Monday, 18 October 2010

Swords of the Dance

Yet another old Word piece rehashed for interweb immortality. This originally appeared early Sept 2010, timed to coincide with Ninja Tune's 20th anniversary celebrations.

Perched between a gay pub and a grey council estate on a south London trunk road stands a lone house. Looking out of place, like it’s ducked the sweep of a demolition ball more than once, its anonymous blue fa├žade makes no reference to its contents, save one small sticker below the buzzer: Ninja Tune. One of the longest-serving British dance labels, it was formed as an outlet for renowned producers Coldcut, Matt Black and Jon More, with an initial cash injection of just £500.

They’ve spent a bit more since, but not that much. The higgledy-piggledy three-storey headquarters is crammed with people, records, shelving and computers. An overworked server roars loudly in the corner while the lavatory sink threatens to come away from the wall. Black slinks into the upstairs office, containing hand-me-down and left-behind furniture, and sprawls on an old sofa. Dressed in black (the fact that his birth name is Cohn suggests this may not be a coincidence), with long, straggling hair, his is a more intense presence than the laidback, comparatively dapper More, who’s dressed in the age-appropriate (he’s 53) cap and jacket.

Birthdays and anniversaries are very much in mind. Black turns 50 soon, Ninja Tune celebrates its twentieth this year and they’ve been in this Kennington house they call home for 10 years. But not much longer: the label will move north of the river next year (Black himself is pondering making his partners an offer on the building), bringing one Ninja chapter to a close. Looking around at the walls – a few silver discs (Mr Scruff, Roots Manuva, Coldcut, Cinematic Orchestra) and a lot of posters – I wonder why two of the biggest names in British dance music (and in the late-’80s Coldcut were very big indeed, producing Yazz and Lisa Stansfield and famously remixing Rakim) ever chose to go it alone.

“We’d already had experience of forming a label with Ahead Of Our Time. That was done through Big Life, which was subsequently sold to Arista,” explains More.

Black interjects, “It’s like little fish that get eaten by bigger fish that get eaten by bigger fish. We realised we were little fish and it would be better if we swim for freedom.”

“So we escaped to the best place in the world for fish, which was Japan.”

“Surely the open sea?”

Fish-friendly or not, Japanese films inspired the name and the distinctive logo (designed later by Kev of DJ Food). The ethos – fiercely independent, techno-savvy, web-literate, supremely obstinate – was all their own. While British dance was dominated by house, which went from the underground to high street hegemony, Ninja went the other way, dabbling in anything but. “You can read Ninja Tune as a war with house music, definitely,” says Black. “When the first house records came out we were very excited, but we don’t like conformity, uniformity, monoculture. There are massive pressures pushing monoculture and destroying biological diversity and cultural diversity. You don’t have to be a green-bearded hippy to be aware of that. There’s nothing wrong with people getting off their tits and coming together under one rhythm. But when that rhythm takes over so there isn’t anything else allowed, that’s a problem. So we decided to become the resistance.”

Black, who’s collaborated with Crass before now, has a mile-wide anarcho streak, but that oppositional policy and attachment to life in the margins has made Ninja closer to a dance version of John Peel, a comparison that delights them (“a solitary giant fighting the forces of darkness,” says Black, typically). Just as Peel was always more interested in tomorrow than yesterday, Ninja’s 20th Anniversary package, XX,  shuns nostalgia, instead bundling up six albums of new music and remixes. In 20 years they’ve never done a ‘best of’. “There’s always something more interesting to do,” says Black. “It’s an exciting time in electronic music right now, it’s swung back again, there’s some pretty wild new sounds and new characters out there.”
Ninja’s one brush with real fame came this time last year when the Mercury Prize went to Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy, released on their Big Dada subsidiary. Its triumph turned to ashes when its failure to sell like Arctic Monkeys was held up as proof of the Mercury’s inverse Midas Touch and the artist herself turned on her label, whom she criticised for not getting stock in the shops. Ill-attended gigs told the truth of the matter: despite being the best record on an unremarkable list it was never going to trouble the scorers. Black shrugs, “It’s full of character, unique, but if you think it’s gonna be Lily Allen you better think again, because it ain’t; it’s something else, it’s an odd record.”

Whether Speech returns or not, Ninja Tune remain vital. Recent releases include The Bug’s excoriating ragga-dubstep, Grasscut’s future folk and Bonobo’s electronic soul, the still breathtaking “audiovisual rhythmic montages” of Hexstatic and the reissue of the Solid Steel series of mix CDs (a format practically reinvented by Coldcut’s 1997 70 Minutes Of Madness). They seem quite happy tootling away, rarely fashionable and largely out of view.

“Our philosophy is to not be distracted by the sound of people jumping on the bandwagon,” says More. Black adds, “We’ve been flavour of the week a couple of times and when you see how the machine works and how it’s set up to flog things when the quality’s not really there, we keep away. We know what we’re doing and we get on with it.” Here’s to another score.

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