Jonathan More of Ninja Tune records talks about the label as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Stars by stealth
"A select crew of rebels, gypsies and one-armed bandits, using the science of slime and reason as a weapon… a renegade crew of modern shamans investing spirit into technology and technology into spirit, configuring rude synaesthetic rainbows over the concrete horizons of sub-urban reality."
As mission statements go, that of London's Ninja Tune records stands self-consciously apart from the crowd - much like the label itself. After starting as a side-project of 1980s dance-music duo Coldcut, it celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with an extravagant series of celebrations and releases. "Eclectic" is a word devalued by overuse, but Ninja Tune's roster has a fair claim to the adjective; drawing on a broad spread of influences and leaving behind a diverse collage of joyous electronic experimentation, cut-up jazz, the farthest reaches of hip-hop, dub, and drum and bass, and numerous points in-between.
After years of quietly building a reputation DJ-ing in the London warehouse dance scene, by 1990 Matt Black and Jonathan More, as Coldcut, were surprised to find themselves collaborating with stars such as Lisa Stansfield, Yazz, and Erik B & Rakim, and occupying the upper echelons of the British pop charts with songs including Doctorin' the House. Surprised, and not entirely happy about the musical compromises it began to demand of them.
"It was a bit of a whirlwhind really," More explains, recalling Ninja Tune's inception. "Matt was a computer programmer, and I was a part-time teacher. We made records, not in his bedroom exactly, but in the sort of hall area…" he laughs. "And then we were on Top of the Pops, and it went crazy. The label we were signed to was bought by a major, and things started to go a bit murky. Whereas before we'd make a record, give it to the record company, and they'd put it out, suddenly they were saying 'we don't like this: make another record like Doctorin' the House or The Only Way Is Up. They didn't want to put out the music we were making, and then they asked us to change our name because we were 'so eighties, and it's the nineties now'." He sighs. "We had a good basting in that pretty tasteless sauce".
While on tour in Japan with Norman Cook (then in his Beats International incarnation, but later to reach global fame as Fatboy Slim), they fell in love with the "vibe of the ninja" and the striking differences in Japanese culture and technology. This came down to one particular epiphanic moment for More, while watching television.
"I turned the sound down because I couldn't understand the language, and I was jet-lagged and in a pretty strange state. It was an old black-and-white TV show, quite creaky, and I suddenly thought 'this is just like us'. Really, we're just two blokes going around from town to town, entertaining people with our tricks. It's smoke and mirrors, it's flashing lights, it's sparkly jackets and trap doors. Then there was the element of stealth, of having lots of different identities, being able to work both sides of the fence. We could disappear underground and reappear in a different guise because that's what ninjas did - they'd play off one form against another."
To More and Black, this wasn't just an elegant metaphor for their occupation as DJ-entertainers, but an inspiration to find creative freedom while still bound by their major label contract: in September 1990 they released Zen Brakes Volume I under the pseudonym "Bogus Order", and Ninja Tune was born. They pulled in like-minded souls from across the world, and their ad hoc spirit allowed the label to become "almost Motown-esque" in turning friends and acquaintances - people who "got it" - from nobodies into stars.
Has it become harder to be an independent label in the last 20 years, given the rise of illegal downloading, and the dramatic fall in revenues from CD and vinyl sales? More isn't convinced. "It's really about passion and dedication - there's never a right time or a wrong time, it's just about appropriating whatever technology's available. A lot of people think the internet means things have to operate really differently, but certain principles remain the same."
Like having a clear vision?
"It's not even about having a clear vision necessarily, just having one at all! A lot of companies don't really, except for cashing in as much as they can, wrapping up rubbish in gobbledegook.
"But we paid attention to the gobbledegook companies used, and came up with our own - it was a useful device."
Is that part of the smoke-and-mirrors approach?
"Absolutely. And it's part of being British, as well - right through our history, through music hall, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Steptoe and Son, and punk - there's always a similar kind of irreverence and stupidity going on in the background," he says fondly.
The spirit of sampling is another constant: musically, in terms of the individual beats or other sounds Ninja Tune artists often use as their "raw materials"; but more generally, the appropriation and reconfiguration of ideas suffuses the label's way of thinking - whether it be in their aesthetics, live visuals, or superlative sleeve artwork.
"It's not about the cut of the cloth, it's about the spirit involved - and it's the same with the music and artists on Ninja. They're all individual and they all have a character. You might not like all of it, but you can guarantee it'll all be left-of-centre, in a non-political sense."
The 20th-anniversary celebrations include a worldwide tour, a book commemorating the label's history, and a six CD set comprising entirely new music: a project so vast they had to start compiling it not long after the 19th anniversary, More jokes.
"I'm a total rambler", he proceeds apologetically, as we round the interview up. "I always take the scenic route. We've done that with Ninja too: if you're going to take a journey, you might as well enjoy it, and look for spring water along the way. And at the moment there's a particularly good supply of fresh young spring water on the label - and that's great. That makes me very happy."