For both labels and artists the same rule applies: they are forever doomed to reinvent themselves in order to keep surprising us. This is all the more true for independent labels that are built on a strong identity, trying to be the launch pad for new music and hoping that their bets pay off and the new trends they back survive. London label Ninja Tune is no exception. The label was founded in 1990 on the impetus of Jonathan More and Matt Black. During its first phase – the first fifteen years or so – these well-placed founders capitalised on their personal and organic mix of English sounds, before setting their sights on more international horizons. At the same time the label forged into the world of electro, and even tried its hand at its own brand of indie music.
The two founders make quite a pair, known more widely as Coldcut, one of the biggest groups on the English acid house scene as well as being seriously into music from black artists. At the turn of the 1990s the scene was set for the explosion of American rap – a genre that England was slow to adopt – and Coldcut’s production techniques were inspiring a new wave of artists for what was then called abstract hip-hop and later trip-hop. Ninja Tune became their refuge. Within the label’s catalogue, hip-hop rhythms mingle with jazz, soul and funk samples, through to instrumental projects, vocal sessions and live recordings. A love of the fundamentals of groove seemed to bring this heterogeneous community together.
DJ Food (a multi-dimensional project through which More and Black evolved a great deal), The Herbaliser, Funki Porcini, Cinematic Orchestra and of course Coldcut, contributed to the label’s notoriety. At the same time, producers such as Luke Vibert, Amon Tobin, Mr. Scruff and Kid Koala demonstrated that electro could be playful, sexy and intoxicating, an answer to the more cerebral projects that were in vogue at the time.
During the 2000s the times were a-changin. US rap was king with ever more mainstream hits, electronic music was on its way to becoming the electro banger, and nu-rave and minimal techno were emerging. Nevertheless Ninja Tune persisted on their own path, with artists like Kevin Martin (under the name The Bug, a master producer in the art of electro-dub) who hailed the explosion of dubstep. Ninja Tune invested in English rap, devoting a sub-label to it, Big Dada, where Roots Manuva, the country’s first and maybe greatest rapper, took off. Others would follow: Spank Rock, Diplo, Ty, TTC and Speech Debelle. This series of signings lay the groundwork for a future, more free generation, thirsty for grime and dubstep. It was a sign of a different kind of groove in the offing...