Ninja Tune

For a label that’s been releasing consistently trend-warping and creatively daring albums for over three decades, something about Ninja Tune still feels a little frivolous — not superficial or inane, but at least a bit refreshingly unserious. In a UK-rooted post-rave landscape dominated by similarly-minded peers and successor labels from Warp to Mo’Wax to Planet Mu to Hyperdub, the spirited sense of irreverence that fueled much of Ninja Tune’s initial ascent still looms as a definitive part of dance music history. That irreverence was fueled by the liberating potential of so many Wired-ready ’90s-futurist concepts: culture-jamming multimedia manipulation, a powerful belief in the aesthetic recontextualization that came from sample-based composition, and a por que no los dos refusal to adhere to punk’s old “fuck art, let’s dance” binary. If that meant that the road to some of the deepest avant-dance albums of the last ten years ran through an early wave of comedic turntablism, quirky acid jazz, and some of the most British-eccentric takes on hip-hop production thinkable, that just makes the entirety of Ninja Tune’s whole 30-plus-year corpus feel even more astounding.

Established in 1990 by Matt Black and Jonathan More of cut-up wizards Coldcut, Ninja Tune first found its footing in the same hip-hop-besotted DJ circles that Coldcut helped popularize in the UK to start with in the late ’80s. Jazz Brakes, a series of beat-battle and sample-fodder weapons released under the artists-collective aegis of DJ Food, provided the bulk of the fledgling label’s sales and attention in the first half of the decade, and served as integral components of the assorted sounds that would define UK sample-based music — downtempo, acid jazz, and trip-hop — for the remainder of the ’90s. By the decade’s end, their most reliably progressive-minded and exciting artists, from hip-hop-rooted The Herbaliser to drum’n’bass superdeconstructionist Amon Tobin to the filmic evocations of Jason Swinscoe’s symphonic jazz auteurism as The Cinematic Orchestra, staked a strong claim somewhere between the crowdpleasing go-go dance party hedonism of big beat and the frantic rhythmic iconoclasm of IDM.

But while the cast of characters that made up the label’s early efforts would remain pivotal to the label for decades, Ninja Tune benefited greatly from an ability to take the traditional community-building base of radio shows and dance nights and expand them into something that fit the global-village potential of the early internet. Coldcut’s futurist fascination with music as just one component of a multimedia experience would soon expand into a DIY-cultivating mission to democratize the creation of electronic music. This manifested in a cross-disciplinary incorporation of “video sampling” and interactivity as part of their live shows and home-listening experiences, abetted by frequent collaborations with Hex Media and their successors Hexstatic in creating simple, fun music creation software and CD-ROM playthings. It was the old ’70s punk-fanzine “this is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band” catalyst for a new generation and a new means of production.

It could get silly, and that was part of the liberating effect the label had. Stalwarts like the cartoonishly eclectic Mr. Scruff and comedy-scratch virtuoso Kid Koala approached their often complex and visionary work with an almost childlike unpretentiousness, which proved to be an accessible route to some of the label’s more outre and counterintuitive sounds. First-decade label-sampler compilations like 1998’s Ninja Cuts: Funkungfusion and 2000’s Xen Cuts embodied this feeling better than anything; having a wigged-out sample-collage by honorary paterfamilias Steinski or one of Luke Vibert’s manic funky-drummer breakdowns share space with a rising Brit-rap star like Roots Manuva or retrofuturist psych-jazz-fusion group Loka made it clear how holistic the label’s approach really was. And that’s before you even account for their history of offshoot labels — particularly the experimental-focused Ntone and the still-thriving art-rap imprint Big Dada Recordings — that made their already nebulous sense of beat music feel practically limitless.

This could be why Ninja Tune weathered the industry-downturn 2000s so well — that, and their tendency to champion artists who the struggling majors wouldn’t even deign to touch. But while their sustainability through the aughts produced a good share of vital and exciting records, it was their expansion in the 2010s that elevated them from lingering survivors of the wide-open no-rules ’90s into a renewed pillar of cutting-edge experimental electronic music. This was thanks to distribution deals and co-signs with heir-apparent labels like Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder and Actress’s Werkdiscs, combined with a litany of next-generation label signees that took Ninja Tune’s post-genre dance precedent to even deeper, more viscerally experimental places — think the percussion-rending clubland anxiety of Forest Swords, the glitchy warmth of Floating Points, and the prismatic smears of Julianna Barwick’s cathedral-of-the-voice ambient. Long may they cut.

