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Pump Up the HTML

Coldcut's Matt Black on electronica, life as an indie mogul, and wired fatherhood

By Marc Weidenbaum

Three facts regarding Matt Black. One: He is half of the DJ duo Coldcut. Two: Black and Coldcut’s second half, Jonathan More, are the co-founders, -owners, and -operators of Ninja Tune Records, home to electronic music luminaries Funki Porcini, Amon Tobin, and DJ Food. Three: Matt Black likes his toys.

A visit to Ninja Tune’s Internet home page — much of which Black programmed — confirms the toy fixation, though return trips are required for one to navigate fully all of the strange tangents, data wells, and banks of animation and music. As if in a house overrun by children, one need not wander much further than the entrance in order to stumble over playthings. The web site (ninjatune.net) portrays the record label’s logo as a Nintendo game and as a Tamagotchi, one of those virtual pets that expires if neglected. (Ninja’s site was at the appropriately named obsolete.com/pipe at the time of this article’s original publication.)

The site also renders Black and partner More as colorful little children’s dolls, albeit hipster dolls whose accessories include not only mixer, turntables, and headphones, but three-day stubble and Buddy Holly glasses. Among the Ninja Tune site’s varied “content” is an engaging contraption called My Little Funkit, a virtual drum machine filled with half a megabyte of recombinant ambient, jungle, house, and drum’n’bass music samples. And Coldcut’s latest album, which combines many of these same samples with such studio ingenuity and fresh funk as to assure its place among 1997’s finest, is titled, simply, Let Us Play.

“Really, that’s just marking time,” Black says of Funkit, which is included on Let Us Play‘s bonus CD-ROM disc. “What we really want to do is put all this shit up there on the web with an interactive engine which you download and then you can actually just remix yourself, indefinitely.” What he says next come across like a threat: “And we’re very near, really, to being able to do that.”

Perhaps they are, and perhaps it is a threat. Black and More made Coldcut’s name and small fortune producing Lisa Stansfield, Eric B and Rakim, and Yazz, among others, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, straining all along with major-label politics and the mainstreaming of dance music. “It nearly finished us off,” he says. “Not an experience you get to repeat.” The tenure culminated with a brief, ill-fated stint at Arista, after which Coldcut retreated to the indie underground to do battle. Hence the cartoonish ninja warrior theme, the publicity-lite “Stealth” package tours of Ninja Tune luminaries — and, hence, the threat of remaking pop music in Coldcut’s own, cut’n’paste image. Black imagines a situation where listeners, enabled by technology, will have the final say over mixes, track sequences, even personnel. The new album opens with an adult male voice saying, “To get started turn the computer on. Now, press load and press the enter key.”

“I think what people call hypertext offers some fantastic possibilities for making new kinds of information spaces and entertainment engines,” says Black. The clinical lucidity of this description doesn’t do justice to the mad phonics that are Coldcut’s tunes. Let Us Play collects a dozen tracks of up-to-the-minute electronica, ranging from the anti-nuke dub confection “Atomic Moog 2000,” to the breakbeat of “Return to the Margin,” to the mechanized lullaby of “Music for No Musicians,” to the full-out trance of “Timber.” Upping the release’s kaleidoscopic breadth are the aforementioned CD-ROM disc (which includes eight complete videos, a trivia game, over 200 music samples, and more) and a slew of guests, among them former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, confrontation poet Salena Saliva, ubiquitous tabla player Talvin Singh, and session drummer extraordinaire Bernard Purdie. Despite the rotating cast, though, the album is rich in intimate moments, like how a drum loop tweaks the rhythm of the album’s opening juju riff, or Chris Leslie’s fiddle solo on “Panopticon,” or the nostalgic reprisal of “More Beats and Pieces,” a flash back to Coldcut’s second, and now decade old, single.

Black mentions that somehow, while recording Let Us Play and running Ninja Tune, he managed to become a father. His son’s name is Ki, Japanese for “tree” and “cosmic life force” and lots of other things, according to Dad. Asked what he has learned from Ki, Black says, “Seeing a child learning and playing, playing without restriction or inhibition, is something that has stirred me and, I think, Jon as well — that stirred the soup of the album.”

Black confirms that is Ki’s voice which appears a few minutes after the album’s final song has ended. Little Ki, just like his father, putting out his best material — an infectious gurgle laugh — and waiting, expectantly, to be sampled.


 

What follows is the lightly edited transcript of the interview from which the above profile was derived:

Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks for taking the time.

Matt Black: We wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t good for us. No hypocrisy there. What can I do for you, mate? What do you want to know?

