Ninja Tune is an indie record label launched in September 1990 by Coldcut pair Matt Black and Jonathon More, initially as a reaction to their poor treatment by Arista. More and Black were top producers. They had made piles of cash for various major labels with their production of Lisa Stansfield, Yazz, and their seminal remixing of Eric B. and Rakim. They were getting no love in return.
3 years earlier the pair had released a white label entitled "Say Kids, What Time is It?", the first single entirely composed of sampled beats and pieces. For legal reasons, the big labels wouldn't go near it even though More and Black saw bricolage as the way of the future.
So they went it alone.
But why the ninjas?
Although more pronounced in their earlier years, Coldcut loved the idea of stealth, not to mention the pop cultural obsession with black-clad ninjitsu warriors. The label's logo is a heavily stylised ninja throwing vinyl.
Yet behind the ironic Orientalist philosophical posturings, Ninja Tune has always been about pushing quality music of divergent genres and the creative dynamism of More and Black. The label's early releases were almost entirely More/Black affairs, ranging from four on the floor deep house to breakbeat to ambient soundscapes. It was however, their DJ Food project that brought their label to the fore.
The instrumental hip hop showcased by DJ Food in the albums Jazz Brakes: Volumes 1 through 6, set the tone for a wave of imitators and the label itself. Despite fostering diverse sounds through the early- to mid-1990s, Ninja Tune seemed to attract smoky, blunted hip hop grooves. The Herbaliser, 9 Lazy 9, Funki Porcini, London Funk Allstars, DJ Vadim, and Up, Bustle & Out all signed on, united by their love of found sound and the sampling crusty jazz records. The label's first two compilation albums "Ninja Cuts:Funkjazztical Tricknology" and "Ninja Cuts:Flexistentialism" amply reflect this movement. Whilst much hip hop of the era had descended into gangstaism, Ninja Tune was plumbing it's depths, searching for both lost and unseen roots; and new directions.
Recently, Ninja Tune has been taking hip hop to the places it always should have been with the modern jazz of the Cinematic Orchestra, old skool turntablism with Kid Koala, and the outright mad breaks of Amon Tobin. Artists like Mr. Scruff continue to reinvigorate Coldcut's earlier moments of perversity and silliness.
A straight-up hip hop sister label Big Dada was established in 1997, and has already released seminal albums by Roots Manuva. At the more experimental coal face, Ninja Tune begat Ntone with artists Neotropic, Cabbage Boy, and video pastiche masters Hexstatic. Ninja Tune sublabel DJ Toolz sells...um...DJ tools - mostly records filled with tasty breaks and grooves for DJ mixing.
More and Black are still heavily involved, although now tend to focus on multimedia production with their VJamm software.