Ninja Tune turns 25 this year. I’ve been intimately acquainted with it for 16 of those years, and this is how and why.
At the end of Summer ’99 I returned to college in London early. I spent a few strange days in my new room in the empty student halls in Bloomsbury, waiting for the interview that would end up deciding what I did with a large chunk of my life. I bought Ian McEwan’s ‘The Innocent’ from the then-local bookshop that remains my favourite, and listened to records as I read it.
The novel’s terrifyingly sad ending coincided with that of side one of Ninja Tune’s Cold Krush Cuts compilation, and Funki Porcini’s ‘Going Down.’ That song – like a beautiful drowning – seemed to match the tragic finality of the novel perfectly. I put the book down and felt tears in my eyes.
A few days later, I left the sleepy, academic red bricks of Bloomsbury and made the short walk to King’s Cross – a different, grimmer place back then – and took the Tube to London Bridge. I was too early for the interview; I was and am habitually early. A small café on Borough High Street caught my eye, and I sat down and ordered a coffee, feeling anxious.
After a few moments, a tall girl with very long red hair walked in, looking like my idea of an American hippie. She caught my eye and gave me a big smile, and I returned the gesture before looking away nervously. A few moments later she asked if she could sit with me, and then what I was doing.
‘Waiting for an interview at Ninja Tune,’ I told her. ‘For work experience.’ (That’s what we Brits called internships, back then at least.)
It turned out she was an American hippie – or at least, her idea of one, too. She was travelling around Europe before starting college. We swapped details, we arranged to meet that night, and she wished me luck as I set off.
Could you compromise yourself if they simply bought your uncompromising music?
Leaving plenty of time to be too early again, I plunged into the warren of streets beside Borough Market, making frequent, panicky stops to check my A-Z – a pocket-sized book that covered the entire city in tiny, beautiful maps. If the streets looked familiar, Ninja Tune boss Peter Quicke would tell me one day, much later, it was because they’d recently appeared in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Finally, I found myself on Clink Street, one narrow row of buildings back from the River Thames. There was an historic prison, a few grimy doorways, and a down at heel sandwich shop. Beside one of the doorways was a small sticker that said Ninja.
I buzzed the buzzer, a distorted voice said something I couldn’t understand, and something went CLACK inside the door. I pushed it open, heart in mouth, and found myself at the bottom of a staircase.
A few minutes later, in a small, sticker covered room at the top of many, many stairs, I was greeted by another redhead – the hair this time braided, and belonging to the diminutive Wendy. An American, sometime civil rights activist and loveable eccentric, Wendy was Coldcut’s PA. She told me another kid was supposed to be there for an interview too, and asked if I’d mind waiting. She rolled a spliff slowly and drawled: ‘This is my cocktail.’
The other kid turned up twenty minutes late. He had an Acid Jazz record bag, a supercilious attitude and elongated sideburns. He made it fairly clear he would rather be where his bag came from. I won the day.
The label was 9 years old. I had spent that Summer lurking on Ninjatune.net, reading the sloganeering of Mr. Sho’nuff – at that time a sort of minister of propaganda for the label. I soaked up the imprint’s reluctance to be pinned down, its impish irreverence, the postmodern glee it took in playing about in the rubble of dance’s sub-genres. It was American hip-hop through the lens of British electronica. It was clever, but it was also lots of fun. It was subversive and political, but never po-faced. It couldn’t take itself as seriously as some its rivals did, and that was largely a good thing.
I had fallen out of love with guitar music and failed to find sanctuary in dance. I had started to listen to hip-hop, and was writing college essays on bebop. I had written letters to Ninja Tune and to Mo’Wax. The latter sent me a chilly reply on Polydor letterhead telling me they didn’t do work experience. Ninja Tune sent me an email and told me to come on in.
I remember the sharp thrill of that mail in my inbox. The bolded, pregnant text of the subject line. Re: Work experience. Would the formality of my letter, another lifelong habit, have put them off? Thankfully, it hadn’t.
’99 was a glory year. J Swinscoe had finished Motion, soon-to-be-sold stacks of which lay around the office in the quiet before the storm that Cinematic Orchestra would cause. At that stage he still worked in the Ninja office. I remember his jeans, the sharp white lines in the pocket that his cigarette packet had made. J was thick as thieves with Dom Smith, who would go on to become J’s musical partner, manage Flying Lotus and Thundercat and pioneer Ninja Tune’s relationship with the great city of Los Angeles. The two of them would smoke cigarettes on the landing outside, deep in conversation.
Inside the office, quiet, clever Peter seemed to work every hour on making Ninja thrive. Coldcut’s studio remained largely a smoky mystery, and Big Dada’s cerebral, fiery Will Ashon defended hip-hop against accusations of shoutiness. Debates raged about Amon Tobin doing a synch with Coca-Cola. Could you compromise yourself if they simply bought your uncompromising music?
Amon Tobin released Supermodified, and effectively took sampling’s potential as far as it could go, building astonishing, intricate melodies from tiny fragments of music. Big Dada released Roots Manuva’s Brand New Second Hand, an all time high for black, British music.
Outside the office window, beyond the Macs and the fax machine and the printed out and pinned up news of the birth of Peter’s first son – replete with Ninja Tune battle cry Yes Mate! – beyond the stacks of records and the telephones and record bags and people, the grey-brown water of the Thames swirled past. A year later we moved out of that office. The yuppies were coming south, and river views became unrealistic in independent music.
Nowadays, if I squint a bit, I can just see the Hollywood sign from Ninja’s American home in Los Angeles. Not that I want to be any closer to it than where we are in Echo Park. Peter still pilots the ship from London, alongside the label’s original designers, Coldcut. Their new album is being put together, alongside Dom Smith. J Swinscoe is making a new record, as is Amon Tobin. Roots Manuva’s is already out.
Heavyweights like Bonobo have endowed electronic music with a capaciousness unimaginable when Ninja Tune was founded.
In the offices, there are a lot more people. A few others faded out over the years – daytime ‘cocktails’ and doing the best job for your artists don’t make for good bedfellows.
But otherwise, Ninja Tune remains largely the same. And that’s a very good thing.