In the second part of our Always Read the Label series, we take a look at Ninja Tune, a record label whose colourful form and slick moves have been battling fiercely against the drab aesthetics of mediocre music since its formation in 1990. Eclecticism is their bread and butter, with creativity possibly serving as their optional jam. Over the past twenty years the label has managed to forge new avenues for instrumental hip-hop while simultaneously reinventing jazz and dishing up fresh, hot bowls of new talent for the little ones. They’ve also managed to spawn a string of hugely successful baby labels, each with its own style and ethos – Big Dada, Counter Records, Werkdiscs, and runaway behemoth Brainfeeder to name a few. In short, we’re dealing with a vast network of wayward beats, spanning two decades and shifting form on command. So, to help us navigate through bedlam, we caught up with managing director Peter Quicke, as well as newcomer Raffertie and permanent resident Fink for a chat about their new projects, life on the label, and an insight into Ninja Tune’s story. As with all good tales, this one starts with two lads from London.
Built on the frustration of major labels’ restraints and a burgeoning desire to explore the relatively undisturbed world of the underground, Ninja Tune first bloomed at the hands of Coldcut duo Matt Black and Jonathon More. Emerging in 1987, Coldcut quickly established themselves as bona fide rhythm wizards, employing rudimentary cut & paste techniques and heavy use of sampling when the term was mostly still associated with free supermarket snacks. While many artists fall into the category ‘genre-spanning’ because of their eclecticism over careers or albums, Coldcut are one of the few who manage to satisfy the description within single tracks.
Despite working prolifically throughout the dawn of Ninja Tune, Coldcut were tightly fastened to Arista Records and therefore had to resort to a number of aliases such as Bogus Order, Euphoreal, and most notably DJ Food. Aside from More and Black, Patrick Carpenter and Strictly Kev held the reigns throughout the early ’90s,where the group released the now dated but hugely foundational Jazz Brakes series and paved the way for a slew of classic breakbeat releases that singed the label’s imprint into the minds of many.
Flying the flag through this gestation period were the likes of the Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, Funki Porcini, the Irresistible Force, and cavernous Brazilian beat-welder Amon Tobin, all of whom are responsible for releases that managed to grow from the seeds that were planted before them, while remaining hugely influential on what was to follow. While all the aforementioned applied jazz to breaks in funky splendour, it wasn’t until the Cinematic Orchestra came along that the jazzy elements took centre stage and added new weight to the label with three mammoth releases in the space of four years – Motion, Everyday and Man with a Movie Camera.
It’s also around this period where we enter the era of Fink, possibly the only downtempo beat producer to successfully turn singer-songwriter without losing his moniker or his record label. From lone producing to leading a three-piece band, to putting on an illuminated stage show and a full orchestral concert, Fink has progressed in leaps and shows no real sign of slowing down, as he comments: “We gotta keep taking big steps, and we put out enough albums to kinda warrant the steps, y’know. It’s all interlinked from the album to the stage to the writing … we’re just writing and jamming and kinda demo-ing the set at the moment – just kinda finding a way … If the music needs it, we’ll go the extra mile onstage – and we loved our light rig/projections thing from the Perfect Darkness tours – it was fun to set it up every night to kinda get you in the mood (it would take eight of us 20 minutes every night).
“So – so far – sure, the next album is definitely sounding ambitious and big, but also dark and intimate too … we’re just laying down what we’re into right now and seeing what sticks out as good … so far we’ve jammed in LA, London, and next week we’re off to Amsterdam just searching for our mojo, and recording the journey too.”
Listening to Fink’s latest LP, Perfect Darkness, it’s hard to imagine the same man recording 2000’s Fresh Produce, but when we ask about his introductory piece he’s only too happy to reminisce: “Fresh Produce and the DJ days were so great. Just the other night, I went out to Hoxton Square to see [Ninja Tune stablemate and regular collaborator] Andreya Triana and right next door was the Blue Note, where we used to hold Ninja parties and I DJ’d so many times back then …
“I think, in the beginning, it was difficult to be a different kind of artist, and neither me nor Ninja Tune had really done it before, I don’t think, to some extent, so our learning curve was learnt together – and also the nature of how we do the business part of the music business has changed radically since 2000 when Fresh Produce came out … we marketed that with a sticker campaign. The gig with the orchestra on the Perfect Darkness tour was app’d to stream live on your Apple TV with a 360 camera option! So yeah, times have changed.”
