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Review: Ninja Tune XX Box Set by ymatto
November 3, 2010, 10:25 am
Filed under: Electronic, hip-hop | Tags: , , ,

Ninja Tune has earned hell of respect over the years.  They started as Coldcut’s pet label but have built a name as discoverers of solid talent among knob-twiddlers and rhyme-sayers.  They do turntablism — they do electronic — they do hip-hop — and they did trip-hop/acid-jazz before, while, and after people called it that.  These days they’re even diving headlong into the glitch-hop/dubstep sound, picking up some of the better artists of the genre.  And even that doesn’t really capture the eclecticism you get with a label that seems to sign artists just because they’re doing something undeniably head-nodding.

So when I heard about a limited-edition Ninja Tune 20-year anniversary box set with 6 CDs, 6 7″ers, a hard-bound book, and membership to some sort of insider’s club, I noticed I was already looking at an order confirmation screen.  Shortly thereafter I got a brown cardboard box imprinted with the Ninja logo containing an enormous glossy tome of music, art, and honest swag.  It’s a big box, which is why I’ve got six more paragraphs here.

This is a case study in how to publish music in the 21st century in a way that makes people care.  It’s the Phaidon Design Classics of record label box sets, such is the quality.  As much as I support physical music media in general, this deal took me back to when buying a couple of CDs wasn’t just obtaining music, it was entertainment for the evening.  The hardcover book isn’t just stuff they slapped together, it’s actually an interesting collection of behind-the-scenes stuff, artwork and history all wound around the landmark albums in the Ninja back catalog.  And I’ve got mad stickers and posters I need to figure out what to do with.

There is actually music in here too.  Truth be told, I haven’t even listened to the vinyl — either the 7″ers in the box or the 12″ I got in the mail the other day as part of the club membership — because I sold my turntable a while back.  Don’t judge.  But back to what’s included, you’d expect with this kind of anniversary comp that it would be all about nostalgia, but they chose to go another way.  Here’s a rundown:

The first 2 CDs, called “Exxclusives”, are all new tracks done for the XX box by as many Ninja artists as they could pull together; interesting for sure, but is going to be low on cohesion.  It starts off soulful and smoove-style, moves through a couple of solid Bonobo pieces, starts to drift to the hip-hop end of things… and then by the end of the first disk you realize you’re listening to a completely silly Qemists drum’n’bass number and the last two tracks have been straight house.  You get oddities like curious remixes of Dark Lady, a Chali 2na and Roots Manuva tag-team, an arbitrary King Cannibal glitch-hop track, and a bit of dirty scratch-blues from Kid Koala. Mad different methods.

Then the next 4 CDs are the “Remixxes” (although about half the tracks are just assorted or unreleased songs), which are now available outside the encyclo-box and form the meat of the thing.  As with the Exxclusives, it’s pointless to try to draw any generalities here, given the diversity of tracks.  This isn’t like the mixed comps Ninja Tune is famous for, like Cold Krush Kuts or Funkungfusion, which had discs of thematically similar tracks sewn seamlessly together.  It’s like an enormous and elaborately detailed cross section of the Church of What’s Happening Now at Ninja Tune.  Just to give you a flavor, you’ve got:

Fools – a raging glitch-hop number by Two Fingers

It’s On – a Roots Manuva track that’s as good as anything he’s ever done

Cloudlight – a damn nice, fuzzed-out track by up-and-coming Eskmo

A passel of Bonobo tracks, all strong

Eight Sum – Amon Tobin brings his guitar riffs and angry drums sound, which I still dig

Post Suite – a live and soulful jazz piece by Floating Points Ensemble, who I know nothing at all about

Skeng – an Autechre remix of a The Bug track that’s some intensely bleak and paranoid hip-hop

Volcano – Four Tet remixes the Antipop Consortium track, basically laying the lyrics atop a new composition that is flat-out beautiful and drops rhythm like stainless steel

Although it’s not in the box, they couldn’t resist also giving you the retrospective mix that you’d expect.  A download code gives you access to The Way of the Ninja, a mix that covers the history of the label by King Cannibal.  This guy is half of Buddy Peace & ZILLA, who also did the damned outstanding Watch & Repeat Play mix CD for the Warp DVD video collection a while back.  The formula is the same as the WARP mix, with each “track” forged from the component parts of around 10 back-catalog songs each, but it’s less successful here purely because there’s just too much stylistic ground to cover.  But it’s still a wheel barrow full of good music and could probably be used for a track-spotting drinking game.

I write this not so much for you, the listener, but for music makers and publishers.  Behold what Ninja Tune has wrought, and judge thyself.  Love the music, love the presentation, love the listener.  It’s on.

– Matt

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