We recently reflected on the pivotal role played by Strictly Rhythm in shaping the NYC house sound.
Now 22tracks house selector Tristan Jong aka Gratts ventures deep into the cavernous Strictly back-catalogue, with the occasional detour into a subsidiary vault, to unearth 25 early gems that have slipped under the radar.
Words: Tristan Jong
NY house institution Strictly Rhythm is without a doubt one of the most important house brands in history. The label has released countless pieces of music throughout its existence (est. 1989) and pretty much every house music heavyweight at one point has had a record or two out on Finkelstein and Pizarro’s brainchild. Roger Sanchez, MAW, Erick Morillo, George Morel, Todd Terry, Sandy Rivera, DJ Pierre, Frankie Feliciano, Armand Van Helden, Mark Kinchen, David Morales, Rasoul, DJ Sneak, Ian Pooley, Josh Wink, Cevin Fisher, Roy Davis plus a plethora of their guises. The list goes on.
To the wider public, Strictly Rhythm is probably best known for its stream of classics and crossover hits. Peak time tunes with fierce beats, prominent pianos and wailing male or female divas. After ‘the golden years’ (1989 – 1997) Strictly started suffering from what seemed to be an identity and inspiration crisis. It ended up folding in 2002. After the relaunch in 2007, a lot of defining releases were repressed and reworked, finding their way into the record bags of a new DJ generation. Unfortunately, the label never quite came close to its creative level of the early nineties, and most of the output from the end of the noughties proved to be more forgettable than the first batch of Strictly outings.
The label’s focus has more often than not been reissuing the same ‘hit records’ again and again. The randomness of why some of these tracks turned into ‘hit records’ and others remained hidden treasures, however, is striking, as there are more timeless releases from back in the day than only those that keep resurfacing. One of the reasons the same classic tracks always get highlighted, could be the lack of mix CDs and compilations offering a fresh take on the catalogue.
What characterised Strictly especially in the early days, though, is they seemingly allowed and even encouraged artists to branch out into deeper territory. Unlike a lot of today’s EP releases, there was something for every DJ and every hour of the night on every slice of wax: a peaktime original, an instrumental, a tougher dub version, a deeper 6am take. There was a steady supply of floor ready house music with a general quality of production and mastering that makes most 2015 labels look bad.
In this completely subjective list, I try to steer away from the better known releases, instead presenting you 25 lesser known records that have stood the test of time. You might have never heard of them, but if you have, I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. The beauty of it? Who knows how many copies were pressed, so a few must be sitting in dollar bins around the world, waiting for you to take them home.
Listen to choice tracks from the records in the playlist below, and keep scrolling to check them out individually.
S.R.-1 You Got The Love / Da Rhythm
(Strictly Rhythm, 1992)
Dark vibes and Belgian new beat echoes on this one. Head straight for ‘No Sleep Tonight’ which adds a dark bassline and a naive melody to an intriguing vocal that sounds like it was lifted from an ’80s flick. A2’s ‘Revelation’ sounds like Belgian new beat drums having sex with MK while the original Kraftwerk gang are watching.
Politix Of Dancing Swirls / I Know (Strictly Rhythm, 1992)
Most of Nathaniel Pierre Jones’ druggy, repetitive contributions to the house music canon still sound extremely fresh today. With a near faultless legacy like his, we can forgive Mr. Phuture the occasional mistake or two in recent years (check out – or rather, don’t check out – this acid track parody on the Steve ‘cake-thrower’ Aoki’s Dim Mak label). The tune to check here is Pierre’s ‘EFX Wild Pitch Mix‘. His take on the original by house music dream team Rasoul, DJ Digit and EFX keeps building and wouldn’t sound out of place in a Dixon set. We’re also quite pretty sure Tiga must have had a closer listen or two to B-side, ‘I Know’.
Caucasian Boy Northern Lights / Honeydip (Strictly Rhythm, 1993)
British lad Crispin Joseph Dawson (better known as Crispin J Glover), a later Paperecordings staple, has released some of the most understated music on the label. The best track on offer is The Prime Cutz mix of ‘Northern Lights’, an adventurous excursion into strings and 303 banter. One to get your grubby hands on before the Discogs sharks realize how good it is.
