With all the changes in popular music over the decades, the stereotypes about being…
- Posted on Oct 18th 2010 3:00PM by David Dacks
Ninja Tune today is a remarkably stable yet fiercely independent imprint. Managers may talk about product, but Ninja is utterly creative about what the product is, both aurally and visually. The Ninja team has welcomed generations of the world's most creative music geeks with an unmistakably British sense of ingenuity and irreverence, and in doing so, has helped define electronic music. But don't take our word for it... we spoke to label's most prominent players over its 20 year history, from founders Coldcut and original ninjas like Amon Tobin, Roots Manuva, Mr Scruff and Kid Koala to new-schoolers Poirier and Toddla T.
That independent label [Ahead Of Our Time] was bought by another label [Arista] and we had a dispiriting time, shall I say, recording any more music after that. Up until that point, there was never any question about aesthetic control. [Suddenly,] there were lots of meetings and lawyers and less time spent on the music -- so that's over a three-year period, from 1987 to 1990.
Jon More: Matt and I went to Japan and would watch ninja movies on the TV with the sound down. Both of us realized in a way they were like us. They were stealthy, they went from town to town and entertained people with their smoke and mirrors, really. [We] came back to England and started Ninja Tune really as an avenue to escape; we described it as our multi-coloured escape pod.
Jeff Waye: In 1996, I was the buyer for the label at Cargo Records here in Montreal. I recognized a bit of a shortcoming in their licensing deal that they had.
Jon More: The track lists and the artwork would change, so fans would then buy it again and find that they'd be getting the same s---. There wasn't any control. So we met Jeff when I was coming over to Montreal to play a rave and hatched a plan for Ninja Tune Canada. We could take advantage of the cross-border cooperation there [with NAFTA]; we could manufacture in Canada and export it as such to America without extra cost. We wanted to have release dates coincide around the world so that everyone could buy Ninja product at the same time, at a domestic price, on the same day that it was released, which was an idealistic ambition.
Jeff Waye: We didn't have to pay a New York-style salary. I think had we paid a bunch of Manhattan-based expenses, we probably wouldn't have lasted a year or two. It allowed us to be quite lean here and take advantage of a good exchange rate. We were selling records in the US, making 60 cents on the dollar on the exchange rate, to bring money back up to Canada for expenses.
Jon More: Matt and I realized that we had to get out there and be live. We realized even then that the ability to photocopy music -- we'd been doing it, effectively -- would become ubiquitous. I don't think we were completely prescient, but we were aware that it was another way of building y our reputation.
Kid Koala: They were doing their first American tour in Montreal. The promoter knew I was a big fan of Ninja Tune, so he arranged for me to do a warm-up set at an in-store where Jonathan More was. He was playing acetate dub plates that no one had heard because it was unreleased. At one point, he just started handing me records -- I guess he liked what I did in my own set, and said, "Scratch over these records! Usually, Matt's here to do that, but he's not." So that was ... fun!
Neotropic: You turn up, you roll into town, there'd be a whole night of Ninja Tune -- DJs, live acts, it's like a travelling circus. Put up a tent and off you go.
Mr. Scruff: A lot of the touring around Europe especially with Roots Manuva, the Herbaliser, Mix Master Morris, Dynamic Syncopation, a whole host of Ninja artists, made me feel very much a part of the label. I made very good friends with a lot of the artists. I remember once we did a gig and we bumped into Lee Perry, who then came and MC'd over my DJ set -- little things like that are priceless memories.
Kid Koala: I was fresh out of college, and I'd been DJing since I was 12, but I never thought it would even come into a semi-profession. They threw me on the road, and the next thing I knew, I was circling the globe trying to rep Ninja. It was a great way to see the world and learn about music traveling with some of your mentors. It was like a music school where every professor is super into what they're doing. It was inspiring.
Each One Teach One
Jon More: I think we certainly, among others, set a blueprint for what went on to become trip-hop, 'Beats 'n' Pieces' formed the basis of big beat, and so forth. There was not a rigid confinement of a blueprint, but there was a certain aesthetic. People were drawn to that, and those people became the artists on Ninja.
