Label Love #43: Strut Records

Looking at the history of a label who have redefined the art of the compilation

Label Love #43: Strut Records

Looking at the history of a label who have redefined the art of the compilation

Strut Records have been archiving music with soul and groove since the late 90s. Originally starting as a label dealing in compilations, Strut have refined the art of crate digging to the point where, at there best, their albums feel completely new. Over the years, they've shone a light on everything from spikey post punk to Ghanaian Hi-Life to obscure UK warehouse bangers. In the process they've expanded to release new artist albums from iconic figures, adding a few classics of their own to the archive. Having bought countless releases from Strut over the years it seemed only right that we ran an expanded Label Love feature on them, so Ransom Note trundled over to Hackney for an in depth interview with Strut founder Quinton Scott, touching on everything from his ability to breakdance to whether DJs get the hump when he compiles rarity... 

Can you tell me how Strut first got started?

It started originally back in the ‘90s when I was working at a compilation company, Demon. At the time they were very heavily into those good old motorway service station CD’s. But what they wanted to do was up the level of budget CD’s a bit and package them a bit better and just change the whole market a bit – which they did. They were really successful at doing that and I worked there for a long time. It was a really good exercise at packaging compilations and getting into different markets. It was a good teething process.

But, they weren’t doing any dance music, so in ’95 I asked if they wanted to set up a dance label, and we set up Harmless which is actually still around. We started off doing quite direct stuff, like a Masters at Work remix collection and we started a series called Pulp Fusion, which was Rare Groove and Funky Jazz kind of stuff. The compilation market at that time wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now. The market was very simple then and we were trying to see where the gaps were.

It must have been quite ground breaking to do those funk compilations in the ‘90s though, because they weren't dance music in the sense it was understood at the time.

Yeah, you’re right. There was this thing about getting original breaks out there and the disco market was just starting to get a bit more sophisticated and you could go with a bit more underground disco and the kind of stuff that would have been played in some of the New York clubs that people wouldn’t have. I took quite a bit of inspiration from Street Sounds. I loved Street Sounds.

I think Morgan Khan is probably one of the most underrated influences on UK culture.

Oh yeah. Street Sounds kicked off so much. At that time it was really serving a massive thing, as people couldn’t afford imports all the time. The only way to get that music sometimes was when it was put out on those albums. It was the only way to get a lot of those tunes if you couldn’t afford it.

They stand up incredibly well too. Whoever was picking the tracks was 100% on it. They’re timeless.

They are yeah, on both sides as well. The Electro and the Soul.

The House ones are really good as well. It makes sense you were into Street Sounds though, looking at the material Strut have released

I think from the start there always had to be a reason for doing a compilation though, you could just bang out a Rare Groove compilation for the sake of it. It was something that was working at that time. The Ultimate Breaks and Beats sold really well and we did some official Breaks albums that also did really well.

I think the crucial thing that also then happened with Strut, was that we saw that there was a bit of a niche for African music to be sold to those that liked Rare Groove. To start with it was more just African music in general.

So was that what Strut started with then?

Yeah. Well we did one at Harmless called Africa Funk and that was the first one that we tried to hit that market with and it was full of Funky, African Fusion stuff, but it was a bit of a mess of an album to be honest with you. It was just plucked from all over the place.

What was it like licensing that stuff, was there much of a precedent? Did you ever cut corners?

We didn’t no. We were good with that and Harmless were part of a very big company so they couldn’t cut corners on the licensing. It was quite a liberal meaning when it came to African music though. There was a cover of Fela Kuti which was actually from Columbia, for instance. We hadn’t really got to the point of getting in the archives in Nigeria at that point, that all came a bit later on, around about 2000.

So anyway, Africa Funk did really well and when I started Strut I figured that we should probably start with a couple of safe bets.  

Did you start Strut with the same people that you were doing Harmless with?

No, Harmless was within a big company that was dealing with VHS video’s and motorway service station CD’s. Any ideas that I put to them, they’d go with some of it, but they weren’t really trusting me on some areas. There was a whole load more that could be done with it.

I managed to get some funding, I think I got about ten grand from some backers and started Strut with that and put out the first two ‘playing it safe’ albums, So I did Club Africa and a breaks album with DJ Pogo and that kind of kicked off the label back in ’99.

I’ve still got a copy of Club Africa 2 ..

If you look at it it’s got a few great tracks on there but the rest isn’t all that really.

It’s a bit of a mess isn’t it! It’s got a couple of tracks on there that I love though…

When you look back at it… It was all supposed to be DJ-able tracks that people could take with them and play out. There was a loose theme, and that’s how it was designed. Looking back it now, and looking at how sophisticated the market for it is now,  it’s grown really quickly.

