As an A&R person working through the 1990s, Gladys Pizarro put her aesthetic mark on two of the most important street music labels of that decade. Strictly Rhythm, an indie imprint she co-founded with Mark Finkelstein, and Nervous Records, which she revived for owner Michael Weiss during her brief split from Strictly in 1991, managed to capture on vinyl key moments in the evolution of New York’s post-Garage underground dance sound by supporting Pizarro’s visionary musical instincts.
Among the many female record execs whose musical taste and business savvy have historically made a significant impact on popular global music trends, Motown’s Suzanne de Passe, Sugar Hill’s Sylvia Robinson and the Elektra/Atlantic/EastWest legend Sylvia Rhone loom particularly large. Each of these women learned the music biz from its street impact up, rising from entry-level positions to power and influence. Although she herself is too humble to claim it, Gladys Pizarro could easily be added to this list. As a neophyte talent scout, she co-founded an independent American house label which built its reputation on a signature sound that epitomized a unique confluence of urban subcultures and reshaped the character of indie dance music in the 1990s.
In the 1960s, Berry Gordy hired Suzanne de Passe after watching her curate diverse dance nights at midtown Manhattan’s famous Cheetah Club. During the same decade, singer/songwriter Sylvia Robinson ran a club in the South Bronx before she and her husband opened their own recording studios and record label in New Jersey. By 1974, Sylvia Rhone – a Wharton School of Business graduate inspired by watching live R&B at the Apollo Theater – took a secretarial position at Buddha Records, and by 1986 she was the senior vice president and general manager of Atlantic Records. For each of these women, one key to their success was that they paid serious attention to street culture, youth and dance club trends. Gladys Pizarro was no different, and she had her upbringing to thank.
Pizarro was raised in Spanish Harlem, a part of New York long famous for hybridized dance trends ranging from Afro-Caribbean “salsa” and bilingual Latin boogaloo to the Latin Hustle and b-boying. Her father was a merchant marine who collected Latin music from his travels as well as the American pop and rock hits loved by his shipmates. The youngest of three sisters, Gladys learned to share their radio tastes while quickly developing her own. Immersed in both the pop eclecticism of WABC and the comprehensive R&B of WWRL, the first record she bought with her allowance money was “The Love You Save” by the Jackson Five.
By eight or nine, Pizarro considered herself a record collector and connoisseur, with omnivorous tastes. She even felt like she always knew when a record had undeniable “street appeal,” due to an instrumental hook or a lyrical theme which captured the unspoken mood of the moment. Yet a career in pop music was not her first choice. She originally wanted to become a film director, and spent three years in her late teens as a film production assistant in Astoria, Queens. She learned a lot working on things like the 1984 Cotton Club movie, but she wasn’t in the union and it wasn’t steady work. She soon found a far more profitable gig in construction – one better able to support her record-buying habit and nightclub excursions. She was still collecting singles, except now they were 12" records, and she found herself seduced by styles of mixing and DJing that evolved specifically to rock a dancefloor.
Although lucrative, brick-and-mortar construction wasn’t the kind of creativity Pizarro sought. So she downsized her income by taking a job selling records at the West 32nd Street location of The Wiz, a northeastern chain of electronics stores, just to be around music all day while dreaming of ways to break into the recording industry. One day in 1987, a friend at Spring Records told her to interview for the receptionist job there. That’s where she met Mark Finkelstein, then a financial comptroller for Spring, working the business side of the label. Finkelstein, who interviewed and ending up hiring Pizarro as a receptionist, could not have known that two years later he’d be asking this young black Latina to help him form an independent dance label.
Mark wore designer suits with a tie and cowboy boots. I was a street-savvy club-head lesbian that loved the New York City club scene. Trust me, we looked odd!
Come 1989, Spring, known as an old-school R&B label, was dissolving under the duress of competing in a marketplace where digital hip-hop, Latin freestyle and new jack swing had taken over sales charts and radio stations alike. When Finkelstein and Pizarro decided to join forces to create Strictly Rhythm, the company didn’t even have a name yet.