Kid Koala: 'Carpal Tunnel Syndrome,' I think, is my most punk record in terms of not knowing where it was going to fit in even when I recorded it. I think it belongs in "experimental" or "comedy." It's more inspired by Monty Python, Cheech and Chong and 'Muppet Show' albums than it is by rave or dance or rap, although it was all made by scratching records. Since then, no matter what goofy idea I've had for a record or a show, they've been very supportive.
Jeff Waye: Roots Manuva 'Run Come Save Me' was another one. You can still drop 'Witness' now and that would tear a party apart. And he was one of the only UK MCs who really got across here, with the exception of Dizzee and a couple other people. He was tapping into Jamaican Soundsystem culture as much as hip-hop.
Poirier: When I started to do music back in 2000, I listened to Roots Manuva's 'Brand New Second Hand' over and over and over -- I like that melting, that mix between Jamaican patois ragga voice with abstract hip-hop. I tried to emulate that. I never really got that, but I found my own way.
Jeff Waye: Will Ashon, who does the A&R at [Ninja sub-label] Big Dada, has done an amazing job of taking a lot of British music that wouldn't have stood a chance outside of the UK and marketing that as an international thing.
Roots Manuva: I grew up listening to Coldcut, I knew they had a label, but I didn't know what it was called. I signed with Will Ashon through Big Dada. I knew Will because he had interviewed me when I was with my ex-manager's label, so I was kind of familiar with him, but more familiar with Coldcut.
Jon More: [Big Dada] gave us another half -- a yang-ying ting.
Ninja Tune Today
Roots Manuva: It's now a different generation of people that I work with. There's more of a management structure. People who were once in the warehouse or were once interns are now managers. It's really refreshing because it's not just like it's an old boys' network of funny handshakes and people passing on jobs to their sons and their nephews -- it really seems to attract the right kind of enthusiasm.
Jon More: Things like Cinematic Orchestra playing Royal Albert Hall in London [in 2007] doing 'Man With a Movie Camera': It was a sold-out venue -- it was quite amazing. Here was Jason Swinscoe, who [had] worked as an intern at Ninja [and] had become a member of staff and dealt with our international artists, and had worked out very successfully; then, one day he came to us and said, "I've got this album, I'm going to be Cinematic Orchestra." And [he] took that initial -- quite beautiful, but simple -- sampling of jazz records concept, and really stretched it out into something amazing; an incredible live act and fantastic music. I just realized today there's quite a few artists who have been interns at the label and are now artists: one of the Qemists, Zero Db, Emika ...
Roots Manuva: The Speech Debelle album ['Speech Therapy,' Mercury Prize winner in 2009] was quite a job. Will [Ashon], took her from a demo tape to being an artist. It wasn't like the standard Ninja/Big Dada thing where the label gets a semi-finished bedroom product; this is something where Will would sit down with her day-by-day, week in, week out, sending her to this studio and that studio, and trying her out with this and that producer. She ended up being flown halfway across the world to Australia to get her writing and sound together. Big Dada's A&R was moving out of the bedroom and into the whole worldwide international A&R domain. I reckon it was a good five-year period from when I heard the first demo to when she delivered the album.
Jon More: It's a great thing that the label has branched out and still keeps its coherence. We've tried to do it on several occasions, and sometimes we've gone too far and the punters haven't quite come with us -- and sometimes we haven't gone far enough and they've gone ahead.
Amon Tobin: I think it's been like a gateway drug because there's such a varied roster. My guess is many people's eyes got opened by looking into one thing, then digging deeper and discovering more -- your downward drugs spiral is on you, though. By that point, we've made our money and are living it large on the Caymans.
Jake Wherry: The artists being released on Ninja Tune these days are very different in musical styles from where we're at as the Herbaliser, and I think it's kind of moved off from the original philosophy of the label, as well. In the '90s, it was all about jazzy, funky hip-hop beats. Particularly in the last 10 years, it's very electronic and clever and intellectual, which was not really part of the original Herbaliser philosophy or ethos.
Jeff Waye: It'd be so boring for us internally to be putting out another record that sounds like another record we already put out.
Toddla T: The essence of the label is kind of like black music, basically, so it's always going to have the funk. That's what it goes all the way back to: funk, soul, R&B. Even though it's different tempo and styles, it's still got a cheekiness about it, and a funk, and a swing.
