Some time around 1987, I bought a 7xCD box set called Atlantic Rhythm &
Blues 1947-1974. I think this was the first time I realized that certain
record labels were identified with a specific "sound." The hugely influential
R&B singles cut during those years by people like Joe Turner, Otis Redding,
Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles are rightly
identified with their performers, but the music definitely shared a
sensibility. After all, these tracks were recorded in a small handful of
studios, with many of the same producers, session musicians and songwriters.
So, though it was nowhere near as mechanized as Motown later became, Atlantic
R&B had an aesthetic, and this meant that the heavenly box set was a unified
listening experience, with each disc flowing like melted butter.
The fantastic Ninja Tune retrospective Xen Cuts, celebrating the
label's 10-year anniversary, has a similar cohesiveness. Though the several
dozen artists on these three discs come from at least four continents and
work in different genres, there's always some thread that's still vaguely
"Ninja Tune." It must have something to do with the kinds of records that
turn label founders Jonathan More and Matt Black on. We can guess that they
appreciate '60s exotica and Blue Note jazz, and they especially dig the
hip-hop of the late '80s-- the time when they made their first recorded
impact by remixing Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full." Consciously or not,
they've kept their ears open for artists with a similar quality, even though
the roster they've accumulated is as rich with variety as it is with talent.
Fine DJs that they are, Coldcut know how to select and sequence tracks,
further upping this collection's listenability factor. Each disc here seems
to have a loose theme. The first showcases the hip-hop side of Ninja Tune,
with a good chunk of the 18 tracks featuring Native-Tongue influenced MCs.
Highlights include Lyrics Born and Lateef of Bay Area rap duo Latyrx turning
in their best rap ever over a groove by the Herbaliser on "8pt Agenda." Kid
Koala offers "Emperors Main Course," his beautiful, funny and previously
hard-to-find reworking of Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne's theme from
The Last Emperor. And Luke Vibert's funky "I Hear the Drummer" is a
slice of drum programming perfection. Hard as it is to believe, there really
isn't really a weak cut here.
The second disc gives a nice overview of Ninja Tune's various other
personalities, from the rare groove-inspired funk of Clifford Gilberto
to the sampling virtuosity of Amon Tobin to the exotic trip-hop of Funky
Porcini. It's mostly a downtempo affair, never straying too close to the
kinetic drum-n-bass some of the artists here dabble in. Though they're
all keepers, special props go to the percussive jazz grooves built by
Neptune on "Soul Pride," and Up, Bustle & Out on "Los Locos Cubanos."
The final disc contains rare and unreleased tracks, and it's a testament
to this collection that, while it's a tad more schizophrenic than the
other two discs, it's nearly as strong. John McEntire's mix of Coldcut's
"More Beats & Pieces" bubbles with rhythmic ideas. Kid Koala's live
"Drunk Trumpet" (recorded at Chicago's Metro) is a useful indicator of
the depth of Eric San's talent, as he improvises turntable jazz that's
actually melodic without the benefit of the studio. Fourtet
finds the dark heart at the center of the Cinematic Orchestra's drifting
"Channel 1 Suite," further distinguishing him as a major remix talent
(check out his EP with Pole). And DJ Food's "Peace Pt. 1" is an all-out
bongo-heavy party jam. As a label retrospective, Xen Cuts does
indeed have something of the Buddha nature; instead of thinking back as
we listen, we are blissfully immersed in The Now.