Supermodified cover

You can find all kinds of stylistic through-lines in the first four albums Amon Tobin cut for Ninja Tune between 1997 and 2002, but the most often-cited and characteristic one — his resculpting of drum’n’bass tropes into a mutant jazz that hits square in the Venn overlap of beautiful and unnerving — hit its highest point of a well-sustained peak here. All you have to do to really shake the stiffness out of your brain is follow along to what he does with the drums on Supermodified — sustaining grooves no matter how maniacally and uncontrollably the rolls and crashes boil over (as opener “Get Your Snack On” establishes right out of the gate). That he does so in the service of some drastically varying moods is key: “Golfer Vrs Boxer” hits you with a wall of in-the-bloody-red blast-beat noise overload one moment, only for “Deo” to find menace and tension in downtempo orchestral fusion the next. And the way that these moods can turn on a dime is even more of a thrill; check the way “Chocolate Lovely” feints towards mellow orchestral lounge-jazz reverie before it builds to a clattering percussive explosion Buddy Rich would marvel at.

Vapor City cover

A glitch-hop deconstructionist at the turn of the 2000s and a bass-music-steeped dancefloor manipulator a decade later, Travis Stewart’s approach under his Machinedrum alias has always been an accumulative one. That goes for his influences, the most future-funky of which manifested fully in his Ninja Tune debut Vapor City: on offer is junglist freneticism retrofitted to hit with a post-Burial wistfulness (“Gunshotta”), delicate melodicism playing out in gauzy slo-mo over high-BPM mergings of juke and drum’n’bass rhythms (“Infinite Us”), and post-dubstep art-dance with all the hauntological emotional uplift of Boards of Canada’s brighter moments (“Center Your Love”). But it also applies to the way he actually shapes his tracks, letting the smeared vocal hooks and beat-builds pile up in waves that forego wait-for-the-drop obviousness in favor of relentless refractions that peak and peak and peak some more.

Nothing Is Still cover

Shortly after signing with Ninja Tune, experimental house producer Leon Vynehall found some unconventional yet resonant inspirations for his first “legit” album-qua-album. The thematic concept arose from the stories of his recently-passed grandfather that his grandmother told him over shared photos of their life in 1960s New York. And while orchestral, organic-sounding yet avant-friendly works by dance-music artists weren’t entirely unprecedented at the time, Vynehall defied expectations and found a deep well of startling reinvention in his decision to draw off his enthusiasm for minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Nothing Is Still turns its secondhand experiences of familial nostalgia into something immersively personal, and even without the accompanying Vynehall-written novella that blueprinted his musical vision for the album, the merging of broad orchestral sweep and minimalist yet impactful rhythms perfectly suit the black-and-white melancholy of the story’s ex-pat disillusionment, from the lonely oceanfront gaze into the distance that opens the album (“From The Sea/It Looms (Chapters I & II)”) to the increasingly heavy tension-and-release dynamics of its pulse-throbbing mid-album heart (“Trouble - Parts I, II, & III (Chapter V)”; “English Oak (Chapter VII)”).

Very Mercenary cover

Ollie Teeba and Jake Wherry’s hip-hop outfit The Herbaliser was a cornerstone of Ninja Tune for ten years and five studio albums, and LP #3 Very Mercenary is where their mixture of NYC-indebted funk/jazz breaks and Cool Britannia retroisms hit its finest balance. There’s an unmistakable suspense-film undercurrent to it all — not just from What What (b/k/a Jean Grae) relaying secret-agency skirmishes in post-intro kickoff “Mission Improbable,” but the nods to film scores of ’70s actioners in instrumentals like the twangy-yet-percussively clobbering “Goldrush,” the melting-brass heatbox “Who’s the Realest?” and the twitchy-nerved crime jazz of “The Missing Suitcase.” Throw in some Apollo-era lunar intrigue (“Moon Sequence”), big-band swagger turned melodramatically mournful (“Shattered Soul”), and the kitschy exotica of early ’70s sex positivity (“The Sensuous Woman”), and you’ve got the kind of vibe Guy Ritchie would endlessly chase yet never quite nail even half as well. Meanwhile, Invisibl Skratch Piklz turntablism tribute “Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks” and appearances from trans-Atlantic alt-rap royalty like Bahamadia, Dream Warriors, and Roots Manuva prove that the Herbaliser rock Adidas tracksuits and BAPE camo just as comfortably as Savile Row suits.

