Strafe “Set It Off”
The birth of our underground brand, Factory 93, not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crate series, we break out seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
Submitted for your approval into the canon of important and essential dance/electronic records: “Set It Off” by Strafe, an underground classic and a staple that is entwined throughout dance, rap, and music history. It’s already lived dozens of lives in the 33 years since its release—through samples and interpolations—and it is just one of those records that will be cut up and reimagined forever, it seems.
But it originally fell flat, destined to disappear into obscurity, like so many other pieces of wax in the last 50 years. Strafe himself has talked trash on the record since the ‘80s, and that’s only added to its strange legacy.
Despite the artist’s own criticism of the tune, “Set It Off” is still a monster, a classic piece of electro with some shades of techno, Italo and house spliced in, as well. There’s a good chance you’ve heard it. It’s one of those tracks that works in a lot of different types of sets—especially as a warmup tune, as it’s nestled in that mid-tempo ~110–112-BPM range and mixes well with a lot of different styles.
And it was one of those lucky records to get the honorable distinction of being “mixed with LOVE” by the late disco producer Walter Gibbons. Gibbons was, among other things, a tour de force in disco’s heyday and a key figure in taking club DJing into the 1980s and perfecting the craft of DJing and mixing 12″s, some might argue. Gibbons ran an imprint called Jus Born Records (a reference to Gibbons’ faith) with George Logios, who took production credit for “Set It Off.” The label—which didn’t last terribly long and sustained itself on the success of this, its first record—specialized in these sorts of early-‘80s post-disco, proto-house, boogie club cuts that New York was overflowing with at the time.
“Set It Off” was written, arranged, and performed by Steve Standard—an artist in his late 20s from New York and a friend of Kenny Carpenter’s, a lighting tech at Galaxy 21, where Gibbons cemented his DJ game. Standard went by Strafe, and he played every part on the track, including supplying the vocals.
The original mix is often referred to as “idiosyncratic,” somewhere between Newcleus, Malcolm McLaren, Cybotron, and the post-disco electro boogie that was in high supply and demand in 1984. There are hi-hats aplenty, an 808, some pretty cryptic vocals, a touch of disco guitar, and other wonky synth-laden bleeps, blips, and FX hanging on this tune. The track features the now-famous and often cited or sampled call-and-response chant, “Y’all want this party started, right? Y’all want this party started quickly” which has since entered the all-purpose MC lexicon. In addition to “sparse” and “atmospheric,” dance music historian Tim Lawrence called the track “haunting, heavily syncopated.”
Standard, however, was unhappy with the legendary mixer’s mix. In fact, he hated it. Apparently, Gibbons was not a huge fan of low-end, and Standard has been complaining about the lack of bass in the mix to this day.
Though its analog retro-future vibe might seem a little familiar, as it’s a sound producers in 2017 are still chasing, this record has this special blend of weirdness and off-kilter sexiness that screams early-‘80s New York. You can imagine this record getting rinsed on lionized clubs of the era like Paradise Garage, and it most certainly was, once the record broke.
However, it wasn’t successful immediately out of the gate. None of the influential New York DJs wanted to play it on first listen—until Tony Smith got his hands on it. Smith, a resident at the Fun House, claims credit for playing that record every night until his dancers finally caved in and fell in love with it. He says it originally cleared the floor, but by sticking to his guns—he knew this record was special—it worked. Jellybean Benitez, the most well-known of the Fun House stable, said the track “had soul, it had electro, it had Latin. It was a long record that took you on a journey. It captured so many different things—and it had just the right energy.” It has an intangible spirit you can’t really recreate.
Then it became a hit. Now everyone wanted this record. The only problem was that the label had produced only 1,000 copies, selling out in no time. The record was re-pressed and re-pressed—in runs of 1,000 (presumably because they didn’t have the capital for a larger order)—which kept driving the demand up. Logios allegedly sold it out of the trunk of his car. DJs like Jellybean knew how rare it was, which gave them license to play it out on the floor constantly, knowing their audience wasn’t sick of the record from home listening. So, they’d rinse it out.
The record was re-pressed and bootlegged for years, causing consternation among trainspotters trying to catalog all the different versions and fugazis out there.
In an article from SPIN in 1996, Standard opens up about his frustration with how the record came out, saying it was “cheaply recorded and badly mixed.” He wanted nothing to do with it and joined pop singer Shannon on tour as a guitar player. Jus Born then sent out a female crew to perform as Strafe, which riled up Standard even further, claiming rumors were flying around that Strafe was “effeminate” or “gay.” He started showing up at these gigs, and the idea of the female crew was botched. Instead, Jus Records decided to recut the record—they presumably owned the publishing rights to do so—with female vocals by the group Harlequin Fours.
Since then, though the record never broke the top 50 in America, it has been sampled at least 40 times (which means it’s likely actually three or four times that, given how popular this track is). Everyone from 50 Cent, J. Lo, and Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, to Frankie Bones, the Stanton Warriors, and the Fu-Schnickens has flipped “Set It Off” in one way or another. It’s even made it onto a Jock Jams compilation, oddly enough.
Gibbons would go on to work with Arthur Russell before both passed from illnesses related to AIDS, which claimed almost entire generations of dance music maestros and DJs. Strafe would go on to release music for another decade or so, never coming close to capturing the lightning in a bottle of this first record—the one DJs around the world admire, but Standard hates so much.