Zen and the Art of Musical Independence
High-stepping deejays Matt Black and Jonathan More founded Ninja Tune as an outlet for their own Coldcut project in 1991, to escape from Big Life’s exodus into the cold vaults of a major label. Since then, the Zen imprint has grown in size and reputation to become one of the biggest and most important indies in music history. With releases numbering in the hundreds, including their many sub labels, they’ve issued some of the seminal works of rap, trip-hop, drum and bass, breaks, nu jazz, turntablism, electronica, and hybrids of them all, penciling in busier schedules every year. The now-defunct Ntone imprint covered electronica for a brief period, so now, Ninja covers everything that sounds Ninja, while Will Ashon’s Big Dada has focused on hip-hop since 1997. Just in 2006, they threw their hat into the rock ring by founding Counter specifically for the debut solo album of Super Numeri’s Pop Levi, and now TheDeathSet is one of the most hyped bands around. There’s nothing they can’t do.
For evidence of their superior accomplishments, one needs to look no further than their many multi-disc compilations. You Don’t Know is the sixth such official sampler, and, like its predecessors, contains only the highest quality picks from their major releases, with select remixes and a few rarities to satisfy the hardcores. While last year’s Well Deep multimedia package shed light on Big Dada, Ninja Cuts draws a healthy cross-section from all three Ninja associated labels. A track here and there has a little age to it (Mike Ladd’s “Blah Blah” is a rare intelligent slug bump from 1998, and there’s a previously unreleased Qemists remix of the decade old Coldcut classic, “Atomic Moog 2000”), but the focus here, by and large, is on the sound Zen has cultivated in the last few years. This is where they are physically and mentally in 2008.
“Bloodstone”, the richly organic, baroque field recording amalgam opener from Amon Tobin’s well received 2007 effort Foley Room, is a welcome addition here, along with the classy, gritty Jack Johnson with balls folk-hop fusion “Pretty Little Thing” from Fink’s breakout release of the previous year Biscuits For Breakfast. The original version of Coldcut’s “Just For The Kick” is an inspired choice from 2006’s Sound Mirrors, as the raunchy techno club banger is easily the most exceptional track from their late career album. Though the compilation features the cuts of DMC champ DJ Kentaro, the classic firehouse rocking jam “Slew Test 2” from Vancouver legend and baby-faced mama’s boy Eric San (a.k.a. Kid Koala), is all the turntablism you’ll ever need. That track could make Nazareth melt down their belt buckles. Across the board, they picked about the best tracks from their biggest names’ most recent works.
Of course, Ninja Cuts has a good number of rarities and obscure remixes and re-rubs, following in the fine tradition of these mixtapes. It was well worth my dime to shell out for Funkungfusion just to get the clackety typewriter hip-hop cartoon “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” by Koala and Money Mark (which was oddly left off Eric’s debut album of the same name). Plenty of the obscurities included herein are on that level. Modeselektor’s remix of the Ghislain Poirier “Blazin’” single is more like a sampling, actually surpassing the source material on a gut level. The original track was a full-on dancehall party with an obnoxious Face-T flow, while this version takes it to a ripping 8-bit drum domain, barely using three words of Face’s vocals.
The “Donkey Ride” collaboration between Mr. Scruff and Will “Quantic” Holland is a sublime piece of piano-driven samba funk. If that doesn’t put you in a good mood, nothing short of snorting MDMA will. “Dita Dimoné” from the upcoming Pop Levi sophomore album tosses a Cibo Matto-like nonsensical vocal over an electro-rock beat with more swagger than a Parliament concert. That track makes it easy to see why they founded Counter to release his premiere, and, at the time of pressing, it’s exclusive to You Don’t Know. Cinematic Orchestra were on top form when they recorded the uncomfortably elegant symphonic jazz-fusion number “Rites Of Spring” live at the Barbican. Thank Gawd they are coming out with a live album soon. I didn’t realize how long overdue it was until I heard that track.
If you don’t think there are more than enough reasons to check it out right there, You Don’t Know boasts 50 tracks from legends (DJ Shadow, RJD2, cLOUDDEAD) to leaping unknowns (The Long Lost, Max & Harvey, and an A-side from a deleted Diplo 12-inch). You’re guaranteed to find at least 12 of your new favourite songs or your money back. It’s a sure bet when it’s Ninja Tune. Stay the course, gold pony.
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// Notes from the Road
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