The image of a red brick wall with the phrase “Strictly Rhythm” scribbled on it in black marker symbolizes not only the iconic Strictly Rhythm label, but the ’90s New York underground club scene in which the label was deeply influential.
Founded in 1989 by Mark Finkelstein and Gladys Pizarro, the independent dance imprint celebrated its three-decade run with Strictly Rhythm: The Definitive 30 compilation, which was released in late 2019. The project featured all of the artists that defined the label, from Armand Van Helden to Osunlade, Logic to Photon Inc. and Aly-Us to George Morel. Additionally, Strictly Rhythm — which now operates under BMG’s suite of dance labels — has released 15 catalog tracks which have never before been available digitally with more to come, along with a three-part vinyl series.
In the ‘90s, Strictly Rhythm was a breeding ground for house superstars including Roger Sanchez, Erick Morillo, Van Helden, Todd Terry, Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, as well as the experimental sounds of Josh Wink, DJ Pierre and Planet Soul. The label’s leading ladies were Ultra Naté – No. 12 in Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Top Dance Club Artists — and vocalist Barbara Tucker, a 34-year resident at myriad Ibiza clubs, most recently at Glitterbox.
But the real power behind Strictly Rhythm were the “Strictly Women” — co-founder Pizzaro and Bari Gossman, who took on a variety of behind-the-scenes roles including retail, radio and club promotions, tour bookings and A&R.
“I don’t have any musical background other than collecting records as a kid,” Pizzaro tells Billboard Dance. “I grew up listening to my sisters’ R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and salsa songs. I always thought of myself as the consumer. I have that inner ear that tells me whether or not I would buy a record.”
A club kid from Spanish Harlem, Pizzaro knew where the talent was — she just had to convince the artists to give her their best music. A familiar face on the club circuit, Pizarro kept her ear to the ground, listening to everyone’s demos and cherry-picking the best. Once she had the tracks, she pounded the pavement, personally taking Strictly Rhythm acetates to indie record shops like Vinyl Mania in order to break records.
“Being a woman, I was crawling and stressing just to get in the business,” says Pizzaro. “It was not easy. What helped me was I always had good music. I had a reputation for that. That’s why, with time, I developed a relationship with the DJs. They would let me come into the DJ booth because I might have something they really wanted to play.”
The incubator for many Strictly releases was a Wednesday night party at Sound Factory Bar called Underground Network. An industry night that launched in 1992 with Louie Vega as resident, its focus was showcasing artists in the dance community for both independent and major labels. The party’s midweek positioning aimed its output for those on the cutting-edge of house music, with the event serving as a gauge for how the dancefloor would react to a track.
“That was the church of house for us,” says Pizarro. “Louie playing at Underground Network made it easy, because everything would get a spin there to see how the crowd would react. I saw how the people reacted to a track, and that would determine if I would sign it.”
From there, Gossman—who came from a background in radio promotion in New York — expanded the label’s reach into a nationwide selection of retailers. She worked her way out of New York City, down to Florida and Texas, into Chicago and Detroit and north to upstate New York. She also developed Strictly Rhythm’s presence on national mix show radio and mainstream radio, handling the core markets and hiring traditional promoters to manage the rest of the country.
Gossman’s breakthrough record on national radio was Reel 2 Real’s “The New Anthem,” a project from Erick Morillo that hit No. 1 on the Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart in 1992. The following year, Reel 2 Real’s “I Like To Move It” was the label’s first silver record and first global hit. When the Reel 2 Real’s album, Move It, was released, it went gold.
From there, Gossman, gained more traction on radio, breaking records like River Ocean featuring India’s “Love and Happiness” in 1994 and Vengaboys’ Billboard Hot 100 hit “We Like To Party! (The Vengabus)” in 1998 on Strictly’s sister label Groovilicious.
“I knew we had something organic brewing under our feet that just felt really genuine and cool,” Gossman says of the ’90s house scene. “But the reality was that getting house music on the radio was hard. Getting stuff on the radio is big-time business. I was competing with major labels and their artists.”
Indeed, getting an artist like Ultra Naté on the radio was no easy feat. But when Gossman got the underground house artist radio play in five core markets, it was a win as it kept Naté on the road.
“Strictly Rhythm was the right kind of label for me,” says Naté, who came to the label in 1996 after two albums at Warner Bros. “They had a very strong brand. They had a really great system of people that knew how to build people from a club level, get it out this weekend, build it with the tastemaker DJs over the next couple of weeks, blow it up in the clubs. They had that down to a science. And they gave me an open checkbook. It was a charmed experience, because that didn’t happen in those days and it definitely doesn’t happen these days.”
Gossman also got a shot at A&R when label co-founder Mark Finkelstein realized that while different from Pizarro’s, her ear was just as strong at picking hits. Gossman A&R’ed the label’s first gold record, Planet Soul’s 1994 hit “Set U Free.” In 1995, she A&R’ed Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness” before commissioning him to remix the track. The song went top 10 twice in the U.K. — once with the original, and once with the remix.
“We were very complementary, but polar opposites,” Gossman says of herself and Pizzaro. “Different skills sets. Different types of people. She was the face of the label. I was behind the scenes.”
Although the label had a platinum disco hit with Wamdue Project’s “King of my Castle” in 1999, Strictly Rhythm couldn’t sustain itself with the advent of the internet. It entered a joint venture with Warner Music Group in 2000, and eventually shut its doors in 2002. Gossman left New York for Charlotte, where she now is a corporate executive at a packaged foods company. She also owns and manages the non-profit Yoga for Recovery Foundation.
Strictly Rhythm reopened in 2007 after regaining control of its catalogues. In 2019, Finkelstein left the company and BMG acquired its rights. Meanwhile, Pizzaro is tapping into her house music roots with her independent dance label, Launch, and is also working on a documentary about her life in music.
Decades after Strictly Rhythm’s heyday, it’s a different outlook for female-identifying artists. While gaining any ground in the scene is hard work regardless of one’s gender, and while the dance scene is still dominated by men, playing main stages and massive clubs is now regularly accomplished by women. This shift is not something Pizarro experienced during her time at Strictly Rhythm.
“The uprising of the female DJs — Black Madonna, Deborah De Luca, Nina Kraviz, Peggy Gou,” she says, “they’re doing their thing, showing they’re as good as the men, and getting paid like the men.”
Pizzaro and Gossman The “Strictly Women” helped blaze this trail. Strictly Rhythm shaped the sound of underground house music and helped make that sound mainstream, and it was Pizzaro and Gossman who shaped Strictly Rhythm.