Ninja Tune: 20 Years in the Technicolor Escape Pod
November 12, 2010 1:50 PM   Subscribe

September 2010 marked 20 years of Ninja Tune, the independent label formed by the duo known as Coldcut. Starting with an album by the duo that they released under a different group name, the small UK label has since spiraled out to include three separate imprints (plus an artist-specific mini-label), with an extensive collection of singles, EPs and albums from an ever-growing list of artists. More history in words, music and video awaiting inside...

It all started Jonathan More and Matt Black, friends since the mid-eighties, who worked together to make some noise as Coldcut on the radio back to the pirate days of Kiss FM in the late 1980s. Those were the first days of Solid Steel, a radio show that lives on to this day. They released a number of singles and an album on their own label, Ahead Of Our Time, before the dawn of the new decade. The duo gained notoriety for their production and remixes, including their remix of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid In Full", and got signed to Arista Records, who had the rights to the name Coldcut for a period of time. To bypass this limitation, the duo produced some music under the moniker of Bogus Order (sample), and released it on a new label that they formed from frustration at the limits of their major label contract.

That label was Ninja Tune, which represented a new era in music, born from Coldcut's early sample-based music that put the group on the map of musicians to watch. The next set of records were from another Coldcut alias, DJ Food: five volumes of Jazz Brakes. DJ Food became a curtain behind which various members took the role of sampling wizard. The early years also saw the release of an ambient/techono album or two (sample), jazzy dowtempo / breakbeat (a sample or two), and some leftfield-type stuff (definition, sample). These sounds paved the way for the label's future, not in specific sound templates, but the sorts of things to expect.

Ninja Tune was re-focused through the creation of sub-labels, splitting off similar sounds into their own worlds. The first scion was Ntone, launched in 1994 for ambient techno and the like, as heard on the mixed collection Tone Tales from Tomorrow (full album in YT playlist). The next branch of Ninja Tune sprouted in 1997, when music journalist Will Ashon suggested to the Ninja masters that they might try releasing some hip-hop tracks with rappers. The mother label had released what would be considered instrumental hip-hop (sample), but hadn't worked much with vocal artists or groups. With the combination of Ashon, production by a fellow he knew named Luke Vibert, and some rhyme spitters, Big Dada Recordings was born on wax (sample). Vibert produced the first two singles, working with UK MCs, but Big Dada reached across the pond for the fourth single (sample), bringing some West Coast hip-hop to Europe.

All this time, the main label chugged along, adding to it's roster a Canadian turntablist (live sample), a Brazilian producer of heavy breaks (sample), some abstract breaks from stalwart Junglist soldiers (sample), and a fuzzy chap with a diverse record collection and a penchant for making cheeky songs with nautical themes, amongst others. And like that it was the year 2000, ten years had gone by. Amongst other celebrations for going ten years strong, Ninja Tune released a boxset, spanning the main label and the two sub-sets. Instead of a "greatest hits" compilation, the CD or vinyl set was a collection of new tracks, b-sides and "missed, skipped and flipped" tunes.

The new century marked new music and continued label growth, but also an end. 2001 marked the end of Ntone, with Neotropic releasing the last album on the label (sample track, with video). Five years later, Ninja Tune created a new imprint, with the single Blue Honey (video). The label is Counter Records, which was initially formed for Pop Levi (who said, of the arrangement: "I liked the idea of releasing astral rock ā€˜nā€™ roll on an electronic hip hop label"), and has since expanded to include The Heavy (previously, sample), TheDeathSet (video sample), Cougar (video sample), John Matthias (sample), and Ape School (live sample).

2007 marked a decade of Big Dada with the Well Deep 2CD set and a DVD with every Big Dada video, and then some. This covered the UK sounds of Roots Manuva (sample), Ty (sample), New Flesh (for Old) (sample), the abstract US stylings of The Infesticons (sample)cLOUDDEAD (sample), French group TTC (sample), party rappers Spank Rock (sample video), and UK Grime artist Wiley, who was so pleased with his recording deal that he wrote a song about it (a bit more on signing Wiley in this interview with Will Ashon, and Wiley's label woes in 2008).

