Celluloid Records, along with Chris Blackwell’s larger company Island and Mango Records, was one of the most interesting and adventurous of all labels in the 1980s.  It had one of the boldest visions of all indie labels and put out fearless and crazy music, way too advanced for its own good.  Fusing world music with electronica, jazz with urban beats and early hip hop was more than most Depeche Mode fans could handle.

Looking back from a 21st-century perspective, the genius of so much of what Celluloid was doing is that it was all this futuristic music was done pre-computer, pre-digital, with turntables,  midi, early samplers, drum machines, reel-to-reel tapes, and live recording.  It was both inspiration and genius.

While major  labels were peddling expensive music videos to MTV, Celluloid was was releasing featuring Herbie Hancock in new settings: working with African artists like Manu Dibango and kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso.  Afrika Bambaataa with John Lydon came out with World Destruction, an apolcalyptic, underground hit.     Many of these early cross-cultural synergies came about because of Bill Laswell.    As Celluloid’s prime mover, producer, wizard & alchemist, Laswell was responsible for many of the labels’ most memorable albums.

Celluloid started when a French musical adventurer and jazz producer named Jean Karakos who earlier had run BYG & Actuel records, featuring avant garde music by American jazz musicians based in Paris in the 1970s.   Jean Georgakarakos (he simplified it into Karakos),  visited New York City in the late 1970s and got bitten by the nascent hip hop, graffiti, and dance scene of the day.   Celluloid released records by Afrika Bambaataa, Camerounian sax player Manu Dibango, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Deadline as well as Grandmixer D.ST and Fab 5, whose B-Side  did the cool bilingual song “Change the Beat” (I still have the 12″).     The French Antillean zouk group Kassav, was also put out by Celluloid before Columbia Records signed them.  Kassav inspired Miles Davis’ 1986 album Tutu.

In short, Celluloid was a label way ahead of its time.   Maybe too far ahead.

Much to its credit, Celluloid also released Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s first records in Europe and stateside.  Big plus there.  Nobody else would touch the Afrobeat firebrand.  All of us at KCRW played those early Fela lp’s to death, and Fela was our very first KCRW PRESENTS! in the Summer of 1986 at the Olympic Auditorium, build as a boxing rink for the 1932 Olympics (it’s now a Korean church.

I interviewed Karakos on Morning Becomes Eclectic in the mid 1980s.  He was in town for the big NARM conference here (NARM==National Academy of Record Merchandisers), which I thought would have been a dinosaur of the past but isn’t (they market gear now).  I asked him how it was going there, and he replied famously, “I come here for music and all they talk about is tonnage”.

Later Karakos licensed an obscure Brazilian group called Kaoma’s song “Lambada”, which was used in Europe on a big Orangina commercial, helping sell millions of copies of the fun and sexy song.  In America it became the latest “dirty dancing” craze, selling a lot of records here too.  When I visited Brazil on the first of many occasions, I went to Lambada clubs and watched the dancers.  It was fun and sexy but not a prelude to fornication.  Much more innocent than that.  Leave it to Anglo-Saxon culture to put the dirty in.

There is now a great reissue, put together by the fine crew at Strut, called Change the Beat:  The Celluloid Records Story 1980=1987, featuring Futura 2000 & the Clash, Fab 5 Freddy, the Last Poets, Deadline,  Ginger Baker, Senegalese supergroup Toure Kunda, Snakefinger, Material, Deadline, Camerounian saxman Manu Dibango, drummer Ginger Baker, Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso.  It’s a real eclectic group of musical talents if there ever was one.

Strut has released two documentary clips on the history of Celluloid:

part 1:

part 2:

and here’s Fab 5 Freddie’s  B-Side (misspelled here as “beside”:



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  • RickF

    Wonderful post, Tom! I remember hearing these records for the first time back then and knowing they were changing the musical landscape of the time. They still resonate today, with Laswell's drum sounds and studio alchemy deeply embedded in modern production technique.

    • tom schnabel

      listening to these sides again reminds me how fresh and wonderful this music still is…..even better with time….