BY CARL HANNI
Launched in Paris in the insanely artistically fertile late 1970s by Frenchman Jean Karakos, Celluloid Records produced a fat, multifaceted catalogue to rival any independent label of the era. He soon began hop-scotching between Paris and New York, and the label quickly became a playa in the DIY, experimental and avant garde music world of both cities. With a selection that jumped from early hip hop to deconstructed European disco, and from downtown NYC experimental head-trips to early fusions of world music with funk, jazz and art damaged punk, Celluloid was truly a harbinger of things to come.
Things really picked up for the label early on when bass player, producer and multi-tasking visionary Bill Laswell got pulled into the fold. Laswell’s foot prints (and funk/dub bass) are all over huge chunks of the catalogue, and really shaped the direction of the label for most of its duration. LPs, EPs, 7 inch singles and all sorts of insane collaborations flowed, as Celluloid consistently worked ahead of the curve. Ever vigilant, the archivist alchemists at Strut Records are set to release a long over due overview of the label: Change The Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1979-1987, featuring 26 tracks by 25 acts, spread over two CDs.
Winding your way through so much unbridled creativity is like stumbling into an avant garde toy box filled with outrageous oddities, many of them sprouting dangerous, sharp edges. Having bought every Celluloid record I found for decades, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the label’s catalogue, but there’s an impressive amount of stuff here I’ve never heard or heard of.
So we get a set that starts out with a low brow guitar freakout version of “Day Tripper” by axe-mangler Eugene Chadbourne’s early combo Shockabilly and ends, 2 1/2 hours later, with the righteous Black rhythmic rage of The Last Poets’ “Mean Machine.” The first disc is the more squirrelly of the two, featuring such non-chart toppers as “Living in Vain” by Residents’ cohort Snakefinger, the lascivious R&B of one-time Jimi Hendrix compadre Lightin’ Rod (“Sport”), classic dub by Winston Edwards and Dennis Bovell, aka Blackbeard (“Downing Street Rock”), early Laswell with the avant rock Massacre, and international oddities like the very punk rock “Tele, Apres La Meteo” by the French act Ferdinand, and punk disco “Disco Rough” by the equally French Mathematiques Modernes. Disc one also has two genuine old skool B-boy classics in the one-two punch of “The Wildstyle” by Time Zone and “The Escapades of Futura 2000” by Futura 2000 (featuring The Clash), as well as a look at what’s to come with tracks by Toure Kunda, Bobongo Stars and the early Celluloid world-fusion super group Deadline and their classic hypno groove “Makossa Rock.”
Disc two features more old skool hip hop from Fab 5 Freddy (“Change The Beat”), Grandmixer D.ST. (“Home of Hip Hop”), the French rapper B Side and Bernard Fowler (“Odeon Dance”) and a second Time Zone track, “World Destruction,” with Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon going apocalyptically toe to toe. It also features more epic World/dub/funk fusions tracks from Manu Dibango, Mandingo, Ginger Baker and Sapho, and well as Richard Hell and the Voidoids “Destiny Street” and some arty French electro from Nini Raviolette (“Suis-Je Normale”), as well as the afore-mentioned Last Poets track. And Laswell and Michael Beinhorn’s long running, Internationalist mix and match collective Material represents with one track, the suitably funky “I’m The One,” featuring the considerable talents of Chic mainstays Nile Rodgers and Bernard Fowler.
Any hardcore fan of the label might be inclined to want the inclusion of one of their favorites; I’ll just say it would have been nice to have a track by Anton Fier’s shape-shifting combo The Golden Palominos, and leave it at that.
Blessed by being in the right place(s) at the right time, and having the smarts to take advantage of the considerable opportunities that came their way, Celluloid Records sits comfortably in the file of independent labels that got it right from start to finish. Upstart labels take note: perhaps 2013 will be the new 1978. Play it right, and they’ll be talking about you in 2035.
DOWNLOAD: “Makossa Rock,” “The Wildstyle,” “I’m The One,” “Odeon Dance,” “Tele, Apres La Meteo,” “Downing Street Rock.”