In four short years from 1988-92, New York’s Nu Groove became one of house music’s defining labels. Initially energised by Chicago’s Trax Records, slowly but surely Nu Groove’s stable of New York and New Jersey producers begun to forge their own distinctive sounds, taking on board numerous influences from NYC’s cultural melting pot. Within the Nu Groove catalogue you witness the seeds of the many elements of the New York house sound, but also its global influence. Vocal house, deep house, jackin’ trax and acid are all present and correct, but also experimental breakbeat-driven numbers, ambient tracks and rave bangers. Producers enticed to record for the label by owners Frank & Karen Mendez and A&R Judy Russell include the likes of Kenny Dope, Joey Beltram, Peter Daou, Bobby Konders, Joey Negro and Frankie Bones. However, the backbone of the label was formed by two brothers, Rheji and Ronald Burrell. Scarred by a bad major label experience with a self-named R’n’B project, they turned to house, and released an astonishing array of great records. This was only possible due to the number of pseudonyms they utilised; their willingness to embrace a relatively lo-fi approach to recording; and the nurturing and support of Nu Groove.
Showing love for Chicago
Many of Nu Groove’s early releases show Rheji Burrell in particular wearing his love for the Chicago sound on his sleeve, as demonstrated by our two opening selections from 1988. The ‘Body Mix’ of ‘Feel the Luv’ by Tech Trax (NG 001) and ‘Angel of Mercy’ under the Metro moniker (NG 005) are both homages to the early Trax sound, with the former featuring Jamie Principle-style grunts and the latter even having a snatch of the piano riff from Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’. However, the quality is undeniable, and Tech Trax’s freestyle organ playing was an early indicator` of Burrell’s talent.
By 1989, Rheji was ready to put a Big Apple stamp on his work when choosing the alias N.Y. House'n Authority. The simplistic yet hypnotic ‘Apt 2a’ is jack track meets techno, and it rocks.
Slowly but very surely, Nu Groove began to showcase a New York sound, but our Love for Chicago selection wouldn’t be complete without one of the label’s biggest tunes. ‘Reasons to be Dismal’ by Foremost Poets sees producer Johnny Dangerous channel his inner Marshall Jefferson to devastating effect.
Roots of New York house
1989 would see Strictly Rhythm, the label that for many defines the NYC house sound, open its doors. However, it would be 1990 before it really hit its stride with releases like ‘The Warning’ by Logic and ‘Luv Dancin’ by Underground Solution (Roger Sanchez), and 1991 before it really went into overdrive. Nu Groove, however, had a head start, and had quickly made a name for itself as the standard bearer for New York house. An increasing number of its releases begun to veer away from the Chicago template. One listen to Bas Noir’s ‘I’m Glad You Came To Me’, produced by Ronald Burrell in 1989, and you can clearly hear the roots of a style that would dominate 1990s house, a light, keys-led sound, beats that swing, and a vocal oozing soul.
However, Nu Groove was about as far away from having a ‘label sound’ as it gets, and they were pushing many a boundary. ‘Disco-Tech’ by K.A.T.O. (here in its Studio 54 mix) was Ronald Burrell again, and is wonderfully unique. A deep sound with his trademark keys to the fore underpins a vocal straight out of the 1970s eulogising disco.
By 1991, Nu Groove was very much all about flying the flag for New York, almost symbolic of a passing of the baton from Chicago. The Sound Vandals’ ‘Tonight’s the Night’ would be one of the first house cuts to sample the Peech Boys’ NYC anthem ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’, and epitomises the rougher NY sound. Meanwhile, the ‘Hard for the DJ’ mix of ‘Make Me Dance’ by Basil Hardhaus (the Burrells producing together) celebrates a roll call of New York luminaries, including Larry Levan, Tony Humphries, Kenny Carpenter, DJ Disciple, David Morales and Frankie Knuckles, now returned to New York and acclaimed here with a brief ‘Whistle Song’ pastiche followed by the words “yo don’t sue me for that, Frankie you know I love you!”.
