It's appropriate that Strut's latest compilation, a retrospective of oddball New York label Celluloid Records, would invoke the title of Fab Five Freddy's dubbed-out and strange hip-hop cut "Change the Beat." As its namesake suggests, Change the Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1980 - 1987 is a glimpse into a distant time when rhythm, tempo, and genre had yet to be codified, especially in respect to hip-hop. With 26 tracks on offer, it's a long and convoluted trip through one of the most influential catalogs in modern dance music.
The story of Celluloid is bound up in the lives of two men. The first is Jean Karakos, a Parisian record store owner who enjoyed critical success in the '70s while releasing experimental jazz by heavyweights like Archie Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Gong on his BYG Actuel label. This background with boundary-pushing music would ultimately influence Karakos to push Celluloid into the fertile intersection of New York's dance and art culture happening in the city's downtown scene. The second man is Bill Laswell, the avant-garde musician and producer behind Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album and its associated b-boy anthem, "Rockit." Laswell would play a major role in the label's continuing development, releasing his own productions on Celluloid while continuing his career producing mainstream pop artists full-time. Naturally, Laswell's contributions make up a lot of the compilation, with out-there rock experiments like Massacre's "Killing Time" and Last Exit's "Big Boss Man" colliding with the electro-tinged Afro-funk of his work with Manu Dibango on "Abele Dance ('85 Remix)" and Deadline on "Makossa Rock."
Listening through, shock is a recurring theme, with a feat of programming that often surprises in the way it shifts from style to style. Early on, this manifests in a play of contrast between the label's punk output and its more synth-oriented no-wave workouts. Ferdinand's "Tele, Apres La Meteo" bursts at the seams with seething guitar-rock energy, but is counterbalanced almost immediately by the femme—and similarly Francophone—hi-NRG disco of Mathematiques Modernes' '"Disco Rough (Long Version)." Similarly, frequent Residents collaborator Snakefinger delivers a weird Allman Brothers parody with "Living in Vain," whose quick four minutes soon gives way to the superb, weed-smoke-drenched dub of Winston Edwards & Blackbeard's "Downing Street Rock."
Yet for all its genre-defying experiments, ultimately it's the label's contribution to hip-hop that's secured it its place in pop culture. The first premonitions of this side of its catalog comes in the form of Lightnin' Rod's "Sport," an overlooked classic of Last Poets-style spoken-word rhyme set over chattering Chic guitars and a hissing disco four-to-the-floor. In terms of aesthetics, this is old-school to the core, with a delivery that's reminiscent of Rudy Ray Moore in the way it emphasizes verbal puns and badass posturing over 'yes yes y'all'-style party bravado.
This strain is picked up again later by the Last Poets themselves, who are represented by the dystopian original version of "The Mean Machine." This is an interesting choice, as the song is more readily associated with the label's catalog via Grandmixer D.ST's remix, which is excluded in favor of "Home of Hip-Hop," the scratch master's rambling seven-minute ode to the days of the boogie-down Bronx. Unexpected inclusions aside, the compilation doesn't disappoint in its delivery of essential material, rolling out timeless works like Timezone's "Wildstyle (12" Vocal)," B Side with Bernard Fowler's "Odeon," and the aforementioned "Change the Beat"—though one does wonder why Strut decided to go with the vocal version of Futura 2000's "The Escapades of Futura 2000 (feat. The Clash)" over the dub, as the expansive soundscape is far more enjoyable than the graffiti star's bafflingly awful verse. But then again, listening to him rap is a reminder of just how much innocence has been lost over the years.
There are further contortions and brief flirtations with other styles as well. Former Cream drummer Ginger Baker makes an appearance with "Dust to Dust," a jangling orchestra of guitars that evokes Fleetwood Mac as much as it does Jesus & Mary Chain; Richard Hell & The Voidoids seethe with gritty, Velvet Underground-worthy frankness on "Destiny Street"; and French siren Sapho's "Carmel" momentarily lifts the proceedings into darkly ethereal dance pop. But to continue listing the record's high points would be to deprive the listener of experiencing the breadth of Celluloid's discography. The compilation may not contain everything, yet Strut has managed to boil the label down into a continually fascinating document of a long-gone time and place that's well worth seeking out.