Ninja Tune turns 20

The pioneering label marks its anniversary with compilations and a live date.

<p>Ninja Tune's Kid Koala</p>

Ninja Tune's Kid Koala

Photograph: SekondHandProject

DJ Vadim, the Herbaliser, Mr. Scruff, the Cinematic Orchestra—all of these beloved artists (and scores more) have called Ninja Tune their home at one point or another, but the heart of the label is the U.K.'s Matt Black and Jonathan More, together known as Coldcut. Already hailed as brilliant DJs and producers in their own right—their "Seven Minutes of Madness" version of Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full," released in 1987, is still considered one of the best remixes of all time—Black and More started the label in 1990 as an outlet for their own left-field cuts and those of DJ Food, a quartet originally composed of Black, More, PC and Strictly Kev. But by also releasing material from such eccentric producers as Hex, 9 Lazy 9 and Funki Porcini, Ninja Tune soon mushroomed into one of the world's leading repositories for all things eccentric and funky. The label is marking two decades of breakbeat bewitchment with a batch of celebratory releases—a pair of double-disc CDs loaded with new tracks and remixes, as well as a heavy-duty box set—and a birthday shindig at Santos Party House on Thursday 28 featuring sets from Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, K, Toddla T, Eskmo and others. Black and More won't be at Santos, sadly, but More was still ready to chat when we called him at his London home.

We'll get to the meat of the matter in a moment, but first, can you shed light on the rumors that Eric B. & Rakim were none too pleased with your remix of "Paid in Full"?
You know, everyone says that, but I'm not even sure it's true. We did our remix in, like, 36 hours—boom, done. It blew up, and the record company said, "Can you do a shorter, seven-inch version of that?" and we were like, "Nope, sorry, we're not gonna do that." So, of course, they just got someone to hack our version for the seven-inch.

At that point, Eric B. & Rakim were flown over here to do Top of the Pops. They had to mime—a bit of an indignation for a rapper and DJ anyway—to this appalling seven-inch edit of our meisterwerk. And the show is kind of a fucked-up experience anyway, with girls dancing around their handbags as you perform and whatever, so I believe that whatever Eric B. said at the time was more about all that than our mix. Rakim later said that "Seven Minutes of Madness" was cool, that it broke them throughout the world. But I do sincerely apologize to Eric B. & Rakim for the seven-inch mix and Top of the Pops.

Let's hope they read this. What was the original inspiration for Ninja Tune?
A number of things, one of which was touring in Japan, doing, like, 13 dates in 12 days; we kept saying how we felt like ninjas. Also, around that time I watched some black-and-white ninja program with the sound turned down. Without the noise—the smoke and mirrors—to distract me, I was noticing all of the program's cracks and the faults, all those things going on behind the curtain, so to speak. And I realized that's kind of what we were—ninjas, going from town to town, entertaining people with our own tricks, our own smoke and mirrors. I don't know—it made sense at the time.

Ninja Tune's sound was based in jazzy breakbeats, but some think of it as a trip-hop label.
Well, I think that we inadvertently laid the groundwork for trip-hop, before it became a rather dirty word. Trip-hop led to all kinds of nightmarish things. But the only way we've survived for 20 years is that we're not grounded in any one sound. People who have an individuality and character that shines above whatever the style of the time is—we always wanted to give those artists the opportunity to break out.

What's striking about Ninja Tune is how it's stayed true to its own kind of breakbeat-oriented ethos while always sounding current.
The spirit remains the same. The bones and the body get a bit more shaky, but the spirit always remains the same.

Ninja Tune 20th-Anniversary Party is at Santos Party House Thu 28; Ninja Tune XX Vol. 1: Two Decades and a Mixer, Ninja Tune XX Vol. 2: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces are out now.

Ninja Tune turns 20 by TimeOutNewYork