A few more later, and here we are: the big XX, twenty years of Ninja Tune. Upping the ante from the ten year mark, the new boxset is bigger, and not just twice the number of CDs as the Xen Cuts boxset. Ninja Tune XX includes six 7" records and a label retrospective from Black Dog Press, following the compendiums on Rough Trade and Warp Records. The ninja artist and oldskool graf artist/fan Strictly Kev, aka DJ Food chats about some of the boxset artwork and shows off the set. To build hype for the events, a series of 20 limited-time downloads were available. The complete descriptions have been copied by Last.FM user KidVector, and the information archived on Discogs, though it's incomplete at the moment. Furthermore, there are clips from the boxset and mixes on Soundcloud, and other artists have paid homage to the label.

Why the thin history on the more recent years? Because there are more official videos from the newer artists on YouTube, straight from Ninja Tune, Big Dada and a few from Counter Records. Here they all are, to date, arranged alphabetically by artist and label:

Ninja Tune

Amon Tobin - Esther's (short video), edited version of the album track

Andreya Triana
A Town Called Obsolete (Official Video), Mount Kimbie Remix Preview Edit | Lost Where I Belong (Official Video), Flying Lotus Preview Edit

Flutter (HQ) | Transmission 94 (Parts 1 & 2) | trailer for the Live At Koko DVD
... featuring Andreya Triana: The Keeper | Eyesdown, preview edit, Warrior One Remix
Bonobo & Andreya Triana - Tea Leaf Dancers (live) (Flying Lotus cover)

The Music Scene (Vimeo) | Insomniac Olympics (QT) | Sunday Seance (alt) | The Art of Walking (QT)

The Bug
Catch a Fire | Poison Dart feat. Warrior Queen | Skeng

The Cinematic Orchestra
Live At The Barbican (more info): Breathe, To Build a Home | Live At The Royal Albert Hall: To Build A Home (photo montage)

- CC and Juxta's ''White Christmas At The White House" (with MC George Bush on vocals and piano, with a message of (global) warming Christmas cheer)
- CC live with MC Juice Aleem: Eurokennes Beats and Pieces pt1, pt2, pt3 revolution
- CC vs TV Sheriff "Revolution '08"

Fair Weather Friends | Just Briefly | Make It So | Sundown

Drop The Other, Daedelus Fragments Into A Thousand Little Pieces mix | Double Edge, Pinch Remix

Eskmo - Cloudlight

Sort Of Revolution | This Is The Thing (Live from Haldern 08) | Fink live: Pretty Little Thing, Sorry I'm Late | Mastercard Adverts featuring This is the Thing: #1, #2, #3

The Door In The Wall, Live | Muppet, Nathan Fake Remix (no video) | Swallow The Day

DJ Kentaro
2007 Interview (dubbed video), 2006 interview (text), subtitled mini-documentary with Kentaro in action

King Cannibal - So... Embrace The Minimum (Live)

Loka - Beginningless

Mr Scruff
Bang The Floor | Donkey Ride | Get a Move On | Give Up To Get | Hairy Bumpercress | Honey Dew | Kalimba | Music Takes Me Up feat. Alice Russel | Nice Up The Function feat. Roots Manuva | Mr. Scruff Vs Kirsty Almeida 'Pickled Spider' | Stockport Carnival | Sweet Smoke | Test The Sound | This Way | Whiplash

(Ghislain) Poirier
Don't Smile It's Post Modern | promo video for Karnival 1 (club event) | Karnival 2 (music video for Crookers 'Arena' ft. Poirier & Face-T) | Jusqu'en Haut feat. Omnikrom | Mangnen l'boulé ft Nik Myo | Coco Drunk | Blazin | 'Get Crazy' feat Mr Slaughter | Hit And Red | Wha-La-La-Leng feat. Face-T

The Qemists
mini-doc | On The Run feat Jenna G | S.W.A.G.

Speech Debelle
Better Days featuring Micachu | Go Then Bye | The Key | Spinnin'

Stateless - Ariel (Making Of, Trailer (widescreen), Trailer (fullscreen)

Yppah - Gumball Machine Weekend

Big Dada

Anti-Pop Consortium - Volcano

Bang On! - Hands High (described positively as donkstep)

Shapeshift | Trumpalump, making of the video

Infinite Livez - live at Secondfest - Part 1, part 2

'10 Man Roll' feat. Boy Better Know | Party Animal | When Jammer Met The Elephant - Jahmanji Cover Shoot

Jen At The Station | Round & Round

Paris Suit Yourself - Craig Machinsky (track with still photo)

Roots Manuva
Again & Again | Buff Nuff | Colossal Insight | Dreamy Days | Juggle Tings Proper | Let The Spirit | Too Cold | mini-doc | 'Well Deep' Interview | Roots Manuva Dubs Up 'Something Wicked' by The Herbaliser

Wiley - 50/50

LBG (Little Booty Girl) | Nothing 2 Step 2 | guerilla gig - Cargo, London - December 2008

Two Fingers and Sway in the studio

Closer | Oh U Want More?

Xrabit & DMG$
Follow The Leader | Live In Paris

Counter Records

Ape School - Wail To God

Cougar - Stay Famous (Short)

The Death Set - Around The World | electronic press kit

The Heavy
On Tour In California | Big Bad Wolf (Live) | How You Like Me Now? | Set Me Free | Sixteen, Live | Live snippet

John Matthias - Live

Pop Levi
Dita Dimoné | Blue Honey (second version) | Never Never Love | Pick-Me-Up Uppercut (Hollywood Version) | Semi Babe 1 | Semi Babe 2 | Sugar Assault Me Now | Live snippet

Spokes - We Can Make It Out

Even more words about music:
* The labels in the words of some artists and associates from both sides of the pond
* a review of Ninja Tune, and the new boxet that's "trying to prove something" (in a good way).
* Big Dada history with founder Will Ashon
posted by filthy light thief (52 comments total) 133 users marked this as a favorite
Goodbye, weekend!
posted by rollbiz at 1:56 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have Coldcut's Journeys By DJ album, and it's one of my favorites. Thanks for this post -- much to dig through.
posted by hippybear at 1:58 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had all day with fuck all to do and you post this goddamn awesomeness at 5pm EST. WHY YOU DO THIS.
posted by elizardbits at 1:59 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

What is this, Wikipedia?

By that I mean, holy cow. NICE WORK!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 2:00 PM on November 12, 2010

God I'm really starting to hate these SLYT posts.

Seriously, flf, this is amazing. Also: Anti-Pop are the shit
posted by griphus at 2:01 PM on November 12, 2010

I'm a huge Ninja Tune fan. Especially Amon Tobin, Skalpel, & Cinematic Orchestra.
posted by juv3nal at 2:02 PM on November 12, 2010

Nah, Wikipedia is sadly lacking much in the way of details on many of these artists, and there's less handy video and music samples. But this isn't depth, it's width. Think of it as a mega-sampler. Ninja Tune and the sub-labels are supporting some really diverse stuff these days. Check out Eskmo and Emika - those two represent a sound I wouldn't have expected from Ninja Tune five years ago, but looking at the first years and the now defunct Ntone sub-label, it makes sense.

Also, I think there are more videos on those YouTube channels that I didn't find, because the "show all uploads" wasn't working as well as it should.

And and and .. no Skalpel! No videos from the polish jazz duo! And there are some old gems missing from the Ninja Tune video vault, like Amon Tobin's 4 Ton Mantis. Well, it's a sampler, it's not all-inclusive.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:08 PM on November 12, 2010

That's it. The awesomeness of this post has broken my snarky bone.
posted by googly at 2:11 PM on November 12, 2010

And the Wii goes to...

