Interview: Coldcut – The Joy Of Dex

This article originally appeared in London street press title ’24:7′ shortly before its premature demise in the early days of 1998. Although edited, designed and ready to print, this particular issue never made it to press. On hearing the title was folding due to lack of funding, the staff feared that their wages were under threat and left the office one morning carrying any piece of valuable technical equipment that wasn’t nailed down. My fondest memory was seeing the Fashion Editor carrying a fax machine off in a suitcase, with the plug hanging out the back.

It’s clear that Coldcut’s chapter in the history of modern music remains a work-in-progress, particularly given the ongoing success of Ninja Tune and Big Dada. The same cannot be said for the humble CD-ROM – re-reading the article below, it’s remarkable how quickly the references to formats became outdated. Back then, multimedia CDs were envisioned as being the saviour of the music industry, today they are all but extinct.

Bringing you a lesson in Ninja style, a celebrated fusion of art and science, 24:7 deconstructs the myth and musical majesty that is COLDCUT.

You can approach this particular noise from so many different angles. Coldcut could well be grandfathers of modern dance-music, creating the UK’s first purely sample-driven record eleven years ago and defining the art of the remix. Or they could be two grumpy old men, aggrieved at having produced four mighty top twenty hits only to be royally shafted by the men in suits. Or maybe they are the Ninja tribe of Southwark, the supremos behind the Ninja Tune and N-Tone labels, responsible for discovering, nurturing and promoting the work of The Herbalizer, DJ Vadim, DJ Food, Funki Procini and other big boys with big toys. They could be four-deck DJs, promoters, digital artists, hard-wiring software engineers, web-meisters or simply the scourge of the BPI. “I do feel slightly over exposed,” claims Matt. Whatever and whenever they are, they are undoubtedly ahead of their time.

There is a sense of spiritual connection belying the fact that the Ninja HQ sits opposite London’s first prison, The Clink. It was undoubtedly a home for scoundrels and scallywags, the outsiders who refused to play ball, a mandatory hang-out for blasphemers, anarchists and cultural hooligans. The Coldcut office is littered with fragments and products of their career – a poster advertising the first album What’s That Noise?, racks of back catalogue vinyl from the Ninja stable and, playing on the tape deck, a selection of tunes from the forthcoming Ninja anthology, impossibly titled FunKungFusion. Meeting Coldcut, you know there is a wizard degree of cloak and dagger at work. From the way they look and the way they talk, Matt – confusingly – looks like a “Jonathan” and vice versa. Matt Black was recently celebrated in the Daily Telegraph, of all places, as “the pop star with geek cred”. Jonathan More, it seems, is the one that most people like to refer to as “the one with the hat”.

Coldcut released their fourth album, Let Us Play, in September 1997 and watched it enter the CIN dance charts at Number One, beautifully confirming the belief that you can never keep a good ninja down. It’s now February 1998 and Coldcut are, once again, showing a flagrant disregard for tradition by releasing a single, Timber, that contains just as many video tracks as audio. It’s an aesthetic of more for less, and it’s the same belief that saw them give away a free CD-ROM with the album, crammed to excess with bonus software, virtual mixing kits and an abundance of videos (“a funky and weird mix which make it more interesting than some corporate smooth trip” claims Jonathan). In the weeks preceding the release of Timber, the BPI announced that to be eligible for chart status, a CD single can only be sold with one video, irrespective of its running time. Thus, despite its sales, Timber will not now be registered in the singles chart and Coldcut find themselves, once more, out on their own and leaving the industry far, far behind. Sorry, but this just isn’t music.

What is so ironic about the withdrawal of Timber from the charts is that it was served the dual purpose of being an awareness raising exercise for the work of Greenpeace. Read the facts – 80% of the world’s ancient forest have been attacked, destroyed and plundered in the last thirty years. “Over the last few years we’ve slowly realised that we do believe in direct action to change things,” ponders Matt, “I think that it’s been more successful.” Timber is a unique exercise in direct action, but they also believe that changing your immediate environment can make a difference. The Ninja home is populated with second-hand furniture and is a shrine to the duo’s DIY belief system. “It would be quite easy for us to go out buy loads and loads of really expensive swanky office furniture,” declares Jonathan, “all made out of MDF and all that. But in fact, this is stuff that we’ve found and put together from skips, done out of neccesity when we first started, but it’s good to do that rather than keep buying new shit.”

For Timber, Stuart Warren-Hill of Hex Media (aka Hexstatic) and the Coldcut boys have boldly gone where no one has dared to dream of going before. Timber is neither an audio single nor a video single, but both. Each individual sound element has a corresponding visual element. The remix therefore exists on two formats and on two levels of entertainment. The video remix is a concept that may well have been invented by Massachusetts boys Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN) which they worked to great effect on the VHS single for U2’s Numb. Warren-Hill has taken the concept into forward drive and recently picked up the Best Video Editing award from France’s home-grown MTV-style channel, MCM. “People aren’t used to buying music in this way,” offers Matt, ruminating over Coldcut’s value-led philosophy. “They might be used to buying a Mr Bean video, they might be used to buying a seven inch single, but they have a problem putting the two things together. A VHS single tape isn’t a very attractive product whereas a CD is. That’s the advantage of the CD format, you can give people what they want, plus you can also fit extra stuff on it.” The double-whammy bonus is that it may also encourage the luddite music fan to invest in a computer capable of running of CD-ROMs. Once you start to talk around such changes in attitude, Jonathan begins to twitch with excitement. “A good example of that was a guy who came up to me at The 333 Club. The guy was quite concerned because his son was eight and hadn’t shown any interest in computers at school whatsoever and he was worried that he was going to miss out. He then saw him playing with Playtime on our CD-ROM and that was it basically, the kid was on it. He’s been on it every night since and now wants to get a computer of his own. That’s brilliant and we’re really into that happening.”

It would actually be unthinkable for a major label to physically manoeuvre themselves in the same way. Such is the beauty of stealth – “the ante has been upped” as Matt rightly says. The duo are possibly too proud to laugh openly at the way the roles have been reversed. After years in the wild, they have come back to the table with an all-new, non-negotiable way of beating the multi-nationals at their own game. “We got ripped off pretty early,” admits Matt, referring to the post-Lisa Stansfield era of the Coldcut story, “but we managed to escape with our lives. Therefore I’d say we’ve always been business minded. We could make a lot more money if we wanted, just by cutting the amount of money we pay to our artists and charging them for all sorts of things, but there’s very little point in doing it.” “We just need to make money for survival,” he says, “we want to keep it fun and don’t want it to be a mega concern. Just keep it at a nice, reasonable size and make sure the music coming out is really good.”

Jonathan sums up his philosophy in one exquisite sentence: “You can pay somebody to do something and when they fuck up superbly they lie and say what you wanted to do is not possible so you end up doing it yourself anyway.” “It’s better to be cynical,” suggests Matt, “you might as well be. Finding out that Jeffery Archer owns all the merchandising rights to the Teletubbies – that’s a real dagger to the heart, but just so expected really. It’s kind of hilarious because it’s so outrageous.” Don’t for one minute think that the Ninja style is directed by pessimism – the opposite is most certainly the case. It might be about regaining control of one’s life, taking the ropes of one’s own destiny. It might be about having a laugh and not giving a toss about what any else thinks. Or it might just be about providing the source, inspiration and radical thinking that will continue to inspire generations of musicians and listeners for decades to come. Now that’s zentertainment.

Stuart Buchanan