Ninja Tune - Two decades of mixes and mash-ups

When two London DJs released the first Coldcut single, it led to the label that gave us Roots Manuva, Mr Scruff and, now, Toddla T.

Lush brutality: that's the memorable oxymoron that Matt Black – who together with Jon More is the visionary force behind independent label Ninja Tune – has coined for the new breed of electronica carving out a niche on the Ninja roster.

It's a fitting description for the wealth of genre-melding music showcased on Ninja Tune XX: two twin-CD compilations released next week to mark 20 years of the cutting-edge imprint. Speaker-bursting bass-heavy juggernauts collide with haunting melodies. Long-time signings Mr Scruff, DJ Vadim and, of course, Coldcut, cosy up to fresh tracks from nascent talent Eskmo, Toddla T and Andreya Triana. It's not your average back-slapping "best of" compilation. But then that just wouldn't be Ninja Tune.

"As the 20th celebrations have coalesced, it's become apparent that we've coincided with a really good moment in electronic music," explains Black over a mug of tea at Ninja HQ. "Ninja Tune made the decision to do a future-spective rather than a retrospective and to me it's a celebration of a new wave in electronic music. The artists that we have got colliding with our Ninja artists highlight that in a way that I think is really apt and exciting."

The Ninja journey began at the tail end of the Eighties when DJs and underground music junkies Black and More met while the latter was working at Reckless Records in London's Soho. Black played his cut-and-paste classic "Say Kids, What Time is It?" to an enthusiastic More and the duo decided to press up 500 copies under the moniker "Coldcut".

"We started Coldcut with £500, a John Bull printing outfit and a tune; that's all you need to start a label. Actually you don't even need the John Bull printing outfit or £500 now – you just need the tune," says Black.

The track became an underground classic, and in its wake the duo started their Solid Steel mix show on Kiss FM and saw their remix of Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full" – with the unforgettable intro that seemed to define an era: "This is a journey into sound..." – reach No 15 in the charts. Fame, fortune and a permanent place at the top table of pop royalty appeared to be within their grasp as Coldcut were snapped up by label Big Life. But, after producing hits including "The Only Way is Up" for Yazz and Lisa Stansfield's "People Hold On" the pair felt pigeonholed and creatively undermined.

"I think that, in the period when we were sort of trapped in the normal music business contract – in a contractual swamp – we should have been a bit more switched on to what was going on," Black recalls. "It's a bit childish for us to moan on about what a bad deal we got – we did pretty well out of it – but we also saw what an enormous amount of effort and money was wasted by normal record companies."

On a tour of Japan with Norman Cook's Beats International, the pair decided it was time to go it alone again. The culture clash and other-worldliness of the country reminded them that there was more to music than the mainstream. Flicking through a book on ninjas gave them a new name. Ninja Tune was born. Zen Brakes Vol 1 was the label's first release in September 1990, followed swiftly by Jazz Brakes Volume 1 under the pseudonym DJ Food. The pair had returned to their DJ roots, producing jazz-suffused breaks-led instrumental tracks – manna for any crate-digging, wannabe turntablists.

"A journalist called Geoff Wilkinson reviewed DJ Food and said that he loved all the jazz breaks but suggested we put a rap on it. We asked if he knew anyone suitable and he made a track with Colin Crook – NW1 and Born 2 B's "The Band Played the Boogie". On the basis of that they signed to Blue Note and became US3. We were a bit gutted actually! But that showed us that there was pop mileage in what we were doing and that it was a direction that perhaps had bigger appeal than we realised."

Ninja successfully mined this hip-hop, jazz-laced funk sound throughout the Nineties. Their early compilations Funkjazztical Tricknology and Ninja Cuts: Flexistentialism won over a wealth of new fans. Stealth Nights at The Blue Note in Hoxton Square provided the perfect stage for the label's acts to showcase new material. I vividly recall craning to watch their show-stopping, four-deck mixing through a fug of smoke. The club was always packed and on more than one occasion I had to sneak in through the fire escape as the bouncers were turning people away. But, despite this early success the label never got too big for its boots.

"One thing with Ninja is that we have taken a slightly different path to most businesses," explains Black. "To get a successful young business the standard thing to do is to go to the bank and say: 'Hey look, we are doing really well. Lend us a load of money because we want to open a big office and do this and that.' Jon and I don't trust banks – which I think many people appreciate now more than perhaps in the past – and we don't like being in debt. So I think we could perhaps claim that Ninja has had a steady, sustainable organic growth which felt more natural."

Ninja Tune has remained staunchly independent and attracted a broad swathe of artists who share the same ideology. Sub-labels Big Dada (for more vocal-infused underground hip-hop – home of Roots Manuva) and Counter (guitar-based bands including the outstanding The Heavy) have been nurtured. Both have their separate identity but still have the Ninja philosophy.

"What you see in the history of Ninja is an oscillatory pattern where we do whatever we want and then we realise that it might be more sensible to actually target it down a bit. Then people's taste gets more eclectic so we go, 'oh great, we can do whatever we want again'. I think that nowadays, with the much freer access to music, people's tastes have broadened."

While back in the mid-Nineties Ninja jostled with a host of other independents such as Mo' Wax and Talkin' Loud, today they concede there are precious few truly independent labels around.

"I don't miss Mo' Wax; Gore Vidal said it is not enough to succeed, others must fail," laughs Black. "I find Warp Records more of our kind of apt evil twin sister. I think that Warp are cooler than we are – but we are more fun – and I think at the end I think it's cooler to be more fun than it is to be cool, but I do think Warp are terrific and there's a definite rivalry and affinity there which means something."

For the anniversary there's a raft of gigs planned across Europe featuring the cream of the label's talent, a limited-edition box set including two exclusive extra CDs, and a beautifully illustrated encyclopaedic history of the label Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces Labels Unlimited. On this evidence I wouldn't be surprised to hear Lush Brutality: 40 years of Ninja Tune in 2030.

'Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats & Pieces Labels Unlimited' is published by Black Dog at £19.95. The 'Ninja Tune XX' box set is released on Monday

Way of the ninja: Five big releases

Ninja Cuts: Funkjazztical Tricknology – Various Artists (1995)

The first compilation from the label, featuring core acts Coldcut, DJ Food, Funki Porcini and The Herbaliser. A breakthrough release that helped launch the Ninja sound to a wider audience, and an essential purchase for any budding DJ.

Journeys By DJ: 70 Minutes of Madness – Coldcut (1995)

Not strictly a Ninja release – but the guys behind the label's awesome mix CD are still (rightfully) held in high esteem by anyone who has ever attempted to mix. Hip-hop meets techno, funk and drum'n'bass – not forgetting the "Dr Who" theme. A classic.

Mr Scruff – Keep it Unreal (1999)

Tea- and fish-loving (though not in the same cup) Mr Scruff's first full-length release for Ninja features classic hip-wiggling cuts "Spandex Man" and "Get a Move On". I defy you not to want to some throw some serious shapes. So good it has a 10th-anniversary re-release.

Run Come Save Me – Roots Manuva (2001)

Rodney Smith's second album for Big Dada includes "Witness (1 Hope)" his (and the label's) theme tune, together with killer cuts like "Dreamy Days" – a track that sounds as fresh today as it did then. British rap at its finest.

Black Sands – Bonobo (2010)

Lush and atmospheric yet imbued with a soul, Simon Green's fourth album is his best to date. Mixing sweeping orchestral sounds with beats and electronic glitches, liberally dusted with the sultry vocals of Andreya Triana, it's a contender for album of the year.

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

Arts and Entertainment
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain