Ninja Tune XX traces Coldcut's path through decades of sampledelia
Coldcut used to brag that it was "Ahead of Our Time." In the late 1980s, they slapped the phrase onto a host of groundbreaking forays into cut-and-past sound mathematics like "Beats + Pieces," "Doctorin' the House," and "Stop This Crazy Thing," freewheeling tunes that treated the history of sound as an enormous candy shop, copyright laws be damned.
And now? Coldcut's long-running company Ninja Tune reflects the musical times in all its heterogeneous subgenres and variations on familiar themes. When Matt Black and Jonathan More launched Ninja Tune in 1990, it was to create an outlet for the group's abiding passion in instrumental beats (which the British press would soon garnish with colorful nicknames like "trip-hop" and "sampledelia"). It was built on Coldcut-related productions like DJ Food's Jazz Brakes series and Bogus Order's Zen Brakes. Over time, the label flowered into a major indie with two sublabels (Counter and Big Dada) and dozens of artists passing through its doors, from Amon Tobin and Roots Manuva to Antibalas and Mr. Scruff. Today, it releases iconoclastic statements from the L.A. beat scene (Daedelus), the Baltimore indie/electro scene (Spank Rock and the Death Set), and London's grime and bass worlds (the Bug).
During a phone interview from London, Coldcut's Black says, "All the artists on the label have their own character. It's like a collection of audibles, really. There's a consistency in the fact that we're all quite out there." He adds that Ninja Tune is more "advanced" than it was in its first decade, when most of the roster — including production units like the Herbaliser and Funki Porcini — fit under the "trip-hop" rubric. "I felt that some of the early releases interpreted the Coldcut blueprint too literally, just getting some funky loops and sounds and stringing it out for a bit." Part of this is due to maturity. The Herbaliser, for example, began making beat "loops" for discerning headz but has since grown into a full-fledged band. Even DJ Food, which now solely consists of producer Strictly Kev, has become a purveyor of soundtrack music inspired as much by David Axelrod as Marley Marl.
The mutating Ninja Tune amoeba is being chronicled through a series of 20th anniversary promotions. The deluxe box set Ninja Tune XX includes a hardcover book, six CDs, and six 7-inch vinyl records. The book, Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats & Pieces (Black Dog Publishing, 1992 pages, $29.95), is also available separately as a paperback. "If you look at the arrangements and the musicality on the music on the XX set, it's a lot more advanced than it was a few years ago," says Black, pointing to San Francisco's Brendan "Eskmo" Angelides as an example.