Strictly Rhythm



Think soul, think Motown. Think blues, think Chess Records. Think jazz, think Blue Note.

Think house, think Strictly Rhythm.

House labels come and go, yet while Strictly Rhythm isn't the be-all and end-all of house music imprints it's fair to say that no other single label has had such an influence on the development of house music as Strictly. We're talking about the stable that launched the careers of, among others, Erick Morillo, Roger Sanchez, Armand Van Helden, Kenny Dope, Josh Wink...damn it, pretty much most of the names we today consider to be at the top of the house music tree. So we can only count our lucky stars that Strictly didn't turn out to be a
taxi company.

Yes, that's right. When Spring records closed in 1989, Financial Controller Mark Finkelstein had $25,000 dollars to his name and an ex-wife and two children to support. The smart move, he figured, was to work for a private hire service, having just enough money to put down a deposit on a car and radio.

Enter Finkelstein's colleague Gladys Pizzaro, one serious clubber from the mean streets of Spanish Harlem. Leaving behind a lucrative career in the construction industry, Gladys had joined Spring as a receptionist and worked her way up to radio promotions, backed up by an intimate knowledge of the New York club scene based on, well, living the New York club scene. Enthralled by the new 'house' and 'garage' sounds emanating out of Chicago
and New York/New Jersey - sounds which reminded Finkelstein of the '70s disco he'd so
loved - Gladys convinced Mark that to set up their own label to focus on this new music was the way ahead. And thus was Strictly Rhythm born on May 1st 1989, with Finkelstein in charge of business matters and Pizarro at the A&R helm. Along with that legendary logo...

"I have a street background," explains Pizzaro, "and graffiti at that time was very popular, and because we were doing house music, house identified with street, so that's what I identified the label with. Street music, house music, graffiti... urban culture."

The Finkelstein/Pizarro double act composed, and that iconic grafitti logo drawn by Finkelstein in the bag, Tylon's 'Feel The Rhythm Of House' (SR1200) marked the label's debut, but the first few releases were low-key (though the label's third release, 'Special' by Sir James, overlooked at the time, has gone on to be one of the most sampled records in house). The first single to really make an impact was Logic's 'The Warning' (SR1207),
which was a club smash in 1990 ("Tony Humphries played it four times at a party," recalls Pizarro, "that helped a lot"). That was followed later the same year by Underground Solution's 'Luv Dancin' (SR1220). The debut release by one Roger Sanchez, this deep
house groover put Strictly firmly on the map.

"From there on it just started to snowball," recalls Gladys, "because the word on the street got out and producers like Todd Terry started coming to see me, and Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, DJ PIerre... it just goes on and on. It was easy really because there was just so much talent in New York."

Over the next couple of years, the label continued to turn out the club anthems - Simone's 'My Family Depends On Me' and CLS's 'Can You Feel It in 1991, Aly-Us's 'Follow Me' and Djaimin's 'Give You' in 1992 - while several other notable producers had their first ever
releases on Strictly during the same period: Kenny 'Dope' with The Untouchables's 'Take A Chance' (SR1227), DJ Pierre with Photon Inc's 'Generate Power' (SR1251), Masters At Work with Hardrive's 'Sindae' (SR1272).

The label had by now firmly established a reputation as New York's leading house label, based on a combination, as Finkelstein puts it, of "integrity in business - everyone got paid - and Gladys' ears. Gladys had the best ears in dance music, period." By now, tracks were coming through the door so thick and fast that the label stepped up the release schedule to
a single a week.

"All my competitors were saying he's lost his mind, he's going to fuck this up entirely," recalls Finkelstein. "And it turned out just the opposite. Every Friday, there'd be lines outside record stores in Manhattan, and we'd be selling them out of the box, unheard. We were fortunate in
that we had the only fanbase that would buy music to make money - the DJs. In those days there were no downloads, no CDs, you had to have the vinyl."

But things would move to the next level in 1994, with the arrival of Erick Morillo in his Reel 2 Real guise. 'I Like To Move It' (SR12192) was a chart-busting hit around the world and marked Strictly Rhythm out as a major player on the international stage. Reel 2 Real would go on to rack up five Top 30 UK hits, not to mention a gold-selling album.

1994 wasn't just about chart hits, though. The same year saw the label release classics like Barbara Tucker's 'Beautiful People' (SRB015), River Ocean feat India's 'Love And Happiness' (SREP4) and Morel's Grooves' 'Let's Groove' (SR12200). Clearly, Strictly Rhythm were on a roll.

Through '95 and '96, the classics just kept on coming. Josh Wink's 'Higher State Of Consciousness' (SR12321), Hardrive's 'Deep Inside' (SREP2), Black Magic's 'Freedom' (SR12403), Reel 2 Real's 'Jazz It Up' (SR12475), Da Mongoloids' 'Spark Da Meth'
(SR12476)... the list goes on, and on.

It was also during this period that Strictly Rhythm had their greatest commercial success in their native USA, with Planet Soul's 'Set U Free' (SR12362), a fusion of house with Miami bass. "I don't think that sold 15 copies in the UK!" laughs Finkelstein, "but it sold half a
million in the US. Whereas Barbara Tucker or Ultra Nate didn't sell anything in the US."

Ah yes, Ultra Nate. Her 1997 worldwide smashes 'Free' (SR12512), 'Found A Cure' (SR12534) and 'New Kind Of Medicine' (SR12555) saw the label at the height of its success, but also marked something of a watershed for the label, according to Pizzaro. "After 1998, after our big hit with 'Free', there was a change going on in New York."

The label itself was changing direction. "We were no longer a house label, a street label," says Gladys, "we were a dance label." A joint venture had been entered into with Warner Bros, and the label - while simultaneously having its first UK No 1 with Wamdue
Project's 'King Of My Castle' - began to license European pop-dance acts for the US market, the likes of Fragma and the Vengaboys (signed to Strictly's domestic offshoot Groovilicious Records) bringing them considerable commercial success.

"No doubt about it, at that particular time that was the best move for us to make," says Pizzaro, "And we were pretty proud of it, that a major was interested in an independent. That was definitely Mark's dream, to go on a major."

The deal didn't pan out as planned but some five years on, Strictly rises phoenix-like from the ashes, thanks to a tie-in with Simon Dunmore of the UK's mighty Defected stable. "I fought the lawsuit, got the company back, got all the rights back," says Finkelstein of the new partnership. "And it was like, now what? The dance scene in the US isn't great right now, so headquartering Strictly in the US didn't make sense. Plus, I needed a creative director, because I knew I didn't understand cutting edge music. And Simon and I have worked together and been friends for 15 years, three of the first Defected releases were signed from Strictly Rhythm so it just made sense."

As househeads worldwide will attest, if Strictly Rhythm Mk2 is even half as good as Strictly Rhythm Mk1, we're in for one hell of a ride...





All right reserved. 2010