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We’re the Bag Ladies of Sound”


To survive for 20 years, in a field of music where new sub-genres spring up quicker than fertilized crabgrass, is impressive. To continue to thrive as dance music pioneers is almost unthinkable. And yet Matt Black and Jonathan More, a.k.a. Coldcut, have constantly guided the knife edge of cool.

In 1987, the London duo released the UK’s first sample-based record (“Say Kids, What Time Is It?”), brought the nascent ethno-techno movement into hip-hop by grafting Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza’s keening “Im Nin’ Alu” onto a remix of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” and started their own pirate radio show, Solid Steel (which still survives, although it’s long since gone legit). In 1993, they formed the indie label Ninja Tune, which outlived the trip-hop scene and continues to flourish with releases by the likes of Amon Tobin, The Herbaliser, Roots Manuva, and Montreal’s Kid Koala. In the late ’90s, they developed the software VJamm, which allowed them to mix snippets of video on projection screens as they DJ’ed. And in 2006, they’re … recording pop songs with choruses and verses?

On a cell phone from a tour stop in Sheffield, where he’s basking in the sun and watching a George Clinton video on his laptop, Black explains the rationale of Coldcut’s new album, Sound Mirrors: “The problem with innovation is it doesn’t age very well. Writing and making songs with lyrics that people can sing along with, and that resonate, is a time-honoured thing. Something that’s a soundtrack for people to dance to and groove to can be great, but that can become rather generic. To go beyond that is a real challenge, and I don’t think either we or other dance music artists have achieved that all that often. ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ by Massive Attack casts a giant shadow. It’s the track that everyone accepts as a classic, and of course, it is a song, although quite a strange song. There’s not many like that around. Even the Massive Attack guys themselves have had a problem of rescaling those heights.”

There’s nothing quite like the Bristol outfit’s sweeping, melancholy 1991 epic on Sound Mirrors, but among a dozen songs, each of which provides a different sonic template for a different guest vocalist, there are at least two potential classics: the ebullient “True Skool,” featuring Roots Manuva, and the eerily glacial “Mr. Nichols,” with performance poet Saul Williams.

The two tracks work at opposite emotional poles, but both explore the search for human connection in a Western world where, as Coldcut see it, alienation is rife. The lyrics on Sound Mirrors often tackle surveillance, big government, conspiracy, and the use of technology for nefarious ends.

Marshall McLuhan said that “the global village is at once as wide in the planet and as small as the little town where everybody is maliciously engaged in poking his nose into everybody else’s business.” Black, who worked as a computer programmer before he began programming beats for Coldcut, is an exponent of the wonders of communications technology (never having met a couple of vocalists who appear on Sound Mirrors in person), but he is also keenly aware of the invasion of privacy which McLuhan decried. He thinks ill of his country’s “big push to introduce ID cards. These would enable the authorities to have a very complete picture of people and their movements, and many aspects of our lives. To have each citizen ‘tapped’ and under control is a wet dream of every authoritarian. I feel that the so-called war against terrorism is very much used as a smokescreen to introduce further measures of control.”

“Everything Is Under Control,” one of Sound Mirrors’ singles, features Blues Explosion rocker Jon Spencer declaiming the song’s title against punishingly danceable beats. To promote the track, Coldcut has again made retro brand new, by devising a set of “Control Cards,” a dark parody of the 1970s and ‘80s UK phenomenon Top Trumps. Players vie with one another to capture the entire deck of cards featuring dodgy politicians and secret societies, each of which is assigned a score according to “Deception,” “Toxicity” “Invisibility,” etc.

“They’re half tongue-in-cheek,” says Black, “but they are making some serious points as well. They are our own bit of capitalism. It’s a delicate dance, isn’t it?”

Coldcut’s music itself has always danced (albeit none too delicately) between the past and the future, where Black and More’s sampling of older music, as well as DJ sets featuring rare grooves, have connected them with earlier generations of sonic adventurers. Says Black, “We dig the feel that we’re recycling bits of DNA; we’re the bag ladies of sound.”

Certainly they’ve managed to mix and match various musical styles on their albums and their label, which translates into a broad base of open-minded fans. Ninja Tune club nights are known for their persistently good vibes, where crowds are out to enjoy themselves in an unpretentious manner — it’s “the attitude of no attitude,” as Black puts it. And looking into his liquid-crystal ball, he sees a healthy future for a new generation of dance music artists who are building on Coldcut’s own creations.

“We’re very proud of all our tribe on Ninja Tune, and we’re certainly stronger as a result of being surrounded by all that good musical energy. Jon and I are daddies and even granddaddies now. Twenty years is a long time in the music business, and we enjoy all our kids.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, May 11, 2006



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