The Return cover

Born in Zambia, based in Melbourne, and resonating everywhere, Sampa the Great spends enough time on her Ninja Tune breakout The Return searching out her place in the world that it becomes clear that she belongs everywhere. With a buzzy thrum of a voice and a flow that recalls the on-point rhythm-dekeing, sing-song emphaticness of Yasiin Bey, her presence as a rapper is arresting even when she’s caught up in artistic self-doubt and outward skepticism (“Freedom”) — though the defiant assertiveness and diasporic pride in cuts like “OMG” (“Never underestimate your highness/Dripped in melanin, Galaxy’s finest”) and “Final Form” (“Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh/Greatness in me, you can’t make me feel less”) are where her power really shines. That she balances these ferocious assertions of hip-hop bonafides with equally poised excursions into neo-soul and R&B-inflected jams (“Leading Us Home”; “Don’t Give Up”) only reveals the kind of stylistic breadth that puts her square in the tradition — and the company — of Missy and Lauryn.

Compassion cover

Matthew Barnes’ vision of club music isn’t just holistic genre-wise — you can hear two-step, techno, and breakbeat in its rhythmic structure, and a spectrum from ambient’s immersive clarity to dub’s reverberating decay — but chronologically. Compassion evokes the cutting edge post-Burial atmospherics of late-’10s conceptual dance music but makes it all sound like it was created with instruments and components that predate the analog era, much less the digital, even if the fragmented voices, liquid string sections, and tactile, organic drum beats cohere in a way that only electronic manipulation can really accomplish. And while its mood is caught up in the tumult of anxiety and despair — “Panic” and “Vandalism” sound like attempts to stifle catharsis in solitude; “The Highest Flood” and “Exalter” could be hymns or war cries — it’s too given to unexpected turns of beauty, especially in late-peak purple dubstep reduction “Raw Language,” to feel unremitting. Just like the cover art’s depiction of a man bracing himself beneath a rock nearly as big as he is, it’s a matter of perspective as to whether the emotional bluntness of this music will weigh you down or strengthen you. But the directness of its melancholic intensity and the jolts that come from its flashes of possibility for warmth and hope are thrilling.

Motion cover

The band name’s no feint — Jason Swinscoe’s ensemble draws off the nervier precedents of Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Roy Budd, and a host of other film score composers who made their name merging the symphonic and the jazzy to hard-boiled ends. But the film it inspires in the listener’s brain is likely more intensely noir than any cusp-of-the-millennium Hollywood director could swing; it makes L.A. Confidential’s grit feel Big Lebowski wacky by comparison.

Sorry I Make You Lush cover

When Luke Vibert puts out a record under his Wagon Christ alias, it typically means you’re getting the strongest juxtapositions of his long-running ability to mix the sacred (a deep melodic curiosity and a strong rhythmic drive) and the profane (shamelessly goofy funk laden with semi-campy throwback analog synths). That takes a skilled hand; a heavier one wouldn’t be able to pull off the bizarre confluences of musty old retrofuture junkshop Moog noises and oddly beautiful reflectiveness that, at its best, reveals sampling as another form of saudade. The familiarity of the funky breaks on Sorry I Make You Lush make it one of Vibert’s more directly accessible albums, and that can carry a lot; manic cut-and-paste g-funk wig-out “The Funnies,” the computer-lab b-boy-isms in “Quadra y Discos,” and the oddly wistful, 007-strings-laced pop-lock reverie “Shadows” use those beats to irreverently quirky yet deeply sincere ends.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome cover

Every instrument eventually gets the comedy vehicle it deserves, and Montreal-via-Vancouver DJ Kid Koala christened the new millennium with a turntablist showcase that could make you cry laughing when you weren’t busy marveling over his technique. He takes supreme advantage of the inherent humor in messing with cartoon voices, juxtaposing bizarre cut-up conversations, and concocting “but it is a real instrument” rebuttals like future live-gig highlight and profound jazz goofaround “Drunk Trumpet” and meta-scratch DJ deconstruction “A Night at the Nufonia."

London Zoo cover

As Kevin Martin’s ear for noisy dub and heavy dancehall found further promise in the grime and dubstep movements that emerged in 2000s post-garage quarters, he just kept adding more weapons to an already bunker-busting arsenal until hitting an explosive epiphany with 2008’s London Zoo. This is an album that starts with old-school UK dancehall vet Tippa Irie rampaging about “so many tings that get me angry” and brings in an all-star assemblage of singers, toasters, MCs, and poets to elaborate powerfully on that mindset with wide-ranging rage: Warrior Queen providing rousing alarm-call defiance (“Insane”; “Poison Dart”), Flowdan providing breathlessly intense yet rhythmically locked-in Rasta righteousness (“Skeng”; “Jah War”; “Warning”), and The Spaceape snarling and scoffing at casual social cruelty with hard-earned contempt (“Fuckaz”). Martin’s subwoofer-assault production can bludgeon the unwary, but he still leaves the kind of negative-space dynamics which reveal that slippery snares and waist-winding bass are what truly drive his million-fathoms-deep riddims.

