Matt Black founded the esteemed independent label Ninja Tune with his partner Jon More in 1990. Impressively, the label turns 25 this year. “I don’t think John and I — when we started out — would’ve known that we would still be here,” he tells Billboard. “We still feel young but mature,” he adds. “Like a good cheese.”
Ninja Tune was born out of exasperation: Black and More, who still work together as Coldcut, were unable to put out the music they wanted to on a major label. “We decided to stealthily slide out of that by creating some aliases,” Black remembers. “We describe Ninja as a techno-colored escape pod which we blasted off from the prison of the Babylon music system.” It turned out that many people were interested in finding an escape pod, and Ninja “quickly attracted people who enjoyed the style of music we were doing — and the freewheeling attitude.”
From the beginning the label was founded on a principle of mutual benefit. Black believes in what he calls “cooperative capitalism” — as opposed to the more popular brand, which he describes as “fuck you capitalism” (“F U capitalism,” to be more polite). When the venture began, he recalls, “we agreed that we could just split everything from Coldcut 50-50… that’s provided a really comfortable, simple cooperative strategy.” Peter Quicke joined the Ninja Tune team as label manager in 1992, and he was incorporated into the equal-split partnership.
With this foundation in place, Ninja has ranged widely across the worlds of electronic music and hip-hop — especially the instrumental variety — in its 25 years. Key early signings included Amon Tobin, The Cinematic Orchestra, and Bonobo. It’s hard to group all these artists under one umbrella, but Black believes they share a similar approach to making music. “Ninja Tune in a way is a collection of oddballs,” he notes. “I think Coldcut used a strategy of cut and paste from the scrapbook of pop culture,” and he sees this spirit in the work of the label’s various acolytes.
Though the label is London-born, the last decade has seen Ninja plant its flag on American soil by forming a partnership with Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. Ninja serves as a distributor for Flylo’s venture, and in 2013, Ninja opened its own L.A. office, headed by Jamie Collinson. Collinson started as an intern in 1999, and then later rejoined to lead Ninja’s hip-hop-focused Big Dada imprint.
The label’s increased presence in America has also, Collinson believes, been aided by shifting musical tastes. “The time I’ve been working in the U.S. has really coincided with this massive boom in electronic music,” he explains. “I remember someone telling me they brought Fatboy Slim over here in the late ‘90s, and they brought all these radio producers in front of him at the show. They said, ‘I don’t get it — it looks like he’s making sandwiches up there.’ I think that has really changed. The new stadium rock is these guys up there, often with just two turntables.”
As the sandwich-making musicians climbed to the top of pop music’s pyramid, Collinson suggests this has had a trickle-down effect. “Even just 1 percent of the kids who get into that — if they scratch a bit deeper and try to find more stuff that’s inspiring or connected, we’ll definitely benefit from that,” he notes.
In addition to potential trickle-down listeners, Ninja continues to expand restlessly into other genres of music. “Ninja has a certain thing it does and we’re very careful about it,” Collinson says. But we also want to work on some records that don’t necessarily fit on Ninja.” The Counter records imprint has seen success with rock bands like The Heavy — “they’re in the American cultural mindset with ‘How You Like Me Now,’ which is a huge result,” notes Black — and electronic acts like ODESZA, a duo with a big-tent friendly sound. ODESZA’s last album, In Return, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic albums chart. As Black puts it, “if you keep going long enough and you’re stubborn, sooner or later you’ll have some success. But you might not predict where it will come from.”
The label has several events planned to celebrate reaching its 25th year. Nov. 21, Bonobo will headline a L.A. warehouse party along with Sepalcure (Ninja tune’s Machinedrum along with Braille), Eamon Harkin (known for Mister Saturday Night, which is both a label and series of parties), and special guests. Strangeloop will provide visuals, and Ninja promises other “interactive and experiential” features as well.
Then on Dec. 11, The Bug, Earth, Liz Harris (Grouper), and William Basinski will all convene on the Masonic Lodge in Hollywood Forever Ceremony. Tickets for that are here. For European listeners, there will be a series of three London concerts — headlined by King Midas Sound & Fennesz, Actress, and a third artist that is yet to be announced — and a show in Amsterdam.
While the label celebrates the past, it always keeps on eye on the future. “We’re actively working with a lot more American artists,” says Collinson. “It’s an amazing market to work in.” Black is currently excited by an app he designed called Ninja Jamm. “I’ve taken what we’ve learned from making electronic music and DJing,” he explains, “and put into an app that anyone can use to have an instant experience with electronic music making. I can’t help thinking it’s the next instrument in the development of hip-hop.”
He’s also got grander concerns. “What we actually need to is build a whole new cooperative social music platform,” he muses. This organization would be “much free-er, more enjoyable, and fairer than the Babylon one that’s on offer at the moment.” Twenty-five years in, Black is still looking for the next escape pod.