NO RECORD LABEL has raised house music's standards as high, or borne them as consistently, as New York's Strictly Rhythm. Since its creation by dance-label exec Mark Finkelstein and A&R vet Gladys Pizarro, Strictly Rhythm has established the criterion for house's capabilities both as function and as art. Hence, compiling 10 Years of Strictly Rhythm required practically no thought and even less sweat: Call up "Little Louie" Vega of Masters at Work and Nuyorican Soul fame--and arguably the world's finest house DJ. Set him loose on the best selection of material in the business. Wait for sparks to fly.
And fly they do. The label's greatest track--the relentless "Deep Inside," recorded by Vega in 1993 and credited to Hardrive--doesn't even have to make a full-fledged appearance. Instead, portions of that record are woven into other Vega-produced tracks, including Barbara Tucker's definitive diva anthem, "Beautiful People." Hardrive's kinetic shouts of "Deep, deep in-side, deep deep down in-side" pulsate through Tucker's slower, hypnotic title chants ("Beau-tiful, peo-ple") like a classic funky-drummer breakbeat underpinning a straight-four boom.
Vega's arranging smarts carry over to his handling of Strictly's diverse material. Sure, many of these cuts are historically important: Josh Wink's jittery, acid-breakbeat throwdown "Higher State of Consciousness" was an enormous influence on future Big Beaters like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. Basement Jaxx started out trying to imitate the nervy postsoul exemplified by Roger Sanchez--a.k.a. Underground Solution's "Luv Dancin'." But 10 Years also offers the rare opportunity to hear prime examples of nearly every house substyle on one set, from jazz-tinged instrumentals like George Morel's "Let's Groove" to the nastier, hip-hop-infused likes of Armand Van Helden's "Witch Doctor" to the South Street Players' supernal "(Who) Keeps Changing Your Mind," a record whose soulful ache recalls prime Al Green.
For most house producers, mainstream radio crossover is almost beside the point, though few shy away from the possibility. So while many of the vocal-led cuts on 10 Years sound like pop hits, only two actually were: Reel 2 Real's dance-floor mantra-cum-annoying novelty hit, "I Like to Move It," and Ultra Nate's euphoric "Free." If there's any justice, they'll soon be joined by Powerhouse featuring Duane Harden's "What You Need." This ridiculously kinetic, Chic-like track is tautened to an almost unbearable tension by a boogie-woogie guitar that dances atop icicle-sharp strings and a booming-and-zooming bassline. "What You Need" is both the collection's most recent song and the best thing on it--reason enough to expect that Strictly Rhythm's next decade will equal its first.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment