10 Years of Strictly Rhythm--Mixed by "Little Louie" Vega
By Michaelangelo Matos
Maybe you've already read about the tenth anniversary celebration of a hardy experimental underground record label whose contributions to modern dance culture are so significant they merited a six-CD box set? Or maybe not, since the New York-based label Strictly Rhythm--the standard-bearer for house music for most of its existence--left the box-set treatment to the Brits at Warp, choosing instead to release 10 Years of Strictly Rhythm, a two-CD DJ mix by longtime label producer Little Louie Vega.
To be sure, Strictly Rhythm is not as aggressively experimental as Warp. And some might argue that there aren't six discs worth of story to be told about a genre as formally unadventurous, if not regressive, as house often seems to be. But if 1999 proved anything, it's that house--from Basement Jaxx to Armand Van Helden to Tuff Jam to DJ Funk to Faze Action--has become as variegated as any other music you'd care to name, in or outside dance culture. And Strictly Rhythm did (and does) play an important role in this development: the stuff Vega chose reflects house's growth from raw postdisco to the current panoply of subcategories better than the output of any other label, from George Morel's jazz-tinged instrumental "Let's Groove" to Van Helden's nastier, hip-hop-infused "Witch Doktor" to South Street Player's "(Who) Keeps Changing Your Mind" (whose vocalist, Roland Clark, lent his supernal falsetto to Van Helden's recent club hit "Flowerz"). Josh Wink's jittery, acid-breakbeat throwdown "Higher State of Consciousness" was an enormous influence on future big-beat stars like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, and Basement Jaxx started out trying to imitate the nervy soul of the Underground Solution's "Luv Dancin'" or the Boss's "Conga."
Mark Finkelstein left dance indie Spring Records in 1989 to establish Strictly Rhythm; he took with him Spring's head of A and R, Gladys Pizarro. Within a year, the label had established itself as a reliable source of monster underground anthems with "Luv Dancin'" and Logic's "The Warning." When Pizarro left in 1991 to help start Nervous, the only U.S. dance indie whose consistency and variety can rival Strictly Rhythm's, Morel and DJ Pierre--an original member of the pioneering Chicago acid-house group Phuture--stepped into the gap.
Pizarro returned to Strictly Rhythm in the mid-90s, by which time the label's club hits were frequent and ubiquitous, coming from both hot new kids like Wink and Van Helden and seasoned veterans like Pierre and Todd Terry. Its first crossover success came in 1994, after Erick Morillo, recording as Reel 2 Real, released "I Like to Move It," a number five hit in England. Planet Soul's "Set U Free" (1995) and Ultra Nate's glorious "Free" (1997) even surfaced briefly in the American mainstream, but they were merely brighter blips in a seemingly unending succession of club hits.
This consistency is remarkable, particularly in the notoriously fickle dance market. Most well-known dance indies have a shelf life of roughly five years--they either burn out and fold or establish an identity and then run it into the ground. In fact, the latter is largely what's happened to Warp, which has devolved from the Sun Records of home-listening electronica into an in-joke cul de sac. (Barely remember that track you just heard? We'll remix it so you won't remember it at all!) Strictly Rhythm has sidestepped this fate by keeping both its roster and its formula in flux--the bumpin' four-four being the only real constant. So Strictly Rhythm had as much reason to celebrate itself large, as the British like to put it, as Warp. Had the label hauled in a few more DJs to select and mix together their back catalog on a couple more discs, its decade marker would've surely overshadowed Warp's, which after all was padded out with tracks that predate the label and remixes of the current roster's work by the post-rock/weirdo-electronica cabal.
10 Years of Strictly Rhythm is by no means perfect either, but it's as accessible an introduction to the highlights as one could hope for. Vega, one of house's finest producers (both on his own and with Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, his partner in KenLou, Masters at Work, and Nuyorican Soul) and DJs, was the inevitable choice to compile it; he's responsible for some of the label's finest moments. For instance: In 1993 he produced what's arguably its single greatest track, the relentless "Deep Inside," under the name Hardrive. The tune doesn't actually appear on 10 Years, but it doesn't have to--portions of it are laced into other Vega-produced tracks, including diva Barbara Tucker's 1994 anthem "Beautiful People," where its kinetic shouts of "Deep, deep inside, deep deep down inside" weave through Tucker's slower, hypnotic chants ("Beautiful people") like a classic funky-drummer breakbeat tap-dancing atop a straight-four boom.
In more recent tracks like Michael Moog's "That Sound" and New Visions' "(Just) Me and You," loops of obscure underground disco tracks (horn lines, string sweeps, rhythm guitar parts) are fed through low-pass filters to give them a blurry, in-and-out-of-focus feel. House fanatics have been hearing this stuff for years, starting with mid-90s records like Gusto's "Disco's Revenge" and Chicagoan DJ Sneak's "You Can't Hide From Your Bud," and though it may seem like a cheap trick, it's also a link to the music's history, coating the past with a nostalgic aural haze. Oh yeah--and you can dance to it, which is twice as much as you can say for the electro-wankery on the Warp set's Remixes disc.
The best track on the set, though, is Powerhouse's "What You Need," a ridiculously kinetic, Chic-esque number produced by New Yorker Lenny Fontana and sung by another Van Helden collaborator, Duane Harden. It's stretched to almost unbearable tension by boogie-woogie guitar that flutters across icicle-sharp strings and a booming-and-zooming bass line. It's also the most recent track on the compilation--reason enough to expect that Strictly Rhythm's next decade will be as at least as good as its first.