(Still) Something for the Blunted
Ninja Tune And Mr. Scruff Update Their Bedroom Beats For The 21st Century
Ninjas will always maintain a cachet of cool. There's something both cartoonish and severe about them, and in that shadowy contrast is the attraction. Ninjas exist in small, close-knit troupes. When wearing civilian clothing they acknowledge the style of the day, and you wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd. But once they emerge, they're singularly distinctive, dexterous assassins--it's already too late to get out of the cross hairs.
Just as Led Zeppelin's Icarus logo is to rock, these formidable adversaries would make tight tattoos for MCs and beat makers. Many of those ninjalike traits listed above could easily be applied to London record label Ninja Tune, founded in 1991 by Jonathan More and Matt Black, also known as the pick-and-mix hooligan duo Coldcut. Like the way of the ninja, the label and its artists are constantly honing their skills, in this case culture jamming or just plain jamming. In the past 15 years, Ninja Tune has spun several sublabels and projects off its central wheel, mixing genres and mixing mediums into post-electro cutups.
"I think your average person would look at Ninja Tune and think we're still a late-'90s trip-hop label, and [sister label] Big Dada is left-field British hip-hop," says Jeff Waye, Ninja Tune's longtime North American label manager. "But they'd be very wrong in both perceptions."
According to Waye, Ninja Tune's height of success was the 1998-2002 period in the wake of DJ Shadow's and the Chemical Brothers' successes. Then the critical spotlight swung back to indie rock. Waye feels that the pendulum is slowly headed back, and once folks get past fads like "new rave" and return to more substantial music, they will (re)discover Ninja Tune, Bid Dada, and the quality of work of a new generation of bedroom producers.
Artists such as Spank Rock and Diplo have used the new millennium's access to the masses--blogs, YouTube, etc.--to establish themselves in a way that has redefined the Big Dada label in the U.S. But Ninja Tune itself proudly remains a label that is more interested in laying down slow-burn dynamics than battering anyone with gutter-party bangers. Artists such as Kid Koala, Sixtoo, Daedelus, and Amon Tobin have taken Ninja Tune into denser, murkier territory, but the Coldcut/DJ Food school of quick-cutting turntable quirk remains a label strong suit.
"I'm totally happy there's Funki Porcini, Bonobo, Coldcut--people who very much define what we've been known for almost 16 years," Waye says. "We need that basis to have some consistency. At the same time you don't want to rehash the same thing, re-toe the line. I wouldn't want another Scruff, because Scruff is great at being Scruff."
Mr. Scruff is Andy Carthy, a Manchester-based animator, musician, and tea and ale fanatic. A former student at the Sheffield College of Art, Scruff began making music in the same loose style as his illustrations. Upon debuting on the decks in the early '90s, Scruff attracted the trendsetters and -spotters with a genre-defying beat bouillabaisse and some swinging samples. But his initial, more abstract musical output has grown more defined over time, with more simmer and shimmer in his beats and pieces.
As a longtime Ninja, Scruff has devised his own special weaponry. He likes a playful "messaround" aesthetic, patching synths and mic-ing live percussion in the studio, eventually throwing in dashes of funk, hip-hop, jazz, dub, Afrobeat, soul, disco-house, and ragga, all sprinkled with a childish wonder. Hours spent working with evolving studio technology has allowed Scruff to sync up these influences even more tightly, without his music losing its trademark looseness and becoming taut and off-putting.
"I make music in the style of a DJ, I'm more of a collage artist," Scruff says. "I've been working with a lot of musicians and a cut-and-paste approach on this album. Obviously, there's music for pleasure--a lot [of music on his forthcoming album] manifests itself in club music that sounds good on a fat sound system. At the other end there's a lot of vocal music addressing serious topics--folk, hip-hop, soul. Everyone has their own thing, and often people [such as myself] have both on the same album."
Producing for "friendly, good-humored music fans," Scruff enjoys existing in a world where more and more people making music "understand studios and are competent musicians." It gives him more potential collaborators, such as his exploits with members of U.K. broken-beat ensemble Bugz in the Attic on an upcoming, unscheduled, untitled album, parts of which will be road-tested on limited American tour dates, such as his DJ gig in Baltimore this week. Additionally, Scruff's ever-swelling trove of personal tracks and assorted new tunes fuels his trademark, landmark, "keep it unreal" party sets, which last five to six hours on average.
With an ear for pacing, Scruff eschews the two-hour banging style of DJing for "a word game, playing things that are associated," he says. "A DJ is making a sentence, emphasizing words and leaving gaps and assigning punctuation."
Scruff's music is methodical, coupled with a healthy dose of randomness. So much music goes for flash and sizzle, aiming to make the peoples get stoopid. Pop music--even Spank Rock, Diplo, et al.--can be more like sumo wrestling than ninja combat; there's pomp, circumstance, and without an audience it likely wouldn't exist. But Ninja Tune and its artists maintain a hidden mountaintop training ground for the blunted, practicing their subtle, secretive moves all for the sake of a future dance-floor kill.
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