“I had been at Spring about two and a half years,” recalls Pizarro. Finkelstein, while helping manage Spring’s business department, had watched her work as a receptionist, noting how she interacted with the artists and producers that came in. He also knew she was a regular on the local club circuit. “One day, Mark tells me, ‘Listen, Spring is going to fold. But I still want to remain in the business. You go out to the clubs all the time... [and] I want to open a label.’” Pizarro, in need of a job and looking to move into the A&R side of the business, quickly agreed to the unexpected proposal.
“We became the little label that could,” says Pizarro with an ironic smile. “In 1989, Mark opens the label at 1650 Broadway, and we don’t even have a name yet. He tells me, ‘I’m gonna call it Rhythm Records.’ But I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think we should call it that. Just ‘Rhythm’ sounds kind of corny. Let’s call it Strictly Rhythm.’ And he goes, ‘Alright, fine; let’s call it Strictly Rhythm.’”
At first Strictly Rhythm was a two-person operation, with Pizarro handling A&R, promotion, shipping and reception, while Finkelstein handled financing, contracts and licensing. Rising underground producer Todd Terry had known the duo while they were still working at Spring – he’d met them while shopping the single “Let Me Hold You” by Isis, a freestyle act he’d been developing. “I used to get super excited when Todd came into the office,” Pizarro admits. “I kept my composure and kept it professional... but to me he is king.” Consequently, he became the first talent Pizarro wooed for the new label. Despite the good luck of bringing a popular innovator like Terry into the Strictly start-up, Pizarro realized how strange the unproven venture might look to many of the artists and producers they wanted to cultivate just based on the “odd couple” pairing of its founders. “Mark looked like a banker,” she explained. “He wore designer suits with a tie and cowboy boots. I was a street-savvy club-head lesbian that loved the New York City club scene. Trust me, we looked odd!” Convinced that no one already on the scene was predisposed to believe in a white businessman partnering with a black female street kid trying to launch a house music label, Pizarro remembers working very hard to earn people’s support and confidence.
One thing working in Strictly Rhythm’s favor was the fact that, ever since the Paradise Garage shut down in 1988, the underground club scene had been struggling to reconfigure itself around the gaping cultural hole the loss of the Garage left behind. Many styles of dance music were now competing for attention. Latin freestyle, although still popular on the radio, had begun to peak as a club genre. (The indie label Micmac also dominated most non-major label freestyle, which is why Finkelstein didn’t veer in that direction.) Radio-friendly new jack swing and rap ruled black dance clubs like the Red Parrot / Emerald City and the old Silver Shadow, while the venerated temple of underground house, Better Days, had an identity crisis and briefly became Bedrox. Random violence at hip-hop and ragga clubs made mainstream venues unequipped with heavy security measures increasingly wary of those genres, while new fusions of house, hip-hop, freestyle and ragga were being recorded out of a growing need for New York’s clubs to service a newly-mixed demographic of dancers, who started to flee established hotspots where rival gangs were causing trouble.
Yet as far as the record industry was concerned, the only question was which DJ in what location would inherit the formidable power of the Garage to break new records. In the old hierarchy of dance clubs known to break records, only Zanzibar at the Lincoln Motel ballroom in Newark remained a known quantity, with resident mix-show jock Tony Humphries upholding Tee Scott’s tradition of generous creativity. David Mancuso was starting to revive his seminal Loft parties, while former Garage DJs like Larry Levan and David DePino migrated to weekly residencies at places like the reformulated Studio 54 and Tracks. After a while, a whole new network of influential house and hip-hop clubs emerged, which included places like Red Zone, The World, The Tunnel, Sound Factory, the Sound Factory Bar and more, including key spots in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
It was into this swirling musical maelstrom that Pizarro steered her fledgling label, looking for hits. And although she would later develop a reputation for discovering raw talent, her first mission was to gain street cred by attracting proven hitmakers.