So was it just you originally?

It was just me for about the first year and then we had a little team of about 4 of us that were running until around 2003. A guy called Toni Rossano, who used to work at Phuturetrax PR, a girl called Tinku Bhattacharyya who now manages Amp Fiddler, Christine Indigo who came over from Soul Jazz and another guy called Simon Haggis who ran the Whistle Bump nights. We had a really good team.

So was there a period where you were putting out quite a lot of things? What year did you start?

We started in ’99.

That was peak vinyl wasn’t it.

Yeah it was amazing, a really good time for compilations. We had a couple of great releases that set us up really well for the next few years, including the Larry Levan Live at Paradise GarageMel Cheran from West End Records had these tapes from the last weekend at the club and they were great quality. It was a great one to do and it did really well. We went a bit mad on the packaging though.

You could do that in that era though.

Yeah you could, but it could have set us up nicely for the future, but there’s a whole ‘nother side to the story where we didn’t have enough money at one point.

Oh really? What happened there?

 Well that was 2003, our distributor Beechwood went under basically and they were distributing Fabric, a few others and us as well. It just left us with a huge hole.

How come they went under?

I’m not sure to be honest with you, I never really spoke to the management about it. But they were quite a small distributing company compared to some.

Pinnacle went down around that time as well didn’t it?

Yeah, I think a little later though. Beechwood weren’t as big as that though. They were just dealing with 2 or 3 big labels and it as just something to do with cash flow so it all happened quite quickly, which left us in quite a difficult situation as well and we had to make the decision to close it all down in 2003 and then K7 brought it up again in 2007.

So there was a four-year hiatus then.

Yeah.

Okay. Wow.

I worked for an arts centre and did a bit of programming for them and just got out of labels completely for a while and then back to it.

So when K7 brought it up again, 2007 was quite a funny time to be thinking about records. The market was pretty much at it’s lowest then wasn’t it? What was their thinking?

They thought that there was definitely currency with the label. With Strut, whenever we’ve had a good idea for a compilation, no matter whether there’s a recession or if the market is a bit flat, if it’s the right idea it’ll still go as it’ll be sold to the same market. We always sensed that. The good thing about doing the first phase of Strut was that we had learned through doing a few big album series, like the Disco Not Disco volumes.

Yeah. I’ve got so many of your records, you’ve been quite influential.

Yeah, that was good and that was Dave Lee and Sean P’s thing. It became a genre in it’s own right. When we started up again with K7, we did another volume of Disco Not Disco, so it was basically another safe bet. It worked very well as our first album with them. It’s just about thinking really carefully about where the market is at a certain point and what compilations would work well within that. It’s kind of just about a hunch as to whether something would work.

Where did these hunches come from?

We didn’t really have the money to do market research so it’s just about knowing what could work at a certain point in time. There are also a few key people that have always been involved in the  label bringing in ideas – a collector called Duncan Brooker is one of them.

I’ve spoken to Duncan before-

He’s one of the best collectors I’ve ever met to be honest. He’s got the nose for good music and he was very early on that whole African archive digging. He had an album out himself called Afro Rock back in 2000 and then he worked with us on the Nigeria 70 album.

He told me this amazing story about some master tapes being buried in the walls of a studio.... I'm interested to know what your way into dance music was?

My first love of music was electro, so I’m late 40’s now,

Do you Swan Dive?

I could just about do that in the original days but certainly not now! It’s like; a lot of people could never quite crack the windmill, which was a huge embarrassment really… I came from Surrey, around Guildford and Woking, and they had a couple of decent crews there and a couple of guys that were massively into music and were really on the latest stuff that was coming out. They’d have their ghetto blasters playing the latest electro and I hung around to hear what music they were playing. That was the first time I got completely obsessed with an area of music.

I genuinely think now that people don’t recognise how culturally dominating electro was. It’s like the idea of break dancing, I remember being in primary school and at trying to break dance all teh way through playtime. The thing was that that wasn’t even unusual; every kid in my school did it

Yeah, that really was massive wasn’t it. Even the standard of the crews in the South West wasn’t bad, there was a real dedication to the music as I remember that every week they’d have the newest imports going on their ghetto blaster. It was like they had an obsession with it and it wasn’t always easy to get hold of the music either. You had Groove Records up in Soho, which was basically a mecca for imports, and even then after getting there you had to pretty much fight for the records that you wanted to get. You’d have this nerdy guy from the suburbs coming in trying to get through all the bomber jackets at the counter.

