Founded in 1989 in New York City by businessman Mark Finkelstein and A&R wizard Gladys Pizarro, Strictly Rhythm has been at the forefront of the house music revolution since day one. During its golden era the label reflected the sound of the Big Apple, releasing a seemingly nonstop flurry of groundbreaking tracks by Masters at Work, Todd Terry, Barbara Tucker, Roger Sanchez and Armand Van Helden.
The label enjoyed incredible highs with Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness,” Planet Soul‘s “Set U Free,” Reel 2 Real’s “I Like To Move It” and Wamdue Project’s “King Of My Castle” to name a few. Subsequently there were terrible lows when the label went dormant from 2002 to 2006 after a joint venture with Warner Music went bust.
Fortunately Strictly Rhythm reclaimed its stride again and is firing on all cylinders, embracing its legacy while forging new ground.
At the end of April the now London-based label issued its 900th release in the form of Kenny Dope and Roland Clark‘s banger “Talk Dirty.” Label manager/journalist Phil Cheeseman talks about how they decided upon the milestone release as well as the label’s plan for the future.
You have a long association with Strictly Rhythm. What does the label mean to this generation? Does it differ from what it meant to those who followed the label in the early days?
Phil Cheeseman: Well, I may not be the best person to answer this! But I think the current generation has a real reverence for the earlier generations of house music, as labels like Strictly and the key producers and DJs from the ’90s are seen as the architects of the entire genre. The parallel in the early days was that a lot of the producers and DJs at that time had grown up on disco, which you can see in the proliferation of the sampling and reworking of disco classics that characterized house back to the Chicago times. Now it’s old house records being sampled.
In the early days the label had to fight to champion the music it believed in. How has the struggle changed now that dance music is mainstream.
In some ways it’s not really that different. House actually crossed over very quickly in the ’80s – Steve Hurley’s “Jack Your Body Dance” was a UK number 1 in 1987 and the more commercial house tracks were on daytime radio in New York not long after. The scene as we know it today grew out of the much bigger global underground culture that established itself in the ’90s, but what you have now is a much wider gap between underground and crossover.
Strictly had a lot of records like River Ocean’s “Love & Happiness” and Aly-Us’ “Follow Me” that were huge club records but not pop enough to cross over and we were able to license most of them to European labels that could make a success of them without them being hits. Now that Calvin Harris and Rhianna is seen as a dance record it’s just as a much of a struggle for independent labels.
900 releases is indeed a milestone. How did you settle on Kenny and Roland’s latest to become the 900th release?
This was serendipitous, as we’d been talking to Kenny about him producing something fresh for the label – his last was the Strictly Rhythms EP in 1999 – and he came up with something that he’d been working on with Roland just as we were coming up to [catalog] number 12900.
Back in the day I’d ask if the label might be getting a 900 number to celebrate but that reference no longer holds true. How are you guys going to mark the milestone?
Talk dirty is it! And we threw a party in Amsterdam with Kenny and Todd Terry playing – Todd has revived CLS for the next release, a track called “Lay It Down.”
Say you met someone was just getting into house music and they asked you for a suggested Strictly playlist. Which five Strictly tracks would you recommend to the uninitiated?
Logic – “The Warning”
Strictly’s first underground hit and still a benchmark for deep house.
Aly-Us – “Follow Me”
The label’s biggest selling vinyl is the original demo. We tried to re-record it but the demo was spreading like wildfire on cassette in New Jersey, where the act is from. So we had to put it out as it was – and it sounded better too!
Hardrive – “Deep Inside”
Louie Vega and Barbara Tucker made magic with this. Big at the time but seems to get bigger and better the more it ages. The most recognizable vocal hook in house?
Ultra Naté – “Free”
Great song, great production, great vocal. A true ’90s classic.
Reel 2 Real – “I Like To Move It”
Just because you have to hear the original as it was before Madagascar…
Looking ahead, where do you see Strictly Rhythm going in the next few years?
In the immediate future we have new releases lined up by Danism + Train, Bodhi and William Djoko and with luck, something new from Josh Butler. We’ve also signed a New York-based singer who we’re currently working on some demos with. Further out, we’ll see where the music takes us.
Any final thoughts?
It’s a privilege to still be working on a label with such an incredible heritage and in a scene that still has so much energy.