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The new Ninja tunes.

By Chris Tweney

APRIL 20, 1998:  Funk has always led a schizophrenic life. Even in the music's early days, when James Brown was rocking the charts with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," funk's groove encompassed two distinct messages: move your ass and free your mind -- or as George Clinton later put it, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." And as playful as funk grooves have gotten over the years, at their core the best ones are still loaded with a political, spiritual, and/or social message.

The hip '90s British DJ label Ninja Tune may seem far removed from the urgent political realities of the '60s or the disco liberation fantasies of '70s, but Ninja artists wrestle with the same physical/cerebral split that helped define the music of Brown and Clinton. The label is run by Jonathan More and Matt Black, who record and perform under the name Coldcut, and whose "sample everything and see if it grooves" approach is the cornerstone of what's become a self-contained DJ-centric musical universe. Ninja artists like the Herbaliser, who shred hip-hop clichés into a stoned, extra-heavy brew, showcase the turntable as primary instrument while demoting "real" instruments like acoustic bass to a supporting role. The likes of DJ Food and DJ Vadim boil down old vinyl jazz with high-energy audio physics and hip-hop beats; Funki Porcini plies weirdstep drum 'n' bass with heavier doses of hip-hop; and the newest members of the Ninja conspiracy, Chocolate Weasel, draw on extensive jungle production experience to reinvent '70s funk as pre-millennial party music. Chocolate Weasel, DJ Vadim, Neotropic, and DJs Ollie and Jake of the Herbaliser are currently on a US tour, which comes to Axis this Wednesday to support the new Ninja Tune compilation Funkungfusion.

On their Ninja Tune debut, Spaghettification, Chocolate Weasel digitally process the Cold War paranoia of the '50s through corny '70s funk using modern sound-editing technology. The disc's focus on atomic holocaust might seem to have limited relevance in the post-Cold War era. But this fascination is actually in keeping with funk tradition: James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" dropped the bomb of social revolution; Parliament/Funkadelic blew minds with the galactic fantasies of the Mothership and Dr. Funkenstein; and who can forget the Gap Band's explosive hit "You Dropped a Bomb on Me"? It's always been a short step from the bass bomb of funk to a more literal sort of bomb. And in Chocolate Weasel's universe, that connection is signified by a squishy, fattened analog-synthesizer line.

The result is an amusing and infectious hash of Doctor Strangelove-style black comedy, electrofunk synths, Monty Python samples, and hip-hop beats. The disc opens with a snippet of dialogue from the British TV comedy Blackadder: "I've got a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel." It's like a bright red flag declaring "Warning: Kitsch Ahead." Other snippets of sampled voices, many recorded in London's Hyde Park, are littered throughout the disc giving a cinéma-vérité quality to the proceedings. The bits of found dialogue -- "I prefer other kinds of conversations, like a nice wholesome discussion of the morality of making clean hydrogen bombs that'll kill your kids but not with nasty blisters, and nice girls walk away when I talk like that" -- remind you that Chocolate Weasel have their tongues at least partly in cheek.

Marc Royal and Cris Stevens, the beat-and-sample technicians behind Chocolate Weasel, aren't afraid of kitsch. In fact, it's would be fair to say that Royal is using the kitsch associated with Ninja Tune as a protective mantle, shielding himself from any serious aesthetic expectations he may have generated through the groundbreaking work of his former incarnation, T-Power, a hardstep drum 'n' bass project with numerous singles and two albums on the S.O.U.R. label. As he explains, "The move to Ninja opened up our field of vision: now we've got license to try out these silly things."

Ninja Tune's aesthetic dispenses with the scenester purism and methodology that sometimes makes "serious" drum 'n' bass tracks sound so much like one another, freeing Royal and Stevens up to zigzag back and forth across the boundary separating jungle from hip-hop. With Chocolate Weasel the duo duck out avant-garde drum 'n' bass's back door and head for the groovier but less fashionable retro-funk warehouse next door.

