DJs are digging into the dustier corners of their collections, and labels are embarking on rigorous reissue programmes in search of the overlooked, the undervalued, the forgotten. At the forefront of the expedition striking deep into the roots of the music is Amsterdam’s Rush Hour, whose revival of past and lost classics – be it through Virgo Four’s Resurrection or the Gene Hunt Presents series – never fails to throw up gems.
They’ve excelled themselves, though, with the latest addition to their collection: a major retrospective of the work put out by twins Rheji and Ronald ‘Rhano’ Burrell (pictured) on Nu Groove between 1988 and 1992. The New York label, run by the husband and wife team of Frank and Karen Mendez, may have only existed for four years, but what a blistering four years they were – you can find a rundown of some of our personal favourites from their discography here.
Kickstarting the label with the offcuts from an abortive deal producing mainstream R&B for Virgin records, the Burrell Brothers went on to sow the seeds of what we now think of as the New York house sound. Producing together and separately under numerous aliases including K.A.T.O., Metro, Utopia Project and N.Y. House’n Authority, the brothers maintained a lower profile than many of their label-mates whilst still delivering the goods time and again.
FACT’s Angus Finlayson spoke to Rheji Burrell at home in North Carolina, to find out more about the history of the label, his memories of the time and why house music is like real estate.
“Back in the day kids would pick up instruments like they pick up Xboxes now. It was just the times we lived in.”
Rheji Burrell: “If we go all the way back – some of my earliest memories always involved the radio. I remember thinking that there were little people in it! And that made me think of making music. I guess DJs think about making ‘records’, but I thought about making ‘music’ – who are those people playing those instruments, how did they get that instrument to do that?”
Your background wasn’t in electronic music so much, was it?
RB: “No, not at all. I fought electronic music until it just didn’t make any sense not to. I used synthesisers, I always messed about with those – but a lot of the synths I played weren’t mine. I was always around traditional instruments just as much, or even more, than electronic drum machines or things like that. It was always 50/50.”
You signed to Virgin early on.
RB: “Yeah we signed to Virgin in late ‘87, I guess around September, my birthday. It went down very fast. Especially as I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t have hopes and dreams for it. I was just a kid doing what kids do – nowadays kids have computers – back in the day kids would pick up instruments like they pick up Xboxes now. It was just the times we lived in.”
“The EQs was fucked up, the singing was off, you had chanting and moaning and all types of crazy shit. And it seemed like the sexiest girls liked that…”
So how did you then get into house music?
RB: “A very dear friend of mine who’s since passed a long time ago – he was the only guy that got this music, he was more serious about it than anyone I knew. And at one point he came over and started talking about this new music from Chicago. Then there was a DJ I know called Vernon Freeland, he was from Newark, and he went to Rutgers University – where I taught Kung Fu, self-defence, to the students.
“Directly across the hall from the gym [where I taught] was the cafeteria, and they’d move all the seats out and this guy would come and play eclectic music, sort of like Larry Levan. But at some point he’d play these tracks, and that was what got me. They were so raw and dirty and wrong, the EQs was fucked up, the singing was off, you had chanting and moaning and all types of crazy shit. And it seemed like the sexiest girls liked that – they just started sweating and grinding to that stuff – and I said ‘I like that kinda stuff!’
“It was a world where absolutely nothing mattered except what came out of those speakers and how you felt about it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I liked the music too! It seemed simple – it seemed like if you made mistakes, they liked you better – there’s some heart, there’s some soul in there. And I got it that you’re supposed to just lose yourself in this, there are no rules – if you can’t play guitar, good, it’ll probably sound better! You’re only gonna play two notes, and it’s the two notes that get you.
“That attracted me – cos I wasn’t the best musician. And I finally found something where you can just lose it – it can’t be too fast or too slow, I could use whatever instrument I felt like using, I could curse in these records. I could sing, I could talk…just ridiculous, how free you could be. And then you were allowed to dance like you was a nut too! It was just 100% you – whatever you are. And I loved that about it. It didn’t matter how much money you had, where you came from – it completely didn’t matter what you looked like. It was a world where absolutely nothing mattered except what came out of those speakers and how you felt about it. It’s not that any longer – that’s what it was…that’s what attracted me to it.”