The Burrell Brothers Revisit Basement-Tape Days

In their house

There might not be a tidier under-five-minute overview of two decades of underground New York dance crazes than the 12-inch single "Disco-Tech (Studio 54 Mix)." KATO, a nom de production of Ronald Burrell, recorded it, and New York's Nu Groove Records released it in 1990. Aside from name checking the glitzy club, Burrell suspends gauzy synth chords, alights upon "The Hustle," "The Bus Stop," "The Fox-Trot," and "The Patty Duke," and purrs a line from the Spinners' Philly soul classic "I'll Be Around" in a way that never feels overcrowded.

That it's the least compelling moment on The Burrell Brothers Present: The Nu Groove Years 1988–1992, a visceral two-disc set compiling the work of Ronald and his twin brother, Reginald Burrell (the two were born three minutes apart), released in the years between the closing of the Paradise Garage and the rise of Masters at Work, speaks volumes to the dizzying amount of music the Queens-born twins put to wax in those five years. Primitive and tough, with jazz underpinnings and seductive r&b hooks, it paved the way forward for a scene that had been lagging behind the techno coming out of Detroit and acid house blowing in from Chicago.

The Burrell Brothers were born into a world of music. They lived across the street from Louis Armstrong and in the shadows of Shea Stadium in Corona, where different sounds could be heard slithering out of boombox speakers. "I saw breakdancing for the first time at Shea," says Reginald, now residing in Raleigh, North Carolina. "And that's where I fell in love with that street music. It planted the seed that it was OK to do weird music instead of radio music. I seen what these kids were doing with it." What watered that seed and helped it grow, though, was the panting of Chaka Khan. "Because of that one part of 'Tell Me Something Good,' where's it's all that breathing and breaking—right when I heard that part, I said, 'That's what I want to do,'" he says.

Fast-forward to the late '80s and the Burrells' basement in Somerset, New Jersey, where Ronald is about to graduate from state-trooper academy, and Reginald is teaching kung fu courses and studying electrical engineering at DeVry. After school, they craft that same style of street music they heard back at Shea. Blasting a tape of it on his boombox, a friend struts into Vogel's Records in Elizabeth. "Only they didn't tell him to turn it down," Reginald recalls. "They said, 'What is that?'" A week later, the brothers are in the same studio as KRS-One and Stetsasonic, where they lay down tracks for a surnamed album on Virgin Records.

Soon after its release, though, a Virgin executive approached Reginald. "The person told me right to my face, 'You're not going nowhere.'" They instead went right back to their mother's basement to cook up new tracks. "Whatever was in our momma's basement—with all this noise, static, and MIDI delay—it sounded like what we wanted it to sound like," Reginald says. "We had a bass bin with six blown woofers in it, a separate tweeter. We pieced it all together, and it sounded like beautiful junk." Judy Russell, with Frank and Karen Mendez, launched the Nu Groove label specifically to get that beautiful junk out of the suburbs and into dark clubs. Twelve out of the first 20 Nu Groove releases—under names like Rhano and Reji, KATO, and NY House'n Authority—crackled and thumped out of that Somerset basement.

Curiously, the brothers rarely worked together, instead trading turns in the studio and providing feedback on each other's work. "Ronnie would be downstairs, and I'd be eating upstairs with my mother, but I'd pop down to say if something was hot," Reginald remembers two decades on. "When it was my turn, I'd just bury my head in what I was doing. And when I couldn't stop dancing to it down in my basement, that meant I got it right."

The Burrells' oeuvre kept New York dance music relevant and even soundtracked the rise in rave culture overseas. With a new generation of local producers going back to the stark and sharp sounds of early '90s house music, their rugged yet prescient dance tracks still sound right.

 
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