Before releasing quirky West-Coast influenced beats on labels like Classic, a very young Tony Senghore released his first (and only) EP on Strictly Rhythm aged 17. On ‘Dea’, the Swede delivers classic Chicago influenced, dreamy and whispery deephouse.
The Wamdue Project The Deep EP (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
Chris Brann has been producing house tracks since what seems like forever. Under his Wamdue Kids (sometimes Wam Kidz) moniker, he’s responsible for one of Strictly Rhythm’s biggest chart successes, ‘King Of My Castle’. Ironically, the original version (that appeared on 1998’s Program Yourself LP and the EP with the same name) was a downtempo album cut. The well known housy chart topper is Italian DJ/producer Roy Malone’s take on it. ‘Three Toed Frog’ is signature Chris Brann 5am deepness with crunchy beats. B1’s ‘Remember The Memory’ seeks out even deeper territory.
One of Sneak’s best moments. Filterhouse based on a vocal loop out of Stephanie Mills’ ‘What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’. It’s German house maestro Ian Pooley who further crafts and perfects Sneak’s 1996 original with his ‘Fierce Mix’. Chugging beats and the hypnotic ‘keep on grooving’ vocal looped to perfection. Pooley’s version appeared on the German Strictly Rhythm release in 1997.
Cevin Fisher Cevin Fisher EP (Groovilicious, 1996)
This essential Cevin Fisher material saw the light of day on Groovilicious, a Strictly sublabel that would only two years later get the questionable honour of releasing The Vengaboys singles as well as various hardhouse / progressive / trance jokes. ‘Do You Wanna Fly’ demonstrates Fisher’s strongest side, with strings, flute, and an amazing vocal hook. “Do you wanna fly with me? Take you to the skies”. Enough said.
Sound Waves I Wanna Feel The Music / Gotta Have You (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
I’m not sure who Sound Waves are, but it’s the Smooth Mix of ‘I Wanna Feel The Music’ you’re after. A smooth ride in a similar vein to ‘Luv Dancin”, starring jazzy keys, a deep bassline, organs and soulful vocal moans.
The spelling of the EP title as well as ‘Lippstikk’ should be enough info for any house aficionado to see Chicago’s favourite feline is behind this. It’s all about the B-sides on this one. ‘Lippstikk’, with its playful tweaks, juicy claps and rumbling sub, still sounds relevant today. Special mention to B2’s raunchy ‘Experilove’ too, with the mysterious Salema C begging to get with you and to give her more, more, more.
William Rosario Mood-Vibes E.P. (Strictly Rhythm, 1992)
This EP offers 4 quality cuts of which Rosario ‘s A2’s ‘The Mood Vibe (Morning Groove)’ (not on YouTube) is the most balanced out. You can hear house music heavyweight George Morel’s touch through its deeply channeled grooves.
Dancefloor ammo from Greg Zwarich and Paul Mintsoulis aka ‘The Stickmen’, the duo behind the now defunct Canadian powerhouse Stickman Records. Title track ‘The Drug’ is relentless, loopy techno with a distorted spoken word (‘the drug’), bleeps and an impressive bottom end. But put the needle on A2’s ‘The Sound’ for tough Joey Beltram sounding drums and a sample convincing us we’re really listening to ‘the sound’. Sometimes house music doesn’t have to be complicated.
Chicago Syndicate Featuring LaVette Move Your Body (Strictly Rhythm, 1992)
No cheese to be detected on this feelgood piano original out of the studio of DJ Pierre, Nate Williams and vocalist LaVette Goodman. You know you want to sing along: “No time critizing, music’s hypnotizing, everybody’s temperature is rising to get down, get down, get down”.
If money is not an issue, get your hands on this piece of late ’90s gold by Freddy Turner and Jason ‘Whiplash’ Hernandez, the only EP they ever released under the ‘Reality Check’ moniker. The ‘Whipped And Turned Mix’ of ‘Fantasy’ is a wonderfully uncomplicated tune dating from the time when a sax loop in house music wasn’t considered a crime against humanity.
