Q&A: Ninja Tune Co-Founder Matt Black Celebrates 20 Years Of Music Industry Survival

Ninja Tune: Matt Black is the dude on the right. Photo by Steve Double.
Ninja Tune: Matt Black is the dude on the right. Photo by Steve Double.

At The Lock Tavern, a North London pub, Matt Black is finishing a beer and taking a respite from the recent frenzy of activity around Ninja Tune, the influential UK label he co-founded 20 years ago with Jonathan More. He's entitled. As Coldcut, Black and More revolutionized dance music in the 1980s and '90s, taking sampling to unprecedented places and chopping up everything from hip-hop to spoken word to jungle--an aural amalgam that would later be copied by countless DJs. But the duo's contribution to music goes deeper than "Seven Minutes of Madness." After a clusterfuck of a deal with Arista (more on that later), the pair formed Ninja Tune in 1990 and became the de facto leaders in the bourgeoning instrumental hip-hop scene. Since then, the label has embraced myriad genres including nu-jazz, jungle, and grime, and has stayed staunchly independent, and financially solvent, for 20 years.

The Ninjas, a term Black still affectionately calls his staff, have been celebrating this milestone with the recently released Ninja Tune XX, a sprawling six-CD, 96-song box set of remixed classics and new music from label stalwarts (Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, Cinematic Orchestra) and friends of the family (Autechre, Diplo, El-P). In addition to Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces, a new book documenting the label's history, the label has been throwing a series of triumphant birthday parties around the world (including one in New York at Santos Party House tonight). In the midst of all this, Black spoke to us about the evils of corporations, predicting the future, and what he thinks of the phrase "trip-hop."

Looking back at your initial deal with Arista, was that something that deteriorated over time or was it an ill-suited pairing from the beginning?

I think it's fair to say it wasn't a natural fit. The music business tends to be a horrible little ecosystem where small fish get eaten by big fish and they get eaten by even bigger fish and that's kind of what happened with us. I think there were some people at Arista that were not total morons and were human beings as well. But the corporate machine is a very uncomfortable place to operate in and everyone's guarding their ass. Did you see Get Him to the Greek?

Yeah.

There's that scene inside the record company that I would say is quite accurate. Our manager was in a meeting where the Managing Director of Arista in the UK says, "Who's passionate about the Coldcut album?" No one says anything. One junior guy, Terry Donovan, who just joined the company a few weeks before, says we're a great talent and should be supported and they should have some faith in us. So he gets ignored. We get dropped. And he goes off and starts Rockstar Games.

Do you think it was more the people at the label at the time or did Coldcut just not fit into the major label structure?

Human beings have emotions, intelligence and empathy, but the brutality of the structure of the machine takes away what's good about them as humans and leaves them not able to function as fully empathetic, effective human beings. So it's the structure that killed it. The people themselves, a lot of them are all right. I think a lot of problems in the world come from the fact that corporations have become these kinds of über-organisms that don't have a conscience and don't have empathy.

After you started Ninja Tune and the label began to grow, did you get buyout offers from majors down the line?

It hasn't happened for a while because I think we made it pretty clear that we weren't for sale. We've set ourselves up as the resistance and I think the majors recognize that and leave us alone. I think the old school mentality is a dinosaur mentality and us nimble mammals have had to skip around so we don't get crushed by falling dinosaurs.

The New York Times recently wrote about brands becoming the new record labels, leading some to wonder if the term "selling out" has any real meaning anymore? As someone who has been against corporate involvement in the label, did you have any hesitation partnering with Converse about sponsoring Ninja Tune's 20th anniversary celebration in San Francisco?

I've always liked Converse, so I don't have a particular problem with that. I think Converse is no worse than BMG or any of the other surviving music dinosaurs. But one has to ask all the normal, hard questions about the corporate colonization of human culture. I was asked a few years ago about pay-for-play. The logical endpoint of that evolution is that one company will control all the radio stations, all the billboards, all the record companies and all the venues. There's no way that that will be good for culture. We do resist the McDance.

When you and Jonathan first started the label, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

At the time, you don't think about that. You don't really notice the challenges because we knew that what we were doing was good and we just put our heads down and pushed on. Sometimes being ignorant and unaware can be an advantage. After a while, we realized that getting your records stocked and racked up in shops was becoming very difficult because there was so much competition and the major labels with their bigger budgets were able to exert what we felt was an unfair influence.

That was the case for media as well. Media coverage is for sale and that became a problem. But there's always a Ninja strategy to answer every problem and the strategy with that was simply to have people who work for us who are obsessed with music. We found people who clearly had ears full of musical notes rather than eyes full of dollar signs and people in the press relate to that.

In 2010, there are fewer and fewer labels that have a real brand, in the sense that people will check for a Ninja Tune record just because it's Ninja Tune. How much of building up the brand was a conscious effort in the beginning? Or was it more about putting out good music and hoping people would follow?

