Celebrating the highly anticipated release of  “The Burrell Brothers – Nu Groove Years” part 1 and the upcoming part 2, we had the pleasure to go down memory lane with Rheji Burrell, one half of the legendary Burrell Brothers from New Jersey. He gives some interesting and surprising insights into the daily business at Nu Groove Records and also the early 1990’s New York House scene.

Rush HourHey Rheji, I have read that you got into house music through teaching Kung Fu? Can you  explain a little about that?

Rheji Burrell: Yeah absolutely, i still do. I have a couple of classes today. It’s not my own school but I’m going to set up my own school at one point. So, where I used to teach, at the university, next to the campus, there was a DJ called be B-Free. He was a satellite DJ for the local radio station in New York where Timmy Regisford (I don’t know if you know who that is) was spinning house music and Vernon Freeland was a student there. So like every beginning DJ idolizes a certain DJ, Vernon sort off spun the same records as Timmy. So when they came through university on Thursday they would have a place where kids gather and play records, it was called the Pub. Which was actually a cafe where they would put the tables back and had a pretty big dancefloor.

And he would spin classics, disco classics, soul classics and a part of his set was reggae and house music. Now because i was there on Thursday, teaching kung-fu.  It was right across the hallway where i was teaching. I had the auxiliary gym, and they had the cafeteria. I heard the music and a friend would take my class and go over there. Sometimes I would just leave but eventually I made my way across the hallway and he played house music and I started understanding what it was. And being a musician my whole life I naturally experimented. So that was my first kind of lesson in house music.`

I used to play in a lot of bands, so my background wasn’t house music, it wasn’t even black music. It was more like (…) all of a sudden it was more of electronic beat type stuff. A lot of groups came out and it was the beginning of i guess rap music. With a lot of R&B sounding stuff. Like Run DMC was real open, it wasn’t a lot of production, it was much more beat based. So when i got around house music and I heard all of the pianos, strings and all that I started experimenting with less. Like less is more. As any good DJ will tell you; it’s all about the breakdown. My music started to sound like the breakdown more than anything else. And that is where it started kind of going underground for me, track based. And there where a couple of great house tracks coming out of chicago as well.

RHSo you where definitely inspired by Chicago House music?

R: Yeah, definitely those where the guys who were doing it. I didn’t know any other place where they were doing it, except for Chicago.

RH: It’s funny because the identity of Nu Groove kind of resembled the identity of Trax Records. Like very simple artwork, always the same. Did they take that as an inspiration as well?

R: Back in the Nu Groove days we used the word ignorant a lot. And I think that is how we survived. We didn’t really care what anybody was doing. It wasn’t that we were trying not to care. It’s just that we had enough material, we knew enough people and we were very insulated by the fact that we were in in New York. We kind of exploited what was going on there because there are enough clubs, enough musicians, there were enough people going to clubs. We didn’t really have to look outside by what we were doing. So we were successful in New York and that’s all we needed to be. My friends, my DJs, the people that I hung around. If they knew what we were doing, then we were doing it right. We put the records out and everybody at the club heard it, if we went to 15 different clubs and all the DJs knew exactly what we were doing. I guess we didn’t really care if it went further than that because at the end of the day if you sold more than 3000 records, you were considered successful. And we did about 2 or 3 vinyls a week. So we were selling what? Like 6000 to 9000 a week…?(LINE BREAKING UP) That’s why we did so much music. Because we could do it.
As long as everybody that we knew and liked what we were doing and they were patronizing our sound. And the efforts we were doing and especially DJs who wanted to be a part of what we were doing. We felt successful. And that’s contagious i guess.

RH: So it was a very local thing then?

R: Yeah, extremely local. Nu groove was started by Frank, Karen, my brother and myself. Because we had so much music left over. And that was it. We wanted to put out Burrell Records.

RH: Left over from what?

