After more than 20 years of activities, Ninja Tune is definitely an unmissable landmark in the electronic music landscape and beyond. From the start they’ve spread their tentacles to Hip Hop and Jazz fans. Let’s try to see how this happened and which artists and tracks made this record label such an important one in the indie Electronic music and Hip Hop world. This first part covers roughly the first 10 years of existence of the label.
How It All Happened
In the 90s, Jon More & Matt Black aka Coldcut were bored of the current state of the music industry and decided to create their own record label. They were living during a very exciting era when electronic music was literally blowing especially in the UK. A transformation nourished by Hip Hop, Jazz, Reggae, Rock, Dub and many other influences was taking place among the already established electronic genres like House and Techno. Those movements mutated in a whole new breed of music sub-genres such as Drum & Bass, Trip Hop, Acid Jazz, Ambient House… But the music was still very segmented and what they were doing still did not really fit in the emerging boxes.
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The Early Days
It’s when Coldcut was on tour in Japan that the idea of building a record label sparked. The name of the label “Ninja Tune” came from there. They were watching a ninja film on TV with the sound off while playing music and everything seems to them inspiring. Probably because they saw themselves as ninjas in the music industry, who knows…
They started by releasing DJ tools under the DJ Toolz and DJ Food names. The “Jazz Brakes” series was the real beginning of Ninja Tune adventure. At that time people were often describing their music as “Acid Jazz”, a blend of Jazz, House and Hip Hop.
DJ Food – Ninja Walk (Jazz Brakes Volume 3, 1992)
DJ Food – Turtle Soup ( Jazz Brakes Volume 5, 1994)
Things went thoroughly differently when they started to sign like minded people. They literally opened the pandora’s box of musical creativity. The first signatures such as The Herbaliser, 9 Lazy 9 and Funki Porcini were relatively close to what they were already doing: Jazz, Hip Hop and electronic music were still the main the ingredients in the brew. Some members of these bands were musicians and somes were more producers or DJs. This mixture was definitely a source of inspiration.
After a while, The Herbaliser started to form a full band for all their gigs in order to reproduce all the samples they were using and inject more life in their live shows. Also, their Hip Hop influences progressively took more importance through featurings of MCs. Finally, this Jazz and Hip Hop touch brought by The Herbaliser will stick to the Ninja Tune image for a while.
The Herbaliser – Scratchy Noise (Remedies, 1995)
The Herbaliser – Mission Improbable feat. What What (Very Mercenary, 1999)
In the same vein, Mr Scruff produces music with similar ingredients but with a more retro swing style. He built a whole imaginary world with the help of a strong visual identity influenced by cartoons. The hand-drawn characters of this video clips and artworks will remain part of his brand. The fun and happy attitude in tracks like “Get a move on” was a fresh breeze in an often too serious electronic music scene.
Mr scruff – Get a move on (Keep It Unreal, 1999)
The label started to take more risk by signing a new up coming artist named Amon Tobin. This Brazilian born producer spent most of his childhood in Europe. His first releases were deeply influenced by Brazilian music, Jazz and Electronic music. Then his music evolved gradually from Downtempo to a more heavy bass and IDM infused music.
Amon Tobin – Piranha Breaks (Piranha Breaks EP, 1997)
Amon Tobin – 4 Ton Mantis (4 Ton Mantis EP, 2000)
In the meantime, the label started to explore a little bit more the Hip Hop world through DJ Vadim. This British born producer hasn’t been hiding his Russian origins by releasing a series of releases with titles starting by “USSR”. His first masterpiece is named “USSR: Life From The Other Side”. This release encompasses almost the whole Hip Hop culture through a big bunch of collaborations. You can hear Beatboxing, Turntablism, sophisticated sampling and mad MCing from Canada, US, UK and Jamaican-British MCs: a truly 360° Hip Hop album. This producer is very open to collaborations as he featured a lot of different artists from Spain, France, Canada, USA…
DJ Vadim – The Terrorist (Feat. Moshun Man) (U.S.S.R. Life From The Other Side, 1999)
DJ Vadim – Something to Feel (Feat. Task Force & Mr Thing) (U.S.S.R. The Art Of Listening, 2002 )
This bold move into Hip Hop might sound a little bit surprising but if we dig a little bit deeper in the philosophy of the record label then it isn’t. In 2012, Jon More, one of the co-founder, said in an interview for the Fact Magazine :
“We used to say that hip-hop was at the basis of most of the artist signings for Ninja Tune, which you could argue is still true.”
It is something hard to deny after listening to the Ninja Tune catalogue. Hip Hop influences are present more or less subtly all over their roster from the beginning.
Big Dada: A Sub-Label For Hip Hop
In 1997, Will Ashon helped them to build, Big Dada, a sublabel focusing on Hip Hop. This imprint became the home of some of the best underground Hip Hop artists from UK and beyond.
They started by focusing on the rich UK Hip Hop scene and the first artists they signed were very influenced by Jamaican music. Although, New Flesh For Old is a deeply rooted Hip Hop band, Juice Aleem is the good example of how Dancehall inspired flow can turn Hip Hop in something greater.
New Flesh for Old – 3 Minutes Less (Equilibriums, 1999)
Roots Manuva pushed the blend of Hip Hop and Jamaican spirit a little bit further. Son of a preacher who emigrated from Jamaica, his music is also deeply rooted in religion and spirituality. His nonchalant flow is easily recognizable and unique. Every beat are nicely incorporating the rich Jamaican music heritage.
Roots Manuva – Soul Decay (Brand New Second Hand, 1999)
Roots Manuva – Revolution 5 Feat Chali 2na (Dub Come Save Me, 2002)
Quickly the label started to look like a refugee camp for the cream of the underground Hip Hip movement from around the world and especially American bands and rappers sometimes already famous in the indie world. Here is a non exhaustive list of them: Saul Williams (USA), cLOUDDEAD (USA), TTC (France), Diplo (USA), Bigg Jus (US), Anti-Pop Consortium (USA), Busdriver (USA), Spank Rock (USA)…
Bigg Jus – I Triceratops (Black Mamba Serums v2.0, 2004)
TTC – Pas D’armure Feat. Dose One, Hi-Tek Le Receleur (Ceci N’Est Pas Un Disque, 2002)
Spank Rock – Backyard Betty (YoYoYoYoYo, 2006)
Experimental and international “so called” underground Hip Hop finally found their home. The label also started to support up and coming movement such as the B-More style with Spank Rock. Big Dada became an inevitable benchmark in the Hip Hop world. Small in terms of financial power as an indie label but huge in influence.
>> PART 2 IS COMING SOON