The Style of War
Ninja Tune leans too heavily on outsiders for its imperfect anniversary comp
Published: October 13, 2010
What if Ninja Tune were more like Kompakt? The German techno label releases a two-CD compilation of new material every year—Total, now on volume 11, which is friskier than usual—and brings in the occasional brand-name remixer to stir things up a bit. By contrast, Ninja Tune, the British post-hip-hop label founded by Coldcut, puts out a box set every few years, thumbnail histories heavy on new material. Same tonnage, different effect, not to mention affect: Kompakt chugs along with self-made assurance, while Ninja Tune always seems like it’s trying to prove something.
In the past decade, Ninja Tune has issued Xen Cuts (2000, three CDs, tenth anniversary), Zen CD and Zen Rmx (2004, matched double-CDs equals four-disc quasi-box), and You Don’t Know: Ninja Cuts (2008, three CDs, U.K. import). They make small publicity splashes and then sink away unremembered. But the monument Ninja Tune XX: 20 Years of Beats and Pieces most closely resembles isn’t any of Ninja Tune’s many previous boxes so much as Mo’ Wax’s two-part, four-disc Headz 2 of 1996. Like that set, XX is available as a pair of double-CDs (the version I’m working from), as well as a giant box: six CDs (one through four intact from the other version), six seven-inch singles, and a beautifully designed 192-page book (made by Black Dog Publishing, responsible for a series of label-history titles). If that isn’t trying to prove something, nothing is.
And like Headz 2, XX calls in as many favors as it can. On the full box, 52 tracks out of 106 are new remixes (29 out of 62 on the double-CDs), three-quarters of them by artists who couldn’t have been on Xen Cuts. And of the exceptions, it’s very hard to imagine New Jersey cut-up gospel-house don Todd Edwards (who reworks Spank Rock into sweet-toned digital glossolalia: Vol. 1, disc two) or Brit-rave pioneers 808 State (DJ Food’s 1993 trip-hop touchstone “Dark Lady”: box, disc five) fitting easily into the Ninja Tune of 2000.
Edwards and 808 State’s inclusion only bolsters the sense of how thoroughly the London bass championed by Fact Magazine has taken center stage. Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Scuba, Micachu, Rustie, Joker, Gold Panda, JME, Dorian Concept, Zomby—that’s a sampling of who’s made their way onto XX. The message is clear: All that bass-driven stuff that’s been revitalizing dance music the past few years? Ninja Tune will be taking its turn around the roots-of promenade, thank you very much. It’s as if Mavis Staples had written and produced an album for Jeff Tweedy rather than the other way around.
But XX does capture something essential about Ninja Tune—the way it has expanded from something akin to Coldcut-and-friends to something more amorphous, with tentacles in any number of hip-hop mutations. At its best, Ninja Tune’s early incarnation was responsible for some of the most freewheeling breakbeat music of the 1990s and 2000s, even after the weed-soaked vibe it promulgated left the fashion-mag spotlight; at its lamest, it was like aural Wacky Doodles with grainy snares. But Ninja Tune has grown too various to categorize so neatly; even prototypical trip-hopper Mr. Scruff contributes “Believe” (Vol. 2, disc two), a bustling house track that harks back to the late ’80s.
That’s one of the few times XX looks back. The primary musical difference between XX’s 2010 and Xen Cuts’ 2000 (not to mention Headz 2’s 1996) is that the breakbeat no longer reigns supreme. Much of what’s here, especially from the guest remixes, is bass music, not breaks music. There are numerous nods to Jamaican dub, among them King Jammy’s vocal mix of Coldcut’s “Man in a Garage” (Vol. 2, disc one), the Bug’s slow-mo smoker “Catch a Fire” (Vol. 1, disc one), and Shuttle’s “Tunnel” (Vol. 2, disc two), which slips easily from dub to dubstep.
But even when the beat breaks up, it’s the low end that leads: Mark Pritchard’s remix of Poirier’s “Get Crazy” takes its title literally, speeding the beats up and piling on blurred orchestral stabs, but the smeared bass drops are what drives it forward. The wizzy-wowing synths of Dorian Concept’s lightheaded “Her Tears Taste Like Pears” are similarly tied to the track’s buzzing, darting synth-bass. Flying Lotus’s remix of Andreya Triana’s “Lost Where I Belong” (Vol. 1, disc one), per FlyLo’s usual, whips together a dramatic, hallucinatory arrangement of foggy strings, lolling harp, and distant background vocals, only to envelop it all in over-modulated low end.
Kitschiness has always been central to Ninja Tune’s aesthetic core. But the younger artists’ sensibility is equally at home with just about anything you throw at it—having styles come at you the way information does on a Tumblr or Twitter feed has that effect. For them, half-remembered Donkey Kong soundtracks equal the Kronos Quartet (which revamps Brazilian producer Amon Tobin’s “Foley Room”: Vol. 2, disc two) equals screwy IDM duo Autechre (remixing the Bug’s “Skeng” on Vol. 2, disc two). When Zomby’s “The Forest” (Vol. 1, disc one) dips back in time to the definitively cheesy 8-bit/chiptune well (drums aside, it could have been designed for a ColecoVision game), it sounds steeped rather than like it’s being observed from a safe distance.
Because it so explicitly aims to take the moment’s temperature, XX adds up to a good funhouse survey of what a certain sector of 2010 sounds like. But even in 2010, authorship matters. And because XX seems to follow—skillfully, painlessly—rather than lead, that can’t help but undercut its authority.
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