Ninja Tune XX traces Coldcut's path through decades of sampledelia
Eskmo isn't the first Bay Area artist to record for Ninja Tune; that honor belongs to rap experimentalist cLOUDDEAD, which released the U.K. edition of its 2001 self-titled album through Big Dada. However, he gives Ninja Tune a foothold in the thriving bass and organic electronic music scene through the symphonic boom of tracks like "Hypercolor." Eskmo says that signing with Ninja Tune, which just released his self-titled debut, has been "really inspirational," adding, "It's a unique thing in this day and age for an independent to be flourishing and still put out creative stuff."
According to Stevie Chick's book 20 Years of Beats & Pieces, Ninja Tune emerged in the wake of the music industry's brief yet disillusioning courtship of Coldcut, who dazzled with a game-changing remix of Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid In Full" (the classic "Seven Minutes of Madness" mix) and U.K. pop hits like Yazz' "The Only Way Is Up" and Queen Latifah's "Find a Way." The label began as Coldcut's middle finger to demands that they become another group of pop-dance hacks like Stock Aitken Waterman. "We really liked making instrumental hip-hop, fucking around, not having to make another 'pop' track," Black tells author Chick. On albums such as 1997's Let Us Play, Coldcut found an equilibrium between advocating the wonders of cutting-edge technology and vinyl consumption and promoting anticapitalist themes.
An inevitable byproduct of Ninja Tune's success (as well as that of its great rival, Warp Records) is that its fashion-forward yet radical communal lifestyle seems more myth than reality. In 2005, the label released Amon Tobin's soundtrack for the Ubisoft video game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Last year, Speech Debelle won the U.K. Mercury Prize for her Speech Therapy debut. A few months later, the British rapper announced that she wanted off the Big Dada label because it didn't promote her work enough. Meanwhile, several roster artists have scored popular car commercials, from Mr. Scruff's "Get a Move On" for the Lincoln Navigator to the Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" for KIA Sorento minivans.
"We've adapted our game," Black explains. "We've got a company called Sync, Inc. and they specialize in getting sync licenses or getting our music placed in films, TV, video games, and adverts. That's become an important part of our business." When asked if that contradicts Coldcut's earlier independent philosophy, he answers, "We give our artists a lot of freedom. If an artist wants to license a track to Coca-Cola, we wouldn't necessarily block them. Coldcut has turned down a lot of syncs, particularly car ads, ever since we did one for Ford and realized that was a terrible idea." Ironically, the song used was "Timber," an instrumental decrying the eradication of rain forests. Even though Coldcut gave half of the licensing money to Greenpeace, says Black, "We didn't feel comfortable with it."