Royal couldn't care less if the drum 'n' bass scene turns up its nose at his turn from dystopic, wickedly programmed jungle to acid-fried funk tunes with titles like "A Blue Furry Plughole" and "Tragic Mushrooms." "I don't particularly like being perceived as being cool," he admits. "It's not why I make music. I don't want to be an icon." The production methods on Spaghettification are essentially those of drum 'n' bass proper: a foundation of chopped-up breakbeats resequenced to provide a relentlessly polyrhythmic push. The difference lies in speed: drum 'n' bass is based on reggae and hip-hop rhythm tracks, which are so drastically accelerated that the groove is often eliminated. Chocolate Weasel are much more concerned with preserving the funk. As Stevens explains, "You slow jungle down by 20 beats per minute and you've got that weight again, you can feel the drums kick."

You can hear the difference on Chocolate Weasel's "In-Continuity," which straddles the line between high-velocity jungle and downtempo funk, reasserting the importance of the groove that has nearly disappeared in the wake of deathly cold techstep jungle. "In-Continuity" is prefaced by "Banana Skins," a bewildering soundscape of booming drums and voices that ends with the loaded question "Well, what do we do now?" Chocolate Weasel answer with another sample: as the junglized drums of "In-Continuity" kick in, a voice is heard declaiming, "The way I figure it, anything we want." Think of it as a wake-up call to a drum 'n' bass scene where, in the words of Stevens, "everyone sort of found a space where they thought they really don't have to push it any further."

The two-CD Funkungfusion offers plenty of evidence that Chocolate Weasel aren't the only Ninja Tune artists willing to push DJ science into new frontiers. It's the broadest sampler of the label's sound to date, with tracks from all of Ninja Tune's active artists. The Herbaliser, whose first-rate Ninja Tune debut, Blow Your Headphones, came out last year, are back in style with turntable scratching and ripping acoustic bass lines that combine the bouncing drive of bebop and the programming precision of jungle. Coldcut jam out a live version of their current showoff piece, "More Beats and Pieces," that refers to their roots with a sample from their own "Say Kids, What Time Is It?" Other Ninja heavy hitters are in fine form too: Funki Porcini's "Surge" layers scattershot jungle snare over a vaguely Tolkienesque vocal motif, and DJ Food delivers a brooding track colored by resonant acoustic bass and programmed drums titled "The Crow."

Some of the best material on Funkungfusion comes from lesser-known Ninjas -- a sign that both the label and its unique aesthetic are in good shape. Omnium deliver a track titled "Extua Textua," which is driven by a fast walking-bass line and rock-solid jazz-funk drumming and accented by splintered guitars and noodling synth. And the remix of Japanese producer/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Anger" shows just how frightening fractured drumbeats can be when they're filtered through distortion boxes and set alongside barely audible whispering voices.

Funkungfusion certainly doesn't have the coherence of 1995's Journey by DJ, a Ninja Tune compilation that was held together by the guiding hand of Coldcut. (Coldcut mixed tracks by various Ninja Tune DJs into a coherent DJ set on that CD.) And with such a diverse roster of artists it lacks the sustained DJ-battle energy that fueled 1996's ColdKrushCuts (Ninja Tune). This release is, however, an excellent Ninja Tune primer, not to mention a fair preview of the upcoming tour. And it's an indication that, like the early-'80s punk label SST or the late-'80s indie-rock label Homestead, Ninja Tune has become the home of choice for like-minded artists intent on challenging people's expectations about how music should sound.

"We don't have a monopoly on truth," says Chocolate Weasel's Stevens. And perhaps that point should be extended to cover the whole of the turntablist's art: sonic monopolies are impossible in a realm where tracks are built from pre-existing fragments of other artist's music, where the process of sampling has all but eliminated the concept of the "song" as a discrete recorded text. So there's no reason to believe that Spaghettification or Funkungfusion is the last word on funk in this century. But they both come as a reminder that some of the best revolutions in music sound an awful lot like a party.

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