Various Artists: Zen: A Ninja Tune Retrospective
Back in the day, my very first exposure to the electronic/chillout label known as Ninja Tune came in the form of Coldcut, a duo of Jonathan More and Matt Black. Let Us Play (1998) was a discovery of the highest order, an audio CD matched with an interactive CD-ROM. More and Black, the founders of Ninja Tune in 1995, had something very seriously groovy going on. To quote from "More Beats & Pieces,"
Honey, I got rhythms I haven't even used yet!
In retrospect, that spaced-out nerd sounds right on target. The creed of Ninja Tune, revealed continually down the road, boils down to the following double entendre:
In order to have a revolution, there has to be a revolutionary party...
Indeed. This marks the first time Ninja Tune has ever released a compilation consisting of previously recorded material, and quite honestly it's been too long. The label has always mined the fertile intersection between the jam, hip-hop and electronica, revealed in opuses built of beats, samples and psychedelia. Two compact discs are enough to span 32 tracks, 19 artists, over two and a half hours of music.
Like any sampler, you'll find some tracks more appealing than others. But the standards remain high. At baseline, this music is all about the groove, chilling without freezing up. DJ Food delivers the fundamentals in distilled form on the opener: a catchy bass line joins up with synth swirls, only to submit to funky drumming and hand claps. Down the road: samples, and more samples. That's really the bottom line with Ninja Tune. Nothing too difficult, nothing too far away from the appealing simplicity of the funky groove. But never, ever, boring.
The aforementioned Coldcut appears on "Atomic Moog," a psychedelic meditation about nuclear war ("Outlaw the bomb!"), and two other tracks. DJ Vadim , from the 2002 disc USSR: The Other Side, hosts Motion Man at the mic, who exclaims: "I'm a terrorist!" before spelling everything out. I guess it was still acceptable to be one of those two years ago. (Just think what happened to the heavy metal band Anthrax after the mystery mail on Captol Hill. It wasn't pretty. But then again, Anthrax wasn't particularly pretty to start with.)
Two tracks later, a femaleand openly feministvoice chants: "Your revolution will not happen between these thighs... the real revolution ain't about booty size, the Versace he buys, or the Lexus he drives." The message returns again.
Brazilian expatriate Amon Tobin reaches out of the fog with "Deo," a guitar-rich meditation with a subtle, penetrating groove, hot on the heels of "Sordid," which virtually begs you to swivel hips and clap hands. Tobin is the absolute master of the understated jam, constructing his music from interlaced patterns that might seem naked on their own, yet meld together in a very intuitive way. You almost don't notice how detailed the products can get.
Turntablist/hip-hopper Kid Koala tends to be better on record than in person, though your mileage may vary, and the slow-paced "Fender Bender" has just the right balance of elements in the mix. Jazzier flavors come though toward the end with the Cinematic Orchestra and Jaga Jazzist, both of whom released outstanding records last year.
If you look seriously at this collection, you'll see that it meets every criterion for a label retrospective: the tracking flows smoothly, the content feels very connected, and the sum total is well representative of the label's output. Don't listen too carefully, though. That's not the point. You might also consider smoking first, though that part is entirely optional...
(Note: this compilation is available in 2xCD or 3xLP formats, the latter best suited to practitioners of the old school sound. Its companion releases include Zen RMX, a collection of inspired remixes by Squarepusher and others; and Zen TV, the video highlights.)
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Track Listing: 01 DJ Food - Dark Lady 02 Coldcut - Atomic Moog 03 Amon Tobin - Get Your Snack On 04 Bonobo - Pick Up 05 Mr Scruff - Get A Move On 06 Mr Scruff - Sweetsmoke 07 Wagon Christ - Bend Over 08 Kid Koala - Skanky Panky 09 Luke Vibert - Get Your Head Down 10 Amon Tobin - Sordid 11 DJ Food - Spiral 12 Hexstatic - Auto 13 Coldcut - Timber 14 Amon Tobin - Easy Muffin 15 Coldcut - Autumn Leaves ***only appears on UK version 16 Fog - Check Fraud ***only appears on North American version 17 Cinematic Orchestra - All That You Give 18 Funki Porcini - Long Road (edit) 19 Coldcut - More Beats & Pieces 20 DJ Vadim - Terrorist 21 Kid Koala - Fender Bender 22 DJ Vadim - Your Revolution 23 The Herbaliser - Mr Chombee Has The Flaw 24 Mr Scruff - Shrimp 25 The Herbaliser - The Blend 26 9 Lazy 9 - Black Jesus 27 Up Bustle & Out - Aqui No Ma 28 Cinematic Orchestra - Channel 1 Suite 29 Amon Tobin - Deo 30 Cinematic Orchestra - All Things To All Men 31 Jaga Jazzist - Lithuania 32 Funki Porcini - Purrfect (edit) 33 The Herbaliser - Something Wicked.