R: We had a output deal on Virgin. And i actually had more tracks. We created those tracks for Virgin because they wanted a more commercial sound but they started out as underground records. We just built on them because they wanted musicianship in it and we were capable of doing it because again we come from a R&B/gospel background and I’m not allergic to music but that’s not the kind of the house music we wanted to do. It was more a stripped down, more simple version of whatever is considered to be music. Virgin wanted more vocals and to turn them tracks into songs. I didn’t disagree with it, i liked songs and music, it wasn’t an argument. That was one thing and this was something else. So Nu Groove was an outlet for something else.

RH: So from all that sessions you had a lot of leftovers?

R: Yeah we had leftover ideas. That was what our house music was; just ideas. And we didn’t finish the ideas because that was the point, it was raw. It has to mean something. (LINE BREAKING UP)

RH:But then you have all these styles and different aliases. Is that one of the reasons why you didn’t become one of the bigger artists of Nu Groove and does that bother you?

R: It doesn’t really bother me but if I have to do it again I would put my name on all of them. Back then I was just really ignorant. Didn’t really care. But at the end of the day it all came back to me, written and produced by Rheji Burrell.

RH: So you and your brother were both studio cats or were you in to the scene or whatever?

R: Yeah both. I had my studio in New Jersey, so we would stay in NY and would politic and hopnob during the week. And we would stay in the studio for 2 or 3 days and come up with 2 or 3 projects and go back out to NY and show Frank on monday morning what we made over the weekend. And he would put it out and we had a couple of releases on other labels. (LINE BREAKING UP)

But Nu Groove was definitely the first place to put out stuff because it was just simple because they were our managers. After a while he didn’t even listen to them, we just would give him the DAT and after a week he hand me a test pressing.

RH: So you basically put out everything you made?

R: Nope! Let’s say I made like 15 tracks and I took the best 5 and brought them to Frank.

RH: And you made a track in like half an hour or something?

R: Yeah something like that, max an hour or an hour and a half. It goes really fast. It’s Just a matter of doing them. They are already created in my mind, I hear the whole thing. It’s just a matter of executing them. So if i had a technical difficulty or i couldn’t find the instrument that i hear in my mind, that’s a little different but I don’t really have to make the record as I’m doing it. I just have to do it. An hour and a half is what I need to get it right. Most of the time it would be a technical difficulty like blowing up a speaker or I’m hungry that would slow it down a little bit. I still can bang out an album (LINE BREAKING UP) and 20 minutes later I got a track and I would go do something else.

RH: Did you work together a lot or have you always worked apart?

R: We ‘ve rarely worked together. Some R&B stuff, some Hip Hop stuff. (LINE BREAKING UP)
What brings us together is when a studio, client, label or distribution wants a final product. Then we work together at the final product. If Ronald does a track or I do a track or he writes the song, we can operate on that independently. But to finalize the final product or final record we generally sit in the same studio, we tweak it, give it our opinions, putting the break down here or there. Depending on who it is but for the most part, 85 to 90 % of the time we work independent.

RH: But how you ended up kind of doing the same thing?

R: Because we were influenced by the same thing. We have taught martial arts together but it’s rare that you see me and Ronald together. It has to be in a studio or at my house that you see us together.

RH: And did you go to clubs a lot?

R: Yeah we would meet at the club just like the other 200 people there. If it was a hot club then we ended up there like anybody else would. It wasn’t something mystical or twinnish. He likes what i like and I like what he likes and we ended up liking it at the same time.

RH: Which clubs did you go to?

R: All the clubs in Jersey, Club 88, Zanzibar, America, Peppermint Lounge. Anybody playing house music and we went to it. Sound Factory in New York, the Loft. We went to the Garage a couple of times. I didn’t really get there too often. The Shelter, The World, I don’t know if you remember that. Mainly the underground clubs. Cheetah. I went to Nell’s, Nell’s was real big. So just anywhere where there was house music, we fell in there, and coincidently we went to a lot of Hip Hop clubs because it was courtesy of the little R&B career I had. I used to power around with Funkmaster Flex and DJ Clark Kent. Back in the day when they were putting together Rock-A-Fella and Jay Z. We used to roll around with them all the time at a club called SL’s. All that was in the same time period. We even had the opportunity to sign Jay-Z to Nu Groove but it didn’t work out.

RH: For house music?

R: Oh no, we were just branching into other music. I wasn’t raised on just house music, that was not the only music I knew. We would definitely do an R&B or Hip Hop deal. I put a couple of records out in 95′ and worked with Puffy on some stuff, they just wanted to put out records you know. Just like the Bobby Konders thing. I didn’t put out reggae records but we distributed Massive B. for a minute. So they were just another branch of what was gonna be Nu Groove. With Dame Dash and all that came up to the record label. But they wanted a publishing advance like 35/40 grant and we were not prepared to cut a check like that..

RH: When you say we, where you guys involved with the operations of the label?

R: No, but I would be involved in that operation because I brought them up to them. When they signed Kenny Dope (Masters At Work) and working with other people, that was all Frank. But when it came to all the things I was involved in. That’s why I brought them up and they met with the Label and as soon as it got around that part of it, it would fall apart because Frank was like ‘I’m not in on that’’ and I said well if he’s not in I guess he must see something that I don’t see, so that just didn’t work.

RH: And that would have been on a different label and not on Nu Groove?

R: I don’t know. I would assume so. They probably came up with something. But we didn’t talk about that part. They were MC’s, they wanted to know about the money first. I mean I agree, there’s nothing else to talk about because I know what they are capable of, so they didn’t have to play tapes or anything like that. I already knew that. So its like what’s this deal gonna be based around and we headed to the publishing part and they wanted money which is odd because you know you would think you’d wanna keep your publishing but they actually wanted money, so let’s do a publishing deal. They really wanted to do a publishing deal and we said: “Well, then we can’t really do it.”

RH: I guess they needed the money then…

R: Yeah! Thats what it was. They needed the money and i guess somebody whispered in their ear to do a publishing deal. And i can’t say that they are wrong in their thinking because I’ve had publishing deals in the past and the money was pretty good but we just weren’t that type of label. We were not giving publishing deals and we rather saw that artists kept their publishing.

RH: And you were also not really looking for hits, right?

R: At that point we were looking for something different, which is why we had that meeting. We were expanding like we always did. That’s why everybody put their records out on our label because we were always growing. It started out with me and Ronald, then it was our friends and DJs who played our records and then there was people we didn’t even know. I’ve been around those guys for years, so I knew who they where and I knew that Hip Hop was big. And they actually did a Hip Hop record. It was a spanish kid.. I actually named the group because they didn’t know how to call it so Karen asked me and I said: Who is it? She said an MC and a DJ. I said let’s just call it: “ An MC and a DJ”. It was a record on Nu Groove called an MC and a DJ. They were looking to expand that way which is why I brought them up. They wanted to do Hip Hop and I was like let me bring my friends up here. Just Clark Kent, Jay, Dame, and Original Flava and Ski. They all came up and we set down and as soon we got to that part it was all over…

RH: Where did they go?

R: Actually, they’ve made their way over… I’ve tried to sign Jay Z a couple of times. And it just didn’t work out. A friend of mine now, Vincent Herbert, who owns the Lady Gaga stuff, he was in a group called Phase 2 which was produced by Blaze who is his older brother. And he was starting his production company and I actually produced some Toni Braxton stuff and a couple people with him and he was looking for some Hip Hop, so I brought them over to him but he passed. And I actually went up to Atlantic records when Clark Kent was an A&R at Atlantic records and he wanted to sign Jay to them but they also didn’t want to sign Jay.

What ended up happening was DJ Todd Terry gave them the money for the first album and the rest is history. Todd is a good friend of mine as well and we ended up following him around and go clubbing with him and everything else what you do when you are young and stupid. And all of the other DJs at the end of the day.

RH: In relationship to other Nu Groove artist, was there a family sensibility or was it separate?

R: In the beginning I kind of knew who they were and we always met them. And oddly enough it was like meeting someone who likes you because they were admirers of our work. I wouldn’t dare to say they were fans because I don’t think we put out enough music to have fans but they admired what we were doing on Nu Groove. And they would come up and sometimes when I was there we would shake hands and play some stuff. And at the same time Frank had a formula. He was like if you are a DJ or producer and it looked like you were going somewhere we dealt with you. And it was a very simple process; here’s a little bit of money and you gave us the DAT. And he didn’t have any A&R meetings in your face. He didn’t listen to nothing while you where there at all. You just leave the DAT and he would let you know. And he would listen to it on his way home and then he would say if he likes it or didn’t like it.

And again he wasn’t the most.. I think a lot of it got passed because he had an ear for different. If it sounded different he liked it . It could suck but as long as it sucked different then he liked it. He didn’t judge it by if it sounded just like this or that. He thought different was good.

RH: The label had over 100 releases in 4 years. So it must have been like a factory…

R: Yeah, we did 70 to 75 % of it. I would come home over the weekend and bang out a House n Authority. It was 24/7. I didn’t do anything else. And again we had 20/30 tracks already and on top of that I made new stuff, it was very prolific. It was no rules to it then. Now there’s some rules. It’s a certain sound, got to have a dropout here and it got to do this there. There were no rules. I just hit 4 chords on the piano and put a 4/4 underneath it.

RH: So what was the biggest record you guys had?

R: I don’t even know. I think the House N Authority did pretty well and i know another one that did well for Ronald. They were all pretty even i guess. But the House N Authority were pretty good.

RH: It’s very Trax right? To me it almost sounds like a Chicago record…

R: Yeah, that was the kind of stuff people went nuts for when you observed the dancefloor. You know Zanzibar and the gritty and dirty stuff, you saw everybody with their shirts off, sweating in babypowder. The real dancers spinning 8 or 9 times and climbing on the amplifiers and stuff. That’s the kind of stuff they acted crazy too. It was just that bassline and the kick and muffled talking. And you don’t even know what they were talking about just breathing and all that. Yeah that’s the stuff they go crazy for at 4 in the morning.

RH: But I think other then the Chicago guys, i guess you were to first to do it outside Chicago, or at least in NY, right?

R: Yeah, I would think so. I didn’t really hear that. I think people where going from that churchy jersey sound to that gritty unexplained’’what the hell is this’’ sound…

RH: And you liked to go for hat?

R: Yeah I liked to go fort hat. I like not to know what’s next in the song..

RH: And then it all came to an end?

R: (LINE BREAKING UP)
Well Frank and I had a couple of problems. His marriage wasn’t doing all that well, the business was getting a little big as well. There wasn’t enough time and space in his life for all of it. Everything was big. Everybody wanted to sign to Nu Groove. Everything was just getting too big.

So one day I was on my way into the office, I came up the elevator. He said: “I’m shutting it down”, when the elevator opened and he gave me a cheque. The door closed and I went back downstairs

RH: And that was totally a surprise for you?

R: Yeah, I just spoke to him in Jersey and they were operating on 38rd street in NY. And by the time I got there I came up there with the elevator and he gave me the cheque, I went downstairs and that was the last time i talked to him in like 10 years.

RH: And then you went on to do other stuff?

R: A week or two after that incident, I’ve met up with Vincent Herbert and we went on to produce a lot of R&B and Hip Hop and we did very well. I got the plaques on my wall to prove it. We did very well. US acts. We did some records with Puffy. Some stuff for Toni Braxton. Brandy remixes, KRS and some pop stuff with a artist called Jojo. I did 3 tracks for her record.

