Ninja Tune is an independent record label in London, England (with satellite offices in Montreal and Los Angeles) founded by Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Coldcut and managed by Peter Quicke and others. Ninja Tune has firmly established itself as one of the most credible independent labels in the UK.
Inspired by a visit to Japan, Black & More primarily created Ninja Tune in 1990 as a means to escape the creative control of major labels, and to act as a vehicle to release music of a more underground nature, free from the restraints that were put on them via their brief stints with Arista and Big Life. Over the last 24 years, the visionary label has since blossomed to become consistently heralded and “reliably excellent”, keeping a widespread focus on signing a diverse range of uncompromising artists, encouraging interactive technology, embracing the audio-visual world, creating their own publishing company Just Isn’t Music, and finding innovative uses of software.
The label’s first releases —the first five volumes of DJ Food's Jazz Brakes— were produced by Coldcut in the early 90s, and celebrated by the music press and beat aficionados simultaneously. They were composed of instrumental sample-based cuts that led the duo to help pioneer new instrumental hip hop beats genres (alongside the Mo'Wax label and Ninja Tune artists such as Funki Porcini, The Herbaliser and DJ Vadim) and, to this day, are recognized as being indispensable tools for DJs.
The label has since released music of myriad artists (including The Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Mr Scruff, Jaga Jazzist, Fink, Kid Koala, The Bug, Machinedrum, Lee Bannon, Dorian Concept), and distributes other record labels - including Big Dada, Brainfeeder (Flying Lotus' label), Werkdiscs (Actress' label) and Girls Music (Toddla T’s label).
Following a revelatory Coldcut tour in Japan (alongside Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, then of Beats International), the label lifted its moniker and aesthetic from the Japanese TV shows of the 50s and 60s based on the Ninja. With their first releases in the early 90s, Ninja Tune went on to, according to Pitchfork, “usher in trip-hop/instrumental hip hop”.
After Coldcut’s success with their first label, their prophetically titled Ahead of Our Time, contractual issues prevented them to release anything under their own name. Ninja Tune’s inaugural release was Coldcut’s (under the name Bogus Order) house break collection Zen Brakes Vol. 1 in 1990. The label got a bigger name for itself when Coldcut, as DJ Food, released their funky hip hop jazz-breaks album, Jazz Brakes Vol. 1, which went on to blow up in the DJ circuit. DJ Food’s Jazz Brakes series were intended as musical “food” or, in other words, source material for DJs and producers who worked with breaks and beats.
In 1992, Peter Quicke stepped aboard as label manager, as did Patrick Carpenter, a.k.a. PC, who joined Coldcut as sound engineer. PC would become a crucial member of Ninja Tune, and from Jazz Brakes Vol. 4 onwards, an integral part of the DJ Food production team.
Steinski, a big inspiration behind Coldcut’s initial forays into music, released his first Ninja Tune EP as Steinski and Mass Media in the same year. The single, in the words of Pitchfork, “builds on a catchy loop of the Jackson 5's ‘It's Great to Be Here’ and creates one of the few anti-Gulf War protest songs of the era, transforming Bush's speech into a pop hook (‘Regrettably, we now believe/ That only force will make him leave’) and interspersing quotes from Jello Biafra (‘don't hate the media, become the media!’) and Mario Savio's famous 1964 address to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement”.
The years between 1994-1997 saw Ninja explore and define the instrumental hip hop beats sound further (often known as trip hop), its pioneering influence on the genre becoming all the more prevalent with the label’s first compilation, Funkjazztical Tricknology, in 1995. The genre originated in England as a successor to acid house, taking in acid jazz and funk, and using hip hop style breakbeats rather than the mechanical '4 on the floor' drum rhythm of house. Ninja artists especially looked beyond the normal sampling sources of old funk records into jazz, epitomised by Ninja act The Cinematic Orchestra.
Coldcut’s contribution to Britain’s flourishing scene was solidified by their Solid Steel show on London’s Kiss FM, on airwaves since 1988. The ongoing success of Solid Steel, and its subsequent syndication across the globe, broadcast the Ninja brand across the airwaves. The late night Saturday show cut all manner of beats, samples and loops into a chaotic musical blend. The show’s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach continued through Coldcut’s “utterly brilliant” Journeys by DJ series of mix compilations in 1995. The title 70 Minutes of Madness was a nod to Coldcut’s earlier Eric B & Rakim remix, and included sounds from Depth Charge, DJ Food, Plastikman, Mantronix, Harold Budd and the Doctor Who theme.
In 1994, Matt Black's close friend Mixmaster Morris introduced Matt to Openmind - a DJ & design collective in Camberwell - at the Telepathic Fish chill-out club they were running. Openmind included Kevin Foakes a.k.a. Strictly Kev of DJ Food. After submitting a re-styled company logo he was employed by Ninja Tune in the capacity of overall design consultant. Matt Black also invited Foakes to Ninja’s recording studio, where he eventually joined the many hands at work on DJ Food’s 1995 album, Recipe for Disaster (which also included Patrick Carpenter a.k.a. PC, Isaac Elliston, Paul Rabiger and Paul Brooks). The album was called a “whirlwind of beats put through the blender” and proved a good cross-selection of the group’s various styles.
In 1995, The Herbaliser, one of the more purely hip hop oriented acts on Ninja Tune’s roster at that point released their debut album Remedies. After dropping a few warmly received EPs in 1994 and 1995, Remedies brought both the group and the label much attention. It was deemed “the latest in the long, under-reported tradition of instrumental hip hop that predated the notion of trip-hop by more than a decade”. The album’s standout track - “Real Killer Part 2: Rooftop Prowler” - set the tone for Remedies’ follow-up, Blow Your Headphones, which arrived early in 1997.