The Music Scene cover

The sonic architect behind some of Aesop Rock’s greatest early records broke out on his own for Ninja Tune with 2004’s Music By Cavelight, but the producer’s third album for the label is where he really started to transcend the already-enviable “dude who gave us all those sick beats on Labor Days" status and reveal himself as one of instrumental hip-hop’s most emotively complex beat-borne storytellers. The songs on The Music Scene are somber without getting too maudlin about it, a sort of bad-vibe frankness permeating the low-level anxiety beneath his agreeably gloomy compositions. If that sounds like a tough time, it can be — the furious domestic-squabble found recording in the mix of “The Daily Routine”’s brought-to-a-boil sludge and a Wilder Zoby-vocodered Troutman-faces-the-void loneliness in the heart of “Four Walls” see to that. But that’s not the same thing as a bad time, and his lighter-touch moments like the breezy-listening “The Prettiest Sea Slug” and the sinuous MENA funk bounce of “Tricky Turtle” prove that Blockhead’s got more joy to his vibe than your typical downtempo bummer merchant.

Keep It Unreal cover

Mr. Scruff’s DJ sets are so knowledgeably diverse, smartly paced, and packed with gems that you could stick with their polygenre cartoon-disco joyousness as your sole exposure to his musical sensibilities and come away satisfied. But hey, his own beats aren’t half bad, and his first big statement for Ninja Tune is filled with a good-natured silliness that doesn’t entirely overwhelm his idea-factory eclecticism. The skittery “Get A Move On!” is the breakout, which practically invented and perfected electro swing over a decade before it became a phenomenon subgenre. Roots Manuva feature “Jusjus” is a bit closer to classic/trad hip-hop, though the Pete Rock-isms of Scruff’s horn loops have this intangible thrift shop jank to them. And the chirpy weirdness that permeates the record — organ-burbling, jelly-kneed lurch-funk on “Spandex Man”, seaside-resort schlager-jazz on “Blackpool Roll,” deeply goofy piscine music-hall breakbeat on “Fish” — is bolstered by Scruff’s supreme confidence in his ability to build an absolutely filthy drum track.

Emika cover

In 2006, Ema Jolly made the impulsive decision to leave the Bristol music scene in the midst of peak first-wave dubstep and hop on a flight to Berlin for an immersive education in clubland techno. Five years later, the former Ninja Tune intern released a full-length debut that draws from both scenes’ strengths, building emphatic two-step rhythmic palpitations infused with a coolly subdued precision that only makes the human voice fronting them feel just the right side of diabolical. One of those albums that shares knowing nods with its mainstream R&B/dance-pop contemporaries but pushes itself just a bit further into the playfully abrasive, Emika has all the components of crossover potential and none of the compromises, which makes cuts like the skittery yet restrained nailbiter dynamics of “Drop the Other” and the taut Britney-goes-minimalist swoon of “Double Edge” feel like a better-if-weirder world’s #1 hits.

Healing Is A Miracle cover

There’s an especially direct power a singer can achieve when they turn their single voice into a limitless choir of hall-of-mirrors harmony and depth perception-warping reverb. And when Julianna Barwick dropped Healing Is A Miracle in the oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere of furious mourning that defined the summer of 2020, it struck frayed nerves with her expansive ability to make ambient minimalism feel as big as the sky. She brings in other voices, too: Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi harmonizing spectacularly on “In Light,” harpist Mary Lattimore’s harp casting crystalline reflections on “Oh, Memory,” abstract beatmaker Nosaj Thing lacing closer “Nod” with a slowly-awakening build of just-keep-breathing energy. As dense as those pop-ambient wordless vocal soundscapes can get — especially when her crashing-wave beats and heavy-pressure bass swells amplify her vocals’ high-gazing sense of awe — there’s a sort of fluid malleability to its reflective nature that makes the intensity of emotion easier to bear.

Karma & Desire cover

It’s to Darren Cunningham’s benefit that vibe started infringing on the importance of genre as definitive artistic marker right around the time the first Actress records started dropping in the late 2000s. And on Karma & Desire, the vibe is subdued yet troubled existentialist contemplation, with sparse pianos, soaring-drone chords, a techno-diasporic but distinctly reductionist approach to beats, and his first-ever slate of actual vocal collaborators upholding an unsettling yet liberating feeling of confronting melancholy head-on. The songs featuring vocals only add further thematic ambiguity: London neo-soulster Sampha is pitch-warped into malfunctioning-VR uncanny-valley surrealism in “Many Seas, Many Rivers,” Brooklyn art-pop singer Zsela murmurs hushed invocations of heaven’s unattainability on “Angels Pharmacy” and “Remembrance,” and L.A. techno producer/polymath Aura T-09 finds herself on “Loveless” and “Turin” turning dance-hook desire into cracked-mirror distortions that get more enigmatic with each repetition.

