Ninja Warriors: The Ninja Tune story
Ninja Tune is an iconic London-born indie label, launched in 1990 by the DJ duo Jonathan More and Matt Black, aka Coldcut. Murray Stassen discovers how the pair went from selling white-label records out of the back of a van to founding what would become one of the world’s most respected labels…
The left side of Ninja Tune co-founder Jonathan More’s office-cum-studio is lined with shelves, stacked with hundreds, if not thousands, of records. The other three walls are covered in various pieces of art and memorabilia from a career in music spanning 30 years. Under the record shelves to the left of the room is a stand, with two turntables – mission control. His desk occupies the space at the back of the room under the window, where he’s sat when Long Live Vinyl walks in.
“I loved records from a pretty young age,” More tells us, after we’ve taken a seat in the armchair to the right of the door, in awe of his extensive music collection. “My dad went to Russia and he came back with a 7″ record of Yuri Gagarin in space, which I still have. I was about 11. So I collected records from that point onwards, really. I used to save up my money. I lived in this village called Thame and by the time I was 15 or 16, I used to go to Oxford. There were some great record shops there. I used to buy records and go to see gigs.”
Ninja Tune’s South London headquarters are an unmarked, unassuming building on a quiet road not far from Elephant And Castle. Step through the nondescript doors, however, and you’re transported into the engine room of the company’s global operations.
Ninja Tune and its imprints, such as hip-hop label Big Dada (founded by journalist Will Ashon in 1997), “pop and rock” label Counter and Flying Lotus-run experimental label Brainfeeder have released music by Roots Manuva, Kate Tempest, Bonobo, Wiley, Diplo, Young Fathers, Run The Jewels and Thundercat, among others.
More is, of course, one of the British label’s co-founders, as well as one half of the legendary electronic production duo Coldcut, who celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2017. Ninja Tune’s other half is More’s business partner Matt Black – the pair met through a love of rare-groove records and hip-hop over 30 years ago and, together with MD Peter Quicke, who last year celebrated his 25th year at the label, have carved out one of the all-time indie-label success stories.
“I went to art college and got into DJing at the college parties,” explains More, recalling his progression from record collector to superstar DJ and label boss. “Fairly quickly, people started to ask me to DJ at their parties, and soon I was DJing more parties than I was doing work at college. I thought: ‘Hang on a minute, I need to start charging some money.’ I did, and people kept asking me.”
More says that when he wasn’t working as a part-time art teacher, he was working two days a week at London’s Reckless Records.
“I was generally just trying to survive on my wits,” he says. “I was running clubs, too. I hosted the Meltdown show [on Kiss FM] and was DJing all over the place. I ran a club in New Cross called The Flim Flam club with two other guys, which got really popular. “I wanted to make records for a long time,
but hadn’t found anybody who was willing to come to work with me. I’d actually been in a band, sort of, with mates of mine from my college. We did put one track out on a Cherry Red compilation.”
Enter the other half of Coldcut, Matt Black, a computer programmer and hip-hop fan who was born in London, but grew up in the English countryside. “I went to university at Oxford and hung about with a bunch of other guys getting high and getting into music,” he tells us. “We all moved up to London and were still living together and were really into music and getting into hip-hop. This was the early 80s, and there were great records around, like Planet Rock (by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force) and The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel, which was something that really inspired us.”
London in the mid 80s “was a unique time,” says Black. “There were a lot of second-generation families, immigrant families, whether they were Jamaican or African, or from all over the world. London was a mash-up of a lot of different youths from different cultures. But we all liked music, getting high and getting to know each other. There were some really cool parties.
“The mainstream didn’t really cater for that. Jon was thrown off the decks in a West End club for playing a Fela Kuti record: they didn’t sell many cocktails that way. So we started doing our own thing in rejection of the narrow-mindedness of the establishment.
“We started to try to make mixtapes and realised that to do it properly, you needed some Technics turntables and a proper crossfade mixer. I was the one out of the posse that kind of took it to a more serious level, but it was very much a crew thing.”
More recalls that Black went into the Berwick Street record shop where he was working one day “looking for some breakbeats and hip-hop sources”, as well as a bootlegged copy of Cross The Track (We Better Go Back), a James Brown production performed by Maceo And The Macks. “At the time, I think it was only me and Norman Jay and some other DJs that had it,” remembers More. “And mysteriously, it was bootlegged and came out on a 12″. It’s past history now, but we used to sell them under the counter.”
“They weren’t out on the shelves, but there was a range of ‘specialist material’ available,” he continues. “I sold Matt a copy of this tune and we got chatting and he said he was making a mix, and I was like: ‘Cool, let’s listen to it’.” The next day, Black went back to More with “pretty much the bones” of what would become Coldcut’s first record, which More proceeded to play in the shop.