“At that time I was going for the underground house sound, so I only went after specific underground genres,” says Pizarro. “I was such a huge fan of young producers like Kenny Dope, Louie Vega and Todd Terry it made it a little easier for me to go after them as an A&R person. And producers like Todd Terry used to come into the office at Spring, where I was the first person people would see. So when they found out I was doing A&R at a label I was able to approach them. That’s how I developed the Strictly sound. I went for the guys who were already hot.”
Still, it took a while for Pizarro to score a hit. After releasing seven 12" singles, “The Warning/The Final Frontier” by Logic became the first to break big. “That was the one, SR01207, that made up for all the times I doubted myself,” says Pizarro. “This was around 1990. I took myself to Zanzibar to see Tony Humphries. He played ‘The Warning’ over the radio and played it about two times at the party that weekend. By the time I went to work on Monday, our phone was ringing off the hook because people wanted to license the record. That was the record that put us on the map.” Although many club and radio mix show DJs helped promote Pizarro’s singles, she recalls with deep gratitude that it was Humphries — whose Zanzibar sets were often broadcast live over WRKS FM – who went first and hardest on the early tracks Pizarro credits with making her career.
While “The Warning” finally validated Strictly Rhythm as a house label, it took 12 more singles before a second runaway hit raised the profile of the imprint from warm to hot. “Luv Dancin’” by Underground Solution came across like a clever splice of an Arthur Russell hook into a Pal Joey-style beat track, and was just original enough to stand on its own as an instant classic. Once again, Tony Humphries broke the track for Pizarro over a single weekend at Zanzibar, and by the time Monday rolled around UK labels were calling for it.
When Roger Sanchez came along Pizarro gave him a shot, even though back then he was known as a promoter, not a producer. She took a chance, something she began doing more and more often, and asked Finkelstein for permission to put Sanchez in the studio. Pizarro met him at MPC Studios on 45th Street one Christmas Eve, and he came up with “Luv Dancin’,” but not before facing a potentially disastrous mishap. Just as they were ready to print the final version, the computer froze and lost the entire track, because the engineer hadn’t saved it. “Luckily,” Pizarro remembers, “the next day Roger came prepared and re-did the track to perfection. Then who was the first person I gave it to?” she laughs. “Tony Humphries!”
“Luv Dancin’” soon became a peak record in almost every DJ’s nightly playlist. Suddenly everyone wanted to be signed by Strictly. The sudden hotness of the label worked like sex appeal. Pizarro describes the way talent started to gravitate towards the label as a “domino effect” among established and aspiring producers alike. But somewhere between 1990 and 1991, amid all this good luck, Pizarro and Finkelstein had a gargantuan disagreement. “I was fired because I butted heads with Finkelstein over him giving one of my signings over to a producer he was very fond of. Mark wanted to include him as an additional producer in a project he had no business being involved in,” Pizarro explains with characteristic understatement. “Then I got hired by Michael Weiss, who wanted me to revive the Sam Records imprint for club music. But the Sam label was pink, and had no street appeal. Then I saw a Nervous record on the floor and said, ‘Mike, what up with this label?’”
Nervous had originally been a rap label owned by Weiss – the name was inspired by a catchphrase DJ Chuck Chillout used to repeat on the radio and with friends. Nervous put out a few rap releases that had gotten some play, but then it went stagnant for a bit. Pizarro pointed to the Nervous logo and simply told Weiss: “Dude, we have to go with this. The street/house community is going to love this cartoon logo, and with the producers I bring in it is going to be NERVOUS out there!” Weiss agreed, and Pizarro immediately rang up her existing posse of producers to help establish the new label.
During her year at Nervous, Pizarro called on Todd Terry to give young Latinos a break from formulaic freestyle with a raw, 2 in a Room-style track called “Quiero Saber.” She also brought Roger Sanchez in under the handle Niceguy Soulman to produce a sexy floor-burner called “Feel It.” But she always kept an ear out for newcomers, signing a demo called “Stay On My Mind,” which marked the first time she met and worked with Armand Van Helden. Her brief stint at Nervous also began her relationship with Erick “More” Morillo, who was still struggling to score his first underground hit.
