If we’ve learned anything at all from martial-arts movies, we know a true ninja warrior needs speed, agility, and smarts. So it’s only fitting that these three qualities have also been key to the success of Ninja Tune. Founded 30 years ago in London as a haven for underground sounds from throughout the realms of electronic and hip-hop music, the label has nurtured and championed some of the world's most vanguard and least categorizable artists.
In its early years, Ninja Tune became known for supporting pioneering trip-hop, turntablist, and drum ‘n’ bass acts like The Herbaliser, Kid Koala, and Amon Tobin. These days, it does the same for electronic-music A-listers such as ODESZA, Bonobo, and Actress. All the while, Ninja Tune has maintained a formidable reputation as a proudly independent label that’s savvy and nimble enough to stay competitive.
Always adventurous when it comes to its own roster, Ninja Tune has further demonstrated its belief in diversity and originality through its endeavors with the various labels and imprints under its umbrella. In addition to these are the many labels with whom they partner with, like Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder, home to Thundercat.
Here, Samantha Sissons, Ninja Tune’s head of marketing, and Marie Clausen, head of North America and global streaming, talk about how the label earned its black belt and stays in fighting shape.
Whereas other labels often cultivate rosters of artists who may share a genre or style or otherwise be more comfortable in pigeonholes, Ninja Tune has always been more like a wide-ranging community of mavericks who all have their own thing going on. Ninja Tune’s artist-driven sensibility is no surprise given that it was launched by Matt Black and Jonathan More of Coldcut as a vehicle for the London duo’s own ideas and a welcoming place for other musical misfits.
“Trusting the artist’s vision and allowing that to guide everything else was and remains paramount,” says Sissons. Thirty years after founding Ninja Tune, Black and More continue to be active not just as recording artists and DJs, but software and app developers, too.
Sissons notes that as with any young label, Ninja Tune started with a more focused sound, albeit one that reflected the innovative spirit among UK musicians, DJs, and producers that soon led to overground exposure for new genres like trip-hop, jungle, garage, and grime. “The intention was always to sign what we like,” she says, “and we like a lot of music so the diversification followed quite naturally.”
She also notes that Coldcut’s determination to battle “musical and cultural homogeneity” gave the label a valuable statement of purpose. “When you consider the breadth of music consumption these days,” she says, “it certainly feels like a prescient sentiment as well as a noble one.”
Cultivating their talents
A multiple GRAMMY nominee who’s revered for his varied and textured downtempo sounds and who’s been with Ninja Tune since 2001, Bonobo is a great example of an artist whose career grew in an organic way. Sissons says Ninja Tune has been able to cultivate acts like Bonobo thanks to a model that is much less about quick returns than “long-term sustainable growth characterized by sensible spending decisions and (hopefully) the development of a fanbase that is as deep as it is broad.” She says it’s been particularly thrilling to watch Bonobo’s rise “because you bear witness to true talent.” She adds, “You can’t contrive a career as long and as successful as his.”
Part of the Ninja Tune family since their second album, In Return, which came out on the Counter Records imprint in 2014, ODESZA have also traveled from the underground to the genre’s top ranks. Clausen can’t hide her excitement about seeing ODESZA’s rise firsthand. “The thing we are most proud of is being part of a ride that saw what started as a pretty leftfield instrumental electronic project reach the dizzying heights of the industry,” she says. “Suffice to say we learnt a lot along the way, but we have an amazing relationship with ODESZA and their whole team, which was a huge part of making the hard work feel so enjoyable.”
The relationship continues with BRONSON, a just-announced collaborative album between ODESZA and Australian DJ and producer Golden Features, with features by Gallant, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and lau.ra of Ultraísta. The first tracks “HEART ATTACK” and “VAULTS” got a surprise release April 28 with a self-titled album to follow July 17.
Being a veteran independent label that has weathered all kinds of change in the last three decades, Ninja Tune has always known the value of quick adaptability, too. Clausen believes that the label’s experiences in recent years have helped give them the skills necessary to launch Ninja Tune’s next success stories, with Zambian-born, Australia-based rapper Sampa the Great being one of the brightest lights.
Says Clausen, “If the music is right and the artist is committed, the formula pretty much remains the same: Work the music in as many directions as possible, around the world, as hard as you possibly can. And if you hear the word ‘no’ you try and turn it into a ‘yes.'" She notes that helping Sampa succeed has been fulfilling not only because she's talented but also because she's worked so hard to get where she is.
In 2019, the Ninja Tune team stayed busy with campaigns for Floating Points, Jayda G, Octo Octa and Marie Davidson, as well as the first album in 12 years by The Cinematic Orchestra, another of the label’s most iconic acts. More recently the focus has been on Thundercat’s latest, It Is What It Is, already one of 2020’s most acclaimed releases. “It feels like it’s going to be a very important record and a key moment in his career,” says Clausen.
Indeed, the idiosyncratic Los Angeles bassist and songwriter seems another representative figure when it comes to Ninja Tune’s knack for staying ahead of the curve. Says Clausen, “We’ve had a lot of success existing right at the intersection of underground and mainstream without any loss of integrity, sonic or otherwise.”