Stealth was an underlying concept for Ninja Tune upon its launch 25 years ago. But it’s difficult for the immensely popular electronic record label to be stealthy these days.
Ninja Tune was established in 1990 as a way for its founders, Matt Black and Jonathan More of the duo Coldcut, to release music without the restrictions of their major record label contract. Prior to that, Coldcut had gained recognition for taking hip-hop and sampling and projecting them through a decidedly British club-and-rave-culture lens. Their 1987 remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” was revolutionary in its inventive use of vocal samples from unexpected sources, and established the duo as pioneers in the left-field beat scene they helped create not only in the U.K., but on an international scale.
A Coldcut-hosted club night in London, naturally called Stealth, gathered together like-minded individuals, many of whom formed Ninja Tune's original roster. While staying away from the idea of superstar DJs, Ninja Tune was (and is) nonetheless more artist-driven than many electronic labels. Names like The Herbaliser, Hex, Funki Porcini and Amon Tobin started exemplifying the Ninja Tune aesthetic, along with Coldcut aliases and side projects like Bogus Order and DJ Food. Meanwhile, Kevin Foakes aka Strictly Kev (part of DJ Food, as well) developed the label's visual side, including several variations on the Ninja Tune logo, the signature black-clad ninja wielding platters of vinyl, originally created by Michael Bartalos.
Back in the label's early days, “you couldn't instantly Wikipedia everything; you had to follow a trail, and that was addictive,” says Jamie Collinson, now head of operations for Ninja Tune North America, whose headquarters are in Echo Park. “You had to hope there’d be something in the magazines about a Ninja Tune artist. Or you’d go to a record store and pluck up the courage to talk to some snobby dude about the label. Everything came in rumor and drips and drops here and there. It was exciting to unravel all that mystery. It made you feel invested and part of something you’d spent time understanding. That’s how people really got into it and became loyal.”
Those loyal Ninja Tune followers have been rewarded with over two decades of stellar music that, while no longer stealthy, has not sacrificed quality for marketability. If anything, digital retailers and streaming services have allowed Ninja Tune to reach an ever-wider audience while remaining just as risky.
The label has also branched out with other imprints, including Big Dada for alternative hip-hop releases (or “Afro-punk,” as label co-founder Will Ashon calls it) and Counter Records, home to forward-thinking rock, R&B and dance music acts like The Heavy, Tiga and Andreya Triana. Ninja Tune has also struck production and distribution deals with like-minded labels such as Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder. And in part because what used to be underground-friendly has become very soundtrack-friendly, Ninja Tune set up camp in Los Angeles in 2009 (prior to that, the label's North American headquarters were in Montreal).
“It always felt like our U.S. spiritual home was Los Angeles,” says Collinson. “We have many artists living here. The beat scene here is very close to what Ninja was doing. There is a perfect storm of business reasons across the spectrum. Los Angeles has a free-spirited, open-minded, experimental electronic thing happening. It’s forward thinking. People figure out new ways to do things here. And L.A. hasn’t priced out all the interesting people.”
“Creative communities can’t thrive were you can’t afford to make mistakes,” says British producer Simon Green aka Bonobo, one of Ninja Tune’s most successful artists now based in Los Angeles. Part of a second wave of Ninja Tune artists, who signed to them in 2000, Green is looking to launch his own Outlier brand in 2016.
“The idea of Ninja Tune is that they’re an incubator for artists to experiment and push themselves in the way they want to develop,” Green continues. “As a label they’ve changed and branched out in many different directions from the original sound, which was fairly regimented. If you think of the retro cycle, what happened 20 years ago is trendy again and Ninja Tune are referencing their early sound once more.”
Marking the occasion of their 25th anniversary, Ninja Tune is hosting curated events across the globe, with only two in North America, both in Los Angeles. The first, on Nov. 21, featuring Bonobo, Jon Hopkins, Leon Vynehall, Sepalcure and Eamon Harkin, will be held at a secret warehouse location in downtown Los Angeles. The second, on Dec. 11, is at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, with The Bug featuring Earth and Grouper's Liz Harris. More info at ninjatune.net/ninja25.