Matt Black, Coldcut
20 Years of Ninja Tune

As Ninja Tune celebrates two decades of rewiring the electronic music scene, Mathias Kilian Hanf talks to Matt Black, label co-founder and one half of AV pioneers Coldcut

By Mathias Kilian Hanf

 Photo: Coldcut — Jonathan More (L) and Matt Black
September 20th marks the 20-year anniversary of the stealth operation known as Ninja Tune. Instead of a nostalgic greatest hits album, the London-based label family embark on a world tour and delight us with what they call a futurespective, a fresh box set with all new material. Coldcut's Matt Black, who with his partner Jonathan More founded Ninja Tune in 1990, talks label history, the music of the future, audiovisual messages, and the BP oil spill.

In 1913, the experimental composer Luigi Russolo said that noises from our environment could be used as a new way to create music. Do you think that, in our modern society — where we have to reinvent ourselves everyday — the use of non-musical elements will make the music of the future?
I think that’s a very big claim, but it will certainly feature in tomorrow’s music since there’s been quite a lot of use of what you could call noises from the environment. John Cage was a pioneer in that regard, and musique concrète also used that technique a lot. People like Matthew Herbert have shown that the use of sampling, or in general making sounds and then manipulating them can be a very inventive and entertaining way to make music. As Coldcut, we have adopted this principle — a good example is the track Timber, where we use chain saws and the sound of axes chopping trees — and broadened it through audiovisual sampling.
You are talking about the VJamm software to manipulate images in real-time. Its success brought you the title “Kraftwerk of the 21st century”. Do you think that you have an equally decisive effect on modern (electronic) music?
Perhaps it’s not for me to say, but I think I can claim that quite a lot of our ideas have been popular and been adopted. A lot of people come up to me and say “Hey, Matt, Ninja Tune’s the label that got me into making music” — that’s always good to hear. Also, our vision of combining visuals, music and software proved quite effective over the last twenty years. We can see that convergence in the industry right now, with projects like Pirate TV or YouTube. What we do is use technology to take forward the skills of the DJ into the 21st century to become a digital jockey. I’d even like to take that further and rescue turntablism, or at least the turntablist attitude to combine studio, live and mixing material within deejaying.
Ninja Tune is a bold concept, often described as a stealth operation or an alternative way to manage music and talent. How were you able to make that happen for over twenty years?
Well … we’re still in business now but nothing is guaranteed; you can’t tell what will be next year. But Ninja Tune is doing fairly well at the moment, that’s due to a very dedicated team. We’re all still passionate about the music and about the concept of Ninja Tune to deal with our artists in an honest and supportive way. Perhaps that is a bold concept, but to us it’s always been common sense. That’s because we are artists ourselves and Ninja Tune is a label by and for artists. We set it up so we could do it ourselves. I think that’s attractive for people who understand that.
What exactly makes Ninja Tune so unique at managing its artists?
The means of production and promotion are in the hands of the artists and it’s up to the record label to support that. We understood that it was better for artists to control their own career. And now, that we’re celebrating twenty years of Ninja, the whole point of a record label has changed. The A&R is no longer a parasitic moron but a lot more useful and positive for the artists.
You were never afraid to touch upon political or environmental topics. Are there plans to address the BP oil spill in an artistic way?
I posted this on our website: “So, BP, you will pay at least 25 billion dollars to try and clean up your oil spill disaster. Don’t you think that you could have built a lot of geothermal, solar, tidal and wind generators for 25 billion dollars. Pity you didn’t, because then you wouldn’t be paying that fine. Hope your shareholders understand this”. We have also touched upon the oil spill in a project we’re doing called Energy Union. And we mention the oil spill in a section there. We call it “Old Power”, which is the dinosaur outdated mindset of fossil fuels.
Tell us more about Energy Union.
Energy Union is Coldcut’s first film-length audiovisual project about renewable energy and the environment. Everyone needs to consider carefully the choices that they make. Yesterday, I read that there’s quite a chronic water shortage in the UK — actually, per head the citizens of the UK have less water than the citizens of Israel. Running the tap whilst brushing your teeth wastes six liters of water a minute. So, while I was brushing my teeth this morning, I got a tumbler and filled it up with water and used that to brush my teeth. I am not saying that I’m an environmental angel — far from it. I am a heavy consumer, I fly around the world, I use a lot of expensive resources. And I don’t want to give up my nice lifestyle, I just want to make choices that can make a difference and enable me to keep enjoying life, but also intelligent choices that are better for the environment. And that’s the message of Energy Union: Intelligent energy is a better lifestyle. Even for selfish reasons it’s good to be intelligent about energy and the environment.
What role can DJs or musicians play in the struggle against global warming?
We can play a role in that because we have influence over people through our work. And that’s what making art and music is about. I’m quite careful in the material both audio and visual that I choose nowadays to present and perform to people. You owe it to yourself to develop environmental consciousness and awareness and be educated about what your choices mean so that you can make better choices. You have to consider your cultural diet carefully. They say you are what you eat. I believe that’s true, and it applies to culture and music as well.
To what degree can art and music really have political influence?
Look at the history and you see that artists and musicians have always been involved in revolution, and resistance, and activism. There’s always a soundtrack. Take James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud — it is the soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the States. And sometimes it can even go beyond being a soundtrack.
Are there any plans to retire from making music to say, go into activism, visual art or just manage upcoming musicians?
Certainly I wouldn’t just be managing upcoming musicians, I’ve got enough trouble managing myself. Jonathan and me are still working on new visual software and audiovisual experiments and we’ve got some new ideas. Those are only some ongoing projects which will probably keep us busy for at least the next forty of fifty years. I’m going to be fifty in 2011, and I’m gonna have at least one big party, maybe two or three. And I feel happier, more aware, more connected, and more able at what I do. Coldcut’s still hungry and restless and we’re still looking for the perfect beat. As my friend said, artists don’t retire.
Thanks for the interview and of course: Happy Anniversary!
 The Ninja Tune XX Box Set is out September 20th
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