DEEP IN THE GROOVE
BRUCE TATUM TALKS NU GROOVE WITH RHEJI BURRELL
With its first two releases, Tech Trax Inc.’s ‘Feel the Love’ and K.A.T.O.’s ‘The Booty Dance,’ Nu Groove announced itself as one of the first of the great New York house labels, beating the iconic likes of Strictly Rhythm, Nervous and Emotive by a year or more. It was, as it happens, among the greatest of those greats, and the credit for that largely goes to the men behind those two inaugural 12s — Rheji Burrell, who produced the former EP, and his twin brother Rhano, responsible for the latter.
The Burrell’s first brush with fame came via their short-lived R&B-infused project, succinctly called Burrell, with an album signed by Virgin and released in early 1988 on the label’s 10 Records imprint. When that deal fell apart, the brothers quickly regrouped; teaming with Frank and Karen Mendez, they introduced Nu Groove later that year to a house world hungry for material. That world got what it wanted and then some: Over the course of four years, the label featured contributions from dance-music luminaries like Tommy Musto, Viktor Simonelli, Bobby Konders, Joey Beltram and a young, up-and-coming duo called Masters at Work. But the Burrells were the backbone. Either Rhano or Rheji’s name (and very occasionally both) can be found on scores of Nu Groove releases under almost as many aliases, covering sounds ranging from raw minimalism to soulful spendor.
The label helped elevate house music into the dominant sound of clubland, but by 1992 Nu Groove was over, and the Burrells — who, concurrently with their Nu Groove duties, had also been working in the hip-hop and R&B realms — gradually moved away from house, producing and remixing for the Diddys and Aliyahs of the world. But nearly three decades later, the trailblazing label has been resurrected, with an EP from Rheji and Rhano themselves on the way and more in the pipeline. Faith recently caught up with Rheji at home via Zoom, a few platinum records on the wall behind him as he sat down at his desk for a chat.
Both you and Rhano were pretty musical as kids, right?
We didn’t realize at the time, but yeah! For us, it was just play. Some kids play with trucks and hammers, some kids play with motorbikes and skateboards, but we played with musical instruments — and pots and pans were our first instruments, We’d bang on them to make noise, and we’d make sense of the noise. I’d hit something that made a low sound, and Rhano would hit something that made a high sound, and that became music. We were learning how things fit together; we were learning about arrangement.
When did you graduate beyond pots and pans to actual instruments?
Where we went to school in Queens, they were big on music classes. We’d sit around in a circle, and the teacher would pass out all the little toy bongos, a little piano, recorders and things like that, and everybody would get a chance to play these different instruments. We got to experiment with notes, instead of just rhythms and tones.
Weren’t you and your brother in a band together in New Jersey when you were just kids?
Yeah, Inner Spirit. At that point, we had no real clue of what being in a band really meant, we just had a gung-ho attitude. What happened is that the band was looking for a keyboard player, and Rhano was a better keyboard player than me. But I went with him, and they started rehearsing, trying to figure out where he would fit into the band. They asked if he could sing, and he said, ‘Yeah, I can sing, but you should ask my brother. He sings better!’ I grab a microphone and sing, and then they asked, ‘What else you got?’ So I told them I play percussion, and that’s what they needed — a singer and percussionist. So that’s how that happened. We were like 12.
That’s pretty young to be in a band!
Yeah, and then we were playing in bars and prisons. Those prisoners need to be entertained! [laughs]
It was a cover band of some sort, right?
A pop cover band, playing literally whatever was popular at the time, and whatever we thought people would want to hear. It was definitely diverse music. But that’s what we were used to. We grew up on radio, where it would be singer-songwriter stuff, disco, funk…this was the late ’70s, so hip-hop was just starting. We listened to all of it, and the rest of the band was the same way. We didn’t want to be like Atlantic Starr — we wanted to be like Atlantic Starr and Cameo and David Bowie and Blondie and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5. We wanted to be all of it. We were in that band for a while, from around 1980 till around 1986.
How did that lead to the next step?
I remember walking into record stores when started buying records — the first record I ever bought was KRS-1’s ‘Criminal Minded.’ Until then, until I was actually buying records instead of taping them off the radio, I had never really thought about music as an industry. But a light went off — all these people were in the record store, giving up their money for music. I came to that realization a little late — I think I was 17 or 18 at this point.
Around this time, there was a group called Stimulation that came out of Plainfield, New Jersey, and they had made a record. They weren’t like Teddy Pendergrass, they were just this local band. Just seeing them gave me the confidence that anybody could actually make a record. The funny thing is that thought their record was not that good. I was like, yeah, I can be not that good, too!
You realized that it could be done.
Not even ‘could’ — it was actually done. No ‘coulds’ anymore.
And soon after that, you and Rhano made the ‘Burrell’ album. How did that come about?
This one friend of mine, Tim, his thing was deejaying and engineering, and he had more money than most of us so he had a lot of gear, a lot of drum machines. I’d go to his place and make music, and the easiest music to make with those drum machines was either hip-hop or house. Disco was too much — strings and flutes and guitars and girls singing background vocals. But house? A 909 or 707 and a sampler, and you’re good. So we’d play around with either the big-beat rap type stuff, or house tracks that sounded like they came from Chicago. Tim would make tapes of what we had done, and one day he went to the record store and happened to have a tape of the house music tracks. My soon-to-be manager happened to be calling the store at that minute— she was doing marketing and would call the stores and find out how certain records were selling.
This is Karen Mendez you’re talking about?
Yeah. At the same time she was calling the store, my friend Tim was walking into the store with a big box on his shoulder, playing this track that no one had heard. Everybody in the store is asking ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s my friend’s track,’ Karen, over the phone, was hearing this too, and she said, ‘Give them my number. I need to know who this is.’ I still have the piece of paper with the number.
I called her, and she said that she and her fiancée at the time, who was Frank [Mendez], wanted to come out and meet us. I didn’t think they were really going to come, but they did drive over. They came into the house, and I played them about 20 tracks, like two minutes of each one. They were just tracks at that point, without a lot of vocals. They didn’t talk much, but they were taking notes about what they thought was cool, and they finally said, ‘Can you remake some of our favorites of these?’ They also said they knew Timmy Regisford, and I knew that name from his show.
Timmy’s WBLS show?
Yeah. But I still had no idea about what might happen. They said, ‘Can you meet us in New York and maybe do some demos?’ ‘You paying?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay, great!’ When they were getting into their car to leave, I said, ‘Wait — can I bring my brother?’ Karen asked, ‘Can he sing?’ I said,’ Yeah, and he’s my twin brother.’ They got back out of the car, and he said, ‘Wait, you have an identical twin brother? He looks just like you? And he can sing?’ I said yeah, and I could almost hear them thinking — twins? House music? Oh, Timmy’s gonna love this.
So Rhano and I come into the city that Saturday. We have our little keyboards and go to Calliope Studios on 37th Street, which was a really good hip-hop studio. We programmed some tracks, and damn near finished three of them with demo vocals, maybe a little harmony. Later, we’re on our way back to our place in Jersey — and apparently they had already given the tracks to Timmy, because he was playing them on the radio! We’re listening to these three songs that we had just made. By the time we got home, they had already called, saying Timmy loves the music and he wants to sign you.
Things were happening that quickly?
Oh, yeah. We started recording with Timmy at Supertronics — Boyd Jarvis was there, Touch was there, Colonel Abrams was around…a lot of legends were around, because Timmy was there. We were cutting the record there, and then we moved it to Soundworks, where there were people like Teddy Riley around, because Timmy was also working with a lot of R&B people. And then the album drops.
It’s a solid record — why didn’t it make more of a splash?
Let me try to say this without getting in too much trouble — the president at Virgin Records America didn’t like the president of Virgin UK, for whatever reasons of their own. We had been signed by Virgin UK, and the president of Virgin America told me to my face that if it wasn’t London that hadn’t signed us, then they could support this. She said, ‘But I hate him, so that’s the end of it.’
Before all that, there was originally going to be a second album, and they wanted to bring in Kevin Saunderson or someone like that to produce. They actually wanted Full Force for the first one, and I like Full Force, but it was like, ‘Hell, no. I’m the producer.’ They could say they were bringing in Quincy Jones and I still would have said ‘hell, no.’
With no support from the label and no second album, were you figuring that was the end of your professional music careers at that point? Were you not even thinking in terms of career yet?
It was like we were in the eye of the storm — meaning that I know that there’s something big going on my around us, but it’s sunny where I am, and I’m just sitting back drinking a tequila. The one thing during this time that really stood out to me during this time was when Michael Jackson said hi to me.
Yeah, that would stand out.
And maybe Stevie Wonder. Other than that, we were all just there doing what we do. I thought the music was cool, we’d get in clubs for free, so there wasn’t much to complain about.
What clubs were you going to?
My brother is more of a club-hopper than me. I would go to certain clubs, but basically just the ones where we were performing. There was Club America, Zanzibar, the Tunnel, the Palladium, those kind of places.
How did all this lead to Nu Groove?
At the end of the Virgin thing, Frank and Karen asked, ‘How would you guys like to have your own label?’ And I was, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea!’ They came back ten minutes later: ‘We’re thinking about calling it New Groove.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but spell it like ‘NU.’ She said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ And that’s how it was cofounded — by them, me and my brother.
Nu Groove was one of the first New York labels to be fully invested in house music.
Yep. As far as a label that really embraced it, and had the culture around it, I like to think we hit the mark first. But everything grows from something, and there was house on New York labels before us — like Stimulation, that band I saw in Plainfield? They had a record, and it was house music, and it was on a label. You can look it up. [We did — it was ‘Shattered,’ on Infuture Music.]
Within Nu Groove, other than A.B.T., you and Rhano didn’t produce together very much, did you?
Very rarely. Having both of us in the studio didn’t happen much. But at the same time, we contribute to each other’s material.
Like with the Bas Noir stuff, we did kind of work together. Rhano was at the helm, but I’d come in at the ninth inning and do my thing with it. He’s the chef on that, and I’m the sous chef. Or like I’m not finished with something until I show it to him, and he makes his comments. There are only maybe two people I keep in mind as I’m creating something, and he’s one of them. If I can get him to say ‘Ooh, that’s bad,’ then I’m real good.
Did you pay much attention to the non-Burrell music coming out on Nu Groove?
Not really. Frankie Bones or whatever — great records or not-great records, it didn’t matter. As long as when I come into the office with four or five bangers, we’re not going to sit around and analyze it. As long as it was danceable, as long as it was something that DJs would appreciate enough to play, we would do it.
And DJs were jonesing for music back then, weren’t they?
There wasn’t so much stuff out there at that point. For the DJs, it would be like, here’s a new record — I’ll play it. Now there’s thousands of records every day.
Did I read somewhere that you used to record some of your Nu Groove productions direct to cassette?
Yeah, a lot of it. The reason I recorded to cassette was just because I liked the way it sonically sounded, mainly because I didn’t know any other sound. The DAT machine came along just a little later, in the ’90s. But before that, it was always to cassette, and it’s all done live, one take. I’ll just do my thing and stop it at the end. That’s a take, done. I didn’t even like the 16-track Tascam recorder we had, because going to tape on that felt like a waste of momentum.
That kind of spontaneous production often serves house well.
Exactly. You don’t want it to be too thought out. We like to hear the miscues, the spontaneity. You play, and if you mess up, you mess up — but that energy has to be there. It really comes across. And when you use the tape machine, you start to not do that. Everything becomes predetermined and calculated and sterile. I think that lesson comes from having been in a band.
It was a good learning experience.
I really think all the Nu Groove stuff was an amalgamation of absolutely everything I had learned about myself in music, and whimsey of it — the whole ‘if it feels good, do it’ kind of thing. I said there were a couple of people who I keep in mind when I’m making music, right? The other one is DJ Clark Kent. At one point, we were doing a lot of remixes with him, and we’d try and clean things up, and he’d be like, ‘No, motherfucker, uh uh. Just have fun. Just don’t forget to have fun.’ I remember that line every day.
