Since more then 25 years the British label Ninja Tune celebrates music that reflects the circumstances of its time and avoids to align to a specific genre. The foundation of the label goes way back into the 1980ees, when computer programmer Matt Black and ex-art teacher Jonathan More were working as part-time DJs on the rare groove scene of 1986. More also DJed on pirate radio, hosting the Meltdown Show on Kiss FM and worked at the Reckless Records store on Berwick Street, London where Black was a frequent customer. The first collaboration between the two was the cut-up breakbeat EP Say Kids What Time Is It? that they released on a white label in 1987. The title track mixed Jungle Book's King of the Swingers with the break from James Brown's song Funky Drummer. It’s regarded as the first UK record to be built entirely of samples. Later in 1987 Black and More launched Solid Steel – an eclectic radio show for pirate radio station Kiss FM, that became a unifying force in underground experimental electronic music scene and that is still running today. During that time the duo adopted the name Coldcut, and set up their first record label called Ahead Of Our Time to release their next single Beats + Pieces. In 1990, whilst on their first tour in Japan, Matt and Jon formed their second record label, Ninja Tune, as a self-titled ’technocoloured escape pod,’ and a way to escape the creative control of major labels which they been linked to due to several more hit singles between 1987 and 1990. Ninja Tune enabled them to release music under different aliases (e.g.. Bogus Order, DJ Food), which also helped them to avoid pigeonholing as producers. Beside releasing their own music, the label's success grown also due to a constantly growing roster of very different sounding artists like 9 Lazy 9, Funki Porcini, Up, Bustle and Out, The Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Mr Scruff, The Cinematic Orchestra, Fink or Roots Manuva amongst others. Until today Ninja Tune and its sub divisions like Big Dada Recordings, Counter or Werk Discs continues to release music without any stylistic blinkers, represented by contemporary artists like Illum Sphere, Emika, Machindrum, Max Graef & Glenn Astro, Dorian Concept, Moiré, Actress, Helena Hauff, Seven Davis Jr or Space Dimension Controller. For Carhartt WIP Radio Ninja Tune have put together a show featuring music from across the label family: Ninja Tune, Big Dada, Brainfeeder and Technicolour. To accompany it, we asked label founder Matt Black some questions about his labels, his own artistic work and his continued search for new creative frontiers.
Hello Matt, how did you first get into music and when did you decide to make music my career?
Matt Black: I’ve always loved music and my family always used to sing a lot of songs and play a lot of jazz music. Also, I liked singing hymns in school and I liked messing around with radios and tape recorders when I was a boy. But I didn’t think it would be my career. I had a science background. I studied Bio-chemistry and then I learnt to DJ because I liked hip hop records coming from New York and it was only at the age of 28 that I went to Spain, I stopped my job as a computer programmer and went to Spain to DJ so I guess that is when music became my career. And the year after that, which was at the end of 1986, I came back to the UK and that is when I met Jonathan and we made our first Coldcut record Say Kids What Time Is It?.
Ninja Tune has existed for over 25 years: any role models or inspirational benchmarks when it was launched in 1990?
Matt Black: Well all the experiences that we’ve had have fed into Ninja Tune, I certainly think that Adrian Sherwood’s label On-U Sound was a big role model and inspiration. When I was at University with my friends we used to buy all those records, and they had a distinctive look with the black and white sleeves and the 10” dub plate style was also something really cool. So I think that was one of the first UK labels to have a strong identity both musically and beyond that graphically and stylistically and it stood also for an independent spirit and political content and things as well. But, there has been many other role models and inspirations. John Peel should also be mentioned, and American labels like Def Jam, Tommy Boy and the whole sort of Punk and DIY movement in the UK. Records like The Buzzcocks: Spiral Scratch or Daniel Miller’s first records like Robert Rental or The Normal, that was a big influence also.
As a label manager that works for over 25 years in the business: what musical qualities do you look for? What does an artist need in order to release him?
Matt Black: Well it might also be a her not a him. All the artists on Ninja Tune are difficult to define but they do have a character that you can feel about them through their music and that, I think, is the most important thing by any artist to create something out of their own experience. As Thelonious Monk said, “Everyone’s a genius at being themselves.” So, I think that artists that can identify with that and work with it are of interest to us. There is a certain freewheeling, mental attitude as well on the artists on Ninja Tune I think.
And what advice would you give to people who plan to launch a label?
