Various Artists – Ninja Tune XX

January 01, 1970



 (Ninja Tune)


A sprawling compilation documents Ninja
Tune’s double decade of slice and dice innovation, its nearly 100 cuts
dizzyingly diverse, yet united by a common commitment to relentless
juxtaposition, unexpected repurposing and the art of re-imagination and


Ninja Tune started in London, as an outgrowth of an experimental DJ
scene known as Openmind. DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More, who worked together
as Coldcut, were the founders, seeing the label as a vehicle for their
freewheeling mix of hip hop, jazz, pop and other musical styles. “Man in a
Garage,” on the third disc of the compilation, showcases’ Coldcut’s eclectic
style, its plaintive melodica line winding in and around glitchy rhythms of
percussion. (There are other Coldcut tracks on the full six-disc box set, but
not on the four-disc promo version sent out to writers.)  As with many of these tunes, it’s hard to
categorize, an instrumental track with elements of hip hop, jazz, pop and
electronica that doesn’t fit fully into any of the pre-constructed boxes. And
that genre-splicing tendency, plus the willingness to sample damned near
anything, in small bits or larger ones, seems to be critical part of this
label’s aesthetic.


Ninja Tunes has always lived at the
intersection of electronic and hip hop, but early on, its founders established
the sub-label, Big Dada, for experimental rap artists like cLOUDDEAD, Spank
Rock and Roots Manuva. Roots Manuva, in particular, is one of the stars of this
style-blending compilation, combining, in his own work, elements of hip hop,
dub, reggae and grim. And that’s before an electic bunch of artists – Micachu,
Hot Chip and Slugabed, to name three – get started on the remixes. Micachu’s
take on “Dub Styles” encases the rappers’ rapid-fire verbiage in a mesh of
static-y no-wave noises, while Hot Chip embellishes “Let the Spirit”‘s hard
beat with keyboards that glisten like soap bubbles, radiant and fragile.  Slugabed’s mix of “Witness (1 Hope)” swaggers
hugely on molten pavements of synths, at once threat and Technicolor


One thing you notice right away about Ninja Tune XX is the strong, eccentric presence of women. There’s a wonderful run on
Disc III that starts with folk singer Lou Rhodes singing with the Cinematic
Orchestra, moves immediately to London MC Speech Debelle collaborating with
Bonobo and, after an interval of Grasscut, ends up with new soul diva Andreya
Triana singing, again with Bonobo. All three performances are excellent, and
they could hardly be more different. Rhodes is
ripely knowing in “One Good Thing,” singing high over a bed of lavish cello
notes. Speech Debelle spatters syncopated streams of imagery in “Sun Will
Rise,” her verbal patterns at once urgent and dreamily hallucinogenic. But
Triana wins the match, her fluttery, smouldery contralto effortlessly floating
over complicated syncopations of handclaps and bass and keyboards. All three
seem integral to the cuts that they inhabit, their voices working not as
decoration but as an essential piece of the music.


Thirty-four of the 85 tracks on the set are
remixes, so collaboration, intersection, interpretation are all important
themes throughout. Still, some of the most exciting conjunctions are the
cross-genre linkages that find unexpected touch points between musical styles
that don’t seem, on the surface, to connect at all. There is, for instance, a
wonderfully abstract selection from Amon Tobin’s
Foley Room, which, among its pixellated meshes of field recorded sound, weaves in
instrumentation from the Kronos Quartet. Tunng, the British folktronica outfit,
splices oddball spoken samples and delicate keyboards into Quincy & Xen
Cuts Allstars “I Hear the Drummer”. Hot Chip transforms Roots Manuva’s
impassioned rough edges into a sleek synthetic celebration. Opposites don’t
just attract here. They find unlikely common ground in a way that damn near
explodes the possibility of opposites. 


Ninja Tune
is a big collection of music, one that will
demand repeat listens, and even so, you won’t hear everything you’re going to
hear in the first half dozen plays. In fact, my guess is that other Ninja Tune
anniversaries will roll around before I’ve exhausted all of its “a-ha” moments,
if not 30, then at least 25.


DOWNLOAD: “Sun Will Rise
Featuring Speech Debelle” by Bonobo and Speech Debelle, “Foley Versions (Kronos
Quartet Interpretation)” by Amon Tobin, “Let the Spirit (Hot Chip Remix)” by


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