Unsung Pioneers: The Burrell Brothers

With Unsung Pioneers, we speak to the artists and labels who’ve helped shape dance music as we know it, but haven’t received the credit they deserve. First up, Matt Anniss hears from Rheji Burrell of the Burrell Brothers.

12 min
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Jul 3, 2020
Matt Anniss

Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of the history of deep house will tell you that the sound’s origins can be traced back to Chicago in the mid 1980s, and in particular the 1985 release of Larry Heard’s first record as Mr. Fingers, “Mystery of Love”. While Heard continued developing the sound and is still (rightly) considered the first true pioneer of the genre, the development of deep house into a global force during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s also owes much to a pair of near-identical twins from New Jersey, Reginald (AKA Rheji) and Ronald (aka Rhano) Burrell.

Talented musicians who had been playing in bands since they were 12 years old, the Burrell twins released an unbelievable amount of music between 1988 and 1993. While their output was varied (they had strong links to New York’s new jack swing, R&B and hip-hop communities, and were often employed as producers or beat-makers), Rheji and Rhano became best known for a trademark style of polished, musically rich deep house that drew just as much inspiration from New Jersey garage, soul and jazz-funk as it did from the work of Larry Heard and his Chicago contemporaries.

“The key ingredients are… everything,” Rheji chuckles down the phone from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “My house music, and my brother’s, is like a gumbo. We had a varied upbringing in music and love a lot of genres. So, when I hear a melody in my head, it might not be the traditional, go-to key you’d use if you were making house music. I might take a gospel bridge and an Americana chord, or grab a melody I’ve heard in an opera and use it with a hip-hop snare.”

The brothers’ eclectic musical background was partially reflected on their earliest releases as Burrell, which surprisingly appeared on major label Virgin’s UK dance offshoot, Ten Records. Although clearly influenced by both Chicago house and New Jersey garage, those records — and in particular their self-titled debut album — were glossy, radio-friendly affairs that were also informed by ‘80s soul, new jack swing, and D-Train style electrofunk. Although well-produced, their Burrell releases sold relatively poorly, and as a result their major label career lasted barely 12 months.

“Seriously, being dropped didn’t matter,” Rheji says. “We didn’t try to be stars. The fact that we were twins making music together wasn’t a novelty, because we’d done that our whole lives. Virgin Records didn’t matter to me because they didn’t add anything – they were just a record label. I never cared about being famous and I still don’t.”

While Ten Records was struggling to shift copies of the Burrell album, Rheji and Rhano continued to make music at a furious pace. Back in their mother’s basement, they’d amassed a pile of tapes containing fresh underground house and garage jams they’d created after all-night trips to leading NYC and NJ clubs (think Zanzibar, Club 88 and Club America, for starters). With no label executives breathing down their neck, Rheji and Ronald were free to follow their instincts.

“To me, house music had no rules,” Rheji enthuses. “As long as the music made you dance, that was it. You could use synthesizers, drum machines, pianos, strings and guitars, and I took up the challenge. I knew I had something good going on when I got off my studio chair and started dancing. I knew I had something worth putting out when I couldn’t sit down any longer.”

Rheji and Rhano’s managers, Karen and Frank Mendez, could see the potential of their underground deep house tracks. So they joined forces with legendary New York house figure Judy Russell to launch a label. This would become Nu Groove, one of the defining NYC dance imprints of the period.

“Our managers knew we were music machines,” Rheji says. “Believe it or not, I could have turned out twice as much music on Nu Groove, we just couldn’t afford to put it out. Most of the tracks that me and my brother put out on the label were made in a day, or a couple of evenings. I’d take the tape over to the Nu Groove office the next day, and Frank would send it straight to the pressing plant.”

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Even all these years on, it’s still staggering how much music Rheji and Rhano Burrell released on Nu Groove between 1988 and ’92. Although regularly cited as a production partnership – particularly when working with other artists – most of their releases were in fact solo efforts, with each twin using the other as a “second pair of ears” and, more occasionally, an extra musician.

“Nu Groove was perfect for us, because all we had to do was make records,” Rheji reminisces. “We didn’t have to get on stage and perform – we could just do what we loved doing, Nu Groove would take care of the label stuff and then DJs would pick the records up and play them. I could work in the studio at home at night, go out to a club to hear our friends DJ and dance, and then work on the tracks some more when I got back.”

Between them, Rheji and Rhano produced well over a third of the singles to be released on Nu Groove. As a result, it was their varied, but musically on-point take on deep house that made the label such a cult hit worldwide. Yet for the most part, you had to read the centre labels carefully to discover that they were involved, such was their love of aliases and alter egos. Ronald recorded as K.A.T.O, Aphrodisiac and Equation, while Rheji’s numerous pseudonyms included Tech-Trax Inc, Metro, N.Y. House’n Authority, Utopia Project, Metro, Emjay, Avant Garde and Asylum.

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“I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Here’s another record from Rheji Burrell’ – that’s boring as hell,” Rheji says of his love of aliases. “So, if I wanted to put you in a mood, I chose a pseudonym and title that fit the music. So, if I did something jazzy, it was Jazz Documents. Utopia Project was for music that was light and airy. Music has always been an experience: whereas an artist would name the album, I would name the experience.”

When Nu Groove closed its doors in 1992, Rheji and Rhano continued to release deep house and soulful garage on a variety of local labels for a couple of years, before choosing to focus more on producing hip-hop, R&B and pop artists. Despite their deep house pedigree, new club cuts have been few and far between in the last two decades.

It was therefore big news when Rheji surprisingly returned to action last month via two new EPs on Gerd Janson’s popular Running Back label. Fittingly, one (The Out Of Body Experience) was credited to N.Y. House’n Authority, and the other (The V EP) to The Utopia Project; both contain some of the dreamiest, deepest and most musically cultured deep house tracks you’ll hear all year.

“I love house music, and I wanted to do something again that I love,” Rheji explains. “I don’t know if I’m relevant, or whether this is the most current thing to do, but hopefully with the Internet and the way things are now, the people that loved our music in the Nu Groove era will find the EPs and enjoy them.”

Check out our Beginner’s Guide to the Burrell Brothers.

Tech Trax Inc. – Feel The Love (Sex Mix) [1988]

The flipside of the first ever Nu Groove release, this Rheji Burrell track added deep house chords, melodies and musicality to a sparse, delay-laden groove reminiscent of the dubby New York “proto-house” records popular at the Paradise Garage a few years earlier.

Metro – Brownstone Express [1990]

Featured on Rheji Burrell’s second EP as Metro, 1990’s EP $1.15 Please, “Brownstone Express” is one of the most blissful, warm and tactile deep house tracks ever recorded. Pure aural pleasure.

K.A.T.O – The Booty Dance (High Knee Mix) [1988]

A breezy and memorable chunk of piano-house rich in whispered vocal samples, squelchy synth bass, sweet synth sounds and shuffling drums, this was Rhano Burrell’s first solo release on Nu Groove.

Equation – The Answer (X2 RB Mix) (My Time) [1989]

Raw, stripped-back, percussive and weighty, Rhano Burrell’s first missive as Equation was uncharacteristically rave-friendly and featured the kind of dark stabs and clonking noises that were at the time more popular in the UK than his native New York.

N.Y. House’n Authority – APT EP [1989]

Few EPs sum up the diversity and quality of Rheji Burrell’s brand of house music than his first outing as N.Y House’n Authority. Over the course of six tracks, he bounced between sleazy acid house, flute-laden pitched-down dreaminess, melodious deep house, and inventive, off-kilter jack-tracks.

Matt Anniss is an author and journalist living in Bristol. Find him on Twitter.