Weidenbaum: Well, then, how is it good for you? What role does press coverage play in Coldcut’s popularity?

Black: That’s an extremely interesting question. It’s nice to be asked a question like that, actually. It’s a bit different from the normal, “So, how’s Lisa Stansfield doing?” or whatever — um, how important is press coverage in what Coldcut do? I really can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that we — our strategy is to mix hippie ideals with a certain amount of sound business practice, so we do things for reasons which make sense in terms of being the right thing and the positive thing to do, but also make sense on the business level as well. And we try to choose things which are combinations of those sorts of things, and that seems to be a formula that works, yeah? So, to do press coverage is something that’s positive for us, in terms of we can actually manifest the ideas we’re talking about, we can produce a manifesto which does get some of those ideas in circulation, and that can help build the sort of market which we’re selling our products into, which helps us sort of make a living out of it and push on to — enable us to keep exploring new areas and such. Actually, I really don’t know. It’s a very good question and I’d like to know the answer.

Weidenbaum: The reason I ask, in part, is that given Coldcut and Ninja Tune’s Internet presence, and the strong base of fans that exists, print coverage seems secondary.

Black: Well, you don’t know who’s going to be interested in hearing the record, really. One’s audience is always potentially larger. We’re not particularly interested in sort of gaining huge audiences. In a way I like to think that our audience is those who are paying attention, and if they’re paying attention then they probably got some kind of set-up whereby they can access the Internet and take advantage of the stuff on Pipe.

As far as doing interviews goes, there’s nothing I hate more than answering the same questions again and again. Especially when the answers to those questions have already been explained in sort of a clear written form, the sort of best that we could come up with, on a forum, on the Internet, which doesn’t really take any of our time to explain to that person ’cause they can just go there and check it out at their own speed in their own way — and to me that’s a sort of intelligent promotion. I do find a lot of normal press promotion activities are rather a waste of time. I feel pretty much the same about photo shoots. You know, Jon and I are not fashion models — we’re not Michael Jackson or Take That. And whereas we understand that people may want to actually see what we look like, the whole sort of rock/get-two-motherfuckers-up-against-the-wall is totally bankrupt of interest. We’d much rather give people images that we have manipulated, more in connection with the music we’re doing. That’s why we’ve got the cartoon characters in “Beats and Pieces,” the video. Certain magazines are actually interested enough and forward-looking enough to go with some of those ideas, but most of them are sort of like, “Oh, I’m sorry. We understand that can be quite good, but we’d like our own photographer to do the picture” — and it’s back to the same photo session again and again. Like, a photographer comes and wants to take photos of us and then manipulate those in Photoshop or whatever — I’m down with that. But don’t give me the straight journalism, and don’t give me the straight photos, ’cause it’s nothing to do with what we’re saying really.

Weidenbaum: You mention the Internet as a tool for getting information out, as well as your music — who did the programming?

Black: Well, I wrote it all myself a few years ago. I wrote the initial Pipe in four nights of fairly intensive work. I’d just learned HTML, as I was doing it. And it was primitive but it had lot of good content, so it got quite a good reaction. And then I got very busy with doing the album and stuff and it lapsed for quite a while, and I tried working with various people to sort it out — and now Dorian Moore, a DJ and a web programmer who I’ve known for quite a while, has taken over running it and he’s put a lot of effort into bringing it back up to step, and I think it’s pretty decent at the moment. But you know I used to be a programmer, and like all this Internet — I think it’s saying more to actually be involved in programming a site yourself and know what’s involved in that then just like hiring the latest hot web design people to produce your design for you. It’s the same way with videos, you know — like, people … give their, well various techno acts have made amazing videos, but they’re just produced by third parties — long after the music is finished, and they cost a lot of money, and they’re just bolted on to the music, whereas what we’re trying to do with the videos, on the album, and on the CD-ROM is make them as integrated with the music as possible — and they’re all being generated in-house all by people that we’re down with, all on kind of a fantastically stupidly low garage budget.

Weidenbaum: That’s what I like about the web site, and the video, though in some ways it’s frustrating for a music fan, because it’s no longer clear where the music ends and the accessories begin, to a large extent because the accessories can’t be easily dismissed.

Black: Yes, that is multimedia in a way. You could say the opera is multimedia, but I think the hyper — what people call hypertext, you know — the fact that you can have links from one page to another which can be traversed in a large number of ways, and then with having text and sound and images and animations as well — offers some fantastic possibilities for making new kinds of information spaces and entertainment engines. So, those are ideas that we’re playing with, and that are manifested on the CD-ROM as well.

