A Diary of "Xen" Years of Ninja - 1990-2000
Xen : February 1990...
Jonathan More and Matt Black - the duo better known as Coldcut were on tour in Japan, nearing the end of a relationship with a variety of major labels that had led to their classic remix of Eric B & Rakim's 'Paid In Full' and launching the careers of Yazz and Lisa Stansfield
It had also led to heartache, pain, misunderstanding and annoyance. More and Black decided they wanted to go back to their roots releasing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Thirteen dates in ten days, soaking in Japanese media on all sides, living on a diet of sushi, the pair found the idea of a new label or congealing with the idea of the ninja, or a person skilled in ninjitsu, a Japanese martial art characterized by stealthy movement and physical and psychic camouflage. "We realized that being a ninja was very theatrical," Jon reminisces. "It wasn't martial arts as such. It was tricknology." Ninja Tune, the "technicolor escape pod", is born
From the bowels of their seemingly endless creativity, Coldcut give birth to two seminal new signings Bogus Order [old nu skool house breaks] and DJ Food [seminal & funky instrumental hip hop]. In September and October 1990, Bogus Order 'Zen Brakes Vol.1', and DJ Food 'Jazz Brakes Vol.1' are released.
Cult New York artist Michael Bartalos - who designed the cover of Coldcut's first album 'Whats That Noise' creates the first 'woodcut' Ninja logo from a drawing of Matt's. Mark Porter (now chief designer for The Guardian newspaper) on sleeve design
Xen : 1991...
Jazz Brakes Vol.2 released and 'The Band Played The Boogie' by NW1 featuring Born 2 Be [ZEN 1206]. This track slammed onto the (then hip) KISS FM playlist and ripped up the club charts, only to be foiled by a call from Blue Note/EMI pointing out the massive Grant Green sample and demanding a halt to the record pressings. NW1 went on to sign to EMI as US3, employed to legitimately tax the Blue Note catalog. [The sample was later cleared with EMI, but by then it had become clear that the track was actually crap]
During 1990 and 1991 the label was run by 'Dunc', and by nutritionist Louise.. In September 1992 Mr Quicke was recruited to cut the cheese
Xen : 1992....
Mr Quicke, formerly a Devonshire cheese maker, is recruited and immediately begins to apply his cheese making techniques to the job of label manager.
Patrick Carpenter, aka PC, joins Coldcut as sound engineer. Already a skilled DJ and producer PC becomes a crucial member of Ninja Tune, and from Jazz Brakes 4 onwards, an integral part of the seminal DJ Food production team
Xen : 1992/3...
Releases include 'Jazz Brakes Vol.3' and a string of brilliantly inventive 12" singles: ZEN 1211 - Steinski 'Its Up To You' [anti Gulf War/George Bush cut-up diss]...Steinski being of Double D & Steinski fame,ie.Lessons 1, 2,& 3. ZEN 1212 - Coldcut 'Autumn Leaves' [b/w a phat slab of phunk 'Fat Bloke' - as one spelt in 1992] ZEN 1213 - Producers For Bob 'Remixed Media' cultish ambient beat junk remixes by Coldcut, Steinski and Negativland] ZEN 1214 - Gideon 'Gideon Dub' three quarter time dub classic] and then 'Jazz Brakes Vol.4'
Xen : 1993/4...
'the dark year' ZEN 1215 - possibly terrible gospel garage 'Believe' by Apple featuring Marvin Springer. D.O.V. - Ninja releases a string of worthy but ultimately turgid records from Toronto techno label 'Death Of Vinyl Recordings ZEN 7, ZEN 8 ... don't ask ...DRIVE 1 - In truly ironic style Ninja release 'Curfew' single by Drive, simultaneously launching the recording career of Mel from All Saints, and hitting a low in morale and release quality. Check the 'Southern Delta' guitar riff and Beatmasters remix
Ninja Tune are forced to move from the shambolic but inspired loft studio/office in Wood Green, above Livingstone Studios where much of the 3 first Coldcut albums were recorded, to the now legendary [and defunct] Winchester Wharf on Clink Street on the banks of the Thames near London Bridge. When we move in, the whole street is virtually derelict and the building is a wreck. You can hear and smell the rats. But the cheap river front space is more than sufficient compensation, and an excellent place to begin world domination
Xen : 1994....
