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Ninja Tune Week: XX Box Set Reviewed By Neil Kulkarni
Neil Kulkarni , September 20th, 2010 07:59

Our man Neil Kulkarni gives his verdict on the Ninja Tunes box sets, and pays tribute to a label that is still irresistibly addictive

You want guided tours or histories go Google yourself some comfort, but context schmontex: this is about pleasure. About how a bassline can burrow bullworm-like, skin cracked and elastic with glistened bliss, eyeless larval head writhing side to side in its buzzing birthpangs and breakdowns. About how a snare can clamp fangs down on your snapping neck, squelch a splat of trebly alien jizz on the kick's bulbous hum.

Pleasure in the pressure and spark of electronics, in how what's human can creep amidst the circuits and force them into overload, pleasure in the shapes and curves of your own body and how this music melds and manacles it in immortal momentary ecstasy. Ninja understood from the off that hipness weren't as important as making hips move, that cool comes from a willingness to be hot as fuck – if this epic box set were just a tipping of the hat, a compilation of finest moments, sure I'd tip it the wink, give it the nod and then ignore it in favour of the dancehall, hip-hop and current tech-funk that bullies our day-to-day. But this isn't a rosy-glowed look back: for Ninjatune's 20th anniversary the label's decided to throw down six-odd discs of white-hot natty newness for your noggin and you'd best believe folk've come through with full-tilt glory; that this is distress-ill for your bulk and fittingly too much for the mind. A multi-formatted array of remixes and new tracks splayed over six CDs, a few hunks of vinyl and some secret downloads (and a great book by Stevie Chick that fleshes out the fascinating Ninja-story), this box is a mother for your mind. And of course, it's up and down like a funkin' yo-yo.

See, I can tell this is Ninjamuzik cos as ever with Ninja, I find some of this shit horrific. Ho Riffic: Ne'mind that we've now entered an age in which guilt has no place in music, in which everything is rehabilitated and we're not allowed to be grossed out by anything, (esp. anything prog/fusion/folktronic – precisely the territory Ninja have been galumphing over for longer than anyone) - some of this stuff is fuckin' rank, gamey, beardy, putrid, musical Durian fruit.

Twas ever thus with Ninja – they were investigating the radiophonic and fusionoid before anyone this side of Position Normal/Ultramarine, certainly up-to-their-nuts in full-fat synth-jazz nastiness well before d'n'b took a misguided detour thataways. Where Mo'Wax and the rash of major-label subsids that flowered in their ordure always seemed to aim for a bespoke politesse with their hybrids, a revoltingly tasteful amalgam of obvious canonical sources, Ninja Tune were more like demented gene-splicers, mad lab-bound fantasists creating monsters and megabeasts out of the unholy pile of wank/gold that was their listening and lives, sending mutations out down the avenue into a world that could (just) recall the ingredients but wasn't ready for the recipe or the resulting mess. Ninja always seemed pitched between making some music that might disappear it was so smooth (the jazzier end of things I freely admit I mostly ignored) and a whole lot more music that was pure balls-out demented shiz from planet nutzoid.

It was that variability that made them so vital – the contrast in the early 90s tween the po-faced likes of Shadow/UNKLE and the gaggle of freaks that constituted the Ninja roster was plain and simple: trip-hoppers acted as if hip-hop needed tripping out, Ninja's cabal of hebraphrenics knew that hip-hop was some of the most psychedelic shit out there already, and simply threw it into the pot with whatever else was spinning their propeller. That hip-hop-style irreverence (as opposed to Mo-Wax's ex-mod fanboy-reverence), that willingness to abuse sounds (seemingly hotwired into the DNA of Ninjatunes ethos by the Coldcut connection), that righteously free-wheeling fuckry aligned Ninja closer to the SPIRIT of their sources than any more timid facsimile-merchants could ever manage.

This was music with edges, that refused to become background, that rudely insisted upon your time and attention in the same way its heroes and heroines did. You could take drugs to it, sure, but you didn't NEED to take drugs to it. There was a contact-high Alice In Wonderland possibility within Ninjatune music that bypassed/replicated the pharmaceutical. Way more than the weak coffee(table)/serotonin-inhibitor sedation offered elsewhere, Ninja were always the smartarses poison of choice. To the point where, even as younger zones of flash have come and gone your way, you will, once touched, always cock an ear Ninjawards every now and then. Cos they burned you once and the memory won't let you get healed. An addictive label, in all senses.

What's gratifying about this box is that it serves as reminder that at all times and to this day, Ninja make electronic music that refuses the confines and limitations of that remit, simply won't engage in the subtle demarcations (racial, social, musical, mental) that exert such a still-pervading sensibleness to too many indie labels. Ninja have no 'target' audience bar you right now in the skin you're in: pitched right, roaring out the biggest speakers you can liberate from your local Rumbelows come this winter's riots, this is music that reaches for you, ravages you, rampages through you, beats that go through orphanages, texture that goes in thick slabs from street to deep space to your innards, sound that plunges one fist down your throat, one up your butt and wears you like a muff, pulls you apart like a ragdoll. Play Ninja music, as I have, in bars where folk are used to music simply being hip/vague enough to soundtrack their steady dissolution into the night and it brings the worst out in people; kicks off fights, forces the listener and dancer to sacrifice their self-control, respond instinctively even though what's being heard is frequently brainy as fuck.

So, whilst what's within this box is a ton of music, the glut never bores you because the music refuses to disappear into your walls, either animates or aggravates you, never ever ever gives you a moment to simply coast on the fact that you're cool enough to be listening to it. Highlights? Two Fingers viscous 'Fools', Roots Manuva's gloriously rolling 'It's On', Toddla T's earthquake dancehall on 'Want U Now', Emika's soul-scalding 'Double Edge' (like Telepathe learned how to sing and got rerubbed by Roots Radics), everything by The Bug, everything by Daedelus, Metronomy brutalising Diplo to fantastic effect on 'Newsflash', likewise Todd Edwards on Spank Rock, Poirier's typically twisted 'Get Crazy', Fink's loping luscious 'The Thing', Amon Tobin's 'Lost & Found' sounding like Juana Molina's box of tricks making a break for freedom.

By the end of disc two you're like Ricky Hatton debating whether to drop another gramme on the table and start chopping your sanity away – even if you're numb in the nose, tongue and head you'll be slapped into life come track five of the more chillaxed disc Three by the stunning 'I Hear The Drummer' from the Xen Cut All-Stars. And once DJ Vadim is doing his customary head-wreckage on the stunning 'Terrorist' (followed by a fab 'Slugabed' remix of Roots' 'Witness) the terrordome that lollops atop your head is either gonna be wiped clean, infected with demons or wriggling with obscene nano life. In any of these cases the increased appearance of Big Dada acts on the last three CDs might be too much mindmelt to stomach in one sitting. I say you a Larrypussy Lightweight – check out the stunning King Cannibal/Roots Manuva/Wiley/AntiPop Consortium tracks but also the amazing Tobin/KronosQuartet ruckus and the wonderfully familiar sense of shock in the ace Coldcut and DJ Food's offerings. (The eldest statesmen of the label really pull bedlam and brilliance out the bag on the last two CDs here). Too much for one sitting? Possibly, but sitting still isn't really an option. Ninja Tunes still make you move, still simmer and seethe with stealth and then surge the rush upon your heart. A fantastic full-fat statement of where they've been and their plans for your future. Start putting it on those Xmas lists now.