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Label Focus: Ninja Tune

Ninja Tune’s been at the heart of independent British electronic music for 25 years

  • Sean Griffiths
  • 8 January 2016

Since launching in 1990, Ninja Tune has become one of British music's most important independent record labels. Founded by Coldcut duo Jonathan More and Matt Black, the label gave them a freedom that major label control couldn't provide and initially focused on putting out their own 12" releases. Then in 1994 – after gaining success with the 'Jazz Brakes' LPs put out through their DJ Food alias – the pair, along with label manager Peter Quicke, split the label in two. Ninja Tune continued to focus on jazz, funk and hip hop while new offshoot Ntone focused on "techno, ambient and everything else".

"We were trying to chart a course around these genres but not go completely into them," explains Quicke of the labels' refusal to be pigeonholed. Since then it's become one of music's most eclectic outposts and a home for The Cinematic Orchestra, Bonobo, Roots Manuva and Machinedrum.It's also a beacon for like-minded independent labels, bringing Big Dada, Werkdiscs and Brainfeeder under their distribution umbrella.

Label manager: Peter Quicke

What was the initial set up for Ninja Tune like?

Coldcut got me in two years after Ninja Tune started to run the label. We had three rooms in London's Livington Studios. One full of records and a set of turntables where Coldcut would practice DJing; one was a studio with a mixing desk, and the other had two desks and a tiny little Apple computer. Coldcut had left Arista because they felt the label wasn't interested in the music they were making so the point of Ninja Tune was to allow them more freedom.

When did people start to take notice of Ninja Tune?

There were always some hardcore fans of the 'Jazz Brakes' albums but 1994, when we split the label, was when we really started to sign people in earnest. Before that it had all been one off 12"s. We signed The Herbaliser, Funky Porcini and London Funk Allstars, and when we did the launch party for DJ Food's 'Recipe For Disaster' album at The Blue Note it went bonkers.

What do all releases on Ninja Tune have in common?

It's probably something quite abstract like character or personality. I guess it's a way of interpreting jazz, hip hop and funk. A lot of what we did became known as trip hop before it went really bland with nasty stuff like Morcheeba. And turntablism was the other thing we did, but we didn't want to do straight down the line turntablism as that becomes boring to listen to.

What's been your proudest moment with the label?

I guess it's probably those anniversary events where you just think 'fuck, we actually made it all this way.' It's nice to still be putting out relevant records. Around 2008 we may have felt our best years were behind us but around the 20th anniversary we sharpened up and got people like Zomby and Dorian Concept. This year we've had great albums by Romare, Seven Davis Jr and King Midas Sound.

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