Matt Black has got the sniffles and he’s coming of age. It means his 50th birthday party has been postponed. He seems happy to accept this though, as it’s all “part of the clarity picture.”
Sitting up in bed, Matt Black resembles a glam-rock wizard; wrapped in a silk dressing gown and tucked away under blue satin sheets.
He makes himself comfortable and scratches beard before uttering words in slow, deliberate increments, in a low, yet clear, audible tone. Despite suffering from a cold, he’s fairly happy to share some fractals of Matt Black consciousness with me for an hour or so.
Matt with partner in crime, Jonathan More
This is the man, who together with Jonathan More, introduced Roots Manuva. They also brought us Eric. B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full remix that’s now so indelibly inscribed into the history books of hip-hop – not to mention a mind-blowing spectrum of quirky cuts that spliced and diced sounds such as jazz and hip-hop, nu-skool and breaks, spoken word and experimental electronica.
Known as the ‘uncles of the cut n paste revolution,’ the DJ/producer duo successfully launched Ninja Tune in defiance of the controlling bureaucracy of corporate record companies. Add multimedia technology to the mix, and you get the ultimate possibilities of a music revolution that inspired a generation .
Sequencing software that synchronized audio and video was epitomized by the creation of the VJAMM system, a software that blurred the lines between geek and artist, and opened the boundaries for a tech-savvy generation.
A very young Matt and his mother
So as Matt Black turns 50, there’s much to celebrate. He’s either being subversive in his conformity though, or making a mild attempt at reinvention. It’s not clear, but it’s not easy to grow old gracefully either.
“Fifty is traditionally a point when people look back and wonder what they’ve done with their lives. At the age of 50, you sort of retire from worldly events and devote yourself to spiritual matters, so I have thought of retiring.”
Shock, horror! A retired Matt Black in saffron robes chanting ‘Om Shiva Shanti’ amidst the green foliage of some exotic far away land suddenly springs to mind. The image doesn’t last longer than it takes for him to say: “But as my friend, Holly says, artists don’t really retire.”
She’s damn right too. The Coldcut crew have spent the last two years touring Europe with the environment project, Energy Union, which is promoting intelligent energy across a number of cities. Conferences and discussions are finished off by an hour-long Coldcut spectacular featuring visuals depicting the message of global warming set against a signatory Coldcut soundtrack.
Video still from the Coldcut Energy Union project
Exploding images of the earth, nature and the elements present a message from the Goddess Gaia. “My favourite image from the film is of the avatar who represents all of us in our journey on the tightrope between old power, the corporate fossil fools and intelligent energy. I took that idea after watching the film, Man on a Wire.
“We do have the ability to deal with that situation and enjoy the exhiliration and sense of being alive at this extremely exciting and crucial time. It’s a different frame to the doom and gloom scenario that’s been sold quite hard in films like An inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour and the Age of Stupid. Our sense was, that that kind of negative messaging just wasn’t working.
“Richard Dent, (the guy I worked with on the film), and I are developing the next stage, which may or may not come to something. It’ll probably be a more mainstream piece of work.”
So, a retirement plan doesn’t exactly come into the equation for Matt Black. The subversive fire that fuelled the Ninja boy is evidently still there.
Still from the video, World of Evil
“At the moment I’m creating a track called Papua Merdeka that I’ve been working on for years. It’s about freedom for West Papua.
“Through my friend, Bongo, I became involved with the resistance movement in West Papua. The fight’s still going on and I want to release this track, but it needs to be really good. It’s a cross between Timber and Panopticon.”
Boy done good. But there’s a contradictory nature to his opinion of the world these days. Anarchist or capitalist-supporter? Neo-liberal conformist or revolutionary? It comes as a surprise when he admits to sending letters to the autocrats and bankers, thanking them “for their part in creating a western society of amenities and abundance.”
“That was a-hard-to-make-but-necessary self-balancing offset to my often expressed dislike of corporates and plutocrats who help destroy humanity and the planet through selfish stupidity… I find it good to see both sides of everything”
A baby Matt with dad and grandfather
It’s an bemusing response from an artist that has been inspired by a grassroots mentality, appetite for revolution and musical conviction that has condemned the atrocities committed by world leaders such as Bush in videos such as Revolution USA.
Political issues were again explored in the Sound Mirrors album track, Aid Dealer featuring Soweto Kinch commenting on the ways in which Western aid is often tied to arms deals and other dodgy practices.
