Ninja Tune XX Box Set Review | Label Celebrates 20th Anniversary

As a teenager in 1999 I stood in the Fat Beats record store looking at the few CDs they carried, which were all behind the counter. The one that caught my attention was Dynamic Syncopation’s Dynamism. Its minimal design and green metallic sheen intrigued me so I asked the clerk to hand it over. The group was unfamiliar to me, as was the British label that released it, Ninja Tune. But the album featured rappers like Yeshua DapoED and Mass Influence, both of whom had released singles I was feeling. This was an era when I still bought music before hearing it, and the combination of names and artwork convinced me to cop the album.

But it was the instrumental tracks squeezed in between the cuts with emcees that changed my idea of what beats could be. What appealed to me about hip hop (besides the lyrics) was the ethic of sampling from as diverse an array of sources as possible because it created a constantly changing sound palette. DSP, as they would later call themselves, took this ethic to its logical next step, writing full melodies and rich beats with dozens of sampled instruments and sounds, not to mention the occasional live melody.

[Dynamic Syncopation -- "Swings & Roundabouts". The final track from '99s Dynamism]

Much of Ninja Tune’s output throughout the ’90s contained a similar theme. This instrumental take on the New York style of crate digging production featuring jazzy instrumentation with a laid back mood – all packaged with an eye towards visual aesthetics – formed the foundation of the label’s roots and brought it to the world’s attention. But they haven’t rested on those successes that made them famous. They continue to release forward thinking music relevant to their old listeners as well as newer ones, a fact articulated by their 20 year anniversary compilation, Ninja Tune XX, which dropped earlier this month.

The label was started by the two members of Coldcut, who had come to fame with their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” in ’87, and they had grown tired of life with major labels. So the duo started Ninja Tune three years later, originally releasing their own work under aliases like DJ Food and Bogus Order, most of which was jazzy breakbeats.

[Eric B & Rakim -- "Paid In Full (Coldcut Remix)". The song that brought Ninja Tune's founders to fame in '87.]

By the mid-’90s, they had added artists like Amon Tobin, Funki Porcini, and The Herbaliser to their roster, acts that expanded and built on that theme, helping bring it to new levels and international audiences.

While the global influence of hip hop had originally fueled the majority of the label’s creative outlook in its first decade, newer sounds started brewing in their own backyard. By the late noughties, styles like grime and dubstep had begun to change the world. Ninja Tune has brought into its fold these genres and their next steps while continuing to advance instrumental hip hop and its newer incarnations.

[This new video is an example of Ninja Tune's continuing and evolving incorporation of the visual side of things.]

Although they are embracing these current and influential styles, they choose artists who put a unique, often hard to categorize, stamp on things. The Bug has explored a darker, weightier version of dancehall while Poirier has run off towards the frenetic sounds of electrified soca. Eskmo pounds out huge, crunchy beats while Bonobo‘s releases flesh out a more atmospheric side of downbeat.

Recently, a lot of their music has shifted away from the organic sounds of sample collages and instead embraced a synth and bits oriented approach.

[Eskmo, "Cloudlight" from the recently released self-titled debut album by Eskmo]

This area, mostly connected by threads within UK bass, takes up a large portion of the XX release, which focuses on new material. There’s the giant, bashy track meant for the dancehall by Toddla T with Ms. Dynamite. Here, big, whompy bass stabs bounce about while drums roll around rapidly and the Misses get hype on the mic. Or Mark Pritchard‘s juke take on “Get Crazy” by Poirier, which is indeed quite crazy. It resembles a DVD stuck on fast forward, with a long series interlocking patterns and glitched up vocals over rapid fire drum machine beats. Often times, this more prevalent electronic sonic realm consists of bare boned synths, as with Offshore’s “Jen At The Station”.

[A new generation of Ninjas: Toddla T feat Ms. Dynamite -- "Want U Now"]

But some orchestral beats are still present, albeit with arrangements containing a proliferation of guitars and drum kits. In fact, nearly every song on CD3 of the digipack has a guitar in it. One of these more instrument-oriented tracks is “Wonder When” by Bonobo, featuring the engaging voice of Andreya Triana. It uses an undeniably catchy beat that calls to mind something like a dance in an Irish pub with its distant claps and wood floor stomps.

They’ve also invited the West Coast beat scene’s take on things and XX features a number of contributions by these guys. For example, Triana gets the Flying Lotus treatment, with psychedelic harps dripping all over a jazzy bass loop and some boom bap flavor.

A little over a year ago, I decided to check Fat Beats out of curiosity to see if they were carrying stuff like FlyLo, since it was a new incarnation of underground hip hop of sorts. I was told they didn’t. Earlier this year, the store closed its doors for good, as did Def Jux (kinda), the record label most commonly associated with what the store carried in later years. But Ninja Tune is still going strong. Of course, regional factors may be a factor in the disparity. But it is very possible that there’s a lesson there – one emphasizing that evolution is necessary for survival. - MS

Ninja Tune will be throwing a party here in New York in support of the release this Thursday, Oct. 28th at Santos Party House.

  • Poirier (Ninja Tune) w/ Dubspot: Talks Production, Remixing, DJing + | Dubspot Blog
  • 10/26/2010

[...] with; the remixes he commissioned that made up the entire second CD of his last LP, Running High on Ninja Tune; and the shows he’s played across the world like Cape Town, Mexico, and London. Beyond that, [...]