“I gave Erick a hard time,” Pizarro admits, “but I never turned him down just to be a bitch. I just didn’t feel his tracks were quite ready yet.” Although disappointed by multiple rejections, Morillo kept coming back for Pizarro’s critical feedback. (By the time Gladys returned to Strictly in 1992, he’d learned enough about street aesthetics to pass her rigorous standards with the driving percussion and subversive vocal hook of “The New Anthem (Funky Budda Mix.”)
Gladys always had a great ear, but more importantly she has a big heart. She has love for the music, for the people who make it, and for the people who play it.
“Bringing those producers in and having that street-savvy logo gave Nervous Records immediate street credibility amongst the house community,” affirms Pizarro. “And that’s what I wanted. To create a ‘nervous’ atmosphere for the label that just gave me the boot!”
Pizarro did more than help establish Nervous as a multi-genre dance label. She also took Weiss around to introduce him to people he didn’t already know on the scene and made sure he had the connections he needed to keep the upward momentum of Nervous going. Asked to describe what made Pizarro a great talent scout, Weiss says, “Gladys always had a great ear, but more importantly she has a big heart. She has love for the music, for the people who make it, and for the people who play it. I’ve known her for 25 years and I don’t think her passion has ever wavered in that respect.”
About a year after she split from Strictly, Finkelstein called Pizarro to admit he may have made a mistake by firing her, and asked her to come back. Pizarro does not disclose any specific details about their reconciliation, except to say that Strictly Rhythm was still “home” to her, and that she was willing to return home.
Securing commercial viability for two different companies in less than five years understandably raised Pizarro’s stock within the recording industry. By 1992, considering the high-profile success of boutique labels with street-music leanings like Uptown, Tommy Boy, Bad Boy, Def Jam and Luke, she could have gone looking to similarly affiliate herself with a major label by getting a pressing and distribution deal under her own name. But the indie dance underground attracted her more. It was its own world — more exciting, more fast moving and less dependent on crossover radio play than any corporate boutique label. Pizarro loved the speed and freedom of underground music during this golden era of synergy, in which producers, DJs and consumers all fed off each other’s ideas and enthusiasm within a vast domestic and overseas network of nightclubs and record stores.
Every Wednesday night for five years during this period, the duo of Don Welch and Barbara Tucker hosted Underground Network parties at 12 West 21st Street in Manhattan. With Louie Vega manning the turntables, this became the weekly gathering place of every DJ, producer and industry exec with a hot demo and a dream. Once a video bar called Private Eyes, it was renamed the Sound Factory Bar after being bought by the same people who ran the sprawling West Side disco called the Sound Factory, where Junior Vasquez ruled the weekends.
On Wednesdays, the Sound Factory Bar became Pizarro’s satellite office. All of Pizarro’s regular producers brought new singles to test there, because if Louie Vega played something that got a good reaction once or twice, the track could be flying off record store shelves by the following Friday. Rival producers and companies would mingle there in peace, share information or even engineer collaborations. Producers discovered potential singers there, and dancers were recruited for back-up gigs.
“Everybody was feeding off everyone else’s energy because we had the Underground Network,” says Pizarro of these nights. “Those mid-week parties made my career a breeze. I didn’t even have to go into the office when I went there. People were handing me demos at the club. People gave me material all the time at that place. All I needed was an agreement – to maybe go back up to the office and print something out. Everybody came to dance. Everybody came with their new records to test on the dancefloor. And if Louie Vega played it once or twice, you’d have yourself a hit.”
In 1992, Vega offered Pizarro his Harddrive EP, featuring the promoter and singer Barbara Tucker. The package was a strong departure from Vega’s previous productions, experimental and futuristic in the way of techno, and yet profoundly human and intimate. Hardrive’s 1995 single, the hallucinatory “Deep Inside,” was just recently sampled by Kanye West, more proof of the timeless appeal underground dance music still holds for the pop mainstream. Making this project even more notable was Tony Humphries’ collaboration with Vega on a 1993 remix for the flagship Hardrive single, “Just Believe.”