We recover from the butt end of last year, releasing two excellent 9 Lazy 9 albums. The Herbaliser, Funki Porcini and Up Bustle & Out are signed, and
the fat/funky but previously unadventurous DJ Toolz [aka Blapps!] transmogrifies into the steaming London Funk Allstars. [DJ Toolz had already released four breakbeat albums on sub-label Ninja Toolz]
During 1994 Matt Black's close friend Mixmaster Morris [then yampin' it large as ambient DJ guru on the fashionable but doomed Rising High label] introduced Matt to Openmind - a DJ & design collective straight outta Camberwell - at the Telepathic Fish chill-out club they were running. Openmind included the one and only Kevin Foakes aka Strictly Kev
After handing in a restyled Ninja logo he casually asks "How about letting me do everything then?" Ancient Ninja proverb states: 'don't look a gift DJ in the mouth lest he gobs on you'. From that day on Strictly Kev steps in to fill the gap of overall Ninja design consultant
Along with PC, Strictly has also contributed countless mixes to Coldcut's legendary radio show 'Solid Steel' [which started when KISS FM was a pirate radio station, and now broadcasts on BBC London Live]. Kev slowly and imperceptibly became half of DJ Food. Also recruited into the Ninja folds is Shane Solanki, aka Mister Sho'nuff, whose offkey press releases and sleeve notes are another weapon in the stealth armory
Over a steaming vegetable curry at Mr. More's house, a Ninja Tune summit is held and the historic split between Ninja Tune & Ninja Tone is negotiated. After a couple of firing Ninja Tone 12"s [Drome ZEN 1219 and Nonplace Urban Field ZEN 1218] and dozens of complaints about a spelling error, Ninja Tone becomes Ntone. Ninja Tune on the funk, the jazz and the hip hop, while Ntone will focus on more techno-rooted sounds. Launch party for the first Ntone mix compilation 'Tone Tales From Tomorrow' NTONE CD5 is held at the third ever Big Chill lie in - Ntone snoozes on for several aeons
Xen : 1995...
World domination plan is initiated. Release a few remixes from extremely funky muthas [Ashley Beedle, Marden Hill, Attica Blues], release some firing but very limited 12" singles [ZEN 1223 The Herbaliser, ZEN 1224 Funki Porcini, ZEN 1225 aforesaid remixes], follow shortly with a blinding and timely compilation album plundering the poorly exposed early catalogue for top tunes, and give it a faux fashionable name - Ninja Cuts 'Funkjazztical Tricknology'. Outernational A&R by Mr Quicke. Other albums released in 1995: ZEN 17 Funki Porcini 'Hed Phone Sex', ZEN 16 London Funk Allstars 'London Funk Vol.1', ZEN 18 The Herbaliser 'Remedies', DJ Food 'A Recipe For Disaster']
DJ Vadim enters the picture with an obsession with door creaks, super slow rock breaks and Christianity. Hip hop will never be the same again Future Press Warrior Vez joins the
family. Also the legendary Ninja Skinz are produced for the first time replete with Ninja press scribe Shane the Chocolate Chile's beginners guide to zenspeak. Coldcut with much valuable assistance from PC and Strictly Kev set about recording their incredible landmark mix compilation for the 'Journeys By DJ' series. Voted Jockey Slut's 'best compilation of all time' in 1999.
Matt Black creates our first website, codenamed 'Pipe'. Leegal joins Ninja, the stealth lawyer augments our tricknological powers of defence against the forces of greyface. (Al also founds the fat track Son Records operating undercover out the Clink)
Following a tip-off from Laurence 'le terrible' the launch party for DJ Food 'Recipe For Disaster' is held at The Bluenote in Hoxton. It's so rammed that we start a monthly club in November 1995, code named Stealth: with queues extending around the block, we initiate the world to four-deck mixing by DJ Food, generally tear the roof off the sucka and play host to a string of guests including Squarepusher, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Ashley Beedle, James Lavelle and Kid Koala, a then eighteen year old turntablist genius
Xen : 1996...
