The only way is up for the funky midwives

Yazz, Chris Morris ... dance veterans Coldcut have remixed them all. Garth Cartwright helps celebrate their label Ninja Tune's 10th birthday
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A decade is a long time in pop music. A decade in dance music - where movements, artists and record labels often arrive and vanish within a matter of weeks - is a millennium, of sorts. No wonder South London dance label Ninja Tune are preparing to celebrate their tenth anniversary. While the label was formed by celebrity DJ duo Coldcut (Matt Black and Jonathan Moore) and pioneered such Nineties club sounds as trip-hop and big beat, Ninja Tune is not a dance label in any conventional sense.

A decade is a long time in pop music. A decade in dance music - where movements, artists and record labels often arrive and vanish within a matter of weeks - is a millennium, of sorts. No wonder South London dance label Ninja Tune are preparing to celebrate their tenth anniversary. While the label was formed by celebrity DJ duo Coldcut (Matt Black and Jonathan Moore) and pioneered such Nineties club sounds as trip-hop and big beat, Ninja Tune is not a dance label in any conventional sense.

"We formed the label out of our frustration with the major music labels," explains Black. "We had achieved a degree of success and were in danger of becoming a cog in the pop production industry and were also starting to realise all the cons that go on in that business - not getting proper royalty payments and such." (Ironically enough, Coldcut burst into the Top 10 in 1987 with a remix of US hip-hop track called "Paid In Full".) Their production skills then saw them launching Yazz and Lisa Stansfield into the charts. For a while it looked as if Coldcut were to be the thinking person's Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

"There was pressure on us to go that way but, being ornery bastards, we weren't happy with it," says Black. "And we got ripped off," adds Moore. "We shared the punk aesthetic that you didn't have to be able to play an instrument, that you could create your own music, start your own label," continues Black. "We could have made a lot more money playing the superstar DJ-producer thing, but you should always put the music first. It's very sad when we see people we once knew letting money dictate what they do." "You might end up with a mansion," concludes Moore, "but you end up very isolated. I'd like to think we're still absolutely engaged with music and the community."

Where Black bristles with nervous energy, Moore is relaxed, lyrical. I imagine they balance each other well. They met in Reckless Records, a Soho second-hand emporium. At the time Moore was an art teacher and Black a computer programmer - new technology and conceptual theory remain essential elements in the Coldcut manifesto.

As acid house boomed Coldcut were amongst its first stars, playing midwife to British dance music. I wondered if the duo felt any responsibility for the Ibiza Nation now upon us?

"Ibiza's Blackpool by the sea," says Moore. "We really don't have any connection with a scene that's all about selling." "It's the inevitable process of the underground kicking something up and the mainstream taking it and flogging it to death," adds Black.

Ninja Tune began life with Coldcut and label manager Pete Quicke squatting an empty building in Clink Street. They now employ 16 staff and own a two-storey building in Kennington. Here they design, produce and export Ninja product. They also use the premises as a recording studio and internet site from which live broadcasts are transmitted every night (www.piratetv.net). As cottage industries go, Ninja Tune is a resolutely 21st-century example.

"Laptops, samplers, video, multiple turntables ... that's what we're taking on the tenth anniversary tour," says Black. "We'll start with four nights in London then trawl across Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. In Paris we're playing an exhibition space in the Pompidou Centre, in Belgium a club that holds 1,800 people. We vary it and it never gets boring."

This epic tour will see Coldcut joined on different nights by a variety of Ninja artists (many of them featured on the forthcoming compilation Xen Cuts). And, while unlikely to become household names, Funki Porcini, Roots Manuva, Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, Herbaliser and DJ Food all share a desire to create music with a dark, unsettling current. (This, and some very surreal humour, is surely what attracted arch-prankster Chris Morris to Ninja - he used music from the label for his jam TV series and even cut "Bad Sex", a Ninja single, with Tobin.)

Ninja albums can sell over 100,000 (those by Coldcut themselves) to barely 5,000 (experimental acts). The label is totally self-financed: North American and Australian Ninja outlets provide the label with its most consistent sales. Moore and Black therefore have a stable platform to develop the label, and the pair of them suggest American minimalist composer Steve Reich and German ambient jazz label ECM as models for Ninja's future. "The only way is up," sang Yazz on her biggest, Coldcut-produced hit - a trajectory that Ninja Tune appear to be in little danger of changing.

Ninja Tune Mini-Festival: various London venues, Thursday to Sunday (www.ninjatune.net); tickets can be purchased online or in selected independent record shops; 'Xen Cuts' (Ninja Tune), is released tomorrow

Comments