Also in 1995, an album launch party for DJ Food’s Recipe for Disaster birthed what would become a regular club night, Stealth. Held at the Blue Note Club in Hoxton, Stealth was a sell-out success from its first night, and continued to sell out each month at its Thursday night residencies. With the club’s three floors allowing Ninja to host a variety of moods and environments across the different rooms, Stealth was named Club of the Year by NME in 1996, with guests including Kruder & Dorfmeister, Squarepusher, Ashley Beedle, James Lavelle, Kid Koala and the label roster. Around the same time, Ninja Tune began expanding its reach beyond London, by organizing its first package tours across the UK and Europe.
With their two 1994 albums, Paradise Blown and Electric Lazyland, 9 Lazy 9 helped spawn the funky, subterranean sound for which Ninja Tune would earn its early acclaim, combining hip hop and funk breakbeats with jazz-influenced sound. Their success inspired one half of the Italian-based duo, James Braddell, to return to the UK and begin his own solo project. As Funki Porcini, Braddell released Hed Phone Sex in 1995, which ran through a gamut of genres, from dub to drum 'n' bass. Braddell continued to explore sonic territories on 1996’s Let’s See What Carmen Can Do EP and the Love, Pussycats and Car Wrecks album from the same year.
DJ Vadim, a Russian born turntablist from London, who’d already released EPs on his own Jazz Fudge label, further expanded the vocabulary of instrumental hip hop with his 1996 album U.S.S.R. Repertoire, bringing “locked grooves and ultra-vivid, up-close sample-textures”). U.S.S.R. Reconstruction followed in 1998, a remix album filled with hip hop that The Wire claimed “turns the air into molasses”. With U.S.S.R. Reconstruction, Vadim selected a baker's dozen of likeminded producers, including Reflection, Clatterbox. DJ Krush, Silent Poets and Kid Koala, creating an album that flows without a hitch through the darkest hip hop and beat exploration. His 1999 follow up album USSR: Life from the Other Side has been deemed “one of the best underground hip hop records ever” and brought his brand of abstract hip hop down some new paths.
Throughout the 90s, Matt Black began exploring his own interests in burgeoning computer and audio/visual technologies, to experiment with the VJ software and hardware that was already changing the Coldcut DJ performances. His Hex collective - also featuring artist Robert Pepperell and programmer Miles Visman - produced video games and multimedia CD-Roms in the early 1990s, along with subsequent projects that further affirmed Ninja Tune’s alliance with A/V disciples. Teaming up with Hexstatic member Stuart Warren-Hill (who also signed to the Ntone label for several audio visual albums), Coldcut’s “Timber” video - an AV collage piece using analogous techniques to audio sample collage - was put on heavy rotation on MTV, and won awards for its innovative use of repetitive video clips synced to the music, including being shortlisted at the Edinburgh Television and Film Festival in their top five music videos of the year in 1998.
In 1995, Matt Black created Pipe, Ninja’s first website. The label’s current website ninjatune.net was developed by the following year.
Also in 1996, Ninja Tune expanded across the ocean, opening its Montreal office to manage distribution across North America. That same year, Ninja Tune cemented its place with the double-disc Flexistentialism, a rare compilation that featured the label’s growing roster, including DJ Food, Funki Porcini, The Herbaliser, Luke Vibert, Kruder & Dorfmeister and DJ Vadim, among others. With Flexistentialism, Ninja was described as devising “a term that perfectly expresses the antitheses between chaos and order”
Amon Tobin, meanwhile, was building groundbreaking drum 'n' bass from 1950s big band drum battles. His 1997 Ninja Tune debut, Bricolage, contains influences from drum 'n' bass, hip hop, blues, jazz and samba, all digitally processed to create a sense of the bricolage suggested by the title. The album proved a strong seller, especially in America, where Pitchfork awarded the album a perfect 10.0. The following year’s immensely complex album, Permutation, saw Tobin creating electronic experimentation that retools d'n'b’s basic structures to a practically surreal extent.
1997 marked the end of one era, with Stealth finishing at the Blue Note (in Hoxton), and the beginning of another, as Ninja Tune’s sister label Big Dada launched. Coldcut's fourth album Let Us Play! also came into the world in September 1997, making its way to the Top 40, reaching No. 33 in the UK Charts. Let Us Play! paid homage to the greats that inspired them. Their first album to be released on Ninja Tune, it featured guest appearances by Grandmaster Flash, Steinski, Jello Biafra, Jimpster, The Herbaliser, Talvin Singh, Daniel Pemberton and Selena Saliva. Coldcut's cut 'n' paste method on the album was compared to that of Dadaism and William S. Burroughs. Hex collaborated with Coldcut to produce the multimedia CD-Rom for the album. Hex later evolved the software into the engine that was used on the Let Us Play! world tour.
To kick 1999 off properly, Let Us Replay! was released, a double-disc remix album where Coldcut’s classic tunes were remixed by the likes of Cornelius (the opener of the album, which was heralded as a highlight of the album), Irresistible Force, Shut Up and Dance, Carl Craig and J Swinscoe. Spin Magazine stated that Let Us Replay! pieces together “short sharp shocks that put the mental in ‘experimental’ and still bring the breaks till the breakadawn”. It also includes a few live tracks from the duo’s innovative world tour. The CD-Rom of the album, which also contained a free demo disc of the VJamm software, was one of the earliest audiovisual CD- Roms on the market, and Muzik claimed deserved to “have them canonized...it’s like buying an entire mini studio for under $15”.