A fortuitous combination of intense networking, a thriving retail market, an abundance of small weekly venues and unprecedented amounts of quality production talent spurred this bubble of joyful creativity. Blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos were enjoying the last few years of Mayor Dinkins’ New York. It proved to be a truncated celebration. The cooling effects of an interdepartmental anti-Disco Task Force, which spearheaded the first term of conservative Mayor Giuliani in 1994, were to have the most devastating impact on New York’s underground dance scene since the AIDS epidemic.
Moreover, musical trends were shifting again. In Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of the UK, US and Canada, a bewildering array of pounding techno and droning trance styles were being developed that would soon spill out of rave culture and into commercial clubs of all descriptions. While Strictly producers flirted with Balearic propulsion and tribal chants, like the playful call-and-response of “Boricua Posse,” the arena-mad soldiers of what would become EDM were already contemplating world domination. Between the rising popularity of hard trance music during the mid-’90s and the aggressive marketing of EDM during the late 2000s, almost two decades went by during which melodic and soulful forms of club music were comparatively marginalized. DJs and franchise artists still toured internationally — just under less lucrative, less celebrated circumstances.
Pizarro was willing to embrace techno at Strictly Rhythm, but not to the exclusion of all else. “Our signature sound expanded along with the kinds of records we were being offered,” says Pizarro. “After a while, you didn’t know what you were going to get from us, only that it would be good. One day it might be house-y, the next it would be more techno, or tribal. Every release was different. But people would come up to me and say: ‘Gladys, I didn’t even care what you were putting out, I just went for the label.’ There was actually a period at 12" retailers when people would come to buy ‘the new Strictly’ and not even ask to hear it first.”
Strictly’s organic diversity flourished for years without the need to conform to any particular club or radio format. Deliciously polyrhythmic tribal tunes like Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor” and “Zulu” could flourish in 1994 alongside the sultry Latin house of River Ocean and Reel 2 Real’s raggamuffin house. Indeed, until the number of clubs dedicated to supporting such diversity began to dwindle due to anti-noise statutes, building code restrictions on new clubs, increased city enforcement of ancient cabaret laws and the closing of previously licensed and legal discos, it seemed as if Strictly’s run of underground hits would never end. But additional factors made that unlikely.
For one, scoring an international hit made underground producers attractive to major labels for remix work. In turn, a taste of major label budgets and a flurry of major label remixes made ambitious young talent less interested in working with indie labels. Moreover, fewer clubs and less club exposure meant a smaller retail market overall. After a few Strictly Rhythm records found commercial pop success, Pizarro began to feel pressure from Finkelstein to sign more crossover dance tunes. It was a goal that not only couldn’t be forced, but also one she felt worked against the label’s careful branding to that point.
Pizarro learned from her work with Erick Morillo that it takes a very special club record to cross pop without selling out. Morillo brought her a slightly flawed demo upon her return to Strictly, and after intensifying the drum track and simplifying the vocal hook per her instructions, he sold her “The New Anthem,” which climbed charts under his Reel 2 Real alias. Once he’d broken the ice his production work became very consistent, and the third 12" he gave to Pizarro near the end of 1993 was the game-changing “I Like To Move It,” featuring the Mad Stuntman.
“That single sold millions,” she recalls. “It was in commercials, then movies. I knew that record was a hit, but it took time. Initially we did a major mass promotion behind it, but I’d look at the numbers every week and not understand why it wasn’t hitting like I thought it would. Eight months later we get a call from David Lambert with the Positiva label overseas who says, ‘Look, I got to take that record from you guys. I want to give it a video.’ Then a major label gets behind it. The minute I let go, someone else took it all the way to the top in the UK. That was the turning point of Erick’s career. But it didn’t happen overnight.”
Because of Strictly’s branding and consumer base, it was rare that they were offered many radio-friendly songs, much less songs with a marketable live singer attached. In retrospect, Pizarro feels that the company got a little spoiled after “I Like To Move It” took off.
