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Matt Black still remembers the 1990 incident that inspired him to found the electronic dance label Ninja Tune. He and Jonathan More — English DJs known together as Coldcut — were meeting with representatives from their label, Arista. The point of discussion was "Autumn Leaves," their upcoming single. Arista reps thought that it was too slow, and wanted Coldcut to kick up the song's pace and give it a house music beat. Unsurprisingly, the musicians vehemently disagreed. In the scope of artist/label drama, the situation seems humdrum, but it convinced More and Black that they needed to escape "major-label bullshit." With minimal prodding, Black elaborates: "'Major-label bullshit' would entail characteristics such as telling your artists what clothes to wear, telling your artists to turn the snare drum and the vocal up so it'll be big on the radio, not paying your artists, and trying to treat creativity like a commodity so that it becomes more like a sausage machine cranking out little tubes of macerated meat rather than anything with any semblance of love or true character."
Coldcut's antidote for said bullshit was Ninja Tune, an indie label that turns 20 this year. Its name comes from a time the DJs visited Japan and were doubly inspired by a TV show about ninjas and a magazine article called "How to Be Ninja." Early releases came from artists like DJ Food, Bogus Order, and Euphoreal — which were just Black and More under different names. "That was part of the Ninja strategy: You can do things with different disguises," Black says. "It was only after a while that other people started approaching us to put out their music as well."
The label has since evolved into a much heftier endeavor, as evidenced by the breadth of artists populating the Ninja Tune XX box set. The lavish collection commemorates the anniversary with originals and remixes from Amon Tobin, King Geedorah, Mr. Scruff, Kid Koala, Diplo, Hot Chip, and others. Ninja Tune's dreamy beats and sample-sewn collages skirt the edges of electronica, dance, dubstep, ambient, and experimental, but for years, the label has been stylistically tethered to trip-hop. Black appreciates the success that this connection has yielded, yet he has struggled to get away from it by pointedly making his sounds more difficult to categorize. He likens the label's sense of variety to a rainforest that needs to be preserved. "When an environment loses its genetic diversity, it's weakened and eventually dies because there isn't enough potential variation around to survive changes," he says. "If a big change happens, everything gets wiped out at the same time. Our gene pool has been diverse enough to avoid that happening to us." In keeping with this view, Black calls the box set "a futurespective, not a retrospective."
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Complementing the new release are scattered Ninja Tune birthday bashes in New York, Istanbul, LA, Bristol, London, Paris, Berlin – and San Francisco. The bills are usually stacked affairs; the S.F. show at 103 Harriet is advertising 17 artists. One of those names that represents the "futurespective" side is Eskmo, the Potrero Hill–based producer and composer who signed to the label this spring.
Legally known as Brendan Angelides, Eskmo's self-identified "fusion music" mixes clipped synthetics with field recordings captured from everyday life. His recent self-titled album on Ninja Tune incorporates the sounds of cracking branches, banged pots and pans, and "stuff from the city" into dizzying computer-made experiments.
Angelides was unfamiliar with Ninja Tune when he started DJing as Eskmo in 2000, but he soon became enamored of Amon Tobin, which led him to other Ninja Tune artists like Funki Porcini and Daedelus. Even he has trouble dissecting the bigger picture of the label's sonic branding. "When I think of Ninja Tune, I always seem to think of organic and electronic, but not everything sounds organic and not everything is overly electronic," he says. "Jazzy could be a word, but only some stuff is jazzy."
Genetic diversity aside, there other ways to assess Ninja Tune's success and stability: it has 15 full-time employees; offices in London, L.A., and Montreal; and sub-labels like the hip-hop-centric Big Dada. Black says that Ninja Tune is "doing as well as we've ever done," somehow resisting the record industry's downward spiral. For him, the label's highest high has come with recent indulgences like the box set and the worldwide parties. "I can honestly say that the last few weeks have been the peak in a way," he says. "We've grown up, we've survived, we can look around and say, 'Yeah, we did it and it's fucking good.'"