On Ninja Tune
Most people come into music, do the same thing for a few years, slowly sink back into obscurity and spend the rest of their life collecting publishing royalties and re-forming for tribute tours. Their biographies can afford to be quite short - most of us aren't that interested in golf or angling. The problem with Coldcut is that, despite their veteran status, they act like two unruly children who just won't sit still. Which is why even a brief trawl through their various activities looks like a large chapter of a big book.
Ex-art teacher Jonathan More and computer programmer Matt Black have been a team since the mid-eighties. Both Matt and Jonathan had been building their DJ reputation on the nascent rare groove / warehouse party scene. Jon had a show on the then pirate station Kiss FM and worked in Reckless Records in Londons west end, where he sold Matt a bootleg of 'Across The Tracks' by Maceo & the Macks. Matt came back the next day with 'Say Kids, What Time Is It?' and suggested they work on it together. Meanwhile Jon helped Matt onto Kiss FM and they soon started the joint 'Solid Steel' show (still running to this day). 'Say Kids...' was released in 1987, becoming the UK's first sample-built record. In the same year the duo defined the term 'remix' on Eric B and Rakim's 'Paid in Full', cutting and pasting Israeli singer Ofra Haza's vocals in a notorious reworking which became a worldwide classic. Coldcut's talent was recognized by a BPI 'Producers Of the Year' award in 1990, while their debut album, 'What's That Noise', went silver.
The concept of setting up an independent label took shape during a trip to Japan where Matt and Jon made a discovery: "We found a book about cut-out-and-keep Ninjas. They build these amazing houses where they have special traps so they can disappear and reappear somewhere else. They were all about artifice and hidden identity." Tiring of the juggernaut marketing ethic of major labels, this stealthy philosophy seemed appealing. They wrapped up their involvement with the Big Boys in 1993 with the album 'Philosophy' and plunged into the establishment of Ninja Tune, though not before their ambient cover of 'Autumn Leaves' had kickstarted the easy listening movement.
The story of Ninja Tune is another whole chapter and has been told elsewhere. It perhaps suffices to say that the organisation has grown into one of the classic independent labels to emerge in the '90s, providing a welcoming home to a range of acts including Mr Scruff, Cinematic Orchestra, Herbaliser, Kid Koala and Wagon Christ, as well as the likes of Roots Manuva and Ty through the later-established Big Dada imprint.
As befits a pair of DJs who seem to believe that the whole world is there to be cut and pasted, "we mix things, over as broad a spectrum of activities as possible."
Hence the duo's label-running activities in the early and mid-nineties were augmented by a plethora of other endeavours: the Stealth club night (Club of the Year in the NME, The Face and Mixmag in 1996), the pioneering Pipe website initially written by Coldcut themselves in 1995 and a variety of multimedia experiments with Rob Pepperell as Hex. Fired up by the possibilities presented by digital interactivity, Coldcut and Hex began developing toys and art installation pieces ranging from the 'Top Banana' computer game to the 'Generator' for the Glasgow Gallery Of Modern Art and 'Synopticon' for the JAM, a major exhibit at London's Barbican.
While spending the early 90s building this diverse, avant-garde collage of activities, Coldcut were maniacally preparing their own musical breakout. In 1997 they unleashed their fourth album, 'Let Us Play', the first on their own label. The album featured collaborations with highly political ex-Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra, legendary funk drummer Bernard Purdie, poet Salena Saliva, and - one of Coldcut's biggest inspirations - Steinski. Both album and classic single 'More Beats and Pieces' reached the UK Top 40. And, as important as the art was, the politics - tracks like 'Timber' and 'Atomic Moog 3000' - set out an anti-corporate, ecological, anti-authoritarian vision that found its technical expression in the group's continuing interest in interactivity with their audience.
At the same time, Coldcut were still doing their 'Solid Steel' show on Kiss every Saturday, keeping up the traditional mixed bag and stacking up plaudits such as the Sony Award for Best Specialist Show. All of which led to their 'Journeys By DJ' mix album, '70 Minutes of Madness', which was released to rave reviews and declared the Best Compilation of All Time in Jockey Slut, 1998. By 2000, though, the culture at Kiss has become too commercial for Black and More and they moved the show to BBC London Live, although their main focus was on building its profile as an internet station.