What was a typical week in the life a Burrell back then?
New York was tourist town on the weekends, so that’s when we’d leave and create in the studio. Friday would be Rhano’s day, Saturday would be my day, and Sunday would be for both of us. We’d think about music all week, and then there would be three or four songs by the time the weekend was done.
Where was this?
In the studio underneath our mother’s house — she had a condo with a cinderblock basement, so you could really make some noise. And since it was our mother’s house, you could spend time with the family and the dog, and eat up all her food. Then, on Monday, we’d head into Nu Groove to give the results to Frank and Karen. Then, during the week, we’d do remixes with Clark Kent and R&B stuff with Vincent Herbert.
Herbert was working with people like Al. B Sure and Freddie Jackson at the time, right?
He was working with a lot of people. We were doing all this hip-hop and R&B at the same time we were doing the house stuff.
They were kind of different worlds, weren’t they?
Yeah, but a lot of the hip-hop heads would come to the house events. Like, Jay-Z and Damon Dash would were at the Shelter, but nobody knew because they weren’t famous yet.
Did Jay-Z almost end up on Nu Groove?
We actually had a meeting with Jay-Z and Damon about signing them. It didn’t happen, obviously — he wanted money for publishing, and Nu Groove didn’t do that. We didn’t give out advances or anything like that. In hindsight…maybe we should have!
Why did Nu Groove originally fold back in ’92? I think you’ve spoken about it in broad strokes in the past.…
I came in on a Monday, the elevators opened, Frank handed me a check and said, ‘It’s over.’ I was like, ‘What’s over?’ He said, ‘I’m closing.’ ‘Oh, you’re going home?’ ‘No, it’s over. I’m done.’ The elevator doors closed. I cashed the check. And I haven’t seen him in over 20 years.
What were the reasons behind that?
It was personal problems. Some scandal, of the highest order, internally. If you let your imagination run wild, you might be right.
Care to give details?
No, only because I love the memory, and I’m not going to be the guy to mess that up.
You and Rhano kept releasing house on other labels for a while, right?
Nervous took some stuff, Citi Records, which was Judy Russell, took some stuff. Bottom Line, King Street, Strictly, Freeze.
That’s a whole lot of New York house history there.
Well, if you came our way and had a budget, we could talk business, whoever you were. I didn’t want to hear about how much you love house music, just have our money.
One must eat.
There are a lot of philosophical people, like ‘Oh, I have house music in my soul.’ But if it’s your job…we can talk business or we can talk basslines, but the two don’t mix. The lovey-dovey stuff can come later.
In recent years, at least until quite recently, you and Rhano been more fully invested in the R&B world than house. Was there a conscious decision to make that your focus, or did it just kind of work out that way?
Well, we’re musical. We were never just house music. Like I was saying, even when Nu Groove was going, we were doing all those other things. The hip-hop and R&B really started picking up immediately after Nu Groove was over, but what really got it going was when we started working with Vincent.
How did that hook-up with Vincent Herbert happen in the first place?
That was through Roland Clark, who’s still one of my closest friends. Roland knew Vincent. Roland says, ‘You gotta hear the Burrell’s R&B stuff!’ Roland had a cassette with him, Vincent heard it and said, ‘We have to do this Toni Braxton remix!’ He came and got me, he put about ten grand cash in my pocket, we hop on a plane, and next thing I know, I’ve got L.A. and Babyface next to me, and Toni Braxton in the booth. I wasn’t eased into that world — I was dropped in from a helicopter. That was literally my first R&B gig.
Pretty good start!
That’s what I said!
I can see why you made that your focus. But it feels like there’s as much interest in Nu Groove as there’s ever been, even 30 years later. Does that surprise you?
No, I’m not. When it comes to music, great is great. And what we did contributed to the definition of house, so if you like house music, I think you’d have to like what we were doing.