Despite being surrounded by underground breaks, Fink still doesn’t feel alienated on Ninja Tune at all. In fact, he feels they’re much more congruous than people would think. “Ninja Tune have always been proud of their underground heritage and reputation and at first I think they saw jumping on the singer-songwriter bandwagon possibly felt a little commercial, but as I was already signed, it didn’t count as jumping on the bandwagon, I was already on the wagon. Now it’s different. As well as Bonobo and J Swinscoe having always used singers as well, Andreya, Jono McCleery, the Heavy [and] the new breed like Machine-Drum, Raffertie, Actress, and the Brainfeeder stable are really challenging.
“As it’s turned into a kinda ‘live’ thing for a lot of modern music, I guess the live acts have kinda thrived a little, and Fink has definitely transformed from a studio act going live to a live act in the studio. For sure … the bigger the gigs the bigger the songs have to be – even if bigger just means better … at the end of the day, Fink just loves writing, recording and touring music … and Ninja Tune love putting out records and getting syncs and stuff … perfect harmony, man.”
Regardless of whether or not Fink fits in or sticks out on the label, one overshadowing element is the fact that, for him, Ninja Tune is the best there is. “If I was signed to a major and not an indie, would I have sold more records? I honestly believe that the answer is no – no way … not in a million years. I’m on my fifth studio album as a singer-songwriter for Ninja Tune now, and on a major, I would have probably been dropped after my second, for sure.
“Distance and Time – lost classic … Ninja Tune don’t stress you out for the singles [but] give you loads of freedom creatively. Sure, the mega-budgets aren’t there, but that forces its artists to be creative and, above all, musical. It can’t be about the money… Ninja Tune is one of the best labels in the world – 20-years-old with no hidden investors or Sonyversal secretly owning anything – Matt and Jon turned an advance from Virgin into a groundbreaking label after they were dropped, and Peter has steered it since rubber stamps on White Labels and records with scratched horn samples over stolen breakbeats to a global beacon of alternative music, and so the label has a real kinda survivalist mentality as well as being a record company. And as an artist, I’m proud to be associated with that … Ninja Tune’s patience and long-term vision is why I’m probably still in love with the music industry … freedom and applause … the independent dream.”
It’s around Fink’s first release and the label’s halfway point that proceedings simmer down to a leisurely bobbing of heads. The couch-friendly rhythms of this period made living room listening the optimum format for beat digestion. Where all you really needed to enjoy Ninja records throughout this chapter was a fine set of speakers, an adjacent bass amp, and some meager rays of sunshine reflecting off your two day old cans of Devil’s Bit. This is possibly the golden age of Ninja Tune, where the label rockets through a fully stocked buffet of timeless imperishables, the list of which is too detailed to tackle but what the hell, here’s the crème de la crème as we see it:
Excluding the masterful Xen Cuts compilation (because that’s just cheating), we have Mr Scruff’s Trouser Jazz, Musipal by Wagon Christ, Blockhead’s first LP Music by Cavelight, off-kilter scratchathon Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from Kid Koala, as well as forgotten beasts like Talkatif and Verbal Remixes & Collaborations, and finally Bonobo’s on-the-map debut Animal Magic.
While all of the former have continued to keep things fresh, it’s only the latter that has evolved in tandem with Ninja Tune over the past few years. With the release of 2010’s Black Sands, Bonobo, aka Simon Green, took one step towards the nightclub while still bearing the threads of nostalgic folk rhythms from his previous works. Now, with his most recent album, The North Borders, Green has continued in the same direction to produce one of the most poignant electronic dance records to date.
Clutching his lapels through this evolutionary transition is Ninja Tune, who’ve mirrored Green’s approach by moving away from the safety of the sofa and into the club. They’ve accomplished this via their new vanguard of producers – FaltyDL, Floating Points, Letherette, King Midas Sound and Raffertie, whom we managed to grab a few words from. Despite being wholly different artists, Raffertie reads from the same page as Fink with regards to Ninja Tune’s positive influence.
“It is essential to have people around that you can trust with your work, and people you respect the opinion of, mostly because, as a creator, you get too close to your work and often lose sight of what’s good or bad about it. Those trusted people help regain a little perspective on what you are doing. Ninja Tune have given time, critique, support and guidance, and we have built a strong relationship over the time we have been working together, and I think my work is all the better for it.”
Simply refusing to be pigeonholed, Raffertie has moved from producing garishly ravey dub squelchers to alabaster house tracks with perfectly-chosen compact vocal loops in a very short time and with minimum fuss. As the release of his most contemporary EP, Build Me Up, draws near, it’s now become apparent that he’s metamorphosed yet again. His latest work comes across as more sentimental than its predecessors, which could be seen as a maturing style but is really just Raffertie exercising his given right to swim in music’s many waters.