So did you get into House when it moved through to that side of things?

Yeah. One of my first jobs was actually at Jive Records and that was in Willesden at the time. That was just before A Tribe Called Quest and all the rest of it. They had Battery Studios and they did a lot of pop there – they enjoyed a lot of success with Billy Ocean at the time.They had Mutt Lange there doing Def Leppard, and Brian Adams recorded there, before they got cool with the whole RnB and Hip-hop.

R Kelly released on Jive didn’t he?

Yeah. That was their first American RnB hit.

It was a pretty big signing really.

Yeah. I just remember taking the 12’s when they first came in and we’d get the initial Trax Records stuff coming in and taking it to the studio and playing it to the engineers. Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body had just come out and I remember first putting it on with them, it was unbelievable. It was really Lo-Fi DIY, but it was brilliant. I remember everyone looking at me with blank faces though going, ‘what’s this?’ thinking that it was nonsense.  I could see where they were coming from but I was really heavily into it. LWR was brilliant at the time. Jazzy M had a show on LWR. I was really open to that kind of stuff and I was 16 at the time and that was when House music had first come in and I was just hungry to hear it.

How did you feel when it kinda turned into the UK bastardised offshoot? When it formed into Rave basically.

I dunno. I kinda liked some of the rave stuff, but you find your areas, and when house music first came in and the UK tried to do their own version of it there were some fairly bad attempts. But I think that when Rave found its feet, I love that period around ’87 and the warehouse scene came to life and Rave was just starting. You’d just have everything working together. You had your House, your Go Go, Rare Groove. That was an amazing moment. But when Rave first started off, I really liked some of it around ‘88/’89. I mean, I was living in France at the time, but the more raw end of the Rave stuff I really liked. I though it sounded great. What do you think?

Well, it’s a complex one. When I think of Rave I think of around ‘91/’92, which is kind of tied up with me being a kid as I was 12 when that was coming out. Some of it I didn’t really like at the time, but some of it I love now. I’d walk into school listening to things like The Prodigy or Adamski. It’s just a childhood thing to me really and I just love it in an uncomplicated way. It’s like liking Ghost Town by The Specials or something, it’s just classic.      

I just think again, things get lost over time. Like you were saying about break dancing, people just forget how big that really was. I think in the same way with the Rave stuff, when the new Suburban Bass and Shut Up and Dance record came out it was just massive.  It was great, especially The Ragga Twins thing which was about taking new chunks of Prince and turning them into something else.

On Hooligan '69

Yeah. That’s just genius. We have done some early house compilations. We did a Cajual Cajmere compilation, and Richard Sen did an early UK House into Rave. But there was so much House that came out it’s quite hard to choose the right way to do it. We’ve got our wants list for that but some of it’s too overdone for that area.

 

Are there any that you’ve put out that you thought were going to be great but have completely flopped?

Yeah. But that’s the thing, you go on this hunch and you think it’s going to work, but then sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve done a few artist albums as well, and we released a lot with some of the old legends, making new albums with them, and one was Ebo Taylor, the Ghanain musician. We got him back touring, set it up really well, but for some reason it didn’t sell really well and it’s times like that when you can’t quite put your finger on why, because he is a great artist.

I guess there’s always more of a risk with an artist doing a new album, over a compilation.

Definitely, but we usually judge it quite well and we we have a good idea what a certain album will do when we put it out. We’ve a got a track record now so we’ve got a good idea of where stuff is going to go.

Has anything surprised you with being a success?

Yeah, they have. The surprise is when you think something is going to do well, but then it hits a certain point and has it’s own life. Last year we did a Sun Ra retrospective, and nothing had been done with his music for a while so we thought it would do okay. But it hit a certain point and then it just went.

I think that one just hit a zeitgeist of Afro Futurism and everyone saw that and realised that they could get on it. It was great timing.

I have to say though, I think Sun Ra is one of those intimidating artists though. When they’ve got like 130 albums, where the hell do you start with it? There’s also the collectors barrier that goes up and people get a bit funny about it, but then there’s the general music fans that just dabble and get a nice in point from something like that.

So seeing as you’ve done quite well at predicting what things are going to be quite popular, what do you think is the kinda of stuff that people are going to be looking for over the next couple of years?

We were talking about World music earlier on, I really like the way it has fragmented into a lot of different splinters now and you’ve got so many great labels appearing, like Analog Africa, like Analogue Africa, Awesome Tapes etc., there’s loads of them and they’re all doing their own things.

World music is a horrible term.