In March 1999, Big Dada unleashed a new London voice onto an unsuspecting world: Rodney Smith, a.k.a. Roots Manuva. Brand New Second Hand was, in the words of AllMusic, “a bright moment for British rap, the debut album from Roots Manuva introduced a hip hop chameleon boasting dark productions and a distinct style, plus much more to say than most rappers”. He soon became heralded for his unique delivery, which Pitchfork claimed one of the “addictive, compelling, and, above all, heartfelt”.
Having worked initially as an intern in the Ninja Tune office in the mid 90s, Jason Swinscoe became an instrumental part of the team, and by 1998 he released his first 12” as The Cinematic Orchestra, Diabolus, shortly followed by the full length Motion. The surprise hit album landed somewhere between jazz and electronica and gathered samples from rather unlikely sources. That same year, Swinscoe began performing live with an expanded line-up, featuring Federico Ughi on drums, Alex James on piano and DJ Food’s Patrick Carpenter on turntables.
Mr. Scruff’s Keep It Unreal arrived in the summer of 1999, an accomplished work by the breakbeat maestro. Filled with bubbly breakbeats, slick horn sizzles and bristling house beats, the album opened with BBC Radio 1 DJ Mary Ann Hobbes asking, “Are you ready Mr. Scruff?”
At some point in 1999, the US broadcast commission (FCC) decided that DJ Vadim and Sarah Jones’ pro-women empowerment record Your Revolution was “indecent” for radio. The decision ended up in court in 2002, eventually coming to the defense of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and to argue the double standards of the ban and fine.
In 2000, Ninja Tune celebrated its first decade of music with Xen Cuts, a three CD, 6 x LP box set that provided a collection of their eclectic array of artists. The mostly downtempo affair featured the likes of Latyrx (Lyrics Born and Lateef), The Herbaliser, Kid Koala and Luke Vibert, Clifford Gilberto, Amon Tobin and Funki Porcini.
Also in 2000, Kid Koala released Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, “a playfully arranged montage of quirky sound bites, rhythmic scratching and fluid hip hop beats”. Relying as heavily upon comedy albums and sound effects records as jazz and funk vinyl for sample material, the brilliant, humorous release received much critical success. Kid Koala cut two further highly acclaimed albums for Ninja, 2003’s Some of My Best Friends Are DJs and 2006’s Your Mom’s Favorite DJ.
In 2001, Roots Manuva delivered his second album, Run Come Save Me, which was deemed one of the albums of the year by The Independent, and “not just a landmark UK hip hop album, but a landmark hip hop album period” by Mojo. The album charted at number 33 in the UK Charts. “Witness (1 Hope)” was the first single off the album and received massive reception (it charted at #45), even being declared by AllMusic as being “the best British rap single since Tricky's ‘Aftermath’”. Run Come Save Me won a nomination for the 2002 Mercury Music Award, and became a classic which The Times called “Too maverick, too brilliantly original a talent to be tethered by mere genre or geography.”missing ref
Also in 2001 came the emergence of Cornwall's Luke Vibert to Ninja Tune. Growing up amongst contemporaries Aphex Twin and Tom Middleton/Global Communication, Vibert had made a name for himself in experimental electronica, though his name has always been hard to pin down: he operates under several different aliases. With the moniker Wagon Christ, Vibert released Musipal on Ninja, which NME slated “an intriguing procession of cheeky collages”.
2002 saw the release of Mr. Scruff's second album released on Ninja Tune, Trouser Jazz. Released on September 9, 2002, the album charted at 29 on the UK Chart and continued his unique take on electronic music.
In 2003, Simon Green, a.k.a. Bonobo, released his first proper Ninja album, Dial 'M' for Monkey, a subliminally seductive collection of atmospheric instrumentals. A live version of Bonobo soon took to the road, which seeped into the production of 2006's Days to Come, an album that successfully blurs the line between a programmed and live sound and created “a daydream vibe embedded within its moodiness”.
Blurring lines further, Coldcut collaborated with American video mashup artist TV Sheriff in 2004 to produce their cut-up entitled Revolution USA. The tactical-media project (coordinated with Canadian art duo NomIg) followed on from the UK version and extended the premise “into an open access participatory project”. Through the multimedia political art project, over 12 gigabytes of footage from the last 40 years of US politics were made accessible to download, allowing participants to create a cut-up over a Coldcut beat. Coldcut also collaborated with TV Sheriff and NomIg to produce two audiovisual pieces "World of Evil" (2004) and "Revolution '08" (2008), both composed of footage from the United States presidential elections of respective years. The music used was composed by Coldcut, with "Revolution '08" featuring a remix by The Qemists.
Roots Manuva climbed back into the limelight at the beginning of 2005, with his deft album Awfully Deep. His third album, which reached number 24 in the UK Charts, was celebrated by critics for his growth as an artist, with NME calling it “a set of immense maturity that never rubs your nose in its thematic complexity, compositional innovation and thunderous thump-beats”.
The Cinematic Orchestra scored a new soundtrack, Man with a Movie Camera (The Cinematic Orchestra album), for a screening of the visionary 1929 Russian silent feature, Man with a Movie Camera, for the 2000 Portuguese Film Festival Fantasporto. The following year it was performed at the opening gala of Portugal's year as European Capital of Culture in Porto in front of 3000 people. The material written for this film score laid the groundwork for what would be The Cinematic Orchestra’s second full-length, Every Day, released in May 2002, and one of Ninja’s best-selling albums. Roots Manuva featured on the track “All Things to All Men”, which later soundtracked the final scenes of 2006 movie Kidulthood. The Cinematic Orchestra’s albums grew increasingly ambitious over the years, with 2007’s Ma Fleur album marking a move away from beats, and embracing folk influences. The album was based on the work of photographer Maya Hayuk (who commissioned 11 pictures based on three short stories recounting the journey from birth to death), and conceived by Swinscoe as the premise for the score of an imaginary film. Album track “To Build a Home” became one of Ninja's top tracks of all time, with its fan video clocking up nearly 9 million plays), and track “TBAH” features vocals from Patrick Watson, which became the band's most successful song.
