Scenes Lists & Things

The Celluloid Records Primer

This month brings an excellent compilation, Change the Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1980-1987. Celluloid Records was founded in Paris, France in 1979 by Jean “Karakos” Georgakarakos, who had previously helped create the much-admired BYG label and issued classic free jazz such as Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Message to Our Folks and Sun-Ra’s The Solar-Myth Approach. Just as BYG was a key imprint of the avant-garde revolt of the early 1970s, the label became an influential player in the New Wave culture-clash of 1980s New York.

Before Karakos sold Celluloid in 1988, the label traversed the underground music spectrum: funk improvisations assembled by prolific musician Bill Laswell, imported Afrobeat by Fela Kuti and others, and electro-rap joints from the likes of Grandmixer D.st and Afrika Bambaataa. This appreciation covers some of the major themes of the label’s output, much of which is covered by Change the Beat, and some of which is not.

Bill Laswell: Karakos met Bill Laswell when he relocated to New York’s Times Square in 1981. Laswell had just launched Material, the fusion outfit responsible for Whitney Houston’s debut as a lead vocalist (via “Memories” from the 1982 album One Down). While Elektra Records issued Material’s output in the US (and Celluloid handled their catalog in Europe), Laswell helmed a dizzying number of experiments: the electronic-infused African highlife of Mandingo (with Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso), the rock primitivism of Last Exit (with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and guitarist Sonny Sharrock), the electro-dub project Deadline (with percussionist Phillip Wilson from the Art Ensemble of Chicago), and the angular jazz-rock of Massacre (with guitarist Fred Frith).

In 1981, Laswell formed with the Golden Palominos with percussionist Anton Fier (from the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms) and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. Its membership involved, at various points, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, and Bootsy Collins; but its best-known lineup included Frith, saxophonist John Zorn, and Arto Lindsay (formerly of No Wave group DNA). On 1983’s The Golden Palominos, the combo improvised a cacophony of synthesizer tunings, drum machines, and atonal instruments, while Lindsay yelped and growled over it all.

Grand Mixer D.st: When Karakos and Laswell worked on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning electro hit “Rockit,” they brought in Grand Mixer D.st, who exposed pop audiences around the world to the wonders of rhythmic scratching (later known as turntablism). D.st, whose initials stand for Delancey Street in New York’s Lower East Side, recorded several 12-inches, and Change the Beat spotlights “Home of Hip-Hop” and “Crazy Cuts.” However, his Celluloid catalog highlight was “Grandmixer Cuts It Up.” David Toop’s early hip-hop tome Rap Attack aptly describes it as “video wars – sequencer blips, vocoder vocals, random-fire electric percussion and Smart Bomb blasts. ‘Defender’ comes to your turntable.”

Afrika Bambaataa: Afrika Bambataa is famous for “Planet Rock” and other singles he recorded for New York indie Tommy Boy Records. But he also assembled projects for Celluloid. His biggest Celluloid hit was Time Zone’s “World Destruction,” where his electro-funk sensibility melded with the cranky post-punk squalls from John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. Another memorable Time Zone track was “The Wildstyle,” which includes Debbie Harry-like French raps by New Wave singer Beside.

Incidentally, Karakos (despite later claims that he “didn’t do pop”) tried to groom Beside as a cross-continental dance-pop star with 1985’s Cairo Nights. On Beside’s “Odeon” 12-inch, she’s photographed by iconic portraitist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Graffiti writers on the mic: In early 80s New York, hip-hop culture was like a newfangled toy as various scenesters issued novelty raps for fun and profit. Celulloid capitalized on the rising fame of graffiti writers in downtown bohemia with Fab 5 Freddy (“Change the Beat/Une Sale Histoire” with Beside), who once decorated an IRT subway car with Andy Warhol-like soup cans and later hosted “Yo! MTV Raps” while directing videos for Snoop Dogg and Nas; Phase 2 (“The Roxy”), creator of the “bubble letter” style of graffiti writing; and Futura 2000, whose collaborations with the Clash included painting backdrops onstage during the band’s 1981 tour and rhyming on Combat Rock’s “Overpowered by Funk.” (He also was a graphic designer for Celluloid; according to Freddy Fresh’s 2008 book The Rap Records, his back covers for the label form one giant abstract piece when paired together.)