A Recipe for Disaster cover

The loop-heavy Jazz Brakes albums that planted Ninja Tune’s roots in the ground were potent beatmaking and DJ tools, but they felt more like components than finished products. That became especially clear when the collective unit DJ Food — then featuring a core of Coldcut, Patrick “PC” Carpenter, Kevin “Strictly Kev” Foakes, and a handful of others — revealed their more dynamic and intricate tendencies in A Recipe for Disaster. Taken as a whole, it throws a teetering rope bridge between the murkier, more ruminative takes on trip-hop found deep in the Mo’Wax back catalogue and the quirky party-breaks side of big beat that Fatboy Slim would take to its broadest conclusions — and reveals a whole lot of points of interest between. The resulting mood swings can get a bit personality-crisis, as cut-and-scratch expositions that sound like a spitball take on comedic turntablism (“Scratch Yer Hed”/"Scratch Yer Butt”) mingle with high-rolling drum’n’bass refinements (“Fungle Junk”), moody / bleak acid jazz (“Dark River”), and borderline-ambient headnod beats (“Bass City Roller”). But it’s the kind of disorienting that points you towards an unknown destination you can’t wait to reach.

U.S.S.R. Repertoire (The Theory of Verticality) cover

The 2nd album from London-via-Leningrad expat beatmaker DJ Vadim starts out with a radio-dial-twisting montage of formative hip-hop influences, then spends another 25 tracks turning those influences inside out and pulling some unexpected serenity from them. The abstract hip-hop beats on U.S.S.R. Repertoire (The Theory Of Verticality) feel like hazy, trudging journeys through a place where all the action happens just beneath the surface, loops laced with ambient textural noise and the layered, manipulated reverb and distance of minimalist dub. At its deepest, Vadim’s low-BPM meditations play out like an East Coast version of screw fueled by DJ Premier and D.I.T.C. instead of Houston rap, the kind of mellowed-out hangover-nursing reduction of boom-bap that sounds reflectively hypnotic when it’s chill (“Headz Still Ain’t Ready”; “Mental Gymnastics”) and stupor-snappingly unnerving when it’s dark (“Aural Prostitution”; “Who the Hell Am I?”).

Let Us Play cover

While they’re best represented by singles (“Say Kids”; “Beats + Pieces”), remixes (their legendary Ofra Haza-laced take on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full”), and DJ sets (especially 1995’s mission statement 70 Minutes of Madness), it’s hard to dismiss the sprawl and ambition of Coldcut’s fourth album. The kinds of ideas that would seem exhausting in the wrong hands — a sardonic, jazz-bass-driven Jello Biafra police-state polemic (“Every Home a Prison”), a spoken-word beat poetry excoriation of corporate clubland (“Noah’s Toilet”), electronic updates of slow-metamorphosis Steve Reichian minimalism (“Music 4 No Musicians”) — actually work well in the context of Let Us Play's lefty irreverence and A/V experimentation. And if you’re here for the beats, the album’s break-boggling peaks (“Atomic Moog 2000 (Post Nuclear Afterlife Lounge Mix)”; “More Beats + Pieces (Daddy Rips It Up Mix)”; “I’m Wild About That Thing”) come frequent and frantic.

Crush cover

It might be a slight exaggeration to call Sam Shepherd’s third full-length as Floating Points an exegesis on 25 years’ worth of IDM — but only a slight one. Breaching the headphone/dancefloor dichotomy with rhythmic complexity that never sabotages its own groove for feints at cleverness, Crush takes a post-subgenre approach to trackbuilding that builds off familiar rhythmic signifiers: the shuffling frictionlessness of UK garage on “Anasickmodular,” the analog dream-pulse of synth-tweaking downtempo on “Requiem for CS70 and Strings,” Kompakt-aegis microhouse-gone-maximal on “LesAlpx,” and Aphex-ian mixtures of ambient warmth and turboglitch beats (“Environments”). Where Floating Points takes those sounds is as wide open as his idea to mingle them in the first place, and the lack of cohesive mission-statement clarity as Crush jumps from style to style only adds to the awe and beauty Shepherd can distill from a sense of chaotic spontaneity.

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