Following Jason Swinscoe’s vocal appreciation of Jaga Jazzist’s 2001 album A Livingroom Hush, the Norwegian jazz band signed to Ninja Tune to re-release A Livingroom Hush in 2002, followed by The Stix later that year, and their fourth album What We Must in 2005.
Coldcut returned with the single “Everything Is Under Control” at the end of 2005, featuring Jon Spencer (of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and Mike Ladd. It was followed in 2006 by their fifth studio album Sound Mirrors, which was quoted as being “one of the most vital and imaginative records Jon More and Matt Black have ever made”, and saw the duo “continue, impressively, to find new ways to present political statements through a gamut of pristine electronics and breakbeats”. The fascinating array of guest vocalists included Soweto Kinch, Annette Peacock, Amiri Baraka, and Saul Williams.
In 2004, Los Angeles hip hop/electronica duo AmmonContact came on board, releasing One in an Infinity of Ways, a riveting slice of instrumental hip hop and ambient electronica, a minimal soul-jazz mix of samples and live instrumentation. It was the first of three Ninja albums for the duo that was deemed “somewhere in between extraterrestrial innovators Sun Ra and Sa-Ra”. In 2005, Ninja kept the L.A. connection strong with jazz vocalist Dwight Trible (who performs with the Pharaoh Sanders’ Quartet) for 2005’s Love Is the Answer.
While in L.A., Ninja hooked up with L.A. filmmaker and photographer B+, who had filmed Keepintime: Talking Drums Whispering Vinyl, a short movie documenting a meeting between jazz/funk drummers Paul Humphrey and James Gadson, and a bunch of turntablists who now scratched and sampled their breakbeats, including DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and the Beat Junkies. This project snowballed into a live concert featuring the drum duo jamming along with the turntablists - and included extra guests Madlib and DJ Numark. In 2005, Ninja released Keep in Time: A Live Recording, a CD/DVD package that included remixes from King Britt, Oh No, J Rocc and AmmonContact.
Back in London, having previously scored a place with his college band E.V.A. on the 1996 Ninja 12” One Track Mind, Fin Greenall subsequently signed to the label as a solo artist, under the name Fink. First releasing Fresh Produce - an atmospheric set of downtempo instrumental hip hop tracks - on sister label Ntone in 2000, it was 2006’s Biscuits for Breakfast album that set Fink officially on Ninja Tune. And it set him far apart from the rest of the label, going his own way to become a full-blown, guitar picking singer/songwriter. Two subsequent full lengths - 2007’s Distance and Time and 2009’s Sort of Revolution (which featured song-writing collaborations with John Legend) have seen Fink further develop this new sound.
On the topic of sound, noise manipulator Amon Tobin came back around at the beginning of 2007 with Foley Room, his sixth studio album, and a long player that was called his “darkest work yet”. Tobin was inspired by the work of foley artists: a foley room is where the sound effects are recorded for films; foley artists use their imagination and ingenuity to make the right noise for the situation they are presented with. Amon and a team of assistants headed out into the streets with high sensitivity microphones and recorded found sounds from tigers roaring to cats eating rats, from wasps to falling chickpeas, kitchen utensils to motorbikes to water dripping from a tap. Added to this were the sounds of The Kronos Quartet, Stefan Schneider (of To Rococo Rot) and Sarah Pagé, Tobin travelling from foley rooms in Montreal to San Francisco to Seattle and back as he collected them (the CD release is accompanied by a short DVD, Foley Room: Found Footage, documenting the recording process).
Kevin Martin began developing his own sound further as The Bug, after other projects as GOD, Techno Animal, Ice and Curse of the Golden Vampire. The Bug’s second album in 2003, Pressure, demonstrated a fully formed aesthetic - stark spaces, gleefully subsonic bass - holding collaborations with vocalists such as Toastie Taylor, Wayne Lonesome and Daddy Freddy. 2008’s London Zoo, meanwhile, was The Bug’s third album - and first for Ninja Tune. Recorded over three years with its maker living in his studio, without a kitchen or shower, the album included collaborations with Warrior Queen, Tippa Irie, Burial, Kode9 collaborator Spaceape, and even singer/toaster Ricky Ranking showing up on three tracks. The multivocal, spoken-sung, collaborative album has enjoyed recent cult success, appearing in many outlets’ Best of 2008 lists.
The year 2008 launched Ninja Tune’s You Don’t Know, their sixth official label sampler, and, like its predecessors, contained high quality picks from their major releases, with select remixes and a few rarities. While 2007’s Well Deep multimedia package shed light on Big Dada, Ninja Cuts drew a healthy cross-section from all three Ninja associated labels.
2008 also marked Daedelus’ first official Ninja album, Love to Make Music To, after his previous albums Exquisite Corpse and Denies the Day’s Demise had been licensed by Ninja Tune. The album showcased the L.A. artist’s diverse nature and his skills as a multi-instrumentalist as well as his engrossing stylistic shifts. Additionally that year (a year after their 2007 Stompbox 12”), The Qemists released their debut album, Join the Q. Known to construct some of the most energetic breakbeats of the late 2000s, the vinyl version of the album comes as four super-heavy platters, weighing nearly a kilogram.
In 2008, an international group of party organisers, activists and artists - including Coldcut - received a grant from the Intelligent Energy Department of the European Union, to create a project that promoted intelligent energy and environmental awareness to the youth of Europe. The result was Energy Union, a piece of VJ cinema, political campaign, music tour, party, art exhibition and social media hub. Energy Union toured 12 EU countries throughout 2009 and 2010, completing 24 events in total. Coldcut created the Energy Union show for the tour, a one hour Audio/Visual montage on the theme of Intelligent Energy. In presenting new ideas for climate, environmental and energy communication strategies, the Energy Union tour was well received, and reached a widespread audience in cities across the UK, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain and the Czech Republic.missing reference
Towards the end of 2009, New York producer Blockhead, known for his production work with rapper Aesop Rock, released his fourth solo album on Ninja. The Music Scene was hailed as being an “engrossing hip hop record to be admired” and a “a hell of an album to enjoy”. The album’s title track’s music video was an animation created by A.F. Schepperd, and deemed “nothing short of an incredible feat”.
Speech Debelle's debut album, 2009’s Speech Therapy, finally scored Big Dada a Mercury Prize, after prior nominations for Roots Manuva’s Run Come Save Me and Ty’s Upwards. With the album, NME called her: “one to seriously watch”.
In 2010, Ninja Tune celebrated 20 years of releasing music. A book entitled Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces was released on 12 August 2010, and an exhibition was held at Black Dog Publishing's Black Dog Space in London showcasing artwork, design and photography from the label's 20 year history. A “stunning futurespective” compilation album was released on 20 September in two formats - a regular version consisting of two 2-disc volumes, and a limited edition (of 3,500 copies), containing six CDs, six 7" vinyl singles, a hardback copy of the book, a poster and additional items. It featured new music from Amon Tobin (also as Two Fingers), Roots Manuva, The Cinematic Orchestra, Kid Koala, Mr Scruff, The Bug, King Geedorah, Zomby, Bonobo, Toddla T, Daedelus, Dorian Concept, Floating Points, Wagon Christ, cLOUDDEAD and many others. It also included new remixes from Switch, Autechre, Benga, Cut Chemist, Modeselektor, Roots Manuva, Diplo, Gold Panda, Mark Pritchard, Rustie, Prefuse 73, 808 State, Joe Goddard, King Jammy, The Orb, Micachu, Gaslamp Killer, Kronos Quartet, Mala, El-P (and El-B) and many more. In The Independent’s “Album of the Week” review, the compilation was deemed "a glorious celebration of Ninja Tune's audio splendour".
As part of the 20th anniversary, Ninja Tune produced 20 different events around the world. Ninja Tune sold out Royal Albert Hall in London, with The Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin and Dorian Concept all presenting a one-off orchestral performance with the London Metropolitan Orchestra arranged by composer Ilan Eshkeri. For a separate London event, Ninja also placed a legendary rave in 3 rooms in a car park behind the Tate Modern with all of their artists in one place for first time (artists included Coldcut, Mr Scruff, Roots Manuva, Toddla T, The Bug, Daedelus, Kid Koala, Bonobo, Dj Food + DK, Mark Pritchard, DJ Kentaro, Dorian Concept, XXXchange (Spank Rock), DELS, Floating Points, Jammer, Dark Sky and Offshore). For the Ninja XX gig in New York, the label’s venue (Santos Party House) was shut down unexpectedly, moving the event at the last minute to the Bowery (CITATION: Brooklyn Vegan, Oct 28 2010).
In October 2011, Ninja Tune’s massive “Ninja Tune XX” campaign won “Innovative Marketing Campaign of the Year” at the 2011 AIM Awards.
It was around this time that Ninja Tune began expanding its roster in an interesting new direction, co-signing underground labels with whom they felt artistically aligned. In February 2010, L.A.-based producer Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison, announced his Brainfeeder imprint had struck up a partnership for Ninja Tune to handle manufacturing, marketing and distribution for Brainfeeder everywhere outside the US. In April 2010, Sheffield-born producer and DJ Toddla T (who’d originally arrived at Ninja having produced parts of Roots Manuva’s 2008 album, Slime & Reason, which reached number 22 in the UK Charts) also signed his Girls Music record label to Ninja Tune for distribution, manufacturing and marketing, in addition to signing a three album deal. In June 2012, Ninja announced a partnership with underground artist Actress and his Werkdiscs imprint, home to Zomby’s Where Were U in 92?, Actress’s Hazyville, and various records by Lukid and Lone.
In 2010, Ninja Tune signed a three-album deal with an experimental and self-taught singer and songwriter originally hailing from South East London, Andreya Triana. 2006 saw her selected to take part in the Red Bull Music Academy in Australia, where she recorded “Tea Leaf Dancers” with Flying Lotus. It was this song that caught the attention of Ninja Tune stalwart Bonobo, who then had her tour the U.S and Canada with his live band. Her debut album, Lost Where I Belong, was produced by Bonobo and also featured two co-writes with fellow Ninja artist Fink.
Also in 2010, Bonobo’s own Black Sands album marked his fourth full-length. It pushed Bonobo’s sound “much more steeped in beat-making, creating deluxe, post-dance soundscapes”, and achieved worldwide commercial success. In February 2012, Ninja followed up with a remix album, Black Sands Remixed, which featured re-imaginings from producers such as Lapalux, Mark Pritchard, Machinedrum and FaltyDL.