Weidenbaum: Do you think a knowledge, or appreciation, of hypertext is necessary for appreciating your music — the way it works, moves around, is cut’n’paste.

Black: I don’t — I wouldn’t like to say that — I, I don’t think that our music can be appreciated only on an intellectual level. We did say that we’re giving away free beards with the album — free chins, sorry, with the album — to avoid your sort of stroking your old one away. We’re not just catering to chin-stroking intellectuals; I know that’s right, because I’ve seen children playing with things like My Little Funkit, which is on the CD-ROM, this sort of remixing toy, like a push-button DJ — kids will play with that for hours. So, that tells me that we’re getting through on that front without having to have the intellectual framework to support it. You know, the music — what we’ve been doing with text, with multimedia, what Coldcut are doing with music, we’ve got various interesting ways of doing things and things that are new and interesting about them, but unless they actually stand up as authentically new things themselves and can be perceived as exciting without the theoretical framework, there’s not a lot of point to them, is there? I think for the first time — Hex has done amazing stuff in the past, it’s been very clever and shown an amazing use of the resources at the time, yeah, but it hasn’t actually quite hit the target. I think with the CD-ROM and the album being a collaboration between Coldcut and lots of different people we’ve actually got that right this time.

Weidenbaum: The term “hypertext,” which you injected into the conversation, is an explanation for something that existed prior to its own coining —

Black: Absolutely.

Weidenbaum: The reason I bring it up isn’t so much that someone needs to have read critical theory about hypertext, but more that there’s a generation for whom hypertextual thinking is —

Black: — is natural. There’s this phrase “cut’n’paste mentality.” I can relate to that; I have a cut’n’paste mentality, I’ve been conditioned by working a lot with the Mac, and I’ve exploited the fact that you can trade skills between different types of programs. And the fact is, I’m not particularly good with computer graphics, or even music, or playing an instrument, or writing, or messing about in Photoshop, but I can do a bit of all those things and, you know, my attitude is I don’t know anything about all that shit but I can have a go at doing it. I think quite a sort of child-like attitude, which the new generations of youth that’re coming up will have the same attitude, having control over the push-button channel-hopping mentality, the control over videogames; the familiarity with technology is a different mindset, and I think we sort of maybe bridge generations with the Coldcut mindset.

Weidenbaum: Could you talk through one track on the record, like “Return to the Margin,” or “Timber”?

Black: What about “Beats and Pieces.”

Weidenbaum: Fine.

Black: Well, “Beats and Pieces” was a celebration of 10 years of messing about with beats — and we made the original “Beats and Pieces,” and that was done purely using turntables, and a tape loop, in fact, because we didn’t have a sampler for the main break, and a multitrack 24-track recorder. Ten years on we wanted to see what time it is. So, we thought we’d give ourselves the full spectrum of any toys to mess around with and manipulate the beats that we wanted, but starting from a DJ background. So what we did was we found — we put together a lot of breaks and loops and samples which all worked together, and we cut that onto a record, so we made, like, our own custom breakbeat album, and we just made 30 copies of that, and we sent out some copies to, like Qbert, from Invisbl Skratch Picklz, and John McEntire from Tortoise, and these other delinquents whose work we appreciate, as sort of raw material to see where they could go, just providing that on vinyl, what can you do with that? Kid Koala, as well, the guy from Montreal.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, he just played in SF.

Black: He’s wicked, isn’t he? We also took two copies of those vinyl 12-inches to create “More Beats & Pieces (The Coldcut Mix),” starting out from direct vinyl manipulation because we felt that that was still the easiest way for a DJ to manipulate chunks of sound. We’ve been there with 10 years of samplers and sequencers, and it’s great, but it can actually get a bit boring, and there’s still no computer or sampler which can give you the feel of that rough … diamond … to the wax, ripping it back and forth, with that chiseled type of effect. It’s a different and unique sound. Still people — you might have thought scratching would become a cliché years ago, but it hasn’t. I’m not saying I’m a virtuoso scratcher. My style’s very old school and hasn’t improved as much as I’d like in the last 10 years. But I like — I love to hear the funky styles of top bods like Qbert and Kid Koala, who are making literally turntable jazz over their manipulations of the vinyl — in timings, and patterns, and noises which are extremely avant-garde, and are kind of noise poetry.

Weidenbaum: I just saw Up Bustle and Out on the second stretch of the Ninja Tune Stealth Tour, just the four turntables; they must have played like three hours straight, every sample from James Brown to that Fatboy Slim take on the Who —

Black: That was the Up Bustle and Out DJs, rather than the band. Good, well they’re coming on nicely. We didn’t invent four-deck mixing but we’ve but we’ve been doing it for quite a while and [laughs] it greatly increases the number of possibilities you can generate.

