Celluloid Records, along with Chris Blackwell’s other larger company, Island Records, and its subsidiary, 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, sometimes 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 at the time.
Looking back from a 21st-century perspective, the genius of Celluloid was that they were creating a lot of futuristic sounds 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 other major labels were peddling expensive music videos to MTV, Celluloid was featuring unusual collaborations like Herbie Hancock working with African artists like Manu Dibango and kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso. Afrika Bambaataa with John Lydon produced World Destruction, an apolcalyptic, underground hit.
Many of these early cross-cultural synergies came about in thanks to Bill Laswell. As Celluloid’s prime mover, producer, wizard and alchemist, Laswell was responsible for many of the labels’ most memorable albums. Celluloid Records was started when a French musical adventurer and jazz producer named Jean Karakos, who earlier had run BYG Actuel records, began signing avant-garde American jazz musicians based in Paris during the 1970s. Jean Georgakarakos (he simplified it to Karakos), visited New York City in the late 1970s and was bitten by the nascent hip hop, graffiti, and dance scene of the day. Celluloid released records by Afrika Bambaataa, Cameroonian 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,” which (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 even too far ahead. Much to its credit, Celluloid also released Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s first records in Europe and stateside. Big plus there since 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! artist in the summer of 1986 at the Olympic Auditorium, built as a boxing ring for the 1932 Olympics. I interviewed Karakos on Morning Becomes Eclectic in the mid-1980s. He was in town for the big NARM conference here (National Academy of Record Merchandisers), which I thought would have been a dinosaur of the past but isn’t (they market gear now). When I asked him how the conference was going, he replied famously, “I come here for music and all they talk about is tonnage.”
Later Karakos licensed an obscure Brazilian group called Kaoma. Their song “Lambada” was featured in an Orangina commercial in Europe, which helped to sell millions of copies of that fun, sexy song. In America it became the latest “dirty dancing” craze and sold a lot of records here, too. When I visited Brazil on the first of many occasions, I visited the Lambada clubs and watched the dancers. Despite what conservative media said, it was not a prelude to fornication. Much more innocent than that. Leave it to the 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, Senegalese super-group Toure Kunda, Snakefinger, Material, Deadline, Cameroonian 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 also released two documentary clips on the history of Celluloid Records, Part 1.
The history of Celluloid Records, Part 2.
And here’s Fab 5 Freddie’s B-Side (mis-titled below as “Beside”).