RH: This was just when R&B and Hip Hop started blowing up?

R: We were right there in the middle of it and I actually did some records with Heavy D, the rapper that just passed. Did some records with him and his artists and got some gold records out of that.

RH: And then house was on the lowdown for a minute?

R: It was over for me. It got too big for me. A lot of labels started popping up and everybody knew what they were talking about and everything I was doing was just not what was going on now. And I said well I don’t know, the R&B stuff was going pretty well and I just didn’t have to compete. I wasn’t a DJ. I wasn’t in-crowd, I guess I just wasn’t weird enough. It got out of hand. You had to take of your shirt and sweat and die for house music and I said: “Well, not really, its just not (my style)..” I feel it, don’t get me wrong. I feel it and I made up the stuff but it really needed a real poser. It was sort of like pop, you had to be a superstar. It got real universal and worldwide. I started having conversations with people who did not respect it. `Somebody whose parents give them a couple of hundred bucks and they wanted to started a music label and we argued about bass lines.. and I was like: “Well, maybe I need do to something else.” Just like anything else it evolved and I didn’t really liked what it was turning in to.

RH: But you didn’t have that problem with Hip Hop?

R: Well actually I did, eventually it turned into something I did not like as well, so I started doing a lot of pop music. And a lot of pop music now is like house music. Like Rihanna and all that stuff. That’s house music, that’s produced house music.

RH: Mostly produced by dutch producers by the way..

R: Yeah, yup, so again that’s where house music was going. And it was just not my version of house music, that’s not really how I do it. You know I keep it rugged, jazzy, crazy and dirty. A lot of stuff I did I put on cassette for that purpose because it got that hiss and fidelity, it’s just wrong. It got that mono feel to it. Like Hip Hop. Hip Hop is street music. And when its done in that fashion it’s organic, it is what it is. I mean don’t get me wrong. I like Dr Dre and how his production is all stellar and everything, that’s great. But that’s not what I was brought up on. I was brought up on when it was all tape and tape had a certain sound and that’s what that sound did. Period. And a lot of stuff I really liked is doing this. It was rugged although I wasn’t brought up on it. But I understand it. And when we did the pop thing because the opportunity was there to do something we have never done before. And i keep saying I’m not really allergic to music so we took advantage of all that stuff and the thing that keeps us in it is that we get to move between the genres. I can do some pop records, some underground stuff, I just do whatever is on the plate.

RH: When you look on that period now, what do you think?

R: Of that period? Well, again we used the word ignorant a lot. Looking back on it now I think ignorance was bless. I’m glad we did not know what we were doing because we enjoyed it. We didn’t know not to enjoy. A lot of times you gonna say this not gonna last or we could have made more money doing it. We didn’t come at it like that. We were just doing something that has never been done before and we enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it and I didn’t really care about nothing else but that. But when it started become something other than that it failed.

RH: Do you have an idea that you influenced a lot of people?

R: Yeah i do, and that’s not to pat myself on the back but I personally know people who told me that they do what they are doing because they listened to our records. And one of them would be Armand Van Helden. I met him when he first came over at city records to meet Eddy. He saw me and his manager and we talked for a minute about him, going up there. And they asked us where City Records was because we looked like musicians. And I asked what are you a DJ or a producer or something? And he said: Yeah, he is a DJ and is going to get in to producing music and he said: “Do you mind if I take a picture?” And I said: “No”, so we took a picture when Armand just got here.

A Couple of years later he moved into the same building that we were operating out off at 23d street. And he pulled out his wallet from his pocket and he has THAT picture! He said he carries it around with him until this day. And we stopped to talk to him about half an hour in the lobby about music.

RH: So I have to ask him for that picture?

R: Yeah, you should ask him! I don’t know what condition it’s in though. And he thanks me although i never bought an Armand van Helden record but he says that he thanks me and my brother on all his records.

RH: Thanks for your time!