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April 16, 1998
by Anicee Gaddis

The word on the street is ninja--a highly trained assassin--only the weapons of choice are not the shuriken, sai, or skuko; rather they’re two turntables and a microphone, London style. The dojo is none other than the London-based Ninja Tune label. The amazing thing about the house DJ duo Coldcut--founding fathers of the whole Ninja-fied flavosophy--is their ability to draw in some of the funkiest underground acts around. Current artists in the Ninja stable include DJ Food, Funki Porcini, the Herbaliser, Chocolate Weasel, Up Bustle & Out, London Funk Allstars, DJ Vadim, 2 Player, DJ Toolz, Neotropic, Kid Koala, and on and on ‘til the break of dawn. In fact, Ninja Tune offers so many legitimate variations on the hip-hop ambient theme, the label begins to resemble a must-have, all-purpose clothing line. The resultant hype verges on a more esoteric version of our own stateside Wu-Tang mania.

Ninja Tune’s current Giant Step-sponsored "Stealth" tour--making a NYC stop at Speeed--will feature four masters of "jazztickletricknology," as the Ninja dictum goes, including Russian-born DJ Vadim, the Chocolate Weasel duo, the Herbaliser, and she-ninja extraordinaire Neotropic. As with all live Ninja shows, it’s a family affair, which is to say that, despite a plethora of individual originality--including a hundred variations on the art of turntablism--there is a common thread linking all the Ninja children. Matt Black who, along with Jonathan More, comprises Coldcut, summed up the label’s philosophy in a simple phrase: "We like to set people up and then get them to do their own stuff."

The Speeed show should be jam-packed with new material--everything from the raucous beats of the Herbaliser to DJ Vadim’s down-tempo sound. Vadim’s recent album "U.S.S.R. Repertoire" is a slo-mo, multi-textured collage of straight-ahead hip hop, answering machine samples, musique concrete, and featured bits and pieces from fellow Ninjas (the Herbaliser, Animals on Wheels, Kid Koala). Subtitled "The Theory of Verticality," Vadim defines "vertical" artists as those who are "widening musical barriers, using new instruments, new time signatures, tempos, rhythms, feels, chords, vocal effects, whatever." Then there is Chocolate Weasel (Marc Royal and Chris Stevens), whose latest jheri-curled kitsch-funk neo-satirical diggz is appropriately titled "Spaghettification." "Spaghettification" is a complete parody of everything that we’re normally serious about," says Royal, a.k.a. T-Power. "The whole 'Weasel' thing is about letting off steam and having fun." In general, the Weasel deftly handles their strange brew of slapstick and black humor, though their music does occasionally border on the silly side. When it comes to vocals, the Weasel tends toward the old skool flava-ed style of early '80s hip-hop (rapper SkanWon gets busy on the track "Music For Body Lockers"). "We wanted something like Kurtis Blow," says Stevens. "Very old school and inarticulate, as rap was at the stage when it still had an innocence about it."

Cut to the Herbaliser (Jake Wherry and DJ Ollie Teeba), musicologists experimenting with a vivisection of organic turntable fluidity within a deep jazz body. "Blow Your Headphones," their latest album, relies heavily on a jazzy horn section and lotsa thumping double-bass. "Everyone’s making drum n’ bass records now, and so inevitably a lot of them are going to be a lot of old coffee," Teeba says. "Now a lot of the people that make drum n' bass--if you found some of their old demos from, like, 1990, they’d be rap." Like its fecund name, the Herb has a lot of ideas and sometimes errs on the side of inundation, though for the most part, their stuff is interesting and fresh.

Finally, you’ll get a touch of female stylus thanks to Neotropic, alias Riz Maslen, whose combination of electronica, dub, reggae, and hip-hop makes her one of the most innovative (and moody) Ninjas. Neotropic’s most recent album, titled “15 Levels of Magnification,” drives you through ever-changing sonic soundscapes with surprising intelligence, grace and, at times, an almost-paranoid sense of realism.

Although it sounds like a lot to take in during a single night, think of the Speeed show not as four separate acts, but rather as one funky event. I guarantee that the time will slip deftly through your fingertips--faster than the eye can see, more powerful than the ear can perceive. And anyway, when you have that much talent gathered in one place, on one night, who the hell wants to leave?

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