30 years of electronic innovation

Tuesday 23rd October 2018

While the name of Coldcut will be familiar to many, it's easy to overlook the duo's influential position in the evolution of popular music across the last 30 years, to the present day. Not just electronic experimenters and commercial innovators, Coldcut also became a hub where talents of the 1980s and 1990s could cross-pollinate to create some of the most interesting popular music of the period.

Mark E. Smith, Crass, Killing Joke, Jello Biafra, Queen Latifah and Lisa Stansfield are just some of the many very diverse names whose careers cross paths over the world of Coldcut.

Computer programmer Matt Black and art teacher Jonathan More were already known as DJs of mix shows on pirate radio in mid-'80s London, but in 1987 they changed the direction of British music when their song 'Say Kids What Time Is It?' combined samples of several of funk and soul's songs with hip-hop's favourite drum break, James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' and took its vocal soundbite from 1950s American Kids' TV show 'Howdy Doody'. 

The UK's mainstream had been due for a shake-up for a year or two, with the like of Stock Aitken Waterman provoking a collective eye roll and groan from the nation's young music consumers. Though 'Say Kids What Time Is It?' was just a white label, it blazed the trail for 'Pump Up the Volume' by M|A|R|R|S and 'Theme from S'Express' by S'Express and their eventual journey to the UK number one slot.

All of these songs may now seem relatively conventional, but at the time they were viewed as artistically controversial with sections of the public needing time to adjust to the concept of records being comprised of reappropriated elements of existing records. Not least of these controversies was the case of 'Pump Up the Volume' and its use of Pete Waterman's 'Roadblock' followed by the well-publicised objections of Pete Waterman himself with the M|A|R|R|S track holding his own Rick Astley record off the number one slot. The new genre had struck a personal blow to mass-produced chart-pop's leading pedlar, and the young people were fine with that, keen to embrace what was being regarded as the UK's first successful forays into hip-hop.

Black and More had become Coldcut by the time they released their first proper single 'Beats + Pieces' via their newly self-initiated label, Ahead Of Our Time. The track again sampled the funky beats of James Brown along with a plethora of clips from other songs, all constructed with spliced tape and manual manipulation. 

In the same year, the duo were asked to remix Eric B. & Rakim's 'Paid in Full' which was released as the UK single version of the song, exposing the UK mainstream again to hip-hop and the breakbeat.

Momentum was building behind what was emerging as a powerful new movement and Coldcut released 'Out To Lunch With Ahead Of Our Time' a limited release compilation of some of their remixes and recordings under various aliases up to that point, and conversely, from a commercial point of view, they released 'Doctorin' The House' with unknown singer Yazz, resulting in a top ten hit.

Keeping everyone guessing and suitably confused, they repeated the process with many of the same constituent parts, but under the name Yazz and The Plastic Population with some production input from Killing Joke bassist, Youth (Martin Glover). The song was a cover of an overlooked 1980 Soul song originally written for Otis Clay - 'The Only Way Is Up'. The single spent 5 weeks at the top of the chart – the second biggest selling song of the year, surpassed only by Cliff Richard's Christmas epic ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, but outselling Pete Waterman's new protege – Kylie Minogue.

It would be easy to write off Coldcut as commercially skilful chart-toppers at this point, but like their peers and contemporaries the KLF, there was more to this outfit than just shifting units and playing the music chart establishment at their own game.

In 1989 they continued to live a sort of dual life as a musical outfit. While Coldcut's single 'People Hold On' launched the career of Lisa Stansfield, their album of the same year, 'What's That Noise?' would also include Queen Latifah on its US release and in contrast The Fall's Mark E. Smith. '(I'm) In Deep' combined Smith's unique vocal style with its acid house beats and a Deep Purple guitar sample.

The song has since been cited as a template for the Madchester bands that mixed together electronic dance and guitar-driven indie of the late '80s and early '90s. The fusion of two new UK subcultures, preparing the path for bands such as The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays and Pop Will Eat Itself soon after and The Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher further down the line.

Other guest personnel on the album included Jamaican dancehall star Junior Reid and legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood. 'What's That Noise?' is a collection of innovations that now seems years ahead of its time.

Around the same period, the duo also formed Hex, describing themselves as a multimedia pop group. Hex's main notable contribution to the counterculture was their enthusiasm for using desktop computers to create programmatically generated visuals. The resulting videos became instantly synonymous with the growing rave and acid house scene, adopting the sampling ethos of Coldcut, but in a visual form.

The 1990s came, and following the commercial success that Coldcut had enjoyed with Lisa Stansfield, they signed to the same label as the Mancunian singer. It soon became apparent that the big label wasn't going to be the place for the kind of experimentation Coldcut had used to enable the kind of advances they had already made.

To put out music under other pseudonyms, Black and More created a new label of their own in the form of Ninja Tune in 1990. Ninja Tune is widely credited with providing the nursery for another big countercultural development of UK music - the so-called trip-hop movement and instrumental hip-hop. Crucially it also provided an outlet for DJ Food (among other aliases), the Coldcut side project that allowed the pair to escape the limitations of the big label contract.

Coldcut and Ninja Tune remain active to this day, and their innovations still continue to raise industry eyebrows. As a label, they've supported artists that eventually included Coldcut themselves, but also lauded newcomers and innovators such as Nabihah Iqbal. Their contributions to music technology range from what is claimed to be the first entirely computer-generated pop promo (as Hex) to the more recent Ninja Jamm app which allows consumers to make and share their own remixes and tunes, perhaps the ultimate form of music sharing and the logical progression of the hip-hop and acid house ethos of sample and remix – where Coldcut began.

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