“In those days, the shops, Groove Records and all the other ones, were like the chatrooms of the day,” says More. “They were the place where people went, so it was a good way of testing records out. I saw some ears prick up in the shop. I was really impressed. So I said: ‘Let’s do something’.”
Black and More put the finishing touches to that first record, Say Kids What Time Is It?. It was made entirely of samples, using pieces of music from sources as diverse as The Jungle Book and James Brown’s Funky Drummer, with the intro and name borrowed from the theme song of Howdy Doody, a US kids’ show. They pressed the record and put it out as a white label, pretending it was somebody called DJ Coldcut and that it wasn’t them. “I said that I got them in America and wouldn’t give them to anybody,” laughs More. “We sold them for 15 quid a pop. So in 1987, that was quite a lot of money, but we sold 500 out the back of a van. The only person I gave one to was Jay Strongman, who was DJing at the Mud Club at that point. When we made records, we would take them down to Jay and he would play them in the club and we could see what would happen.”
Say Kids… was released as a white label, “basically because it was so illegal”, due to its unlicensed samples, explains More. Black and More then set up a label called Ahead Of Our Time, to release another sample-based record called Beats + Pieces, officially as a DJ duo under the name of Coldcut this time. “Beats + Pieces was kind of illegal as well, but we chopped up the shit a lot more,” he continues. Ahead Of Our Time was not only a “statement of intent,” says More, but also a “nice long name” for a record label.
“We could see if we were in any of the charts, because it’s a lot longer than lots of others. It was sort of a joke, but it was also like marking our territory. Then we were asked to do the [7 Minutes Of Madness] remix of Paid In Full by Eric B. & Rakim and everything went mad from that point,” remembers More. The duo started working with legendary artist manager, (the late) Jazz Summers’ label Big Life Records and got signed to Tommy Boy in America. “We made Doctorin’ The House and we were on Top Of The Pops,” More adds.
TOUR, LIKE SUSHI
The pair eventually became disillusioned with the experience of working with bigger music companies and found there were certain established industry practices that they didn’t agree with. By 1990, keen to regain their creative control, they came up with the idea for Ninja Tune while on tour in Japan. “It’s a typical record industry thing. While we were making hits they were more than happy to have faith,” explains More. “But when we started getting a bit weird, they didn’t really understand. It’s the normal course, really.
“It came time to make a record and on the second record, we just spent a lot of time arguing with them. We didn’t get them, you know? We didn’t like the way they did business. We audited them and found out they owed us a shitload of money.”
In 1990, Coldcut were in Japan on tour with Beats International – (Norman Cook, later as known Fatboy Slim, and Lindy Layton) and did a 15-gig tour of what were “effectively superstores”. “It was great to get out of the country and get away from the record company and eat a lot of fish,” says More. “We watched crazy Japanese TV in the middle of the night when we couldn’t sleep from the jetlag and invented shit. So it sort of reinvigorated us. We came up with our whole idea for Ninja Tune.”
When they got back to London, they made Ninja Tune’s first release, Zen Brakes Vol. 1, released in 1990 under the name of Bogus Order, because they were still under contract as Coldcut. It wasn’t until 1997 that an actual Coldcut record (Let Us Play!) would be released via Ninja Tune, and it featured guest appearances by Grandmaster Flash, Jello Biafra and others. Black explains that the experience they had with the music business with the likes of Big Life made him feel as if they “were a product of a big hamburger machine”.
“To get out of that, we had to return to being a cottage industry, which we ran ourselves,” he says. “Having been rather ripped off by the company we were contracted to, we thought, ‘this is not fair’. There must be a better way to make it work.”
Jon More and Matt Black’s experience in the music business as artists first has informed the way they’ve run Ninja Tune as an anti-corporate, artist-friendly music company, with as much of a focus on a strong visual and social identity as great music. “We do a 50/50 deal on the record company, which is considered to be a sort of standard indie deal,” says More. “It’s a comprehensibly sensible thing to do. Once you’ve sold a certain amount and once you recoup the money you spent on making the product, then everything after that is gravy. If you can start hitting a sweet spot then you earn phenomenally more than what you would earn on a major label.”
Black concludes that, in spite of their highly successful career over the last 30 years, he’s still not very interested in money and suggests that it is just “an energy that [allows you] to do more art”.
“I think that many artists are probably like that, which is why many artists struggle to make a living and a business out of it,” he says. “But, we were also Thatcher’s children. As much as we hated her, perhaps there was a thread to that culture that made legible the idea that it’s okay to have a good business, but don’t run it like a Nazi. Run it like a hippie, but a successful hippie.”