“Production is, and should be, an ever changing process. I think it’s quite hard for creative minds to stay in one place for very long. By learning something new, there is a desire to implement it. When inspired by something fresh, it needs to be captured. This is reflected in the process I have been through over the two years writing the album and this new EP. Certainly the EP is full of emotion; that’s definitely something which I wanted to bring more to the fore in my music, but the beats are still present, just presented in a different way. Compared to previous productions, they are now stark and focused.”
The aforementioned album is said to be released on Ninja Tune in the latter half of 2013 and should contain the same delicate elements as Build Me Up in what Raffertie considers a fine-tuning of the skills he’s acquired over the years. “Writing this album has been about distilling and refining the way I work with my medium. It feels to me that this is some of my most assured work to date, and I am really excited for the album to be heard.
“Conceptually, it is an intensely personal and exploratory record, which takes snapshots of places around my seaside home town, dreams, imagining things from other people’s perspectives and generally coping with things that happen. It’s not what I would describe as a club-friendly album, but it acknowledges where it has come from, which is a predominantly electronic sphere. It’s gone far beyond its roots, however, and is much more tangible music with sounds developed using instruments, my voice and a lot of recordings made while walking around. Listen out for things like the bell tower in the church near my home, parts of conversations and lots more.”
Even though they are carving new musical trails with artists like Raffertie, this just doesn’t seem to cut it with regards to Ninja Tune, which is why they’ve also laid the groundwork for technological leaps and an online rescue mission for lost vinyl.
First in line is Ninja Jamm, a new digital instrument and beat-tampering app. While there are plenty of similar apps on the market, the concept behind Ninja Jamm has one key difference in that it lets you tinker with music from Ninja Tune artists, as Matt Black comments on the app: “There aren’t any other labels that have really put out apps that let you mess with the music that’s on the label – it’s artist-driven, basically. When you get a pack on Ninja Jamm, you’re starting off with some sounds from a Ninja Tune artist – Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Mr Scruff, people that our fans already know. With a lot of apps out there, the content’s not very good, because it’s just kind of generic stuff, ours comes with the Ninja hallmark of dope audio.”
While the app is free, the ‘packs’ – featuring loops and samples from songs or entire albums – range between 80c and €2.50 but are presented in lossless HD audio and, once downloaded, can be played through in their original format for when you just want to listen.
Upon first opening Ninja Jamm, it’s almost like being handed over the controls to a warp-speed mothership when you’re only used to driving an old Ford Fiesta. After watching the tutorial and exploring the app a little, however, it’s surprisingly easy to use but not – and this is the key part – so much so that you feel unrewarded after a serious bout. As well as sauntering along the fine line between vast and accessible, the app offers a smorgasbord of functions. Everything from the classic DJ effects like filter, delay, reverb, etc. – all of which can be combined on an XY axis using two fingers for multiple manipulation – to a gyroscope function which can be controlled by tilting the phone.
Seeing as this app is heavily reliant on which tunepacks you have at your disposal, Ninja Tune have assured us that they’ll keep adding artists to the pile and perhaps eventually songs from artists that they haven’t even signed.
Second in the race for innovative label-based ideas is Beat Delete. After the 2011 fire at the Sony DADC warehouse, many independent labels lost a huge chunk of their back catalogues. While popular albums can simply be re-released, any label affected by the fire would be re-pressing their lesser-known material at a considerable loss, which is bad news for anyone who’s fond of the niche side of things. On the cusp of this problem, Ninja Tune employee Martin Dobson has come up with a system where fans of a specific release can pre-order the album, just like on any other site, and once a certain threshold of orders has been reached, the album gets re-pressed and sent to the customers. Apart from Ninja Tune itself, independent labels Domino, Beggars, Tru Thoughts, Sunday Best, Accidental, Catskills and Brainfeeder are all on board for the project.
So, from formative breakbeat to plush house with joint salvage operations and innovative apps riding sidecar, Ninja Tune has glided through the bumpy terrain of independent record labels, seemingly covered in some kind of unstoppable glaze. From the offset, they’ve churned out high-calibre, jaw-widening music and earned untold respect among their peers, but what have they learned throughout this 23-year marathon? Well, in the words of managing director Peter Quicke: “I have learned nothing!! Er … um … except … that you have to keep going, and keep putting out good music, applying higher standards all the time to the quality of music and the quality of the work we do to release it, and get it into as many places as possible.”