Various Artists: Zen -- A Retrospective / Zen -- Remixes

Terry Sawyer

Various Artists

Zen -- a Retrospective

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2004-02-10
UK Release Date: 2004-01-26

After a decade, Matt Black and Jonathon Moore (a.k.a. Coldcut), celebrate the label they started by releasing four discs culled from an A-list dream team of musicians who have graced their much beloved imprint. Nailing Ninja Tune's aesthetic scope takes a broad brush and an open mind. What the artists gathered here do seem to have in common is that hip-hop beats serve as a departure point. Ninja Tune has been on the vanguard of this expansion of hip-hop's claim stake, a project of breaking it away from its reliance on a lyrical skeleton and clearing a space for the music of hip-hop to emerge from the backdrop and become the scrutinized core, or, in b-movie terms, it's the revenge of the beat makers. Ninja Tune bears no small responsibility for our current preoccupation with studio technicians as the focal points of our interpretative pleasure, for all the DJs who've stepped up with their own records allowing emcees to guest star, if they're lucky.

Perhaps their view from across the pond makes them immune to the unthinking rigidity that plagues American hip-hop, particularly its aversion to the intermarriage of other electronic strains. Or, as Eminem more succinctly put it: "Nobody listens to techno". Moby diss aside, clearly many of the artists assembled here look for some of their inspiration in club splices, taking some of the thinness out of it by dropping in beats that bomb the bottom out of your speakers and by expanding the scope of the club track's goal, allowing more breadth, more tangents and less singularity than some house music, jungle grooves, and other techno might provide. Ninja Tune scavenges with a good palette, devouring everything in sight with few nods to street cred. But then, false piety has never been the hallmark of worthwhile creativity.

The turntablists present on this feast would make the shortlist for any future Hall of Fame erected in honor of the 1's and 2's. "Sordid" makes its wicked way out your speakers on a hazy beat that pounds out its footsteps like fuzzy thunder, interrupting the momentum from time to time for a freakout of wild-eyed drumming. Although this track isn't exactly a massive creative stretch for Amon Tobin, it certainly gives enough of a glint to explain why he has subsequently become one of electronic music's most innovative composers with a breathtaking fetish for the epic. Similarly, Kid Koala displays his geek genius facility for using songs as the equivalent of skateboarding ramps on "Skanky Panky", a sluggish dancehall number where Koala uses the samples like a jazz soloist with such skill that he sounds like he has more fingers than Shiva. Of course there's also the instantly recognizable Mr. Scruff single "Get a Move On", which is no less giddily kinetic for having been sold to some satanic corporation or another.

For the most part, this compilation covers tracks that don't have vocals, or the voices that do appear are morphed and sampled to prevent anything like a traditional song structure from taking root. Coldcut's "Timber" has a snippet of a woman's voice that's simply allowed to float down through the center of the track and recede into oblivion. Even Fog's "Check Fraud", which actually contains an inset of a completely intact song that sounds like a lost Son Volt classic, still cedes much of the most interesting ground to the tidal thump below and the choppy, bleep-filled periphery. Cinematic Orchestra's "All That You Give", featuring unjustly obscure soul singer Fontella Bass, almost sounds like a sliced bread soul classic at first listen. Even here, though, it's the slothful and slurry stand up bass line that grabs your attention as it warps the surface of the song, pulling it down, down into a flow so smooth and slow, it's nearly paralyzed. In this way, Ninja Tune borrows much from techno's instrumental use of voice, giving it a wholly unpredictable amount of leverage, as a focal point here or a completely fleeting particle there.

Notable exceptions include the DJ Vadim track "Terrorist", where he cloaks Motion Man's rhyming in super villain echoes of keyboard and scratches that fly in like pinwheeling samurai swords. His other contribution, the mixtape perennial "Your Revolution", has Vadim flinging a water cooler burble and a bouncing ball bass under Sarah Jones's polyrhythmic indictment of sexism told by reversing and weaponizing the intention of just about every pop hip-hop chorus ever written. But the real find comes from the inclusion of the early work of What What (now known as MC Jean Grae), one of the most steeled and concussive emcees around, who's finally beginning to garner the attention she deserves. DJ Herbaliser had the good sense to include her on a few of his releases, perhaps understanding how well her impishly evil streak complements his own preference for bump-in-the-night background.

Normally, I would raise an eyebrow to a double-CD set that comes with another double CD's worth of remixes. I have a keen nose for the grift, and remix CDs pick more pockets than just about any other music industry bait and switch. Fortunately, several factors make the Zen Remix collection not just another consumer drive by. It helps that it's not just a song for song remix of the retrospective; without knowing their selection method, it appears that they simply allowed their remix artists to pick whichever Ninja Tune track struck a chord. Although this approach complicates the evaluation of the remixes (I own a fair amount of Ninja Tune releases, but am by no means a completist), it's by and large a much better buyer deal. After all, with rare exceptions, many techno and hip-hop remixes either lack noticeable revision and therefore beg the question of necessity, or they shuck off the entire song, erase it's former presence, and call this lick-cleaned slate a reinterpretation when we all really know it's just a new song with the unnecessary baggage of someone else's title. With people like Manitoba, Four Tet, and Sixtoo on board for the honors, this remix set stands on its own by bringing much imaginative heft to the project of finding the unexplored spaces or nuances in these Ninja Tune tracks. Personally, I think Wagon Christ set the bar in the stars with his remix of 2 Player's "Extreme Possibilities", which he unravels, unhinges, and then sets off like illegal fireworks at a pace that's clearly amok.

Presumably, they've left much of their groundbreaking but more traditional hip-hop from the compilation because it was already taken care of by Xen Cuts, a CD that any self-respecting hip-hop lover should have firmly snugged away on their shelf, or, better yet, within easy reach on a speaker stack. It'd be arbitrary and capricious to try to get in some pissing match over which tracks I like better and therefore, by omniscient fiat, should have appeared on the compilation. A solidly conceived retrospective is supposed to be an inconspicuous act of auto fellatio. Ninja Tune deserves a clapping moment for their self-swabbing greatest hits grab bag. Some of the brightest lights of hip-hop have sent some of their wares through the House of Ninja, people who understand that hip-hop need not calcify into a genre whose debts to the past become a mortgaged future. Ninja Tune has a sixth sense for unearthing massive fringe talent and prophesying the sounds of tomorrow. I expect that they will continue to do so long enough to produce another must-have retrospective somewhere down the road.

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