Between the years of 1988 and 1990, there was an indie label renaissance of sorts, with now-legendary underground imprints popping up between the United States and the UK at an alarming rate. Indie rock labels Sub Pop, Matador and Merge all arrived within the course of about one year, forever changing the direction of independent rock music. And in 1989, Warp Records was founded in the UK, pioneering electronic music with an emphasis in IDM, later spreading out into pop, rock and even hip-hop. Yet just one year later, the duo of Jon More and Matt Black, AKA Coldcut, began releasing their own innovative electronic records on a small label known as Ninja Tune, whose own vast and impressive history reveals it to be one of the most diverse and groundbreaking electronic labels of all time.
Founded in 1990, Ninja Tune long served as a one-stop for some of the most impressive turntablists, sample artists, sonic collagists and underground electronic acts from the UK and beyond. From Coldcut to DJ Food and Amon Tobin, just about anything revealing the logo of the LP-throwing ninja provided mesmerizing feats of sample-based ninjitsu. Over time, much like slightly elder peer Warp Records, Ninja Tune began diversifying, though to a much less broad extent. Where Warp began adding acts like Jamie Lidell and Grizzly Bear, Ninja Tune embraced grime, dubstep, two-step and garage, and to spectacular effect, as shown in records from the likes of The Bug and Roots Manuva.
So, on the arrival of Ninja Tune’s 20th anniversary, the label chose to celebrate in the way most loyal fans can get behind: with a huge ass box set. Ninja Tune XX compiles six discs (we only got to hear four, c’est la vie) of rare, unreleased and/or just plain great tracks from Ninja Tune affiliated artists ranging from the aforementioned Roots Manuva, Amon Tobin and the Bug, to like-minded peers such as Diplo and Daedelus. Right off the bat, the first disc tosses out some truly amazing tracks, from the high speed delivery on Roots Manuva’s “It’s On,” to the energetic electro of Zomby’s “The Forest,” Offshore’s downtempo excursion “Jen at the Station,” Flying Lotus’ remix of Andreya Triana’s “Lost Where I Belong” and The Bug’s ominously lovely “Catch a Fire.” And that’s just a sixth of the festivities on hand.
The sheer volume of material on Ninja Tune XX is pretty overwhelming, and, frankly, even for a longtime fan, six discs is a lot. That said, from a label with a history as impressive as Ninja Tune’s, six discs is but a fraction of the whole story, and a sizable majority of selections here are well worth tracking down. Diplo’s 2010 remix of “Summer’s Gonna Hurt You” is blissfully stoned, while Joker creates a bizarro dubstep reconfiguration of The Heavy’s ubiquitous “How You Like Me Now.” Spank Rock’s “What It Look Like” becomes a fluid, exotic dance jam courtesy of Todd Edwards, and Amon Tobin’s “Lost & Found” makes the sound of a koto as destructive as possible.
For those who may express some doubts over shelling out the cash to scoop up all of this material at once, Ninja Tune has your back. The collection is also being sold in double-CD packs, so incrementalists who prefer to wade rather than cannonball have that option. That said, there’s a lot of diverse and cool material here to make a long afternoon out of it. Ninja Tune XX is massive, and certainly exhausting, but the now 20-year-old label has earned the privilege of pummeling their fans with generosity.
Various Artists – Warp20
Coldcut – Let Us Play!
The Bug – London Zoo
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.