(this is good)
posted by boo_radley at 2:12 PM on November 12, 2010


Great post on a great label!
posted by Artw at 2:14 PM on November 12, 2010

filthy light thief: Ah, heh, I meant it as a joke. This is an awesome post; Wikipedia should take notice.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 2:19 PM on November 12, 2010

So are you going to do a Warp post anytime?
posted by Artw at 2:19 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

SmileyChewtrain - sorry, I realized that, but replied anyway. Wikipedia was rather lacking or outdated on some artists, though I think most are present there.

Artw, it's in my queue, along with Digital Hardcore Recordings and K Records.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:26 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. I used to be super into Ninja Tune in the early 2000s, guess it's time I took another look.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:42 PM on November 12, 2010

Thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyouthankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou
posted by motty at 2:42 PM on November 12, 2010

all I know is that I love me some Blockhead.
looks like I've got some other artists to check out now.
posted by namewithoutwords at 2:46 PM on November 12, 2010

with the possible exception of factory I can't think of a label that's been more important to me.

great post.
posted by rog at 2:59 PM on November 12, 2010

Holy fuck, that Blockhead video is incredible. (The Music Scene)

Thank you so much for this, filthy light thief. I was afraid that after the hip hop MeTa thread (link), nobody would step up.
posted by yaymukund at 3:00 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

also, mike ladd kickin ass - fuck the majesticons!
posted by rog at 3:07 PM on November 12, 2010

Ninja Tune is one of the most important modern labels, and this is an excellent post.
posted by idiomatika at 3:08 PM on November 12, 2010

Thank you so much for this, filthy light thief. I was afraid that after the hip hop MeTa thread (link), nobody would step up.

/starts plotting a Grebo thread.
posted by Artw at 3:21 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Awesome post, thanks! This is a great look at one of the most vital labels around today. I would also like to point out that Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the fantastic Ninja Tune XX compilation are available to download from Amazon, as well as this free(!) 10-track compilation and it will be some of the best money you've spent recently on music: each volume has around 30 songs, and the quality is very high throughout.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 3:24 PM on November 12, 2010

Unbelievably good post. Bravo!
posted by proj at 3:41 PM on November 12, 2010

as a FFP I was going to whine that it's weird to be doing this 2+ months after the anniversary - now I realize that's how long it took to the post together! my gawd, well freakin done.

Meanwhile, I am awed by how quickly 20 years went. Kaleidoscope literally changed my life.
posted by victors at 3:44 PM on November 12, 2010

the awesomeness of this post cannot be held in even two hands!

muchas gracias, filthy light thief!
posted by jammy at 3:50 PM on November 12, 2010

victors, I've been working on this since the beginning of the 20 weeks of freebies that lead up to the anniversary boxset release, then I held off hoping that the book would have more valuable insight to spread around. The book is decent, but I realized I had too much and started pruning. In short: yes, I've been working on this for a while =)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:52 PM on November 12, 2010

The nearest thing I have to a Coldcut story:

The Hex gang (were they a gang? There were certainly quite a few of them) were doing their thing in the upstairs bar at Megatripolis (Thursday nights at Heaven, by Charing Cross station, a good place to be if you liked the sound of someone opening a low-pass filter very slowly, which I did at the time), and also in there somewhere was Dan, a friend of mine, so I dropped by to visit. It was interesting an place to be - the Coldcut boys playing with videos, mostly, and five-deck mixing (which seemed a bit over the top, but certainly looked good), and various other stuff. And there was an Aria 335 copy leaning against the wall, so as everyone else was furiously mixing stuff, I sat there and noodled. After a while, someone came over and asked whether I wanted to plug it in, and I said ... well, yes, of course. I did all sorts of pingy noises and I think there was a delay there somewhere so I was doing Edge-y type things and Dave Gilmour lead bits over the sections where it broke down and became a bit epic. I had great fun.

A few weeks later I mentioned to Dan that I thought I'd heard some of the things I'd done bouncing off the back wall, and though it might be silly, I suspected some of it had gone out over the PA. "John," he said, "it all went out."

