“When we started out we always wanted to relate our releases to dance music in some way,” says Quinton Scott from the London headquarters of his label Strut. “But that could mean anything from disco, soul, funk, and African music to post-punk and industrial.”
The label, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, eventually found a throughline. Over the course of their two-decade existence, they’ve unearthed “lost” or little known recordings by everyone from Tony Allen and Mulatu Astatke to Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons. They’ve covered everything from mutant dance music (Disco Not Disco) to South African Mbaqanga (Next Stop Soweto), making it one of the most diverse reissue labels around. But true to their original mission, you can dance to all of it.
Scott, who had previously worked at Harmless Recordings, founded Strut in 1999. Releases in those early years included high-water marks like Larry Levan Live At The Paradise Garage, Club Africa, and Nigeria 70. “Labels like Sterns, Mango, and Triple Earth did amazing things for raising the profile of African music,” says Scott. “But I did think most of their releases were always very ‘polished.’ I wanted to do the funkier and grittier ‘70s music that DJs would play.”
An integral part of Strut’s work in Africa is the record collector Duncan Brooker. “When I met Duncan in the late ‘90s, he was way ahead of the game in collecting that funkier fusion sound coming out of Africa,” says Scott. “We both thought, ‘What the hell is going on? ‘Why isn’t this stuff better known?’”
With the help of other serious collectors and archivists (covering areas as diverse as Mauritius and Réunion Island) Strut built a reputation for painstakingly researched compilations, with extensive liner notes telling the stories of the characters behind the music. “When you are documenting a scene or a moment in time in music, it’s very important to have that context,” says Scott.
Presented in heavyweight packaging with archival photographs, flyers, and memorabilia, Strut became the benchmark for subsequent archive labels—from Soundway to Analog Africa. “I love what those labels are doing now, and I think they are at the top of the game,” says Scott.
It was precisely because they put so much effort into high-quality presentations (spending £12k on the luminous ink for one compilation, for example) that Scott had to close the label in 2003; luckily, it was relaunched through the !K7 label group in 2008. For its second chapter, the label has mined the archives of artists like Sun Ra, worked with post-punk experts JD Twitch and Trevor Jackson, and gone deeper into music from lesser-known corners of Africa, including the brilliant forthcoming compilation Alefa Madagascar.
They’ve also released studio LPs by musicians who have featured on their compilations—artists like Pat Thomas and Ebo Taylor—and signed new artists, like Canada’s Souljazz Orchestra and Leeds jazz outfit Nubiyan Twist. “I would really like to work with a lot more new acts, but they have to sit really well on the label,” says Scott.
So with such a prolific and wide-reaching output, what’s next for Strut? “To look beyond the dance and funkier stuff and look at historically important music that seems to be missed out on,” Scott replies. “For example, there is a whole raft of music from amazing African artists who are not particularly cool that is being ignored, while all this obscure hipster ‘80s disco stuff gets released.”
With 20 years worth of titles to choose from, whittling down the Strut catalog to 10 titles was no easy task. Consider these LPs your first few steps down a long, rewarding path. We asked Scott to share his thoughts on each of them.
Disco Not Disco
“The first volume was an important landmark for us during the early days of the label. It was really well-timed. Dave Lee and Sean P. tapped into the wave of interest in original New York club culture around the millenium by pulling together disco oddities from rock artists like Yoko Ono and Ian Dury alongside Arthur Russell recordings. I think Dave coined the title, and the cover was adapted by designer Scott Parker from a photo I had found in an old early ‘80s Vidal Sassoon book. It resonated straight away with record buyers, and has become a staple compilation over time. The album title has also become used as a category in its own right for all manner of punk funk and left-field disco.”
“Another big benchmark from the early years of the label. It was the first Western compilation to look beyond the towering presence of Fela Kuti. It was a big team effort, involving Ekostar’s Kayode Samuel, former Gilles Peterson radio producer Sue Bowerman, Blo’s drummer Laolu Akins in Lagos, and DJ John Armstrong, who wrote some superb notes. It was also the first time I had worked with Duncan Brooker. Listening back now, Nigeria 70 still feels rich as a collection—stars like Joni Haastrup, Peter King, and Segun Bucknor were just incredible musicians and bandleaders. Beyond the more obvious funk and disco fusions, there are so many killer records—from the fuzz rock of Ofo The Black Company’s ‘Allah Wakbarr’ to King Sunny Ade’s fluid, dubbed out juju track ‘Ja Fun Mi.’”
Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics
“We started a series of albums involving contemporary producers recording with original legends who had influenced their music. In 2008, Karen P. brought Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke over to collaborate with The Heliocentrics for a gig at London’s Cargo, and it was a magical pairing. I offered them a deal for an album the next day. The subsequent recording in their makeshift recording space in a loft in Homerton (East London) was an inspired mix of Mulatu’s delicate compositions and the Helios’ dense psychedelia. It helped propel Mulatu towards worldwide touring success, and started a long-standing working relationship with Malcolm Catto and Jake Ferguson as producers.”