Rising from a punk era, the creation of Ninja demonstrated the urge to escape the music industry’s contractual swamp – a lesson learnt from the legal battles fought with a major record label that contractually restricted use of the Coldcut name.
The emergence of the small, sustainable, organic label, Ninja Tune, led to the launch of artists as prolific and as expansive as Roots Manuva, Bonobo, London Funk Allstars, DJ Vadim, The Herbaliser, Kid Koala, The Cinematic Orchestra and many more.
“I’ve often claimed that one of my specialities is predicting the future, and I’ve been accurate about predicting the future of technology. That really came down to an early interest in science and science fiction.”
Those early influences included ideas of futurist, Alvin Toppler and from books such as The Shockwave Rider and The Selfish Gene.
“The ideas that he [Richard Dawkins] had about modelling behaviour using games theory and computers, where he implied the connection between DNA, genetic code and computer code, also blew my mind, and after that, I taught myself to program.”
Few had predicted just how technology would impact music in the way that it did. Matt Black, with Coldcut, redefined the remix ideology by (modestly) taking other peoples’ records to scratch them up with an evolving set of techniques that synchronized to a series of cut and paste sampled video clips – and surprising the unexpected masses with an audiovisual extravaganza.
Matt and Dinaz on Ninja Jamm, Marseille (2013)
It took the dance music generation by the scruff of the neck, and made them sit up and look as well as listen: educating them with a timeless old skool sound while creating an experience that astral projected them into the future.
So what’s changed since then? “I feel a more deeper understanding about the nature of inter-connectiveness and just how beautifully complicated it is. Seeing more of the bigger picture can slow one down from extreme acts and statements”
“I’m not saying I’m going to give up on the more confrontational material that we use like Panopticon, when people generally saw our socio-political angle as the definitive Coldcut. The fire hasn’t gone out, I just want to use it more effectively and I want it to be balanced, because I’ve seen just by itself, you can’t always fight fire with fire.”
He knows where this is going. “I slightly resist the tendency to view things in black and white. I feel the oversimplification in that battle against the mainstream and corporate criminals. It’s fine, it’s fine… But I somewhat un-subscribed myself from that you see, because I believe that blame and hate and disparagement are not likely to bring a just society – but, still, I’m sure some of the old venoms can be brought out without too much effort.”
Captain Laser, one of Matt’s old-time heros
“Ninja Tune and Coldcut can be read as a story of a reaction against the mainstream. Ninja Tune could be seen as a twenty-year war against house music, and what we call “McDance.
“Much as I love house music, I was fully inspired by it in the old days, I mean, to the extent where I played Jack Your Body and acid tracks again and again and again for hours at a time.
“But the commodification of music and art does vex me somewhat. It’s a kind of inevitable process that’s fed into this “fuck you guys, we’ll show you what a bunch of independent stoners can create out of a freewheeling mentality – something that has more balls, more texture and more soul than anything that a corporation could manufacture” and I think we’ve scored a few bulls-eyes for that point.
“We’ve made our point. We’re still here and so we’ve survived showing it is possible. Ninja Tune have carried the flag for showing that there’s an alternative way of doing things – do it yourself – that punk ethic.”
He speaks of science, technology, art and music, being a major part of his story, but what other influences were there?
“Well, drugs had a pretty strong influence on me. I took cannabis, mushrooms, LSD, and occasionally, I still dabble with that. I’m glad I smoked dope as well, otherwise I might have ended up working for GCHQ in cheltenham.”
GCHQ Cheltenham (not really Matt’s cup of tea…)
Musically, Parliament Funkadelic’s Up for the Downstroke was a huge influence, as was Fela Kuti, James Brown, Gil Scot heron and Bunny Wailer. “I ended up living with a bunch of friends in Oxford smoking dope, having parties and listening to black music, and it had a really big effect.
“We were searching for something – something alternative to the mainstream and in black music, a bunch of white middle-class lads found something we could relate to. It politicized us amongst other things. It was in Thatcher’s time as well, so this was a protest soundtrack that was active, funky and articulate and alternative.”
Matt with his wife and partner, Dinaz
“At age 50, I feel it’s okay for me to prioritise the spiritual side of things. Have you lived a decent life and been involved enough with other people? It’s a question to ask myself everyday. There are a million inputs, and sometimes one can go crazy trying to process them. Clarity is there, and in fact the answers are usually quite simple. Being a human is an incredible cosmic adventure, it’s not easy so be gentle with yourself and the World.”