There are those who will forever associate United Kingdom label Ninja Tune with the long-gone and stupidly named trend known as trip-hop. In the early '90s, the label pioneered the fusion of hip-hop beats, dark samples and acid jazz through artists such as Cold Cut, Funki Porcini and DJ Food. At the time, the genre seemed ready to capitalize on hip-hop's adaptive structure while freeing it from the chest-beating gangsta lyrics that had hijacked American rap music. But as the '90s wore on, trip-hop withered in the overheated hype, labels such as Mo'Wax faded out of focus and the best MC that the genre produced, Tricky, couldn't cut an album that didn't annoy the shit out of everyone. But unlike many of its competitors, Ninja Tune weathered the storm and emerged from the '90s with an impressive roster and respectable record sales.
This longevity is due in large part to the label's commitment to cultivating bands with unique sounds of their own alongside more high-profile and commercially lucrative DJs and knob twiddlers. Some of these recruits -- such as the spectacular NYC-based Afrobeat outfit Antibalas; the multi-cultural fusionists Up, Bustle and Out; and modern visual-jazzists Cinematic Orchestra -- are the result of sharp recruiting efforts. Others have been with the label for years, quietly developing and releasing excellent music just under the radar.
One such act is 9 Lazy 9, an Italian trio that forgoes vocals in favor of a mix of moody rhythms, mournful horns, ephemeral hip-hop samples and deep dub. The band's latest release, Sweet Jones, evokes the production formula of that other trip-hop poster child, Portishead, but without Beth Gibbons' despairing vocals and heavy emotional burden. Within that dark framework is instead a range of feeling augmented by whimsical guitar melodies, ambient sounds, jazzy hi-hats, wistful synth lines and sweet flute accents, all combined with head-nodding beats. 9 Lazy 9 is what trip-hop was supposed to be: good, deep music without the pretension, music that takes you on a voyage through a dark landscape but doesn't make you want to throw yourself from a bridge when it's over.