A couple months before, in November 2011, New York producer FaltyDL had made his debut on the Ninja roster with his Atlantis EP, a “smoother and shufflier” ride than most of his earlier work. His work for Ninja was deemed “calm and focused, a trend that continued on his third album”, Hardcourage, released in January 2012. The album was “sure-footed and big-hearted, accessible and yet cerebral”.
Jaga Jazzist returned in 2010 with their strongest release to date, One-Armed Bandit, which featured new members within Jaga Jazzist’s ranks and included “tropical polyrhythms, modernist patterns, and even techno-inspired synth sequences”.
Another release that pushed Ninja to new sonic territories came from London-based artist Floating Points at the end of 2010 with ‘Post Suite / Almost In Profile’. The Floating Points Ensemble is an instrumental ensemble headed by himself on Fender Rhodes and Sequential Circuits Pro One and Prophet keyboards. The double A-side 10" vinyl single featured two tracks by the full Ensemble, recorded and mixed at Abbey Road Studios for the Ninja Tune XX twentieth anniversary celebration.
In 2010, a sound designer from Berlin (by way of Bristol), Emika, brought a new sound to the label, with her melodic, R&B tinged bass-heavy ‘Double Edge.’ Her self-titled debut was later released in 2011, bridging the “minimalist menace of Bristol dubstep to breathy accessible vocals and classical piano”. On her 2013 follow-up, ‘DVA,’ Emika beefed up her songwriting, focusing on political and personal themes.
In March 2011, another exploratory bass cadet - Dorian Concept - released his first Ninja EP, Her Tears Taste Like Pears. It proved to be a “solid example of the kind of genius Concept, himself something of a child piano prodigy, is capable of”.
The following May saw the release of a much-awaited album from Amon Tobin, ISAM, which set a new benchmark for live electronic music. Tobin decided to step away from previous DJ centric performances, and instead provided a large-scale live audio/visual experience to select cities around the world. Developed alongside V Squared Labs, Leviathan, Vello Virkhaus & Matt Daly, Alex Lazarus, Vitamotus Design Studio, and Stefano Novelli, the show featured a 25' x 14' x 8' multi-dimensional/ shape shifting 3D art installation surrounding Tobin and enveloping him and the audience in a 3D experience. Tobin conceptualized the show as a projection mapped "visual score" to the music from ISAM. The show completed a sold-out 15-show run through US and Canada, in addition to five sold out UK/EU shows. In 2012, ISAM Live returned with a larger tour, starting at Coachella and traveling to Sydney Opera House, London’s Brixton Academy, New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, Greek Theatre (Los Angeles), Sonar (Barcelona), as well as full European and US tours throughout summer and fall. In May 2012, Ninja Tune released an Amon Tobin box set (7 × CD, 2 × DVD, 6 × Vinyl, 10").
In Summer 2011, Fink returned to release his fifth album (the fourth to be recorded with his live band), ‘A Perfect Darkness.’ His biggest selling album to date, it was the fourth album he recorded with his live band (including Guy Whittaker on bass, Tim Thornton on drums and guitar, Matt Kelly on strings, Michael Flury on trombone and Shane Beales on keys), and comprised largely of, according to the Guardian, “softly-spoken acoustica that makes a feature of his lulling voice”. Q Magazine, meanwhile, claimed the album “further reinforces his reputation as the closest there is to a latter-day John Martyn”.
At the beginning of 2012, Speech Debelle returned to Big Dada, after much critical speculation about leaving the label. She returned from her Mercury Prize win to release another critically acclaimed album, ‘Freedom Of Speech,’ with - according to Scottish magazine The Skinny - “a verve and vigour that more than justify the early hype”. The “refreshingly outspoken” album went on to “trounce all expectations” and was awarded CD of the week by Evening Standard.
In 2009, Ninja’s longest-serving artist, DJ Food a.k.a. Strictly Kev, released the 2009 EP ‘One Man’s Weird Is Another Man’s World,’ and its 2010 follow up ‘The Shape Of Things That Hum’ made up two-thirds of a forthcoming album. In January 2012, ‘The Search Engine’ was released as the first DJ Food album in 11 years. As an album release event, DJ Food created his most ambitious live gig to date: a bespoke AV live show for London’s only public planetarium, in conjunction with astronomers from The Royal Observatory Greenwich, using art from The Search Engine, images from Kev’s own visual archive, plus a wealth of material provided by the astronomers themselves. Kev adapted his content to fit Montreal’s Satosphere in July.
In mid 2012, The Bug announced that after “London Zoo,” he set out a new genre and sub-label with Ninja Tune: Acid Ragga. Releasing a set of 7”’s, in June the first Bug track - "Can't Take This No More" - unleashed featuring the legendary Daddy Freddy, while on the flip "Rise Up" featured Inga Copeland of Hype Williams. The "Ganja Baby" 7-inch released shortly afterwards, featuring Daddy Freddy, followed by the 2 x 10" Filthy EP featuring rapper Danny Brown and long time collaborator Flowdan.
In August 2012, London-based band The Invisible dropped their second album, the “cerebral yet instantly accessible” ‘Rispah,’ on Ninja Tune, having been recorded in Brighton - with producer Richard File. The trio’s self-titled debut album (produced by Matthew Herbert) in 2009 was nominated for the Mercury Prize and selected as critics choice for iTunes album of the year. The band's tongue-in-cheek definition of their style of music is 'Experimental Genre-Spanning Spacepop'.
Ever the pioneer, Big Dada’s “king of Grime” Wiley was awarded a Genre Spotlight Award for the AIM Independent Music Awards in 2012 for his album Evolve or Be Extinct. FACT Magazine claimed the award made up “for what many perceive to be a Mercury snub for the LP”.
