Outside the Ninja Tune "sound" is where the real treats of these compilations lie.
We are conditioned to not expect much when an artist starts a label; so often the artist-driven record label is saddled with the negative connotation implied by a common descriptor: the "vanity" label. The idea, of course, is that the artist has various friends and acquaintances who haven't been given a fair shake by the unforgiving and cruel record industry, and this is said artist's chance in the wake of new-found fame and fortune to give those other artists a shot. Trent Reznor had one, Dave Matthews has one, Korn had one, Madonna had one, Eric Clapton had one, and on and on it goes. It's the artist's way of acknowledging that the universe doesn't revolve entirely around them, even as they pull other artists into orbit.
Ninja Tune, an electronic/hip-hop/eclectic label founded by the duo known as Coldcut (Matt Black and Jonathan More), could be called a "vanity label", but 20 years after its founding, labeling it with such a vaguely derogatory name seems utterly inappropriate. While Ninja Tune has certainly been the home of all of Coldcut's releases since the label's inception, this is a label that has grown into so much more than just "a band and its buddies". Ninja Tune has proven itself to be one of the few labels out there who actually subscribe to and follow through on a concept: to seek out, publish, and promote artists that approach their art in original and inventive ways. This is why Ninja Tune has lasted this long, and this is why its stable of artists shows no sign of stagnancy or atrophy.
Ninja Tune XX is Black and More's way of celebrating the 20th year of their record label, though when you look at the full specs of the box, calling it "celebrating" feels like an understatement. Ninja Tune XX is a week-long bender of a box. Six full-length CDs chock full of new and reworked material, six 7" singles with entirely exclusive content, a hardback book, a poster, and membership to the Ninja Tune VIP club, which comes with a couple of exclusive 12" EPs and an album download right off the bat. It's not cheap at around $200 (though it can be bought through a pre-sale for quite a bit less), but everything in the box is instantly collectible thanks to its limited print run and exclusive nature.
Four CDs in the set are also going to be released in an unlimited print run, and these are the CDs that PopMatters was given for review. Unfortunately, this means that we can't comment on the quality of the two exclusive CDs, or any of the vinyl releases, but chances are, those who would fork out the dollars necessary to buy the box 1) know what to expect in terms of quality, and 2) would probably spend the money even if the music was substandard.
What can be said is that even if you miss out on the box (or just don't have that sort of disposable income right now), the two-CD compilations Ninja Tune XX Vol. 1: Two Decades and a Mixer and Ninja Tune XX Vol. 2: 20 Yrs of Beats and Pieces will do a fine job of sating your appetite for Ninja Tune goodness as you work up the wherewithal to start looking up the rest on eBay.
Over its 20 years, Ninja Tune has developed something like a "sound" -- not so much that its artists sound the same, but many in the Ninja Tune stable do share quite a bit of common ground. Vaguely glitchy, usually busy takes on hip-hop are all over the label, whether featuring rappers or not, and predictably, they're all over these compilations as well. Autechre's take on The Bug's "Skeng" might have the highest profile of all of the tracks in the four CDs we have access to, and it is an impressive and glitchy thing, but it's a surprisingly restrained take on the song from the remix troublemakers who took Skinny Puppy's "Killing Game" and turned it into musique concrète. Roots Manuva, perhaps the most emblematic of Ninja Tune artists, is all over this thing with a track on each CD, and he rarely disappoints, combining quick rhymes with off-the-wall beats. Even Ms. Dynamite shows up for a little bit, doing a bang-up job fronting Toddla T's "Want You Now".
Outside the Ninja Tune "sound" is where the real treats of these compilations lie, however. The Cinematic Orchestra's re-creation of Lou Rhodes' gorgeous "One Good Thing" is an exquisite tapestry of strings, while Amon Tobin's "Lost & Found" is a delightfully spooky little thing that intrigues just enough to invite repeat plays. Tracks like these may not lie in Ninja Tune's wheelhouse, per se, but it's obvious that those running the label know a good thing when they hear it.
Sure, there are some weak links. King Cannibal's "The Grind & Crawl" is an ugly, nasty track that has an interesting beat going for it and little else. Mark Pritchard's remix of Poirier's "Get Crazy" is lazy and repetitive, and Dan Le Sac's remix of PRDCTV's "Metropolis" feels like it's reaching for something it never actually achieves.
To demand perfection from four CDs worth of compilation, so much of which is exclusive material, however, would be folly. Ninja Tune has very obviously crafted a love letter to those who have allowed the label to stay in business for 20 solid years, with no sign of slowing down. True to form, they would rather facilitate creation than rehash the past, the result being that Ninja Tune XX is a surprisingly contemporary take on retrospective.
We should have expected nothing less.