It’s safe to say these guys were better graffiti writers than rappers. (As Laswell said in Toop’s Rap Attack, “It was more fun to make than it was to listen to.”) “The Escapades of Futura,” which is featured on Change the Beat, sports some haplessly clumsy rhymes, but it’s produced by the Clash’s Mick Jones, and has revelatory lyrics on graffiti’s history. “I started back in 72,” says Futura as he shouts out influential graffiti stars like Taki 182, Frank 207, and Stay High 149.

The Last Poets: If you went crate-digging in the late 1980s for Last Poets vinyl, you were more likely to find an inexpensive Celluloid reissue than a pricey OG version, thanks to a licensing deal Karakos arranged with Alan Douglas, the iconoclastic entrepreneur behind 1970s indie Douglas Records (and a financier for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid Western El Topo). Celluloid reissued seminal proto-rap like The Last Poets and This is Madness, as well as Hustlers’ Convention, an ode to pimpin’ made by Jalaludin M. Nuruddin (a.k.a. “Lightnin’ Rod”) that was a primary influence on West Coast gangsta-rappers like Ice-T. The Last Poets also recorded original material for Celluloid, including 1984’s Oh My People. The lead single “Get Movin’,” was produced by Laswell.

New Africa: Before Paul Simon popularized the “world music” concept via his multiplatinum album Graceland, independent labels like Celluloid and Shanachie stoked enthusiasm for fresh developments in African music. The New Africa compilation series not only included contributions from established stars like Cameroon’s Manu DiBango and Fela Kuti (see below), but also introduced Senegal folk group Touré Kunda, and French-Nigerian Afrobeat collective Ghetto Blaster.

Fela Kuti: Celluloid was one of dozens of labels that licensed the Nigerian Afrobeat legend’s output. It issued Army Arrangement and Music of Many Colours, the latter a collaboration with jazz fusion vibraphonist and disco producer Roy Ayers.

Moving Target: In 1986, Celluloid launched its Moving Target imprint, resulting in a typically eclectic catalog that included Chicago alt-rock (the 1988 comp It Came from Jay’s Garage), Sly & Robbie’s dub project Taxi Gang (The Sting), and dancehall god Yellowman (Rambo). It also featured the US debuts of Royal Crescent Mob, a punk-funk band that toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Robert “Bucket” Hingley’s indefatigable third wave ska group the Toasters, whose incessant college-town tours influenced 90s alt-rock stars like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt.

Continental new wave: Throughout the 1980s, Celluloid maintained roots in its native France. It was a French distributor for Ralph Records (home to multimedia pranksters the Residents and post-punks Tuxedomoon) and Ze Records (No Wave heroes Alan Vega and Lydia Lunch, and the Waitresses of “I Know What Boys Like” fame). More importantly, it issued crucial European minimal wave and post-disco from Mathematiques Modernes (Les Visiteurs Du Soir), Nini Raviolette (“Suis-Je Normale”), and Modern Guy (the John Cale-produced Une Nouvelle Vie). Change the Beat samples liberally from the latter releases, most of which never reached the US market.

Smurfin’: Celluloid’s story would not be complete without mentioning weird 80s pop fad The Smurfs. When this French cartoon starring little blue gnomes premiered on NBC’s Saturday-morning kiddie lineup in 1981 to blockbuster ratings, it inspired dozens of novelty records, including Bronx hip-hop legend Spyder-D’s “Smerfies Dance,” disco band GQ’s “Try Smurphin’” and Miami bass producer Gigolo Tony’s “Smurf Rock.” Celluloid’s contribution was “Smurf for What It’s Worth” by the Smurfs (a.k.a. garage-house pioneer the Peech Boys.)

(MTV Hive – February 28, 2013)

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