Next Stop Soweto, Vol. 3
“One of my personal favorites in our catalog. For many of the compilations we have released, timing and working with the right people is everything. The Next Stop Soweto series was designed to shine a spotlight on the many different aspects of South African music, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. Volume 3 was an in-depth look at its rich and varied jazz scene. Duncan Brooker worked on the selection with Wire journalist Francis Gooding, who has always maintained that South Africa’s jazz rivalled anything happening in the U.S. It was an incredible selection, with the likes of Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, and Dennis Mpale. A very special album, doubly so given that licensing South African tracks has now become more difficult with the Gallo label powerhouse merging with Warner Music.”
The Souljazz Orchestra
“We are working with Canada’s Souljazz Orchestra on a sixth album for Strut in 2019—they are a fantastic band that keeps progressing and pushing themselves and, unusually, have kept the same line-up since they originally formed back in the early ‘00s. Keyboardist Pierre Chrétien is one of the most focused and organized bandleaders I have worked with to date—he will e-mail me out of the blue with a finished, sequenced album, complete with cover art, and there are generally no suggestions to make at all. They are perfectly formed each time. Rising Sun still stands up as a great album. It’s one of their more reflective sets, with great tracks like ‘Lotus Flower’ and the Ethio jazz workout ‘Negus Negast.’”
Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records, 1986-1995
“I loved Ray Barney’s imprint for being the upstarts of house music during the early days. Dance Mania’s first releases, like ‘House Nation’ and ‘JB Traxx’ were pure DIY—raw, unpolished gems. In 2014, it was clear that Dance Mania was in-demand among DJs with new names like Nina Kraviz championing their sound. We worked with Ray, Parris Mitchell, and U.K. DJ Miles Simpson to pull together a compilation of some of the influential originals. The album fell nicely into two parts. Part 1 covered the early classics and the deeper garage side of their output, and Part 2 unleashed faster, X-rated ghetto house classics from the ‘90s generation. This is another album where timing was vital, and hopefully an important album too within the history of dance music.”
“As many reissue labels will testify, some compilations can take many years to prepare, but are well worth the effort. Sofrito’s Hugo Mendez had suggested a compilation of Haitian compas and mini jazz back in 2012, but it quickly became clear that the licensing process would be a long haul. The labels initially mistrusted a U.K. label handling their music. One licensor would only answer his phone once a month, and was never on e-mail. Another would only deal in person with paperwork and an envelope of cash delivered in person to New York. The final album was a real joy, documenting the development of compas from Nemours Jean-Baptiste and the great big bands to the later mini jazz generation of Ibo Combo, Bossa Combo, Djet-X, and Les Loups Noirs. One of Hugo’s best collections, featuring superb cover artwork from illustrator Lewis Heriz.”
“By 2014, the guardians of Sun Ra’s estate had managed to consolidate the master rights for most of his recordings and were planning a full reissue programme. Working closely with them and Peter Dennett at Art Yard, we began to plan some compilations. After two really strong albums curated by Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen and Gilles Peterson, we collectively decided to embark on a singles collection, and to try and make it as definitive as possible. Many of his singles are ridiculously rare, and some were slated but evidently never released. Some were said to have existed… although no one had physically seen a copy! Working with the estate, the Sun Ra Archive, and various dedicated Ra collectors, we slowly pieced it together, adorned with superb artwork by Lewis Heriz. A huge project, but immensely satisfying to be involved with.”
Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band
Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band
“This was another great studio project to be involved in, led by Ghana’s voice of highlife. When we approach new albums with legends of the ‘70s, I generally feel that we will always fight a losing battle in recreating the sound and energy of the original recordings. So it’s more about echoing some of the feeling and spirit within the new sessions. This project went way beyond that because of the brilliant musicians involved. Multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah, saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff, and engineer Jochen Stroeh at Berlin’s Lovelite Studios crafted an album of new tracks and reworked covers, which celebrated highlife and oozed class. They are one of the best contemporary African bands anywhere at the moment, and it’s a privilege to work with them all.”
“This was recently released, a comp of Patrice Rushen’s peerless Elektra/Asylum years when she was making her own unique brand of soul, jazz, and disco during the early ‘80s. There’s an incredible purity and honesty in her music. Aside from her own recordings, Patrice has been one of L.A.’s best arrangers, producers, and writers since the ‘70s. She also chairs the Popular Music Program at USC Thornton. I had worked with Strut’s parent company, !K7, to buy this catalog for several years, and these are the first fruits. We now have the rare situation where we can work with Patrice on reissues, touring, and hopefully new recordings; she has never toured internationally under her own name, so it’s an exciting new chapter for her and for us.”