DJ Kentaro spins the wheels of solid steel for Ninja Tune XX

by Mark Jarnes

“It’s astonishing to think that I was in elementary school when they started up as a label,” remarks DJ Kentaro, in the runup to this weekend’s Ninja Tune XX, an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the famed Ninja Tune label.

Two decades down the line, Kentaro Okamoto, who goes by his first name, has also become a valuable member of the Ninja Tune family. The Japanese turntablist signed to the London-based label started by Coldcut DJs Jonathan More and Matt Black in April 2006 and has seen his profile rise ever since. “Simply put, it has been an honor,” he says.

More and Black created the imprint in 1990, and although they are renowned for their mixes and contributions to ’90s hip-hop and jazz, the label is home to an expansive spectrum of DJs and producers. Kentaro’s own brand of hip-hop found its place without any hitches.

“What makes the label different from others is its high level of music sense,” he says. “Ninja Tune has a unique range of sounds, it’s not just about having a lot of genres bunched together.”

Although the Ninja operation is based in South London, the roots of the label can be traced back to Japan. During a tour of the country, More and Black came across a book incorporating the ninja motif, which started the conceptual ball rolling. At a phase in their career when the two were experiencing fundamental problems with their label and the commercial-music machine as a whole, the imagery of the ninja was liberating.

“We found a book about cut-out-and- keep ninjas,” write the pair on the Ninja Tune website. “They build these amazing houses where they have special traps so they can disappear and reappear somewhere else. They were all about artifice and hidden identity.”

As a part of the Ninja crew, 28-year-old Kentaro will be ripping up the decks as part of this weekend’s Ninja Tune XX extravaganza in Tokyo and Osaka. The label is celebrating with a ton of goodies. They’ve released a limited-edition box set including CDs and 7-inch vinyls, a poster and a book on the history of the label. The team has also put together a world tour that has already taken in New York and London, and will hit Istanbul after this weekend’s two-city blitz is done and dusted.

Just as Japanese artists such as DJ Krush and Towa Tei have made their mark on the global music scene, Kentaro is no stranger to international recognition. He has released four albums so far, the most recent being 2009’s “Nama Live Mix,” and he has performed shoulder to shoulder with scratch artist Qbert and hip-hop heavyweights Afrika Bambaataa, The Roots and Pharcyde. “The label gets lots of props,” Kentaro says, “so I’ve been able to play at venues around the world.”

For the Japan leg of the tour, Kentaro will be joined by eminent British rapper Roots Manuva, DJ Food, Kid Koala and, of course, Ninja Tune founders Coldcut.

“It’s great to be able to represent Japan through such an extraordinary label,” says Kentaro. “I hope they continue to make music for at least another 50, 60 years.”

Ninja Tune XX takes place at Shibuya O-East in Tokyo on Nov. 5 (6 p.m. show, ¥4,500; 10:30 p.m. show ¥5,500); and at Triangle & Fanjtwice in Osaka on Nov. 6 (10 p.m., ¥5,500). All prices are for advanced tickets. For more information, visit