Strictly Rhythm turns 20

The trailblazing house-music label celebrates with a remix compilation.

“My name is in a time capsule buried on the moon by Neil Armstrong—and I have the plaque to prove it!” boasts Mark Finkelstein, a former aerospace engineer who worked on the lunar module in the ’60s. While that would be a career highlight for most people, it’s a mere footnote on the former Grumman employee’s rsum. What Finkelstein will really be remembered for is Strictly Rhythm, the pioneering house-music label that he founded in 1989. As a New York--based independent, he and A&R savant Gladys Pizarro showed the world that Chicago wasn’t the only city where house had a home; the label was also one of a handful that helped drag house from sweaty warehouses and basements to the world’s glittering superclubs. Strictly Rhythm is celebrating two decades in the biz with Strictly Rhythm Est. 1989: 20 Years Remixed, a double-disc collection of reworked classics.

In truth, the compilation—featuring remixes of tracks by towering figures like Louie Vega, Josh Wink, Ultra Nat, Barbara Tucker, Erick Morillo and DJ Pierre, among others—could have been a six-disc release, and scores of great tracks would still have missed the cut. Todd Terry, Roger Sanchez, Wamdue Project, Tony Humphries and Kenny Dope have all called Strictly their home at one time or another. But the label’s start was rather inauspicious; its first release, in the fall of 1989, was “Feel the Rhythm of House” by Tylon.

“Inauspicious? It was horrible!” the gregarious Finkelstein recalls with a laugh. “But I can tell you the track that first put us on the map; it was 'The Warning’ by Logic. It was a record that worked great very early in the evening or very late. We called it 'ambient house’— I’m pretty sure that we coined that phrase. 'Follow Me’ by Aly-Us was another ambient-house track. I think that’s the largest selling piece of vinyl that we put out.”

As Finkelstein casually name-drops classic after classic—iconic tunes like “Free” by Ultra Nat and “I Like to Move It” by Reel 2 Real (Morillo, Ralphie Muniz and the Mad Stuntman)—one can see how Strictly endured into the new millennium. But 2002 saw one of Finkelstein’s few missteps. “I did a joint venture with the Warner Music Group,” he says, “and it didn’t work out. I thought it was a natural for Strictly to hook up with a major, but I guess I didn’t take into account the different cultures and philosophies. I mean, you couldn’t be more independent than we were. They bankrupted the company, and I sued them. I did get the catalog back—which only took about four years!”

Armed with his tracks, Finkelstein quickly found a like-minded partner, Simon Dunmore’s U.K. label, Defected. “Defected’s been called 'the new Strictly Rhythm,’?” Finkelstein says. “Three of their first five releases were Strictly tracks that we licensed to him. So we knew he had an ear that would fit with Strictly—and I made him a deal he couldn’t refuse. And I guess the horse’s head worked! But really, it’s a good fit.” (He describes his current role in the company as “grand pooh-bah.” Pizarro is no longer involved, but she and Finkelstein are partners in a new venture called Launch Entertainment.)

Of course, it takes a lot more than business acumen to inspire the kind of respect that Strictly is held in—not just by fans but by the label’s artists. Listen to Morillo, one of the world’s biggest DJs and a man with more tracks on the label, under various names, than anybody. “Strictly put me on the map, for sure,” he says. “And [Morillo’s own label] Subliminal? Mark wanted me to do that. I had no interest in a label! I’m so happy with my life, but who knows what my career would be like if not for Strictly? But even more than that, I learned to live my life the way Mark has taught me: with integrity.”Integrity comes up a lot when you talk to people about Finkelstein and Strictly Rhythm, but another term floats around with equal frequency. “You know, a lot of people use the word family, but we really believe in it,” Finkelstein says. “That’s what we are. And that’s for real. Let the chips fall where they may, but we will always have that.”

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