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The Burrell Brothers – The Nu Groove Years 1988-92 review

When Rheji and Ronald ‘Rhano’ Burrell dropped their debut album on Virgin Records in 1988, there was little sign that they would eventually become one of the most influential production partnerships in house. Simply titled Burrell, the album offered a slick, radio-friendly mix of 80s R&B, synth-funk/house crossovers and the sort of piano-laden garage house – as it was then called – that was beginning to dominate the clubs of New Jersey. Despite its accessibility, it was a flop, and many expected that would be it for the talented young brothers. In many ways, it was probably the making of them.

Frustrated by the constraints of working with a major label, they went back underground. With the backing of their management trio of Judy Russell and Frank and Karen Mendez, they launched Nu Groove Records, initially as an outlet for their own productions. But the music they made would not be created with radio airplay in mind, but rather the dancefloors of New Jersey, New York and Chicago. It was a masterstroke. Inspired by the jacking house sound of Chicago, the deepness of Larry Heard and the emotion-rich, musically minded productions of early New Jersey garage pioneers, they proceeded to make music that defied easy categorization. It would quickly become known as deep house. And what productions; under a dizzying array of pseudonyms, Rheji and Rhano – either together or solo – put out around 25 12” singles on Nu Groove alone between 1988 and ’92. Along with other notable early NYC house producers – Bobby Konders and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez amongst them – they turned Nu Groove into one of the most talked-about electronic labels on the planet. To this day, their productions are still amongst the most sought-after on the house scene, with records changing hands for considerable sums on eBay and Discogs.

This retrospective from Rush Hour is both well deserved and long overdue. While hardly totally authoritative – there are one or two well-loved classics and rarities missing – it still offers a brilliant insight into their ’88-92 glory years. As such, it should be essential listening for anyone with even the smallest interest in the development of house music during a crucial period. Although by 1988 house music had firmly established itself as an international force – most notably through the work of Chicago’s Trax and DJ International imprints – it was still in its infancy as an art form. New York was in thrall to early New Jersey garage, a variant of the genre that perhaps owed more to soul and disco than the alien, machine-driven rawness of Chicagoan acid.

The early Burrell productions showcased here are notable for uniting disparate strands of house. Take opener “Brownstone Express” from the $1.15 Please EP by Metro (Rheji Burrell), or Tech Trax Inc’s “Feel The Luv” – the first ever release on Nu Groove back in 1988 – and “Angel Of Mercy”. While the keys and vocal treatments smack of early garage, the clattering drum machine percussion and acid bass come straight out of the Chicago House rulebook. This is not hands-in-the-air music featuring soaring vocals, rather hypnotic club cuts. Their soulfulness is derived from subtle melodies and cute touches. It’s deep house in its purest form.

The Burrells were nothing if not varied in their productions, and there are plenty of varied tracks here that show the depth of their production talents. Take “Disco-Tech” by K.A.T.O, here offered up in Studio 54 Mix form; its New Jersey organs, re-sung disco vocals and winding synthesizers sound notably deeper and more cosmic than anything traditional garage producers at the time could deliver. Aphrodisiac’s “Song Of The Siren”, meanwhile, is as deep, heavy and musically intricate as any Bobby Konders or Larry Heard production. The brothers could do acid, too, as Metro’s ragging, Virgo Four-ish 1990 cut “Straphanger” and NY Housin’ Authority’s bubbling “Dyckman House” prove. They could even do orchestral arrangements for synthesizers, as the pompous but brilliantly uplifting “APT 1B” – perhaps one of the Burrells’ best known productions – thrillingly demonstrates.

Matt Anniss

Tracklisting (2xLP version):

Aphrodisiac – “Song Of The Siren”
Metro – “Angel Of Mercy”
Utopia Project – “File #3”
NY House’n Authority – “Fort Green House”
Equation – “The Answer” (X2 RB mix)
Aphrodisiac – “Your Love”
Houz’ Neegrox – “How Do U Luv A Black Woman?”
NY House’n Authority – “Dyckman House”
Metro – “Straphanger”
NY House’n Authority – “Apt 1b”