K.C.Y.C. I’m Not Dreaming / Side By Side (Strictly Rhythm, 1993)
Vintage Kerri Chandler business. This release sees him team up with King Street brothers Yahya and Charles McDougald. Kerri collaborated with Yahya McDougald on several occasions delivering EPs as Trailer Ends and Stratosphere. Tune of choice on this one is ‘Side By Side (Again Mix)’ on the flip. You might have heard the A-side’s soulful ‘I’m Not Dreaming (Media Mix)’ on 2001’s excellent Respect Is Burning mix compilation by DJ Deep.
Logic Celebrate Life / One Step Beyond (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
Of all the outings by the Logic production team consisting of Roger Sanchez, Vivian Sessoms, Eddie Maduro and Wayne Gardiner, the latter duo’s The Warning / The Final Frontier release is probably best known. This EP has a young S-Man aka Roger Sanchez at the controls. The A-side shows tribute to The Soundshaft, an old London nightclub where Sanchez supposedly DJ’ed on many occasions. But the timeless deephouse sounds of ‘One Step Beyond (Path Mix)’ make it the choice cut.
This Logic package features something for everyone: sweet vocals, uplifting pianos, garage-y beats and basslines. The ‘Hard Dub’ of ‘Blues For You’ is a blueprint and is as good as house music gets. Simple.
Chapter 1 T.N.T. EP (Techno For The Non-Technical) (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
Chapter 1 is made up of three people: Damon Wilber, Gene Hughes & Lea M. Braak. They did two more early Strictly releases, of which ‘Unleash The Groove (Love In Sheffield Mix)’ (bleepy vibes) and ‘Freestyle 97’ (less than three minutes of bouncy minimal house) are recommended. Belgian rave vibes are the order of the day on ‘See You Soon’, a very untypical Strictly outing indeed. Read the small letters, and you’ll see it was co-produced by a certain Richard Melville Hall. Your mum might be more familiar with his artist name: Moby.
George Morel Morel’s Grooves Part 2 (Strictly Rhythm, 1992)
American house veteran George Morel’s ‘Grooves’ series always stood for DJ-friendly EPs full of muscular dancefloor material. ‘Let’s Groove’ on Morel’s Grooves Part 4 is without a doubt his best known work. While some of Morel’s tunage hasn’t quite aged well, exactly 50% of this prequel does still sound fresh. ‘Bass Movement’ doesn’t do much more than give you a solid, elegant groove, but sometimes that’s more than enough. ‘On One’ gives a nod to MK and might get more hands in the air than the aforementioned piece.
The Believers Who Dares To Believe In Me? (Strictly Rhythm, 1993)
If you’ve ever drunk a cocktail by the sea sometime in the ’90s, you’ve probably heard this original, a sure fire dancefloor stormer with a sax stealing the show. Kevin Elliott & Billy Williams’ moody but solid ‘Mind Readers’ retake doesn’t sound anything like the peaktime original.
U.P.I. (Unreel Productions, Inc.) That String Track (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
Ignore all the other tracks on this EP except the title track. Ignore the cheesy little intro of the title track itself and head straight to where the kick drops in. You are now rewarded with an amazing track that people in 2015 might refer to as ‘that string track you played’.
Urban Rhythm Feel It Baby All Nite (Strictly Rhythm, 1991)
Urban Rhythm are responsible for a lot more original material and remixes on the label under their House 2 House guise. ‘Luv Will Make It Right (As It Grooves Mix)’ brings an epic house track sampling different parts of Sister Sledge’s ‘Lost In Music’ vocal, while keeping it classy and grooving.
One of Mood II Swing’s finest moments and probably my most played out vinyl of all time. The whole EP just got a reissue so you can now pick it up at a decent rate. Many people have sampled the Odyssey’s ‘7th Movement’s’ bassline, but John Ciafone and Lem Springsteen get it exactly right on ‘Do It Your Way’, adding an uplifting spoken word from writer, actress, teacher and visionary Dr. Barbara Ann Teer (R.I.P.). Mood II Swing also used a part of the same interview for the dub of their track ‘Move Me’. B-side ‘All Night Long’ with Lem on vocals is just as good if not better: a beauty of a track with lyrics that will touch any discerning, hedonistic dancefloor: ‘I’m dying to rock with you, all night long, ’cause you been on my mind’. [Read our full length review of the reissues here].