Oh yeah, it’s a terrible word. I totally agree. But I see why it was invented in the first place and it did help the music, as well as hindering it a bit.      I think the way that, what ever you want to call it, Global music, has gone down is great because I think peoples tastes have become more sophisticated over time and people are now more used to, say, the West African sound. You have people like Chris Menist reissuing Thai gems on his Paradise Bangkok label. There’s so much great great music being excavated out there and people’s reference points are a lot wider.

 It’s trying to find interesting areas of music that has sales potential, but that people might not have actually discovered yet. We’re doing one that sounds really niche, but it’s from Mauritius and it’s called Sega music. Like everywhere else they had a period in the ’60s and ‘70s where their folk  artists tried some funk and soul fusions and it produced a completely unique sound.

Who compiled that?

Well sometimes we get approached out of the blue by people who have collections. There are a couple of guys who live out in La Reunion who DJ out there have a massive collection of this stuff. They sent me over a few tracks and sometimes when you hear stuff you just know straight away that it’s going to work. It’s just weird, it hasn’t got a 4/4 beat to it and it’s slightly off rhythm with French vocals, it’s got a really different swing to it. Just some amazing tracks and there’s only 3 or 4 labels that are listed, but it’s just a cracking album. We’re going to try and bring some of the original artists over and do a little tour with it. It should be really good. It’s just with something like that though, you’re brain is constantly whirring and questioning whether it’s going to work. Hopefully it’ll appeal to a wider audience though.

All the lines seem to have broken down now. You get bands that use that African influence quite liberally. The whole snobbery that was around it in like the ‘80s has completely gone now and I really like that as it’s totally opened it out. It’s a pretty good time for different bands working with each other too.

Can it ever be problematic, this idea of you discovering new music, and it’s probably known and loved by some people already, and then you’re putting it out there into this area that’s growing?

Yeah, there are definitely a couple of issues there. Dance Mania is one of those labels where you’ve got certain DJ’s that are really big on that label and they’ve built these tracks into their sets and they’re really quite protective over it as it’s not really a secret any more. It’s just something that I’ve always disliked a little bit with DJ’s, but I can see why they’re protective over tunes and they want their exclusives. There is certainly a very selfish attitude behind it and it does give you a bit of satisfaction when you make the music available. I got messages from DJs saying, 'oh you've ruined that song by putting it out..' 

When you say you got messages were they off of Chicago artists or was it off of European DJ’s?

A few specific European DJs .

Can you say?

No.

That strikes me as funny, because all they’re doing is basically nicking it off of someone anyway. The guys that wrote the track are getting a lot more money by it being on your comp than being played out by one guy.

People just get very aggressive about certain things like that. With Soul DJ’s, sometimes when you put out a Soul record we’d get messages from someone saying that that’s their special record. I just always think there seems to be this sense of entitlement with DJ’s sometimes.

Is there stuff that you’ve put out that you’ve not been able too because the license hasn’t come together?

Yeah, there are plenty of situations like that. Certain scenes are particularly un-dynamic about it. We're working on a project around the German New Wave and industrial scene in Berlin during the ‘80s called Subkultur and the artists have been very protective over it. The album had to be  exactly the way they wanted it to be so it has taken a long time to prepare it.

I kind of love that though.

Yeah, they just wanted it to be done in the right way, and that’s fine. I thought it was going to be really easy to license it, but it was really spiky and quite difficult. They’re just very precious about the scene that they have there. They just didn’t want a compilation to come out that may have just been bunged together. It took a lot of persuasion to get them to believe that we’d do a good job on it and do it right.

With some of the African names I know that, I know that a lot of them got completely stitched up by their label. Is that something that you’ve had to negotiate around?

Yeah. It’s a really difficult one. That’s one thing that we were really sensitive of. You do get really involved in the music, especially when all you’re doing is African music, we worked a lot with South Africa and you have to tread very carefully to begin with as a label going in there. Again, it’s a sensitive issue going in there and digging this stuff out as a vinyl collector,, then take it away for basically nothing and make a huge amount of money from it. It just feels a bit vulgar and not right. As a compilation company we’ve got to be really careful when we go into there because of the colonial history behind it all.  You’ve got to dot the I’s and cross the T’s all over the place. Some labels are claiming they’ve still got the rights to the artists and then the artists don’t gain anything from it, when in reality there isn’t even a valid contract there. Sometimes we’d rather pay the label and the artist, just to keep everyone happy. You can’t just wade in there. The artists that are still around, we’ve really made an effort to try and find them, even if it’s just the guitarist from the band that’s left, we try to find them and pay them. It just feels right that way.


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