Prior to the release of 'Let Us Play', Matt Black was pioneering the concept of VJing at diverse parties such as the legendary Telepathic Fish, Sabresonic and The Big Chill, with the first fruits of this collision of audio and video to be found on the free CD-Rom which accompanied the 'Let Us Play' CD.
It was, however, only with the tours that followed the record's release that a wider audience began to get an idea of what Coldcut were up to. To promote their work live, Coldcut designed their own VJ software, VJamm, allowing the live re-creation of whole audiovisual pieces. Video could now be jammed or scratched with as easily as sound and audiences were blown away by this new direction. Coldcut called the show CCTV and have presented it everywhere from Sonar in Barcelona, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Glastonbury Dance Tent, Roskilde, the Queen Elizabeth Hall (as part of John Peel's Meltdown), Steve Reich's remix project launch party in New York and the Darklight Digital Film Festival in Dublin - to name but a few. John Peel, incidentally, was a staunch fan of the group and, in addition to three Sessions during his lifetime, Matt and Jon were chosen to introduce the DJ section of the John Peel Memorial BBC concert night.
1999 saw the release of remix album 'Let Us Replay', featuring contributions from Cornelius, Carl Craig, Shut Up And Dance and Ryuchi Sakamoto amongst others. Coldcut's politics came to the fore again in 2001, when they released 'Re:volution' to coincide with the British general election. Characterised by Matt Black as a "celebration/diss of UK politics and the 2001 election, an audivisual PARTY political broadcast cutting up your fave enemies over a steaming punk jungle (pungle?) stomper", it led to a campaign involving a mayhem-packed double decker bus ride round Westminster in the company of Brighton's Free Party and the Church of Bob.
It also inspired American activists to ask Coldcut to become involved in a project for the 2004 US Presidential election. Revusa.net allowed people to download over 12Gb of footage from the last 40 years of US politics and then use them to create a cut-up over a Coldcut beat. The result was Coldcut v. TV Sheriff, 'World Of Evil', widely acclaimed and somehow regularly shown on MTV.
Alongside the headline-grabbing releases, there has been smaller, more grass-roots activity, too. Piratetv.net was run from Coldcut's Spacelab studio in London and viewed all over the world, pioneering what Black describes as "guerilla netcasting". Special guests on the show ran from Radiohead to the Surveillance Camera Players. Coming from another angle, Vjs.net has focussed on educational activity. Matt is also heavily involved with Nowthemovie.org which aims to make a 21st Century montage documentary in the spirit of 'Sans Soleil' or 'Baraka', using footage uploaded to the site by people all over the world.
And the art projects continue apace; Gridio (a collaboration between Coldcut and Headspace) is an "interactive responsive environment" originally commissioned by the Pompidou Centre in Paris which has toured all over Europe.
2004 saw Coldcut produce a play in conjunction with renowned young author Hari Kunzru for BBC Radio 3 (incidentally, also called 'Sound Mirrors'). A collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has led to the short film 'Wavejammer', and running parallel to this, the remix and production work has continued apace.
It is a tribute to Coldcut's standing as well as the sheer diversity of their output that the last few years have seen them re-work the theme to Dr Who, the music of Herbie Hancock and the Trojan catalogue, that they returned to the South Bank's Meltdown festival for a live audiovisual dub with Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Mad Professor and Headspace. That they have assembled a group of artists as diverse as Jon Spencer, Robert Owens, Saul Williams, Soweto Kinch and Roots Manuva to appear on their new record. That musically, they have continued to refine and develop both their skills and their style so that, after a twenty year career at the forefront they can honestly claim that this is their best, most complete album to date, utterly contemporary, as fresh as the day they started. Maybe they've remained masters by remaining unruly schoolchildren. Who knows? All that matters is that the masters are back.