Matt Black: I’m not sure that a record label is really the best way to release music nowadays. If I was just starting out now I would be tempted to just directly do it myself via digital or other distributers. On the other hand, anyone can create a label it’s just a matter of having an email address and coming up with a good name. But more generally, nowadays in the attention market place, which is a term to describe the way in which everyone competes like traders in a market now for attention, whether you’re an artist or a label or any type of person that is looking for attention, then you have to find some way to stand out from the crowd. There’s no formula for that otherwise everyone will do it and also the techniques change one door closes and another opens. So, the Ninja mentality would be to try and discover the secret doors that no one has found yet.
Anyone can create a label, it’s just a matter of having an email address and coming up with a good name.
You run many sub labels like Acid Ragga, Big Dada, Counter or Werk Discs. Can you tell us a bit about those? Why sub labels and what makes them unique?
Matt Black: Well there are different sorts of labels that Ninja have associations with. Counter and Big Dada and Technicolour are proper sub labels of Ninja Tune and they are owned by us. Whereas Werk Discs is more of a collaboration with Actress and Brainfeeder is a collaboration with Flying Lotus and his crew from LA.. In a way we are just trying to help with labels like Brainfeeder and Werk Discs them put out the music and use our experience to make their labels functional but generally just let them get on with choosing the music and we help support promoting it. With Counter and Big Dada it’s a bit different. So these are sort of threads within the Ninja Tune musical love affair where we found it more efficient to define a style of music and so, as people often get confused by shifting identities, sometimes it is better to draw your identity more clearly, so Big Dada is more focused on hip and rap although it has put out some other styles of music but generally it is more focused on that. Counter focuses more on the Rock and Pop style and yeah, that is to make it more legible for people to understand what’s on the label. In the beginning Ninja put out all sorts of different music and some people loved that and some people found it confusing as well. So right now we find it convenient to have these sub labels.
On Ninja Tune as well as on the sub labels you often stayed loyal to artists like Roots Manuva, Cinematic Orchestra, Bonobo or The Heavy. Did you always had the key interest to shape a long lasting career with them? And if so: what potential do you see in younger signings like the already successful Young Fathers for instance?
Matt Black: Now each of the artists we have signed have been different, you have mentioned Roots Manuva, DJ Vadim, Cinematic Orchestra, Bonobo, The Heavy - we don’t know what’s going to happen with artists all we can do is try too detect something that we like, something that has some character about them and try and support them and see where it goes. In terms of the younger artists, Young Fathers clearly have a strong identity and a lot of potential and actually I’m in some ways more interested in music with vocals. Instrumental music is very easy to do and it is harder to discern what is special about it. Whereas to sing or rap and use your actual voice is more of a challenge so people who grip that and deal with it its clearer to see what potential they’ve got.
How important were and are the non-musical components of your releases, ie. packaging and album art in your opinion?
Matt Black: I think Ninja Tune benefited a lot from a strong graphic identity so, [indistinct background noise]. These are some sound effects from our hotel room here. My wife is looking scared. It’s OK darling you can make some noise, they can sample it. I think the Ninja Tune logo first made up by friend Mark Porter with Michael Bartolus and his friend did the original Ninja and then the original Ninja look evolved when Strictly Kev got involved. I think the Ninja and the Ninja man, if you like, have been a very useful part of our identity.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your label?
Matt Black: I don’t know if I can mention the incisive moments in the label’s history. Starting the label, was the incisive moment and from then on it’s been continuous trip. I think Young Fathers recently getting the Mercury’s was a big boost and releases like Roots Manuva Witness The Fitness and a particular records I like, like DJ Vadim and Sarah Jones: Your Revolution, or Get A Move On by Mr. Scruff - there are incisive releases really.
Personally, I stopped collecting physical things a while ago.
How do you keep your work fresh and continue to evolve?
Matt Black: I think the key is to not make too much money, but just make enough to be able keep on going. If you make too much money you get fat and self-satisfied and then you don’t do anything new. As for new music, finding new music is a full time occupation nowadays and I’m pretty busy so our networks bring us music and people like Mix Master Morris are great discovers of new music so I follow what he does quite closely and generally I find that enough new music comes to me automatically and I don’t have to work too hard to find it.
On what future projects for your labels are you working on now?
Matt Black: Well I’m particularly interested in the software side we’ve got our Ninja Jamm app which is out, and I’m working on a few video synthesizer applications and also a game called “Bankroller”. And then there is going to be a reboot of Ahead of Our Time, which is Jonathan, and mine’s original label which we are going to restart again as a channel just for our more experimental, free-form releases.
What was your biggest Ninja Tune hit so far?
