Meet the artists at the core of Ninja Tune’s musical retinue.
By Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine | 09.30.10
TOC | Sonic Assassins (exclusive playlist after the jump)
Since 1990, when DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More—a.k.a. Coldcut—founded Ninja Tune, the label has been on a stealth mission to cut to the fore of dance music, especially the hip-hop, grime, bass and sound system cultures of the U.K. underground. Now, with twenty years under its black belt, it’s released Ninja Tune XX ($160, www.ninjatune.net/ninjashop), a massive box set that includes six CDs, six 7”s and the hardcover biography Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces. Christmas has come early for those that like their music on the bleeding edge. To help you slice n’ dice your way through the label, we profile five of its most skilled hit-making hit men.
Slabs of beat
More so than rap’s word play, it was the sampling and turntablist side of hip-hop that captured the minds of budding DJs in the U.K in the ‘80s. Coldcut’s Matt Black and Jonathan More were two of its earliest adopters, and that was way back in ’87. Pioneering their sample-heavy cut up breakbeats on their Solid Steel radio show—which streams on the internet to this day—the duo eventually caught the ears of Island Records, releasing a chart-topping remix for Eric B. and Rakim before moving into original jams with guest vocalists as varied as Queen Latifah and Junior Reid. Black and More’s success led to the founding of Ninja Tune and they continue to release music and cut it up live to this day.
Roots to the fruit
As distinctive a voice as you could ask for in an MC, Roots Manuva is the cornerstone of Big Dada, Ninja Tune’s hip-hop offshoot. Informed by the golden age of American hip-hop, the dubby island culture that’s come into its own in the U.K.—his parents are from Jamaica—and his own eccentric personality, Manuva is distinctly British, but not so much that American audiences aren’t equally enthralled with his unmistakable flow. To a degree, his music presaged grime—the U.K.’s homegrown hip-hop movement—further testament to Ninja Tune’s influence over British electronic music.
A 180-degree turn from the brash bass music that makes up the bulk of Ninja Tune’s output, the Cinematic Orchestra creates lush and sprawling sounds that borrow from jazz, classical and downtempo. Centered on visionary front man Jason Swinscoe, the group’s numbers can swell to more than 40 members, including a full string section, as it did for its 2007 performance at the historic Royal Albert Hall. The Orchestra’s work is unrivaled in its scope, often deserving a film to help flesh out it’s soundtrack qualities, something the group has started doing, most recently for Les Ailes Pourpres, a documentary on Flamingos akin to March of the Penguins.
The sound smith
With his dapper Victorian-era garb—top hats and tails included—Daedelus is one of the imprint’s more eclectic artists, and one of the few Americans. His music has a serious experimental bent to it, but the glitches and distortion are tempered with an array of samples that span jazz, folk, world, soul and who knows what else. The results, while not exactly catchy, are infectious none-the-less. Spanning tempos and styles, he’s a sight to see live: he looks like a crazed conductor onstage as he triggers beats and samples on his grid of buttons, called a Monome. The gadget is an open source sequencer that he’s helped pioneer.
Ghost in the machine
Ninja Tune’s newest signing, Eskmo also hails from the States. Part of the West Coast abstract beat movement that’s having such an impact on the British dubstep scene, Eskmo lands somewhere in the middle of it all. His tracks have that telltale dubstep stomp and bass warbles for days, but they take on an ethereal moodiness (sometimes bordering on haunting) that proves this guy’s not mimicking, he’s innovating. Who better than, to lead the charge as Ninja Tune creeps towards its next milestone.
Ninja Tune XX is out now.