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Ninja Tune was founded in 1990 by pioneers Matt Black and Jonathan More AKA Coldcut. Having blown up the airwaves with the 1987 remix of Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full', the label was established to release their own productions alongside like-minded acts they were coming across that the majors eschewed. Since its inception, it has become a leading independent label best known for putting broken beat and British leftfield electronic music on the map, together with kickstarting the careers of DJ Food, Mr Scruff, and Amon Tobin to name a few.

Ninja Tune have since expanded their roster with the addition of a host of contemporary artists such as Actress, Floating Points and Bonobo, and continue to source and release plenty of boundary-pushing emerging talent; few independent labels in the UK could claim to have worked with such a broad spectrum of artists. Speak to any recording artist in electronic music right now, and they will agree that one dream label to release on is Ninja Tune.

Ninja Tune, as befitting its founders, has its roots simultaneously in electronic music, hip hop, and of course, sampling. But their desire to throw in curveball releases here and there is what has really set the label apart. Artists you might not expect to find on a dance music label have a habit of cropping up in between the big hitters and long-time legacy artists. Nestled amongst acts like Bonobo and The Cinematic Orchestra you might find the ethereal loops from Juliana Barwick or raw post-punk energy from London’s ‘New Weird Britain’ paradigm-shifters Black Country, New Road.

Spanning a multitude of sub-labels helps keep this all feeling coherent. With Big Dada, Brainfeeder, Werkdiscs, Counter and Technicolour, there’s a sense of freedom that allows each label to explore its own territory while maintaining the same core values of a Ninja Tune release.

Ninja Tune

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30+1 years on, this year started with a bang, with Bicep. The Belfast duo have hit stratospheric success with their recent LP, Isles. Intended as a home listening piece, somewhat removed from their usual big room, fist-pumping fare. At times almost melancholic and downbeat, it is also the perfect showcase of their prodigious production skills. The tracks featuring vocalist Clara La San hint at that dampening down of their Room 1 sound, like it’s the 7am drive home from the rave and everyone’s cooling off in the back seat.

If Isles is the drive home, then India Jordan’s latest EP, Watch Out, is firmly the drive to the rave. There’s none of this home-listening concept, no waiting for the pandemic to finish, there’s only, “this is a rave and it’s on my terms”. For an artist that began their career making ambient and running their own ambient label, it is, and there is no other word for it, a delight to see them revel in this high energy sound, playing with jungle, breaks and more.

The sophomore album from Leon Vynehall, Rare Forever, is a mish-mash of both home-listening and the desire for rave. This descriptor is no slight however. After his debut release, the concept album Nothing Is Still that chronicalled a chapter in his grandparents lives, came with a novella and a clutch of short films, it is almost freeing to see the in-demand producer embrace a bit of chaos. With the last year or so feeling akin to chaos, Vynehall’s alignment with the (unfortunate) zeitgeist makes this truly a record of our times.

Flinging themselves head-first into that ordered chaos is relatively new kids on the block Black Country, New Road. Listening to the album, it’s abundantly clear that Ninja Tune loves to sign oddball acts, and they are the cream of this new wave of “sprechgesang” bands. Vocalist Issac Wood excels in this sardonic spoken word vocal style liable to tremble across themes of identity and popular culture, as well as poking holes in the moth-eaten fabric of Britishness combined with the band’s post rock and post punk leanings that makes for engaging listening. It is their frenetic energy, a whirlwind tour of countercultural genre amalgamations that sets them apart from fellow pioneering acts.

It is this nose for the next big thing, albeit often side-stepping the charts entirely, that informs the floor-focused “singles'' sub-label, Technicolour. The back catalogue reads like a who’s who of underground dance music royalty. From Octo Octa to Yu Su, to Discwoman’s Umfang to Hieroglyphic Being and the most recent offering on the sub-label, Elkka. The London producer, and co-founder of the Femme Culture imprint, cements her place in the spotlight with five track EP, Burnt Orange.

Technicolour

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Another part of the Ninja Tune family is the hip hop label Big Dada. Starting out in 1997, it became the home to UK hip hop artists Roots Manuva and TY; in later years it became a refuge for artists like the idiosyncratic poet **Kae Tempest **, Onyx Collective and Yaya Bey. In 2021, Big Dada relaunched as a label run by Black, POC & Minority Ethnic Ninja Tune staff members supporting Black, POC & Minority Ethnic artists, "deepening its cultural identity by supporting & offering resources to a new generation of artists."

Big Dada

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You can't talk about Ninja Tune, without digging into the crates of their sister label Brainfeeder. Started in 2008 by Flying Lotus, it was born from pre-gentrified Hollywood, the Valley, Lincoln Heights, plus L.A. focal points Dublab and Low End Theory. It has constantly broken new ground with a discography that takes in some of the finest hours from Kamasi Washington, Daedelus, Mr. Oizo, Thundercat, Martyn, Ross From Friends, Lapalux, DJ PayPal; with Australian group Hiatus Kaiyote a newly welcomed member to the Brainfeeder family.

This fiercely independent label has consistently captured some of the last decades finest street-level sounds, shooting them through the prism of Flying Lotus' second to none artistic sequencing, scope and vision.

Brainfeeder

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