Rheji Burrell on the Nu Groove years, music as real estate and how kung fu led him to house
Rheji Burrell on the Nu Groove years, music as real estate and how kung fu led him to house
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.”
From there, how did you become involved with Nu Groove?
RB: “When we were on Virgin, they didn’t call on the second album, for political reasons – the president of the American division hated the president of the UK division, and she told me to my face, ‘I’m not promoting your album, simply because of who signed you’. I knew it was over when it started. So we just rolled that out. Before we had a deal on Virgin we made music anyway, so I had tracks, songs ideas – they were all pretty much unfinished – you know, they sounded like demos, they were on cassette, I wasn’t sure if I liked the vocals or not. But that means it was perfect for house music.
“So Frank [Mendez] approached me one day and said ‘how would you like to have your own label to put out the rest of this stuff?’ And I said ‘great!’ We ended up meeting Tommy Musto from the Dynamic Duo, he had a studio upstairs from where Karen [Mendez] used to to work, called Fourth Floor. Karen introduced me to him and he canned whatever he was doing and said ’let’s just make some records’. And the first two records we made were made in the same day, probably in like an hour – ‘The Booty Dance’ [under the K.A.T.O. alias] and Metro – ‘Angel Of Mercy’.”
“The longer I stayed in house music, the more I resented it. It wasn’t what I wanted.”
Did you DJ at the time, or were you solely producing?
RB: “Oh yeah, we did. We used to DJ with Timmy Regisford. He had a show in New York. A lot of times when you thought it was him DJing it wasn’t, it was me and Rhano. And once in a while I’d jump out…but the longer I stayed in house music, the more I resented it. It wasn’t what I wanted – and back in the early, mid 90s, underground went out, there was no audience for it. I mean I can’t play to three people, that’s just not gonna happen.
“But with the advent of podcasts now, you can absolutely play what you want, cos there’s no overhead – no club guy breathing down your neck. If you don’t like it, just tune off! So I do like where it’s going now, and I’m more ready to play again. I can afford not to give a shit, it doesn’t cost me nothing.”
Have you noticed recently people getting back into the older stuff, getting inspired by it?
RB: “Yeah, it has to though – that’s what happens in every phase and facet of life, you always go back. Like real estate – it gets inflated, then it becomes a ghetto and everyone moves back when prices are low – then in ten years it’ll be a million dollars again. That’s where we are now – I think house and all that has gotten over-inflated, it’s gotten out of control and the bubble has burst, so people come back to the ghetto of it, if you will – where these great records were made at shitty studios, by incompetent musicians, no computers, and it sounds better than it ever sounded before. I think house music has become over-saturated with people coming from a technical place, not a soulful place – and everything needs a balance. Maybe that’s just the Kung Fu guy in me talking!”
“Everything needs a balance. Maybe that’s just the Kung Fu guy in me talking!”
I read that you used to get a grittier sound by running your tracks through cassette?
RB: “Yeah, I still do. I’m a bit of a jerk I guess that way, that I can only love what I love – I even tried to invent something at some point that was called a de-resonator – I can’t believe I remember that! – but it was something like a bit-decreaser, you know? It would shit it up for you – things were just getting too crisp, too digital. But yeah with the DAT machine, I would try to mix stuff low, so I’d get some hum, some dust on it – even my guitar players, I’d go ‘drag your fingers, I wanna hear the [makes scratching noise]!’ That’s what’s supposed to happen. A lot of time I’d catch my vocals in the morning when you’d sound the crappiest – I don’t want Luther Vandross, If I wanted Luther Vandross, I’d get Luther! I want huskiness and air, everything else that happens to a voice.”
Were you quite isolated from what was going on at that time – stuck in the studio?
RB: “My studio was in Jersey, so a lot of the time I’d be there with my friends. I actually made most of my records on the weekend. I kept the studio under my mother’s house, because she had a really isolated basement, six feet underground with brick concrete walls, and her room was like two floors up. We could just bang and she wouldn’t care, the neighbours wouldn’t care. So I’d come home maybe Friday, bang out all of the projects I wanted to do ’til Sunday, then come back to New York on Monday.”
“I’d catch my vocals in the morning when you’d sound the crappiest – I don’t want Luther Vandross, If I wanted Luther Vandross, I’d get Luther!”
So after four very productive years the label come to end. Why was that?
RB: “I’m gonna give you an exact account of how it happened. Before I left my house that day I called Frank to see if he was there. I told him I had a new project and was he gonna be there – he said, ‘Yeah, come in’. It was this big process for me to get in, cos I had to catch a taxi to the train station, then the train into NY, then another cab – so it could take two hours. I got there, got in the elevator, went up to the fourth floor. And when the elevator opened, he said, ‘I’m closing it down’. I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, OK then, he’s going home early today.’ He says, ‘No – it’s over – I’m closing the label, it’s over’. And he handed me my salary cheque, the elevator doors closed, and that’s the last time I spoke to him.”
Did you have an idea why?
RB: “It was some personal problems that he was going through – his marriage came to and end, I think he had some substance abuse problems, and I think they both kinda hit him at the same time.”
Do you think those years were an influence on what you’ve done since – working in mainstream R&B and hip-hop, producing the likes of Toni Braxton, Jo Jo, Foxy Brown and Aaliyah?
RB: “Nope. It had nothing to do with any of it. I believe that the house music experience is an experience unto itself. It’s like, if you went to the moon, what could you relate it to back on earth, if you worked at Burger King say? It has nothing to do with it – there’s no spaceships. Everything has rules, everything has consequences…it’s exactly the opposite of house music.”
“I believe that the house music experience is an experience unto itself.”
Do you miss that time, then?
RB: “Um, I do miss the time. I don’t think you can do it now. I don’t believe that you can go back and be that innocent any more. I wish I knew to cherish it a little better, document it a little better – I didn’t soak in it long enough.”
So how did the Rush Hour reissues come about?
RB: “At the end of Nu Groove, Frank ended up selling the catalogue illegally. It’s all over the world, I can’t find out who has my DATs, and I’ve been struggling with that for years and years. It sucks, I feel like my babies are out there. I guess I’ll give it a month or two, maybe someone’s got some information with the release of this project. I plan to try to get my DATs and make all the original versions available for download – unmastered, exactly as I did them. That’d be nice, because even I didn’t like the mastering process that a record had to go through, it always sounded funny to me. So I’m still in the process of doing that.
“Christiaan from Rush Hour, he contacted me about the idea of re-releasing some Nu Groove records. That’s really it, it wasn’t rocket science. He’s really gone for the jugular on this one, he’s got the good ones. A lot of people have responded well to [the Nu Groove records], they’ve always responded to them and I don’t see why they wouldn’t respond to them now.”