Apparantly Mr Black had asked him who the mystery guitarist was, though whether that was to thank me or have my legs broken, I don't know. Probably the latter, as I can't imagine it sounded very good.

Anyway, I have the unique distinction of having played with Hex/Coldcut live on stage, though neither of us realised that was happening at the time.
posted by Grangousier at 4:29 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

including their remix of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid In Full"

This. This was like the center of the universe for me for a while. Like when I listened to it, the start of it was one corner of the vast universe, and the end was infinity. It just seemed to go on and on. The baseline is the cosmic background radiation. It's just a fantastic mix of an incredible song. I don't think I ever rapped along. I was too busy thinking about where I was in space when it was playing. Then I'd stop the tape, rewind it and hit play again. Not surprisingly I put it at the beginning of tapes and at the end of tapes. "This is a journey...into sound" literally meant music to me. "When all is ready, I throw...this switch." I heard this mix before I heard the actual song. Like a good 75 times before I heard the actual song.
posted by cashman at 4:50 PM on November 12, 2010

Man do I loves me some Amon Tobin. Amon a plon, a canol... Panoma!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:09 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I still play Bonobo's Silver two times in a row when it comes up on my itunes.
posted by priested at 5:28 PM on November 12, 2010

Filthy Light Thief, you are a god amongst men. This is incredible.

One of my favorite Ninja Tune moments occurred when I was listening to Wagon Christ's Shadows, with the nagging suspicion something sounded familiar. I was wracking my brain for weeks until it hit me - the horn and strings had been lifted from John Barry's 007 and Counting, off the Diamonds are Forever soundtrack. That discovery alone left me giddy for days.

This is a rare pleasure reserved for listeners of sample-based electronic music. To this day, I'm still amazed by how Wagon Christ preserves so much of the original song, but somehow manages to completely invert its emotional tenor. Ninja Tune has provided uncountable moments like that for me - so, thanks to them, and thanks to FLT for putting this all together. Seriously, this is a treasure trove.
posted by TheRoach at 6:06 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

(a) Wow ....

(b) Yeah I think the 'Paid in Full' remix was my entry drug too.

Didn't see the Herbaliser's Very Mercenary mentioned above, it's well worth a listen, including this and this ...

There's an excellent double CD mix of DJ Food and DJ Krush, can't find it on YT.

Mixmaster Morris's remix of Coldcut's version of Autumn Leaves is an ambient classic.

There is cool Kid Koala Solid Steel session that was re-released online only as part of the Ninja Tune 20th thing, that is floating around out there somewhere and well worth tracking down.
posted by carter at 6:14 PM on November 12, 2010

There is a part of my brain that was shaped in very odd ways whilst learning to manipulate turntables using the first DJ Food record some years ago. And then a few years later spinning parties it was almost too easy: drop a Mr Scruff, look up, nod.
posted by swift at 6:16 PM on November 12, 2010

What a fucking post.

Ninja Tune has an agreement with Grooveshark so you can listen to most things there. Here is Supermodified by Amon Tobin which is the perfect album as far as I can tell.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:16 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

carter: There is cool Kid Koala Solid Steel session that was re-released online only as part of the Ninja Tune 20th thing, that is floating around out there somewhere and well worth tracking down.

Kid Koala - Solid Steel: Music To Draw To (more info and tracklist) -I've listened to it a few times since it was made available, it's definitely worth tracking down.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:50 PM on November 12, 2010

Holy shit. Thank you. I was literally just going through my old coldcut and funki porcini cds trying to decide if I should just toss them. Can remember now just why I loved it back in the day. *heads out to see if the place across the road has any blockhead in stoc*
posted by arha at 7:08 PM on November 12, 2010

I got to go see a Ninja Tune tour back in like 2005? I think it was shortly after I read a Tom Jenkinson piece ripping on them for not being "intellectual" enough or some bullshit. I loves me some squarepusher, but damnit, I watched that show, and wrote a piece ripping into that article he wrote.