Weidenbaum: Are they part of the Up Bustle and Out group, or are they distinct?

Black: Well, I think when Up Bustle and Out play live, they’re both doing scratching, so they have two DJs with them, so they’re sort of associated with the posse, but you’d have to ask Rupert or one of the guys. I don’t actually know what the arrangement is; all I know is they’re two wicked DJs who are down with the Bustle crew.

Weidenbaum: You have a track titled “Return to the Margin.” What’s life like on the margin?

Black: Life at the margin is diverse, raw, frequently dirty, but colorful, and one has to maintain flexibility to keep surfing the waves of the perimeter lest one fall in and get drowned by the tidal waves of change which continuously rock over the shore. But we prefer living there to further inland where it’s really a bit to dry and nothing much ever happens. Change always comes from the fringes.

Weidenbaum: You’ve come full circle, having willfully distanced yourself from mainstream —

Black: — dance culture.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, and mainstream record companies, and now all of a sudden the wolves have come knocking at Wall of Sound and Warp. And every label that pretty much puts out anything with a beep on it has been given a call. No doubt you’ve been getting calls, but I assume your response is straightforward.

Black: We’re not for sale, end of story. Jon and I have tried being a part of working for the man, and it was most unnatural, and we nearly expired. It nearly finished us off. Not an experience you get to repeat. It might be fine for — other people can do what they want. We find it’s best to be independent and free. And I could name a million reasons to justify that but in the end people are going to have to check it out themselves. The music business is in no way different from the hamburger business, and if you want to be the best burger griller at McDonald’s, then go for it, but there is more, and being free is priceless, really.

Weidenbaum: As a label owner, would you say you have positive role models, or are they mainly negative ones?

Black: Yeah, Adrian Sherwood and his On-U Sound inspired. When I was at college me and my mates were well into his records and used to collect all the 10-inches, and it was like, Hey, this guy’s obviously independent and he’s making his own original sound, and doing it himself, and it’s stylish and it’s saying something in opposition to the mainstream, and definitely that had an influence on Jon and me, I think. There are many others as well — we take a bit of inspiration from here and a bit from there, and a warning from over the road, because you see what happens to your mates, and try and keep on a course.

Weidenbaum: I have a bit of a cut’n’paste mentality, myself, so these questions may jump around a bit. One: Is that really a baby’s voice on “Baby Boomer”?

Black: It’s an actual kid. In fact, “Baby Boomer” didn’t make it to the final album.

Weidenbaum: I have a rarity.

Black: You have a rarity, version naught point nine. Yeah, that was dropped for reasons of space, and we wanted to have some phrases and stuff between the tracks. That track, some people loved it, a lot of people hated it — it probably will come out — we probably will release it some time; it’s a pity because I was quite proud of the baby beats section which were all sampled from a Walkman by my girlfriend from the baby of one of her friends. But my baby has actually made it onto the album, on the last track, which you haven’t got on your [advance] CD; it’s called “Random Track” and it doesn’t show up on the CD listing and it’s my baby Ki singing, and I was quite pleased to get that one in.

Weidenbaum: What’s the name?

Black: Ki—K.I. It’s Japanese. It means lots of things, like tree, and cosmic life force. … He’s 16 months.

Weidenbaum: So, what are the two or three things you’ve learned the most from your baby?

Black: Learned the most from Ki? I’ve learned that I’m quite easily manipulated, and I’ve learned — I’m fascinated by seeing the process of intelligence and character flowering, and it’s — just to see that every day, see that growth is an indescribable experience, but it’s something very precious to me at the moment, and then also seeing a child learning and playing, playing without restriction or inhibition, is something that has stirred me and, I think, Jon as well — that stirred the soup of the album. I’m going to have to wind it up.

Weidenbaum: You do have much of the music up on your web site before the record’s released — do you get any feedback on that, and do you ever involve any of that feedback into your music; do people ever sort of write you email and say, That track’s good …

Black: We’ve been getting increasing, worryingly large amounts of email from Pipe, and it’s actually quite a problem to deal with, but I’m trying to think — not so much on the tracks, but we have incorporated feedback on other things into the site. People have made suggestions that we’ve used — but we haven’t actually had anyone say, “The last track of such-and-such would be best without the snare drum” or anything like that. Really, that’s just marking time. What we really want to do is put all this shit up there on the web with an interactive engine which you download and then you can actually just remix the shit yourself indefinitely. And we’re very near, really, to being able to do that.

Weidenbaum: Well, thanks. That covers it.

Black: Thanks for the interest. Bye.

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