not going to bastardise them to do it. That’s an artistic and moral thing, something to be proud of.” As brave as their music is, Quicke assures that Ninja is not about taking risks. “We’re not playing the hit game, we’re not gambling like the major labels, they cover themselves by releasing lots of records and spreading their odds. We have to play another sort of commercial game, and that’s having a strong, original catalogue.”
In the ten years that Ninja have built up that catalogue, the dance world that once saw Coldcut in the charts has undergone many face-lifts and fads. Luckily, Ninja opted out long ago- you don’t have to keep up with fashion if you’ve never been part of it. And as another former underground groove label, with a cult identity and a nice line in merchandising, Acid Jazz, ably proved, the wave of popularity can be more curse than blessing. “Acid Jazz was a wicked name,” motions Matt Black, “but it became a straight jacket.” The Acid Jazz sound, so popular they named a genre after it, was what eventually caused them to crash and burn, and Ninja need no more excuse than that to shrug off trends. “We wanted to avoid blocking ourselves off by going down one route,” affirms Quicke. “We’d sell loads of records [by capitalising on club culture’s transient tastes] and perhaps be better off. But if you get carried away by the commercial hype the industry generates, you’d go down the pan. Saying that, Wall of Sound haven’t and Skint haven’t. I just feel that having a broader catalogue is our strength.” Ninja shining light Amon Tobin agress, “Most labels are dependant on a sound, Ninja is dependant on a reputation.”
For More & Black, the only true Ninja constant is quality. “We put out Atomic Moogs and Beats And Pieces which were thought of as big beat tracks,” More notes. “Everyone was saying that Coldcut’s album, Let Us Play, is going to be a really stonking big beat album, and it wasn’t. Infact it was quite fucked up and difficult to listen to in places. At first people were pissed off, but after, when they’d seen what happened to big beat, when it panned out and ended up being a parody of itself, they’d come back to Ninja Tune and we’re still here putting quality stuff out.” Peter Quicke laughs, “People here a snatch, bag us as one thing, and must be really disappointed when it’s not the Propellerheads album they thought it was. But we’re not about following any particular scene on the dance floor. I think I get bored too quickly for that.”
When Ninja and fashion did clash, it was over Stealth. What started as the launch party for DJ Food’s Recipe For Disaster in 1995 at The Bluenote in Hoxton, London, turned, rapidly into the coolest club night of the decade. Famously featuring Dj Food’s four-deck mixes and guests including James Lavelle, Squarepusher and Kruder And Dorfmeister, Stealth gave space to a sound long banished to the backroom. “Chill-out rooms in clubs were pumping out house music, like in the main rooms. Ninja is supposed to be an alternative and this was our alternative.” Comments Black.
Peter Quicke remembers “It was just a beautiful, amazing, exciting thing. The fucking thing was rammed with real fans, who just wanted to listen to everything.” But by ‘97 Stealth had been invaded by liggers. Come the end, it just wasn’t Ninja. “People just came down because it was cool, not for the music. After eighteen months, it was dull and time to move on.”
Even so, Stealth was a major event in Ninja’s history. Like Coldcut’s legendary Journey’s By Dj set, ‘93’s groundbreaking Pipe website, on-line Tv station, Piratetv.net and their pioneering Solid Steel Radio Show (originally part of pre-legal-pre-dumb-down Kiss FM, now on BBC’s London Live), Stealth was a way of spreading the Ninja message. “Our press officer at the time used to say that Stealth was bigger than Ninja, and that it was easier to get press on,” laughs Quicke. “In ‘95 we grew massively in profile and Stealth was part of what brought us up. It was a focus for what Ninja Tune was, and part of the legend.”
The other essential weapon in Ninja’s self-promotion armoury is touring. “Artists getting up there and doing it, and giving people something more than just two bods in the dark digging about with some bits of plastic, is what Ninja’s all about,” asserts More. Despite, the fact that the Ninja tours actually haemorrhage money quicker than the Millennium Dome, Peter Quicke is equally convinced it’s the best way of “communicating what Ninja is and giving people as much as possible, of what is good.”
And it obviously works. Few could have imagined the scale of Ninja in the year 2000. The North American office in Montreal Canada, set up in 1996 is flourishing, with DJ Vadim having recently become Ninja’s biggest act in the states. Big Dada, has released the UK’s finest hip hop album, Roots Manuva’s Brand New Second Hand and Ninja has secured a deal to licence US hip hop collective Quannum. All this and the slip mats, hoodies and skins are selling better than ever.
Matt Black can only shake his head and utter the words “It’s frightening” when he thinks how far they’ve come. And XenCuts, the non-Greatest Hits compilation to commemorate ten years of the sound Herbaliser Ollie Teeba describes as “the most ridiculous thing you ever heard…with funky breakbeats”, conjures both staggered pride and relief for all innvolved. But Black is adamant that it’s Ninja’s backroom crew, not Coldcut, that make the label what Kid Koala refers to as “a nice place to call home”. “The people who work here, do what they have to to get the job done, and they work pretty fucking hard. It’s a collective of people who just love the music.” Everyone mucks in: Strictly Kev from DJ Food does all of Ninja’s artwork and designs the merchandise and Cinematic Orchestra’s Jason Swinscoe was, until May this year, working on Ninja’s overseas promotions. Ninja is not a conventional label, and Matt Black’s summation of what makes Ninja Tune great just about says it all. “At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”
The XenCuts tenth anniversary triple compilation is out now, through Ninja Tune