The whole DJ Food series gets rounded up with a masterful selection of remixers for the Refried Food project. Cuts like 'Turtle Soup' and 'Scratch yer Hed' are turned into classics by the likes of Luke Vibert and Squarepusher respectively, whilst Autechre, Fila Brazillia, Ashley Beedle, The Herbaliser, Dr Rockit and future signing Mr Scruff are among many others all adding to the confusio n
After releasing DJ Food 'Refried Food' & Ninja Cuts 'Flexistentialism' [Feb & March 96], things appear a little stratospheric. People started saying we were better than Mo Wax, so we had to tell them to fuck off and check their headz too, OK, OK alright. Ninja Tune persevere with eclecticism and refuse to embrace the dominant music forms Trip Hop, then Drum & Bass, and in 1997 Big Beat. Instead we release the brilliant but too sweet 'One Colour Just Reflects Another' by Up, Bustle & Out; host the crazed return of Porcini with 'Love Pussycats & Carwrecks', the weird and blinding 'USSR Repertoire' by DJ Vadim and party-rockin' London Funk Allstars 'Flesh Eating Disco Zombies vs The Bionic Hookers From Mars'
Riz Maslen follows up her Tumbleweed EP with the stunning Ntone album '15 Levels Of Magnification' . Other Ntone news: a string of banging chin-stroker 12"s wrapped in anti-static bag covers: Hex 'Psychic Dentist', Purr 'Float On', Cabbageboy 'Sausage Doctor', Rhys Chatham & Martin Wheeler 'Neon', Juryman '3'
Coldcut, Food & Porcini meet Kid Koala in Montreal and are held captive by his mixtape which is sneakily played on the van stereo enroute to the hotel. By the time the beat dropped after Charlie Brown's third 'I gotta rock' his future as a Ninja artist was seriously on the agenda.. Jeff Waye drinks to much and is sick in the tour van while in company of various Ninja artists. Doubts arise as to whether Ninja should get involved with him. Fortunately Philippa Klein comes off as a responsible person...
After being persuaded by a few cheap Canadian promos (and an apology for the whole drinking incident) , Mr Quicke agrees set up a U.S/Canadian powerhouse for Ninja Tune in Montreal with Jeff Waye, from the horribly doomed Cargo Records, and Taekwondo master Phillipa Klein. First official meeting is marked by much hilarity as the smallness of a New York hotel room causes Pete to wander out into the hallway in his underwear as he mistakes the exit door for bathroom door...Jeff sleeps on while Pete hammers on doorawakening half the floor. The result of these manoeuvres is that Ninja gets to release all our records [singles and albums, CD and vinyl, Ntone and Big Dada] simultaneously in UK, Europe, USA and Canada. Ninja artists get to tour U.S & Canada on a regular basis and in the process pad out their record collections for cheap in a way they never thought possible. A primary goal of Ninja is achieved in this; we have sidestepped the world of major labels, while consistently serving our artists worldwide in a way no major label would. Strictly 100% independent. Generally Ninja Tune becomes recognized as a leading label in the U.S (picked in Rolling Stone as one of the top indie)
Meanwhile back in the UK, Stealth remains massive - 'club of the year' in NME ...The mighty Amon Tobin joins the label fresh from his Cujo alter ego ...The unstoppable RoboSooz builds the Ninja tour bus and rules the DJs with an iron fist. ninjatune.net is launched; Matt Black slaps our wrists if we don't communicate by e-mail. Coldcut continue to record their next album
Xen : 1997...
Quit Stealth at its peak. Jonathan More quips "all good things come to a trend". Stealth was now so popular and over-ground that all sorts of aggressive 'lager-lout' wankers started to come down, clearly only there because it was "cool" and cos Mixmag had printed photos of beautiful women groovin' at previous Stealths. It just wasn't fun anymore and the faithful Ninja DJs were tiring of it. So the Ninja bags are packed and we're gone touring the rest of the world for awhile.
ZZ Top visit the Montreal office (they were just passing through the area looking for antiques) and profess their appreciation of some Ninja artists...alright! They leave backstage passes for their gig that night, which was great, but we were hoping they'd slide us the keys for the Eliminator car. Soon after Montreal Ninja office moves out of the back of Jeff & Phil's house to a proper office space. They decide to get crazy and actually get more than one phone and count 'em...2 computers...the rise
from dirt style office management begins
Bright cold sunny day in February 1997, reputed hip hop journalist Will Ashon buys Mr Quicke a pint of Guinness and he agrees to starting a proper hip hop label with Big Daddy Ashon at the helm. Ludicrously foolhardy from a financial point of view, but then the Guinness was nice. First 12"s include Juice Aleem, Luke Vibert, New Flesh For Old and Abstract Rude
The Herbaliser's smokin' 'Blow Your Headphones' is released and hitmen Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba put a band on the road and confirm themselves as big shit on the label The Dominator Smith becomes stealth credit controller and now we're getting Paid In Full Summer ends and Coldcut reappears with their first Ninja Tune album 'Let Us Play'. The album also features the talents of Talvin Singh, Steinki, and Bernard Purdie, and comes with a CD ROM filled with videos, games and interactive delights - another artistic and technological milestone for Coldcut.
