Matt Black and Jonathan More have been making sample-heavy music as Coldcut for three decades; Ninja Tune, the esteemed independent label they founded, celebrated its 25th birthday last year. But More doesn’t take this longevity too seriously. They achieved it, he says, “by staying stupid.” “The joy of ignorance is still quite useful sometime,” he tells Billboard over Skype from the Ninja Tune office in London, where he’s surrounded by shelves of vinyl.
Last Friday, Coldcut released Only Heaven, their first new music since 2006. Not that the two producers spent the intervening decade on vacation — as More puts it, “we’ve done a whole heap of shit in the meantime.” They’ve been futzing with this project on and off for years, in addition to creating some new, still unreleased music with legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood, venturing into the tech world behind the free production app Ninja Jamm (“we wanted to make the ultimate electronic instrument and then give it away,” Black says), and even developing a board game in which the goal is to put a banker in jail.
According to More, the duo’s plan for Only Heaven was to make something uptempo, a potential party-starter. They’ve done this successfully in the past: their biggest hits — their massive remix of Eric B. & Rakim‘s “Paid In Full,” “People Hold On” with Lisa Stansfield, and “Doctorin’ The House” with Yazz — all commanded movement. “Only Heaven initially started as maybe we should make a club record, because the album before it wasn’t that clubby,” he says. “But that sort of fell by the wayside. In some respects, what is a club, and what is a club record these days? It’s difficult to say.”
Black suggests initial intentions can be counterproductive, anyway. “I don’t think it’s healthy for an artist to have too much of a plan or an agenda,” he explains. “Otherwise you’re just making product. It’s good to leave oneself open to accident, randomness, stay fluid. Magic can come from the direction that your really don’t expect.”
To that end, when Coldcut really wanted to push Only Heaven forward, they booked a studio in Malibu for a helter-skelter, throw-everything-at-the-wall creative session with multiple collaborators, including the singer Roses Gabor, the rapper Roots Manuva, and the bassist Thundercat. (The producer Dave Taylor — also known as Switch, who co-founded Major Lazer with Diplo — also contributed to the EP.) “It’s important, I think, to put a bunch of people together in a space, in a studio that’s comfortable and everybody’s happy with, and just go for it — make as much noise as you can possibly make,” More says. “Sorting it out afterwards, that’s the problem.”
A necessary problem, in Black’s view. “In creativity there tends to be the manic phase, where you’re really high and like, ‘yeah this is fucking great, we’ve really cracked it,'” he declares. “Then there’s the morning after. The more depressive phase has to take over: that bit’s rubbish, this bit’s far too long. That’s the editor phase. It’s not so much fun as being manic, but you can’t really have the manic one driving all the time. They don’t have the best judgement.”
Coldcut appear to have exercised rigid self-scrutiny during this period. “We’ve got a lot of material that we’ve recorded,” More says, but the EP contains only five tracks. “You’re never quite sure: is an album still relevant?” he continues. “Do we just put out a bunch of tracks?”
The songs on Only Heaven are often unhurried hip-hop: Roots Manuva raps on three of the five selections. The title track and “Quality Control” nod to the restrained English trip-hop wave of the ’90s, but update it with the skittish hi-hats that characterize modern rap production. “Creative,” on the other hand, might be left over from Coldcut’s initial intention of making a club record: driving beat, rubbery house bassline, gleaming, chiming melody. Though the meaning of a club for More may be in flux, this will still make you dance.
After keeping a low profile for the last decade, Coldcut is ready to open the floodgates. “”In 2017, I think you’ll see a lot more material from Coldcut in different guises, different collaborations, different aliases,” Black says. “We’re getting more productive, rather than less productive.” And they’re letting the manic side take the upper hand: “We’re getting less precious about what we’re releasing, and enjoying more that old feeling of experimentation and getting stuff out there and seeing what happens.”