“I think Mark felt we could build on that and just rip this up... But it wasn’t like that at all. That kind of talent just didn’t come in the door. I didn’t find it and I was out there looking. It got a little hard because Mark wanted that level of success. But it took four years before I found something like that again. The song was ‘Free’ by Ultra Naté.”
“Free” was uptempo message material, every bit as accessible and relatable as Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” and Ultra Naté has now been touring off this anthemic song’s success for 20 years. Upon initial release, it went to the top of Billboard’s Dance chart, to #4 on the British Pop Chart and cracked Billboard’s Top 100. This reception led Strictly to release Naté’s acclaimed 1998 LP Situation: Critical and a slightly less popular 2001 follow-up called Stranger Than Fiction.
While waiting for all that to happen, Strictly’s director of promotion, Bari Gossman, helped keep the label afloat financially when in 1995 she signed Planet Soul’s “Set You Free,” which sold over half a million copies in the US. The label also released a popular single by Josh Wink called “Higher State of Consciousness.” But as a businessman, Finkelstein was watching his overall bottom line. Unsure how to stabilize the company’s sporadic revenue stream, he entrusted a number of employees with signing power, with no guarantees their selections would earn out. 1996 and ’97 saw Finkelstein take on a flurry of subsidiary labels, few of them little more than vanity imprints aimed at the fans of higher-profile jocks. Pizarro was always against such deals, thinking they depleted resources and weakened the identity of the parent label. Nevertheless, the late ’90s saw niche labels like Groovalicious, Flatline, Ruckus and Waxhead pressed and distributed by Strictly, although all of them eventually flopped.
We had that label for over 16 years. When things were great, it was great, but when they got ugly, it got ugly.
Meanwhile, Pizarro strove to keep all her records moving. The Wam Due project scored big in the UK in 2000, and a Crystal Waters single, “Come On Down,” arrived in 2001. Gladys looked forward to helping Naté and Waters, the two great divas of Baltimorean house, conquer new territory – both were sterling examples of club artists who could cross over to pop without compromising a signature club sound. Strictly was also still working some solid albums, including a catalog of classic mixes and singles compilations put together by the likes of Louie Vega, Tony Humphries, Kenny “Dope” Gonzales and Todd Terry. Moreover, they had just begun a co-venture deal with Warner Brothers in 2000. From Pizarro’s perspective things were going great, but it became clear that Finkelstein was still pushing the label more and more in a pop direction, while pressuring her to find the next Reel 2 Real, or the next Planet Soul. The stress this pressure caused was becoming unbearable, but Mark was her boss and she accepted the terms of that hierarchy.
“Remember, we had that label for over 16 years,” says Pizarro. “When things were great, it was great, but when they got ugly, it got ugly. The Titanic was sinking. Now it was do or die.”
Gladys Pizarro stayed with Strictly until they officially shut down on October 3rd, 2002. She didn’t jump ship until that last day, despite the increasing economic contraction the entire industry was feeling. For Pizarro, though, the worst part was not being able to do what she wanted to do to support records that she still believed in.
Today, Pizarro is working to complete a documentary about the DJs, producers, promoters and artists most pivotal to the 1990s underground club scene she helped create. Pizarro will also be releasing new music from Djaimin, David Anthony and Sted-E & Hybrid Heights through her New York-based digital record label, Launch, a division of Launch Entertainment. Although the basic concept behind Launch Entertainment was first announced in Billboard in 2004, it has taken until now for her to put all the autonomous parts of her business plan in place, including a music publishing company. The lag time was beneficial, as today’s marketplace is far more conducive to her entrepreneurial goals.
Never completely off the music scene, Pizarro still attends the dance parties and conferences that matter, keeping up with her global network of artists and DJ/producers. Thrilled to see the likes of Drake, Katy Perry and Kanye West sampling underground dance classics, and fully aware that public taste is also pivoting back towards the soulful house aesthetic of the ’80s and ’90s, she is prepared to build a platform for the next wave of underground club music.
Header image © Sam Morales