In 1992 Rheji Burrell, under the Houz’ Neegroz alias, pointed the way for a further twist on the house sound with ‘How Do U Love A Black Woman? ‘. It was one of the label’s last releases, but certainly worthy of the NG100 catalogue number, succeeding in being deep and soulful but at the same time raw and dangerous. Echoing the classic Philly soul sound but through a grimy, lo-fi lens, you can be sure the likes of Johnny Vicious (the toast of the city in 1993) and Armand Van Helden were taking notes.
The sound of New Jersey
In these early days, vocal house tracks were often referred to as ‘garage’. In theory, this was by way of referencing the sounds heard at the Paradise Garage. In practice, Larry Levan’s soundtrack was much broader, and the ‘garage’ sound was best represented by DJ Tony Humphries at New Jersey’s Zanzibar club, where he was making soulful vocal house music his trademark. Nu Groove, of course, were right on the button here too. Our selections are
Roqui’s ‘You Are On My Mind’ from 1989; and from the following year, ‘Do It Believe It’ by a certain Joey Negro. This was Dave Lee’s first ever release under what remains his most well-known alias some thirty years on. Dave was a devotee both of Nu Groove (hence approaching them with the track rather a British label); and the garage sound, which he promoted relentlessly in the UK via his Republic label.
Deep house productions were a mainstay of the Nu Groove catalogue throughout, and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. Bobby Konders was one of the DJs at the city’s Wild Pitch parties, whose forward-thinking music policy famously inspired DJ Pierre. Konders was a big fan of dub, its influence flowing through his most famous productions, notably Nu Groove classic ‘The Poem.’
Nu Groove was also home to some highly emotive American takes on the chilled, ambient house sound that was proving so popular in Europe. Aphrodisiac’s ‘Song of the Siren’ (1990 - here in its aptly named Mediterranean mix) and Equation’s ‘I’ll Say A Prayer 4 U’ (Konders and Ronald Burrell working together in 1991) are stunning examples.
No summary of this corner of the Nu Groove ouevre would be complete without highlighting the classic ‘New Age of Faith’ by LB Bad. If you think the haunting lead riff is familiar, it formed the basis of chill out classic ‘Smokebelch II’ by Sabres of Paradise (to be fair Andrew Weatherall and his crew gave Lamont Booker, aka LB, the writing credit he fully deserved).
Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzales, 50% of Masters at Work and 100% of many other notable projects and aliases, is one of the most revered names in house music – and his debut releases came out on Nu Groove. It was his series of Powerhouse EPs that allegedly made a curious Louie Vega track him down, and the rest is house music history. Kenny actually produced the one and only hip hop cut released on Nu Groove, but here we feature two selections in which you can clearly hear signs of what was to come.
Rave! Trance! EDM?
Our 17 featured tracks so far undoubtedly showcase the pivotal role Nu Groove played in both nurturing the New York house sound, and developing the genre as a whole. What also cannot be overlooked is that, whilst achieving all this, it was also a huge label on the UK’s rave/pirate radio scene, in turn proving highly influential on the Stateside equivalent. The figure that connects the two is Frankie Bones, whose Nu Groove releases as Looney Tunes with Tommy Musto led to his being invited to perform at some of the biggest open air illegal parties in Britain, a scene he then became determined to recreate in America. His pioneering work arguably paved the way for the EDM explosion which finally saw electronic music hit the US mainstream. You may have mixed feelings about that, but any 1989 raver will soon go misty-eyed when hearing ‘Just As Long As I Got You’.
Nu Groove packed a lot into its short life, and its place in the house music history books is assured. If you want to hear more, check out this interview with label co-founder Frank Mendez; and this Gerd Janson mix celebrating the work of the Burrells.
Nu Groove Classics Volume 1 2 x LP is available to order on the D-Store now, with Volume 2 will be out later this year with releases from Bäs Noir, Tech Trax Inc. and K.A.T.O