To celebrate Ninja Tune’s recognition as label of the year, The Waveform Transmitter‘s Ste Knight picks ten of his favourite Ninja tracks, since the label was founded by Coldcut in 1990.
Ninja Tune have, quite rightfully, recently been adorned with the honour of Label of the Year at the 2018 edition of the Aim Awards; a ceremony held by the Association of Independent Music, which gives recognition to the hard work and dedication of artists, labels, and industry figures who truly represent the ethos of independence. The award was a twofold success for the imprint, as Peggy Gou won Independent Track of the Year with her fantastic single, It Makes You Forget (Itgehane), released back in March via Ninja Tune.
Looking through the back catalogue, the artists read out like a who’s who of influential acts. Names like DJ Food, Steinski, The Herbaliser and, of course, Coldcut themselves, pepper the formative years of the label; as sure a sign as any that Ninja Tune was going to enjoy at least a modicum of success as an independent output. What actually took place was a musical revolution, which saw the brand growing at an exponential rate, releasing music by the likes of DJ Krush, DJ Vadim, Funki Porcini, Amon Tobin, and we certainly mustn’t forget the legendary Mr Scruff, whose debut on the label was the cut-and-paste, hip hop jazz-journey, Fish. If their first ten years could be considered highly successful, then who knows how they prepared for what was to come.
From 2000 onwards, Ninja Tune consistently wowed their growing cult of followers, releasing albums and singles that had the potential to blow minds. Personal experience attests to such a notion. By the time the 00s rolled around, artists such as Hextstatic, Roots Manuva, The Cinematic Orchestra, and Wagon Christ had joined the ranks, with Bonobo, Blockhead, and Skalpel following suit. Diplo also has a lot to thank the label for, given the attention they garnered him, first via the Big Dada offshoot, then on a split release with Amon Tobin in 2004, The Getaway – Black Monday.
As their second decennium rolled on, Ninja continued to carve their own unique path through the electronica genre, delivering music that always sounded fresh and different. Experimental music has always been at the core of what Coldcut have done, so it makes sense that, by extension, their label would also hold the exprimental values of its founders. This paved the way for artists like Daedelus, Yppah, and The Bug to enjoy releases via the Ninja Tune camp.
With the turn of the decade we have seen eight further years of fantastic music, from Ninja and it’s numerous, tenticular offshoots, with no signs of stopping any time soon, either. Toddla T, Eskmo, Lorn, and FaltyDL all saw output through the gateway provided by the label, as have Kelis, Illum Sphere, and, more latterly Bicep.
All of this said, it makes selecting ten tracks from the Ninja Tune back catalogue seem like an impossible task. Well, it almost is, but our editor Ste Knight fancied a shot at it, so here are his ten favourite Ninja Tunes, in no particular order. Fuck dance, let’s art!
The Bug Poison Dart feat. Warrior Queen
Nothing quite like hearing this one blaring out of a fat stack of subs. Everything about the track is raw energy, from the grizzly, oscillating bassline, to the vocal delivery of dancehall’s finest, Warrior Queen. The single came from The Bug‘s London Zoo album, his second, following Pressure.
Coldcut More Beats and Pieces (Daddy Rips It Up Mix)
Vivid memories of buying the album containing this track, which came alongside a CD-rom of little sound noodle programmes, are as clear as the moment I heard a whacked out hip-hop breakbeat laid over the top of Peter and the Wolf; the culmination of this version of More Beats and Pieces. The track is true schooling in cut-and-scratch electronica, symptomatic of Coldcut‘s experimental style.
Wagon Christ Tomorrow Acid
Acid has always had a special place in our hearts and Wagon Christ‘s Tomorrow Acid, from his Musipal album is one track that stands out from the Ninja Tune back catalogue. The alias of one Luke Vibert, Wagon Christ has seen multiple releases via the label. Tomorrow Acid features some wonderfully bendy 303, over the top of an organic breakbeat filled with swing and a more down-tempo groove.
Kid Koala Skanky Panky
Ska, as a genre, started to gain popularity back in fifties Jamaica, drawing influence from the acoustic mento sway of Lord Flea, with the tropical calypso style made famous by the likes of Roaring Lion. Canadian producer, Kid Koala, brings the sound bang up to date with his chopping and scratching in Skanky Panky, laying ska snippets over the top of a simple beat, letting the samples do the talking.
Bogus Order Zen Bones (Bass Mix)
Originally published on the first ever Ninja Tune release, Zen Brakes Vol 1, Zen Bones has been given the bass treatment in this rework, which was released on a Bogus Order EP, Da Sound of Zen, Bogus Order being another of Jonathan More and Matt Black‘s little side-projects. The original appeared years later in King Cannibal‘s outrageously good The Way of the Ninja release, which melded together a seemingly impossible number of Ninja Tune tracks. From the opening twinkles to the seriously bumpy bassline, this track is pure house music.
Coldcut and Hexstatic Timber
Coldcut have always had an environmental leaning (fun fact – collaborating as part of Hex, the pair assisted in the development of an Amiga game called Top Banana, which was potentially one of the most infuriating games ever, but did contain an environmental message). Anyway, Timber was different to many other productions as it was created using AVJ-ing techniques to bring together a track that is instantly recognisable nowadays, from the opening bleeps of the morse code device, to the haunting tribal vocals and the (actual) buzz-saw bassline. Another example of how Coldcut, with the aid of Hexstatic in this instance, pushed sonic boundaires.
Marie Davidson So Right (Extended Mix)
Those familiar with Marie Davidson‘s work will understand that satire plays a huge part in her productions, often ribbing the very industry she plays a part in. So Right is a commentary on the throwaway, interim-at-best, ‘euphoria’ that is prevalent in the nightclubs we inhabit. The melancholy with which the lyrics are delivered rail against the actual lyrical content; “I feel like I could die happy, die happy tonight” is certainly not reinforced by Davidson‘s sombre delivery. Irony and humour aside, the track is incredibly well produced and would go down well on any dancefloor, even if she is taking the piss out of the people on it. ‘Just stop taking yourself so seriously’ is the message here.
Dial 666 8100 Uber Spliff to Gatwick
Very little is known about who is behind the Dial 666 8100 moniker, but there is no denying that this infectious slice of electro-tinged house music is a fantastic track. Released on cassette and digital back in 2017, Uber Spliff to Gatwick is not only an example of how Ninja Tune like to tease their audience, but also an example of how they put music before nomenclature.
Letherette After Dawn
Pulling hip-hop, electro, and house together into one funky conglomerate, Letherette do the business again with their After Dawn single release back in 2013. If the track gives you that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, then you’re most probably recognising the hook from a Nokia advert that was doing the rounds at the time, which took the lead from the track and incorporated it into their commercial. Futuristic electronica at its finest.
Helena Hauff Actio Reactio
Helena Hauff‘s roots have been planted firmly in electro soil since she cut her teeth DJing at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel nightclub. This influence has had a marked impression on her productions, and Actio Reactio is a ten-minute exercise in the electro sound. Featuring pulverising percussion, the track illustrates perfectly that Hauff, like Ninja Tune in general, likes to tinker with her listeners, offering up a track here that is as discombobulating as it is mesmerising. Dropping percussive elements in an out creates a swirl of cacophony around the audience that gives this track an exhilarating quality.
That rounds up our top ten Ninja Tune tracks. What are yours? Hit us up on Facebook to tell us who you think we should’ve included in the list!