Throughout Ninja Tunes 18 year history the Ninja Cuts compilation has been a landmark event in itself. The label has always prided itself on its varied array of artists working in more styles than is healthy which inevitably made a compilation that was both challenging and riveting. But where other Ninja Cuts have served to showcase the labels past releases this, the 5th in the series, has a far greater agenda. Aptly titled You Don't Know it aims to alter your preconceptions of what you think you know about this label, and it does this with ease. The main reason for this is that they now have 2 other labels operating under the Ninja umbrella and all are featured on this 3 CD compilation. Big Dada and the newest addition to the family, Counter, both radically side step the Ninja norm and when put together for the first time on one compilation the result is baffling. Long term Ninja institutions like Mr. Scruff, Bonobo and Coldcut sit alongside their Big Dada counterparts like Roots Manuva and Mike Ladd. Then if you chuck in new label Counter's poster-boy Pop Levi you really do start to question just what exactly is the Ninja sound.
But it's not just this amalgamation of labels that mixes things up here. This is not just any old best-of compilation, it showcases artists and releases from the past but rarely in their original form. Most songs are rare or unreleased or feature special edition remixes by artists such as Modeselektor, Tiga and Susumu Yakota. There are some live recordings from Cimematic Orchestra and inter-Ninja collaborations between Mr. Scruff and Quantic. If you're a dedicated follower of this label then this approach gives this compilation more importance and relevance but it can, at times, make for difficult listening. Not only has the tracklist been treated to a brutal visit to the blender but within each song there is radical alterations and mix ups.
There is so much going on here that it's hard to know where to start. There's a definite agenda running through each CD but it's so expertly disguised it reveals itself as more of a feeling than any coherent theme. CD 1 features what you would vaguely call the core components of the original label. Mr Scruff, Amon Tobin and The Herbaliser all feature but the highlight has to be The Cinematic Orchestra's To Build A Home. It's a treat on their new album and it's epic grandure really lifts this first CD. It's beauty is highlighted when taken out of the context of a concept album and put amongst the strange folk that surround it here.
CD 2 keeps things pretty regular with smooth cuts from Blockhead, Bonobo and RJD2. Kid Koala puts in an awesome guitar cut and paste extravaganza while Homelife's Seedpod makes a well earned return. We also get a remix of Coldcut's classic Atomic Moog. CD 3 really takes things up a notch and it's here where the 'You Don't Know' title really explains itself. Kicking off with Manuvadelics manic version of Roots Manuva's Chin High we're soon into nose bleed territory with The Qemist's drum and bass belter Drop Audio. We get guided through the more avant-guard vision of Big Dada with cLOUDDEAD and Mike Ladd and DJ Shadow puts in a rare and exceptional performance with the fantastic sample heavy Bring Madlib Up. The CD ends with a curios change up of beats with the house infused remix of Coldcut's Walk A Mile In My Shoes courtesy of Tiga and Switch's remix of Pest's Pat Pong.
Though all this really does convince the listener that we don't know it sometimes makes for an incoherent listen. Showing us that there is so much about this label that we don't know can also show us that there's a whole side to it that we don't want to know. Putting up old favorites then remixing the shit out of them can be a bit of a turn off but overall screams of bravery and the willingness to progress that has kept this label on top for so long. It's artists like John Mathias and Pop Levi that make this compilation interesting. They successfully remove it from the Ninja sound we have known for years and stop this sound from becoming a cliché of itself. They sometimes make the old sound, from the likes of Mr.Scruff, sound really dated and show that had this label not moved on with its own ethos and expanded its view with Big Dada and Counter then there really would be no need for it today. In the run of Ninja Cuts compilations this one is by far the most forward thinking and far reaching. It may not be as comfortable a listen as the previous ones but that's clearly not their intention. We may hit the skip button occasionally but we must eventually salute the direction of this label.