Matt Black: No idea. Probably The Heavy: How You Like Me Now?, in terms of money earned. It’s done very well in America, that.
The relationship between music and other forms of art - painting, video art and cinema - has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
Matt Black: Well I’ve often said humans are audio/visual, multi sensual creatures and those of us lucky enough to have both eyes and ears are audio visual consumers so the senses are all connected and that interplay’s vital to experience. I think we became fascinated by the analogies between making music and making visuals for the past 25-30 years and so we have been playing with those relationships, in particular mapping out those relationships between music and visuals sound and image, sound and vision is something I find personally very fascinating. So, it’s all connected.
There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?
Matt Black: Yeah well as you point out there are two poles, quite like the idea of just doing digital releases where you are not using any physical means rather than the energy you’re consuming. So making vinyl for example is environmentally very expensive as is printing so it’s quite nice to just skip over that and release music virtually. On the other hand, a physical object is a beautiful thing and people do enjoy that. So if you’re going on tour and you want to make some money it is a good idea to print up some vinyl and Andy from the band Lamb told me he sells a lot of vinyl on tour but he doesn’t think that many people play them, they just put them up on the wall so that it is the physical representation of the experience. I think there is room for all those things. I think physical releases should be limited really because they are environmentally, so expensive to produce and that makes them more special which is how we had a hit in the first place with our first record. It was a very limited edition and Say Kids What Time Is It? sells for a lot of money now to collectors so if you’re a collector you’re going to like physical things. Personally, I stopped collecting physical things a while ago.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?
Matt Black: I think the value of music today in some ways has gone down. That’s the perceived value and the marketplace value. But, music still to me has the same power and I don’t need to, it doesn’t matter to me if I listen to it on an mp3 or a vinyl. If it’s a great song you feel it in the same way. I think that the abundance of music has some advantages as well because it means that people can experiment more and try out more styles of music to see what they like. So in some ways it has broken down the walls between style. Before you had to be more specialists, because you couldn’t afford all the music of all different sorts. And now you can sort of bathe in it and have a wider taste.
You have a strong passion for the art of VJing, invented VJ software, had a VJ group and developed several AudioVisual performances. Can you tell us where this passion started and what makes this art special for you?
Matt Black: The passion started from when I was a child, I used to enjoy making shows for my family using robots and flashing lights and radios and so on and my Mum said “Oh, it’s a sound and light show”, so I’m still doing the same thing. Jonathan and I both have backgrounds in visual arts as well so it’s natural to us to include that in what we do with sound and we have always done that from the days we used to create our own sleeves and then later on using computers and other tech like video mixers and even just VHS machines which enabled us to mess around with visuals. VJing includes the whole of DJing by the way. There are generally no silent VJ performances. That’s a kind of battle that’s been won really. I first started DJing at school, I used to play pop music that I taped off the radio - this was in 1976.
What tracks would your favorite mixtape include?
Matt Black: I can’t list my favourite tracks, but if you check out 2 Hours of Sanity on Mixcloud you find some.
Rate these acts in order of how much you like them: The Velvet Underground, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Prince and Amon Tobin.
Matt Black: 1. The Velvet Underground 2. Prince 3. Amon Tobin 4. Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Please recommend two new artists to our readers, which you feel deserve their attention.
Matt Black: I like The Internet and I like Kamasi Washington… live.
What old albums you rediscovered lately and what makes them special?
Matt Black: I like Mulatu Astatke on Ethiopique Records. It’s the greatest new/old funk music I’ve heard since Fela Kuti.
What are your biggest musical influences?
Matt Black: James Brown, Steve Reich, King Tubby’s.
If you could spend a night partying with any of your icons, who would it be?
Matt Black: George Clinton, he’d be the most fun I think.
What principals do you try to live your life by?
Matt Black: To try and find the balance between the self and everything else.
When it comes to art what are you most interested in?
Matt Black: Blowing the mind of the entire planet with positive art and music is what I’m interested in.
How do you think your generation is going to leave its mark on music culture?
Matt Black: I think any positive mark we might leave on culture is in great danger of being erased by the enormous flood of muck music, which as part of the increasing commoditization of everything, seeks to flatten out human experience. But hopefully some signs of love, awareness, care, empathy, curiosity and resistance will remain.
Who would you want play you in a film about your life?
Matt Black: I’d have to do it myself.
What’s your favourite Ninja Tune rumour?
Matt Black: That Coldcut are these two millionaires who own all the radio stations in London.
Ninja Tune discography