Ninja Tune scored well at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards 2013, with Brainfeeder winning “Label of the Year” - and Ninja Tune scoring 2nd - with the public vote. Invisible’s Rispah also won album of the year.
In typical pioneering fashion, in February 2013, Ninja Tune spearheaded the launch of Beat Delete - a new service for out of press vinyl. The demise of Sony DADC warehouse in Edmonton (destroyed during the London riots in the summer of 2011), left many independent labels ravaged. Ninja Tune launched a website Beat Delete as a pledge scheme enabling fans to partially fund the release of rare collectibles.
In April 2013, Coldcut released Ninja Jamm, an iOS music remix app, in collaboration with London-based arts and technology firm Seeper. Geared toward both casual listeners and more experienced DJs and music producers, the freemium app allows users to download and remix "Tunepacks" that feature original tracks and mixes by Coldcut, as well as other Ninja artists, creating something new altogether. With the “intuitive yet deep” app, users can turn instruments on and off, swap between clips, add glitches and effects, trigger and pitch-bend stabs and one-off samples, and change the tempo of the track instantly. Users can additionally record as they mix and instantly upload to SoundCloud or save the mixes locally. Tunepack releases for Ninja Jamm are increasingly synchronised with Ninja Tune releases on conventional formats. To date over 20 tunepacks have been released, including Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Coldcut, DJ Food, Martyn, Emika, Machinedrum, Raffertie, Irresistible Force, Falty DL, http://ninjatune.net/artist/shuttle#.UymUAVF_s-g, http://ninjatune.net/artist/starkey#.UymUJlF_s-g.
In March 2013, Bonobo unleashed his highly anticipated follow-up to Black Sands, the triumphant and revelatory The North Borders. Hailed as being sumptuous and accomplished, the album featured Erykah Badu, Motion Audio artist Grey Reverend, British singer Szjerdene and Swedish singer/songwriter Cornelia. Visual artist Cyriak's video for Bonobo's "Cirrus" was a cascading visual mantra that hit over 1 million views. The album charted at number 29 on the UK Album Charts. The following November, Bonobo released his contribution to the Late Night Tales series with a 21-track selection, which Bonobo described as ranging “from neo-classical to more abstract electronic pieces to spiritual jazz." Bonobo’s popularity in the live spectrum continues to grow, having sold out a Roundhouse Ninja Tune festival in 2013 and Sydney Opera House. He has a live performance scheduled at Alexandra Palace in November 2014.
Another popular Ninja Tune artist, Travis Stewart, a.k.a. NYC/Berlin artist Machinedrum signed up with the label in 2013, first releasing Eyesdontlie that July, a single which XLR8R donned “quite possibly deeper and more ambitious than anything we've heard from Stewart to date”. After releasing a second 12” (“Gunshotta Ave”) the following month, Machinedrum released his full LP Vapor City at the end of September 2013. A visceral album about an imaginary metropolis, Vapor City received much acclaim from critics and DJs alike, even landing three live performances on the Boiler Room (New York, Berlin and London). Machinedrum claimed it was his biggest and boldest project to date.
In January 2014, Big Dada released a deluxe European edition of Killer Mike and El-P’s Run the Jewels album, featuring new artwork, a new colour vinyl LP + 12” release plus deluxe CD and download editions.
Ninja Tune also Actress’ fourth album, Ghettoville in January 2014. The exquisite
In April 2014, new Ninja Tune signing Kelis released a raw soul record entirely produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. Kelis says of the signing: “I'm really happy to be partnering with Ninja Tune on my new record. This is the album I've wanted to make for a long time.”
In May 2014, “UK festival favorite” Mr Scruff released his fifth LP on Ninja Tune, entitled Friendly Bacteria. Meanwhile, The Bug is continuing his series of “Acid Ragga” singles throughout 2014, leading up to his next full length later in the year, Angels & Devils. Names that The Bug has worked with on the project (in addition to Inga Copeland and Daddy Freddy) include Death Grips, Gonjasufi, Grouper, JK Flesh (Godflesh/Jesu), The Spaceape, Flowdan, Warrior Queen and Earth's Dylan Carlson.
As the imprint grew, Ninja grew into an ‘anti-corporate’ brand, supporting the work of visual artists, filmmakers, and mavericks of all media, running its own club nights and helping disseminate the work of its artists across the globe. From its very beginnings, Ninja Tune sought a strong visual identity, thanks to Michael Bartalos (whose original logo was a monochrome woodcut of a hooded ninja brandishing his long sword) and Mark Porter, Matt Black’s friend from Oxford, Ninja’s first art director who defined the logo and overall aesthetic (in addition to creating Ninja’s striking yellow and black in-house record bags), and subsequently became Art Director at The Guardian. It was the arrival of Kevin Foakes as in-house designer in 1994 that developed the logo to its current international recognition, and became largely responsible for some of the label’s most iconic artwork. Working as Openmind, Foakes has designed many of Ninja’s album sleeves, including memorable covers for Amon Tobin, Coldcut and Funki Porcini’s 2002 album Fast Asleep. He’s also commissioned acclaimed outside talent for a number of key projects.
Foakes’ Ninja logo has found its way in diverse remix forms onto DJ bags (the “Wax Sack”), cigarette lighters, t-shirts, turntable slip-mats, iPod skins (bearing the slogan “Remember vinyl?”), sunglasses by Japanese company Less Than Human and the label’s own brand of cigarette rolling papers (“Ninja Skins”). French urban vinyl specialists Rolito also marketed a Foakes-designed toy Ninja, who came armed with a 3” CD of Ninja Tunes.