The arcane Dean & Darren (DK) join Ninja, syndicate Coldcut's radio show worldwide and steer the wheels of Solid Steel round your bend.
Xen : 1998...
The next year is spent recovering, but manage to release the astounding Permutation' by Amon Tobin, almost over-looked in the UK but enormous most everywhere else on the planet. Also the eclectic, really good (honest!) but possibly confusing Ninja Cuts 'Fungkungfusion'; and largely ignored classics from Chocolate Weasel, Irresistible Force and Clifford Gilberto. [Clifford's next album however will kill you all]
Coldcut & Hexstatic's ground breaking synchronaic audio-visual 'Timber' gets the large one, the Dark Knight remixes 'Timber' and all around are slayed. Big Dada released the amazing 'Elohim' 12" from Saul Williams and their first album - the 'Black Whole Styles' compilation was released.
Kid Koala gets 'DJ's block' and jumps ship for the Money Mark/Beastie Boys tour as an excuse to go record shopping for more material for his uncompleted-but-already-on-the-schedule LP. It took nearly another 2 years but it was worth the wait. ZEN 34 is renamed ZEN EVER
Xen : 1999...
Seemingly having laid low for 1998, the Ninja Tune pod exploded with exuberant fertility in 1999 with a string of hit albums as lean as your mama
Jason Swinscoe, who has been on ninja office duty for years as international export guy, comes through with The Cinematic Orchestra's
incredible 'Motion', the Herbaliser release the poptastic 'Very Mercenary', featuring the likes of Bahamadia, What What, and the Dream Warriors ('8 Pt. Agenda' single also followed which featured the lyrical skills of Bay Area duo Latryrx) . We also cut 'Keep It Unreal', by Mancunian nutter Mr.Scruff (picking up your kids at the pool was never the same), DJ Vadim resurfaced with a bunch of M.C's in tow (most notably Company Flow, Iriscience, Blade, Moshun Man and Blu Rum 13....) for 'USSR: Life From The Other Side'. Funki Porcini's 'TheUltimately Empty Million Pounds' and Dynamic Syncopation's 'Dynamism' make strangely sexy bed fellows. Roots Manuva came true with the brilliant'Brand New Second Hand' [on Big Dada], which was largely hailed as the best British hip-hop record ever, leading to a massive collaboration with UK techno act Leftfield. The extreme New Flesh For Old album 'Equilibrium' - now 18 months later regularly played by John Peel. Ntone also starts to kick ass, with a much fortified roster and albums from Flanger (the duo of Atom Heart & Bernd Friedmann) 'Templates', Cabbageboy [aka Si Begg] with 'Genetically Modified', and the Animals On Wheels' 'Nuvol i Cadira'. And with the funky mutha Vez on press vibes people are starting to notice. Generally we think we're pretty great, but what the f*%k do we know?
Xen : 2000...
Ninja UK move from Clink Street, which had been under some threat from corporate development for some time, into a new Stealth European Home, the Ninjas re-adopting the Altern-8 rave mask look to deal with the asbestos. Winchester Wharf remains funky till its death
The Kid finally drops his album, all 34 minutes of it! 4 years in the making equals 8 minutes a year! But it's mad funny and comes with a comic book and a video game so what the hell
PC & Strictly Kev, having taken over the mantle of DJ Food from Coldcut, (the morph is complete) only take 5 years to deliver 'Kaleidoscope' the follow up to 1995s 'Recipe For Disaster' - what is it with these artists? Ninja Tune: home of the flexible deadline.
Amon drops the stunning 'Supermodified' and shuts up all who said he could never out do 'Permutation'
A new Up, Bustle & Out album - half recorded in Cuba - all Descargas and breakbeats. Released together with a 150 page paperback book plotting the Senor's quixotic journeythrough countless cigars, mulattas and revolutionary leaders.
Hexstatic's 'Rewind' album is the world's first totally audio-visual album (aren't we just at the cutting edge, yawn) where every track - of firing electro and nu skool breaks - wasproduced simultaneously as audio and video. Check out the Ninja Kung Fu kick solo - "His is name is Tony, he is a Ninja"
Coldcut launch piratetv.net, a pirate television station broadcasting free from the restrictions of outernational censorship. With all three labels firing, we continue to roll with stealth, sending our music into the furthest corners of the planet/record shop....no rest until the world is Ninja!