Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Ninja Marketing

Nine years in, a UK Label has built a solid home-away-from-home

See the multimedia gallery on the right for scenes from Ninja Tune North America's ninth anniversary bash, Saturday, August 27, at Montreal's Club Soda.

Before Extra Yard, a compilation of big, dirty-bass UK rap tracks, the "bouncement" genre didn't exist. The compilation was released on Big Dada Recordings, a little brother to the UK's Ninja Tune label, and the bouncement "movement" took off-labelling that brand of music was, in fact, a clever way to sell the gritty-yet-tidy Brit-hop to a US audience. It was a publicity stunt.

Jeff Waye, co-founder of Ninja Tune's Montreal-based North American headquarters, tells me this with a Cheshire-cat grin and a devious, but not unkind, sparkle in his eye. It's dusk and we are at the Montreal office, near the Lionel-Groulx metro station. It's a few days away from the ninth anniversary of Ninja Tune North America, and Waye and I are chatting about myth making in music and in the press; he's deviantly satisfied that, with bouncement, he's pulled a fast one on journalists.

He tells me about some shows he'd been to that had been talked up in the press and promoted through word of mouth, and yet fell seriously short of their manufactured reputations. The creation of bouncement was a cheeky response to such disappointment; an in-joke created to capitalize on the press's inability to resist hype. I argue that unlike news reporters who can confirm facts using independent sources, music journalists have to rely on what artists and their labels feed them; they have to be ahead of the next big thing at all times. He explains it was all in good fun but he clearly enjoyed toying with the press's propensity for reckless sound bites.

Nevertheless, Waye tells his story with tempered excitement. His passion for music and the music industry are evident. The bouncement gag is the kind of calculated risk-taking Ninja Tune is known for-sticking to what the label loves, regardless of the crowd.

The original UK label was started fifteen years ago in England by Jon More and Matt Black, aka Coldcut, to release their own music and provide an outlet for the spectrum of hip-hop and electronic music that thrilled them. Artists like Luke Vibert (aka Wagon Christ), Mr. Scruff and the acid-jazz/hip-hop group Herbaliser, have helped secure the label's reputation as a home for innovative electronic artists that are as nourishing for the mind as they are for body and soul.

Back in North America, in 1996, Waye was working at the doomed Cargo Records. Waye had come to Montreal in the early nineties to study business administration at McGill University but instead got a job at the label. By the time 1996 rolled around, Cargo was going down and leaving a trail of bad-business stink. Waye knew he'd best look for a new gig. He also knew that, at the time, the licencing for Ninja Tune's releases in North America was in the hands of Instinct/Shadow Records. Instinct is an electronic music label that came up in 1990 when Moby, their first signing, got noticed by the public, and Shadow is a spin-in-off dance label started in 1995. The US-based Instinct/Shadow was picking and choosing which Ninja releases it would license, but then selectively changing album names, album art and track titles to what they thought would suit a North American audience. Clearly, the wit and edgy art did not need changing: at that point, the original UK label had been around for six years and was successful enough to branch into North America. Waye had contacts at Ninja thanks to Cargo, so he spent his last few months there laying the groundwork for Ninja's fresh North American face. The day after he quit Cargo, Ninja North America was up and running, and just in time for DJ Shadow's Mowax debut blow it wide open for the kind of instrumental hip-hop mélanges Ninja was fond of hawking.

"It's what I was talking about-the growth of myth," he says. "We didn't really let people come over because we didn't want people to know how it really was. Literally, it was one computer, a fax machine and a phone with call waiting, and the Internet line was also the fax line. And it was a lot of 'Hey, is Jeff Waye there?' 'Yes, just one second,' and my partner would hit the call waiting and pass me the phone. Maybe, if we make them hold for thirty seconds, it'll actually seem like someone had to walk down the hall, when in essence it was two people in a room half the size [of this office] with stock building up very quickly in my bedroom and in the spare room."

At the time, having North American headquarters in Montreal was unconventional, but there were also many advantages: Mid-nineties low rental prices in the city allowed the label to keep salaries and costs low, something that a music industry hot spot like New York couldn't provide. The exchange rate between Canada and the US was significantly cheaper than the UK-US one. Locally, there was a lot of support from the Montreal press and from fans who flocked to sold-out shows. Montreal's reputation as an international city helped to divorce it in US minds from being associated with the common Canadian clichés.

Ninja North America has grown from a staff of two-Waye and co-founder Philippa Klein-to one of over a dozen. The public may now be familiar with Ninja and Big Dada's ingenious artists but, early on, Waye and Klein built their foundation by tapping into the commercial power of licensing-renting out songs, or parts of songs, for ad campaigns, films and TV shows.

"The CSI people call us up because Gary Sinise needs some music to solve some crime of some sort," said Waye, explaining that the label has recently set up a licensing and publishing company, Third Face Music, which enables them to cater to sounds broader than the Ninja Tune roster can provide.

"[Selling music commercially] is kind of weird for me because I grew up in a very staunchly punk rock [frame of mind, in which] music should only exist in the context of being on a record, and that's its original function and purpose," he said. "But I also think the most ethical and punk-rock way we can run a label is to let the artist decide. If they want to be involved, we'll facilitate it. I can't say no, on someone else's behalf, to money-I don't think that's my job. We present it to the artist and, if it flies in the face of their ethics, we'll say no, and otherwise we'll do it." Clearly Antibalas won't do a Nike commercial, but Amon Tobin doing the music for Montreal-based software company Ubisoft's game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory made perfect sense.

Apart from the scruffy grey-brown beard threatening to swallow his face, one of the most striking things about Waye is his rock-solid passion for music and the industry. He regularly pumps out ten-to-fourteen hour days, all to support the myth of easy music making. "All associations aside, I thought [Big Dada artist] Roots Manuva's show at La Tulipe was one of the best fucking hip-hop shows I've ever seen," he says. "It was like 'Oh cool-people still care! This is awesome.' There are these moments where you're so fucking entrenched that ... You [should] just stick with what you really like and keep doing it.

The Roots Manuva show was an example of how this city steps up when Ninja Tune presents. In the past nine years, the company has grown solidly, both as a business and a cultural force. Waye may have pulled a fast one on us with bouncement, but the strength of the Ninja Tune Montreal office lies in the muscle of its dedication and passion, not in its myths.