Mr. Scruff: My place musically in the roster of artists is, I suppose, quite a traditional Ninja sound. I'm still very much rooted in that '90s hip-hop production aesthetic [with] quite warm and crunchy samples. I'm bringing a lot of that original Ninja inspiration, spreading the word and letting people know where it comes from, as well as where it's going.
Jon More: Mr. Scruff cemented the party side of Ninja, which, I suppose, has been re-cemented by Toddla T.
Poirier: When I signed [in 2007], the Bug signed, also. I remember we were talking about it and we said, "If you sign, I sign." We jumped together in the boat because our interest in dancehall and ragga wasn't too much represented on the Ninja Tune label, so we felt that if we both sign on the label at the same time, we'll support each other -- it gave another angle to the label.
Jeff Waye: The Bug's 'London Zoo'  -- that's one I worked on pretty closely with Kevin Bug, so that one hit a little closer to home. It's just a time and place in London.
The Bug was on tour with Nine Inch Nails, and the last night was in Vegas. We were all hanging out at this afterparty that Nine Inch Nails' crew was throwing, and good ol' Ron Jeremy was there, seemingly very interested in the Warrior Queen [UK dancehall queen, vocalist with the Bug]. But the Warrior Queen did not want any of "the Hedgehog."
Jeff Waye: You know, the running joke has always been you grow up reading rock magazines thinking, "Man, t he music industry's gonna be awesome! There's just gonna be f---in' booze and chicks!" And then you actually work in it, and "F---! It's paperwork and dudes." So it's semi-refreshing when the music industry turns into what you thought it might be, even for one night only.
Kid Koala: Ninja has gone from strictly DJs, who are lonely dudes with a bunch of electronic instruments, to signing full bands like the Heavy. They're always really supportive, pushing artists more than the genre. They've done a good job of not only being an eclectic label but keeping a roster of people who are very passionate about what they do. That's the one thing I love about the label: I can meet all the new cats or the old guard, and, for some reason, there's a kinship there. I can talk to Fog or Amon Tobin, whose process for making music is completely different from my own, but at the same time everybody gets along. I dig that.
The Way of the Ninja
Toddla T: The fact that it's 20 years is kind of amazing. I forget that I would've been 5 when it started up.
Mr. Scruff: In terms of British music, I think Ninja has very much become part of the furniture. Not in a cozy way, they're very vital. Britain needs good-sized independent record labels.
Jon More: The music scene here's quite a funny thing. We come in and go out of fashion. There's a lot of people out there who respect what we've done, but there's an equal number who probably find us quite irritating.
Toddla T: Everyone's got respect for Ninja Tune. I haven't found anyone who didn't think that -- not everyone checks for every release, but [among] everyone I know they're definitely still important.
Jeff Waye: It's been a label that's allowed a lot of British people to get out and see that there's more than just a small island where it rains all the time.
Neotropic: I come from the West Country [in England]. I grew up in a very small community, and then suddenly to be propelled into this world of getting on tour buses and driving around North America, it just blew my head off and really shaped me as person. It made me realize that I was a really lucky person. To be able to go out and do something I was really passionate about doing, and do it in front of other people, was fantastic. That will stay with me until the day I die.
Roots Manuva: They got good practice in dealing with the complexities of creatives. I'm quite an awkward lot to work with, I've had my ways. It's a volatile thing bankrolling people or artists who don't kind of work according to convention. All along the way, I've cancelled tours, I've missed out on major media opportunities, parts in films, and there's never been the pressure that can happen in the music world.
Amon Tobin: I'm almost done recording an album for Ninja that's taken years to make. I'll be releasing some previews soon on amontobin.com. This is what I mean about Ninja: They could stand in the way of something I'm doing just on my site, but instead they support it because that's in the spirit of what they are all about.
Roots Manuva: [Ninja Tune has] been the perfect marriage of encouraging adventurous sonic content with a solid worldwide business model, network of listeners and proper infrastructure. It really is like a counterculture. It's beyond just a vanity project, which a lot of music or creative-related industries are.
This is real -- it's a real living life force and energy.