Ewan Robertson (a.k.a. Offshore) and Oscar Bauer, were integral co-designers for Ninja Tune or Big Dada, responsible for iconic covers such as the Wiley 'black playground' image for Playtime Is Over, the Roots Manuva slime-head for Slime & Reason and Bonobo's Black Sands triptych.
Some Ninja Tune artists, meanwhile, design their own sleeves, such as Mr Scruff, whose cartoon illustrations are emblazoned across much of his catalogue and merchandise. Another prodigious cartoonist who designs his own sleeves is Kid Koala, whose Nufonia Must Fall graphic novel was published in 2003 by ECW Press in association with Ninja Tune, and whose 2000 debut album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and its 2003 follow-up Some of My Best Friends Are DJs came accompanied by Koala-illustrated comic books.
Other unique promotional Ninja Tune items include Coldcut’s Top Trump-inspired Control Cards, Amon Tobin ear-plugs, Kid Koala-illustrated playing cards, Mr Scruff-designed jigsaw puzzles, Scruff-branded tins of tuna-in-brine (to promote his 2008 LP Ninja Tuna, which was available pre-loaded on a tuna-shaped USB stick), The Heavy and TTC-branded condoms, and plastic travelcard wallets emblazoned with artwork from Big Dada’s Well Deep compilation and Roots Manuva’s Slime & Reason album.
More recently, as part of Ninja Tune’s 20th Anniversary in 2010, 3500 Ninja Tune XX box sets were released, all housed in limited edition hi-spec packaging designed and conceived by Ninja artwork legend Openmind. In May 2013, golden ticket holders for Bonobo's Camden Roundhouse gig in London were given a limited edition 12” for Bonobo’s “Cirrus”, which came in in gatefold plastic cover with "zoetrope" viewer stand and art print, with picture disc art by Cyriak. In January 2014, Werkdiscs boss Actress released a boxset for a collection of photos presented by Hard Format, which included Ghettoville as vinyl and CD, as well as —for the first time on vinyl— a 2 LP white vinyl edition of Hazyville and CD. The boxset also contained a 40-page artbook, all carefully encased in a black "elephant-skinned" outer box.
Pre-dating Ninja Tune is the legendary and world famous radio show Solid Steel, which Coldcut set up in 1988 and joined at a later date by DJ Food and DK. What initially began as a radio show on then-pirate Kiss FM went on to become a weekly 2 hour mix show broadcast online and syndicated to numerous radio stations around the world, with highlights available as a podcast on iTunes. Solid Steel is also the name of a series of DJ mix CDs from the label and various club nights showcasing the talents of the Solid Steel DJ's and a number of Ninja Tune artists.
The show, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013, showcases a varied blend of left field tunes, the broadest beats and forward-thinking selections. Being a freestyle eclectic mix, the weekly two-hour show was described by The Quietus as being “the past mashed with the present plus a dash of the future”.
In addition to Solid Steel, over the last 5 years Ninja has conducted regular Ninja Tune podcast interviews with their roster.
Hip Hop label Big Dada was set up by journalist and writer Will Ashon in 1997. Big Dada was created with a similarly open-minded remit to sister label Ninja Tune, traversing the boundaries between hip hop, grime and ragga. Born out of a frustration over acts going unappreciated elsewhere, Big Dada swiftly cemented itself as a force in its own right. The name came up in reference to Ashon’s love of Kool Keith, who he'd described in print as the “Mac Dada”, as a combination of mac daddy and Dadaism.
Big Dada began releasing 12”’s in the summer of 1997, the first couple of which were produced by Luke Vibert. The label’s debut release, Misanthropic, featured Alpha Prhyme, a.k.a. Juice Aleem, soon to become a member of crew New Flesh for Old, who would release their own Electronic Bombardment on Big Dada that September. Since then, Big Dada has become home of some of the most maverick, forward-thinking and innovative artists in hip hop and beyond, including essential British hip hop artist Roots Manuva (Mercury Prize nominee), Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle, UK hip hop artist TY (whose 2003 Upwards album was also Mercury nominated) and grime pioneer Wiley. Roots Manuva’s album releases have been integral to the label, including Brand New Second Hand, Run Come Save Me, Awfully Deep, Slime & Reason and 4everevolution. Other notable artists include Diplo, cLOUDDEAD, Juice Aleem, DELS, Young Fathers and Spank Rock, with a roster that’s as prolific as it is varied. In the words of The Guardian, “heaven help the music hack who tries to pigeonhole Big Dada's output”.
Brainfeeder is an independent record label based in Los Angeles, California, founded by Warp Records recording artist Flying Lotus in 2008, focusing on electronic music and instrumental hip hop amongst other styles of music.
Werkdiscs (formerly spelt as Werk Discs) is a British independent record label based in London. Originally a club night started by Darren J. Cunningham a.k.a. Actress, Ben Casey and Gavin Weale in the early 2000s, Werkdiscs released their first record in the summer of 2004.
In 1994, Ninja Tune's first sister imprint was Ntone, a label that initially specialised in avant-garde music and in more electronically inclined ambience. Artists on the roster included Animals on Wheels, Cabbageboy, Hexstatic and Neotropic. Ntone was, in the words of Peter Quicke, “for ambient and techno and other stuff that didn’t quite fit Ninja Tune, but which we really liked, and didn’t want to restrict ourselves from releasing.” A collision of spacey dub and chilled ambient house, the first release was AntiStatic (TONE 1) by Hex released in February 1994, and last one Sunflower Girl (NTONE 45) by Neotropic in 2001.