Musical innovators Coldcut — the duo of Matt Black and Jonathan More — are in Johannesburg for the first time. It’s an overcast late Monday afternoon after a good Highveld downpour. It hardly bothers them not to see yet another spectacular sunset from the downtown rooftop, where they’re meeting a bunch of exciting young South African musicians.
They arrived on the weekend from a below-zero London on the invitation of the local media arts project Keleketla! Library, the Manchester-based nongovernmental organisation In Place of War and the British Council’s Connect ZA cultural programme.
The two mavericks are excitedly plotting this most unusual and yet-to-be-named project with like-minded local musicians Thabang Tabane, Sibusile Xaba, Tubatsi Moloi and Gally Ngoveni. After Tuesday, they headed for the Trackside studio in Soweto for four days of experimentation, improvisation and recording that will culminate in a live performance at Keleketla! Library on the evening of Saturday February 4.
This kind of collaboration is something that Coldcut have never done before. “Hopefully if it comes out okay we’ll play some of it on Saturday night,” says More. “It is an experimental music collaboration trip — that is what we’ve come for. And I think we’ll certainly take as much as we give because this is a stimulating environment for us to be in.”
What have they packed?
“We’ve got Ninja Jamm, which is software Matt’s been developing,” says More. “And then I’ve got three hard discs of probably about eight terabytes in total of sound. Plus, a bunch of records which might have some great sound in, then stuff we’ve been working on, which haven’t found the right home — you never know.
“And just listening to these people play together and directing that — you don’t need to pack anything for that, apart from bringing my brain and an open mind.”
It is likely to work out as one of those made-in-musical-heaven projects, because Coldcut have repeatedly lived up to their reputation as quirky but hefty mavericks in their 30-year-long career.
There was the spoof political party they formed in 2001 called the Guilty Party. It allowed them to drive around London in a bus during that year’s election with a massive sound system. Instead of spouting “political bollocks”, they played loud music.
“Our slogan was, ‘we’re all guilty, so vote guilty’,” More says with a naughty glint in his eyes. “One of our policies was ‘cannibalise legalism’.”
But they were more than avant-garde tricksters. “Actually the Guilty Party was a promotional tool for Coldcut,” explains Black. Their then single Re:volution, which sampled politicians like Tony Blair and William Haig, was on heavy rotation.
Then there was the release of their influential debut single Say kids, what time is it? — which was the first-ever UK single to consist entirely of samples. This past Wednesday, coincidentally, was the 30th anniversary of the release of Say kids.
Coldcut used 35 samples from diverse sources such as James Brown, Kurtis Blow, Kool & the Gang, interspersed with snippets from the soundtracks of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Jungle Book.
Their pioneering cut-and-paste work paved the way for many more sample-based pop collages. “A good sample is still a good steal,” says More with a chuckle, “… as long as you cash up.”
But these two are more than the prankster grandsons of Dada. In 1990 they started Ninja Tune, which is arguably the most successful and influential independent record label of all time.
Inspired by a visit to Japan, More and Black created Ninja Tune to release music of a more underground, experimental nature, free from the restraints placed on artists by major labels. It may be offbeat in every sense of the word, but Ninja is highly effective and professional, having released myriad interesting and eclectic artists in electronica, hip-hop, funk, soul and rock music — from Roots Manuva to Kelis, Mr Scruff to Amon Tobin and Bonobo.
“Ninja Tune still amazes us every day — we made some very good decisions,” says More. “We were at the right time at the right place, avoiding slipping down the slope into the abyss of what happened to many artists who signed to major or independent labels and being destroyed by that very process.”
Black adds: “There’s no formula to being interesting and there’s usually a market for it.”