I think the "If you build it, they will come" philosophy was a good part of it. I think Jon and I, without realizing it, were quite savvy in our way. London is a snobbish place and if you don't have some style and a feel for what is going to appeal to people, then you're not going to get very far. I credit Jon with having that more developed than myself because he was an important DJ on the London scene and a lot more plugged in than I was.

He also used to work for Comme Des Garcons doing fashion shows. I asked him once, "How could you pay 500 quid for a pair of trousers? It seems ridiculous." He said, "Because they fit you really well and they make you feel like a million dollars." In fact, people will pay anything for something that they think is worthwhile, and that could include a record, so that was a useful Ninja strategy at the beginning.

As both a member of Coldcut and Ninja Tune label head, you're very much focused on looking forward. What are your thoughts on nostalgia?

I suspect you know the phrase, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be." I always defined a bastard as someone who doesn't care who their parents are genetically or culturally. I get a big kick out of tracing back the roots of where electronic music and experimental film come from. I think it's really crucial to make the link between the past, present and future. It's part of our overall interest, which I've realized recently is about making connections between things which don't obviously appear to be connected. One definition of Ninja is that we're about mixing and that includes analog and digital, human and machine, and past, present and future.

What was your definition of success in 1990, 2000 and 2010?

[Laughs] That's a really hard question. Come on. [Long pause] I think Jon and I have kept a consistent vision: Success is being able to continue doing what you do and also for what you do to be beneficial to the rest of humanity. In Buddhism, it's called Right Livelihood. It's no different now than it was then. As one gets older, one's perspective widens, so that means including what you experienced and what you believed before. It doesn't get wiped off; it simply gets enhanced. So before, success might have been defined as having a lot of money and number one singles and having lots of people love you and that's partly been widened to a much simpler realization that success is being able to do what you want to do. It's nice when you get older and realize that things were simpler than you thought.

How did Ninja Tune as a label view what was going on in the music industry as Napster and other file-sharing sites were achieving prominence and record sales began to decline? Were you excited to be part of a new technological era or scared for your life at the new paradigm?

It depends on what day you'd ask me. On one day, I might be like, It's only 100 years that people have been selling recordings of music. Now that the cost of recording and distributing music is zero, that business just doesn't exist anymore. And maybe that's good because musicians can go back to what they historically did, which is make a living from doing live gigs. On the other hand, those CD and vinyl sales pay my rent and buy my food, so I wasn't completely keen on seeing that disappear.

I always felt that that Ninja Tune's relationship with our fans was perhaps closer than a Madonna or a megastar like that. They were more likely to understand that buying a CD actually keeps a label alive. I suspect there's been just enough people having that understanding that has helped keep us going.

Was there ever a thought of dissolving Ninja Tune or switching to an online-only model?

We never got to that stage. I did suggest that we look at whether we should become a completely digital label, but that was prompted more by environmental concerns than financial ones. But we couldn't afford to do that and remain a viable business at a point where solid media was in decline, but still formed a big part of our income.

Coldcut's early music and live shows seemed to predict a wave of recontexualization and cultural appropriation that can now be seen in a billion YouTube videos. Looking back, do you feel you were on to something?

I think one of my strengths has been predicting the future. I come from a heavy background in science and science fiction and computers for the last 35 years. I occasionally feel quite vindicated that the vision's played out fairly well. So it doesn't surprise me at all that convergence has occurred. I get a kick out of seeing how people make their own creations by recycling media. Before YouTube, we had a project called PirateTV.net, which was a parallel idea to YouTube and allowed people to make media and distribute it. Anyone could be their own TV station. I think we can claim that we predicted things fairly well.

How did you react when YouTube first came out? Did you smile and feel vindicated?

Yeah totally, but there was also the sense of "Fuck, why didn't we do that?"

I'd be remiss to not ask the one question I've been curious about for years. What are your thoughts on the phrase "trip hop"? Some of your peers were quite vocal in denouncing the term.

I never had a problem with the label "trip-hop" because I don't regard labels as boxes; I regard them as keywords and tags. It was always clear to me that we could make a record that was a trip-hop-afro-electro-dub-rock record. It never felt imprisoning. I think it did become a marketing cliché though and I can blame that on the majors really. It was like "chillout." By the time Sony released "Ibiza Chillout Volume 1,398," they pretty much cudgeled any juice out of that term. But I always liked the label "trip-hop." I thought it was great.

After 20 years, is it easy to get complacent at times and rest on your laurels?

I think we've retained quite a sharp edge all this time. Some people made a lot more money out of it and became rather bloated and haven't done any interesting work since. Other people fell off the branch because they couldn't make enough to sustain themselves so they had to give up. We've been lucky enough to find a middle balance where we earned a fairly good living. But we're still hungry, we're still restless and we're still frustrated. With this twentieth birthday celebration, there's been a strong sense of Jon and I looking at each other and going, "Wow, we made it. This is fuckin' good and we're not going to give up now."

Ninja Tune XX, featuring Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, DJ Food & DJ DK, Toddla T & Serocee and Poirier, goes down at Santos Party House tonight, October 28.


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