FFS, I got to see Kid Koala, Blockhead, Bonobo and Amon Tobin all in one night in Chicago. It was such a fucking awesome show. The vibe was flowing. Blockhead creeped me out, he kept staring off into the crowd looking kinda pissy like "Dance, you bitches"

I remember thinking "This is what it's all about - they are disciples of death, we are disciples of life." Creation, music, celebration, love, dance. And the fundamentalists who would deprive us of such celebration, in our own Imatatio Dei.

It was definitely a show that had a huge impact on me at that time. Wonderful.

This is such an awesome post!!!
posted by symbioid at 7:08 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Love Ninja Tune, but this is confusing me. If the 20th anniv. is now, 2010, what did I see in 2003 (maybe 2004?) ? 'Cause I definitely went to see some kind of anniversary tour, with Kid Koala, Amon Tobin, Blockhead, Diplo and Bonobo. There was also a DVD that came out around then, which I still have, and it was a collection of music videos by the label's artists.
posted by mannequito at 8:12 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

ah and reading symbioid's post above, we must have seen the same tour, so maybe it was the 15th anniversary ...? Except I'm almost positive that was in 03 or 04.
things that make ya go hmmm
posted by mannequito at 8:13 PM on November 12, 2010

Blockhead, Diplo, Amon Tobin and maybe someone else toured in 2004 - I wanted to see Amon live, and hadn't heard of those other guys yet. I think it was just a label tour, but I could be wrong. The label also released a video retrospective, alongside other "retrospective" comps.

And if you're looking for more Blockhead beats, he recently released 13 volumes of "throwaway files", all beats from the past, recorded from cassettes and whatnot. He also remixed a Tom Waits track for Aesop Rock's new art collective, 900bats (referring to over 900 bats torched by construction workers in India).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:26 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, a little shout out to the ninjatune forum. Hilarious place of witty brit bedroom djs...
posted by iamck at 8:54 PM on November 12, 2010

I can't believe Oneself (Yarah Bravo and MC Blurum) wasn't listed. Children of Possibility is my favorite Ninja Tune record. Yarah Bravo is one of my favorite emcees and has a very interesting background. And Blurum's voice and delivery is so gratifying to listen to.
posted by pelican at 9:39 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah that video retrospective is the one I have, so I guess it was just a general label tour. I must have assumed that it was marking some kind of milestone or anniversary.
Regardless, that was an amazing sshow. I was already a huge Amon Tobin and Kid Koala fan, so the big surprise of the night was Bonobo. Been following him ever since. Heard he's touring now with a full band, so maybe this is a sign I should check that out.
posted by mannequito at 9:51 PM on November 12, 2010


I keep meaning to delve into Ninja Tune's output beyond Amon Tobin but I just haven't been getting new music like I used to. Maybe now I will.
posted by egypturnash at 10:45 PM on November 12, 2010

Been listening to the Zen Tune comp. quite a bit lately. Recommend.

Incredible post, there goes the weekend.
posted by wingless_angel at 1:27 AM on November 13, 2010

needs a funkjazztical tag
posted by 3mendo at 2:44 AM on November 13, 2010

Fantastic stuff— I woke up today with Coldcut in my head and bothered the Mrs and the dogs with quotes from Bola during our walk, so your timing is impeccable.
posted by yerfatma at 7:33 AM on November 13, 2010

Fantastic post! Like egypturnash, I mostly know just the Amon Tobin stuff, but this should keep me busy for several weeks.
posted by formless at 2:42 PM on November 13, 2010

I found this by accident, and will love it forever. Thanks for the great post.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:32 PM on November 15, 2010

BTW, the post title comes from a term coined by Matt Black, as mentioned in this Beatportal interview (the formed from frustration at the limits of their major label contract link).
posted by filthy light thief at 6:28 AM on November 17, 2010

Martians like techno.
posted by ...possums at 2:54 PM on November 25, 2010

...possums is linking to Sesame Street: Martians Radio on YouTube, for future reference.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:01 PM on December 4, 2010

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