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.
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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.