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Since the ’80s — when the first samplers came on the market — sampling in music has evolved from a revolutionary and barely understood practice to become a standard tool in the production of even the most mundane pop song. It’s all in the hands of the user — and when those hands belong to Coldcut, one of the pioneering forces of sample-based music, you can be assured the results will be intriguing. By taking snatches of recorded music and spoken word and juxtaposing them with unrelated elements in a completely different context, Coldcut use sampling for satire, political comment and comic effect.

Owners of the Ninja Tune label, Coldcut will be arriving for a three-day series of shows in Japan to celebrate the recent release of the “Zen” collection of retrospective CDs and DVDs, which compile tracks and visuals from the Ninja archives. Joining them will be scratch wizard Kid Koala from Canada, Jason Swinscoe (Cinematic Orchestra) and the visual team Hexstatic, as well as relative newcomers to the Ninja stable Bonobo and Dominic Smith.

Jonathan Moore and Matt Black formed Coldcut back in the ’80s after being blown away by the mixing and scratching experiments of hip-hop DJs in the United States. They had a go themselves — and the results, such as the 1987 single “Beats and Pieces,” instantly broke new ground in British club music and opened ears to the joys of sonic manipulation.

In 1990 Coldcut started Ninja Tune in order to take control of their own music and support an emerging underground scene. Since then, the label has steadily grown and now embodies the DIY spirit and creativity of independent U.K. dance music.

Although the label has no rigid policy on sound and style, and has also released the works of live-orientated groups like the jazz-tinged Cinematic Orchestra, for many the overriding impression of the label is the cut-and-paste mayhem of long-standing artists like Kid Koala and Luke Vibert. These artists share a distinct hip-hop mentality with Coldcut, yet far from copying their U.S. heroes, they discovered that if they cut the rap, kept it funky and injected some humor they could take the tools of hip-hop and then fashion something fresh and exciting.

Sampling is one of the most useful studio tools, originally developed with hip-hop producers in mind, and Ninja have famously used and abused the practice.

Of course, appropriating the work of another artist is a highly complicated issue: While some artists are happy for their tracks to be sampled (for a fee, of course), others are adamantly opposed. Conscientious labels try to clear all samples they use, while some risk crippling lawsuits by not bothering.

Factors that determine the legality of the use of a particular sample include whether it constitutes the main part of the new composition or is simply one lesser element among many. As Moore points out, audio or visual “quotes” can be legally acceptable if less than a certain length.

For Ninja, it’s mostly a case of clearing what you can — and trying to get away with whatever you can’t. Speaking by phone from London, Moore said, “We always have our artists make a list of all the samples they use, and we contact those record companies. And if we can’t find the owner of the copyright we will use the sample but make a statement asking the owner to get in touch with us — we have come to many agreements in this way.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, sampling was hot news in dance and electronic music, but now it’s so commonplace there is an argument that the postmodern sampling approach to music is getting a little tired. For example, The Gotan Project, a unit who limit sampling to the role of supporting or enhancing acoustic instrumentation, have suggested that the sampling era is over and people are going back to creating their own melodies again.

“Sure, I think there is something to be said in that everything will eventually be sampled,” Moore says. “But we are a long way off yet.”

For Moore there are always new ways to employ the technique, one of them being sampling yourself. “For example, Bonobo [who will be playing on the Ninja Tune tour] plays guitar and lots of stuff, then he samples it and re-cuts it, which makes it more dynamic.”

How about the likes of 2 Many DJs, the Belgian brothers who specialize in incongruous combinations like Iggy Pop mixed over Salt ‘n’ Pepper?

“Ha, ‘bastard pop’ — it’s interesting! Some purists find it objectionable because of the pop element but I don’t go with that. I like the mad combinations; it’s like fusion food. Mixing dark, off-kilter stuff with more melodic records — like Plastikman with Kylie [Minogue] — it’s fun; it’s not serious. Mixing the strange beats with something people recognize gives it a narrative. It’s good entertainment.”

Entertainment. That’s one thing Coldcut themselves have never overlooked. A Coldcut show is more than just two blokes playing records. Moore and Black have always considered image and presentation to be important, and VJing has become an increasingly crucial part of that.

The pair have long been involved in developing their own software, in particular the VJ software V-Jamm, which they will be using in the Japan shows. Among other things, V-Jamm allows the DJ/VJ to not only sync music and visual data but to actually “scratch” the images, as you would scratch the record on a turntable.

One of Coldcut’s favorite techniques is a kind of video remix in which they take a song by a popular hip-hop or R&B artist — but only the a cappella (i.e. the vocals without the original backing track, which allows the vocals to be easily mixed in with Coldcut’s own music). They then re-sync the vocals to the original promotional video, only now the video can be similarly mixed with Coldcut’s own images (which are often taken from the media, then cut-up and re-presented). The result is a complete audio-visual manipulation of another artist’s work — the means to collage and re-contextualize it — without the original artist even being aware of it. (Well not until later, anyway — as Coldcut’s growing collection of “cease and desist” letters from various solicitors’ attests.)

Issues of ownership vs. freedom of speech aside, Coldcut are part of a lineage of artists, like Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs, whose work borrows extensively from and comments upon popular culture. Moore says he sees affinities with painter Robert Rauschenberg, who literally attached traces of images from color magazines onto his canvases, as well as the Situationist-inspired typography and imagery of the punk era.

Now, of course, scissors, glue and photocopiers have given way to tools of vastly higher quality and flexibility, and as technology gives more people easier access to audio-visual information, the sampling debate can surely only intensify. Coldcut will no doubt remain at the forefront, pushing the envelope and provoking our senses.

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