The nineties were a golden age for both reggae and dancehall music and thanks to Echoes, I was able to write about so much of what was happening back then. As journalists we're supposed to be impartial, but I always felt at home being around producer Fatis Burrell and those who worked with him in making Xterminator one of Jamaica's most influential and widely respected labels of that era.
Xterminator, headed by the enigmatic Philip “Fatis” Burrell, is Jamaica’s most revered roots and dancehall label of the modern era. Not since the days of Coxsone Dodd’s famous Studio One had anyone witnessed such an impressive stable of artists as that assembled by Fatis during the mid-to-late nineties, when Luciano, Capleton, Sizzla and Beres Hammond, to name but a few, would all avail themselves of his studio time, creating many unforgettable hits in the process.
As the likes of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo helped reintroduce time honoured musical values to US soul and R & B, parallel developments were also taking place in reggae music. Under the direction of Fatis, Xterminator was to lead such changes for the rest of the decade, much to the delight of those longing for original, meaningful songs, great melodies and arrangements and a production style that not only looked towards embracing the international market, but also reached back into reggae’s past. A self-confessed perfectionist who’d rather wait for the right musician rather than use the nearest to hand, Fatis continues to draw for sounds and mixing techniques that have been all but forgotten by most other Jamaican producers, even whilst ushering the island’s roots and vocal music into the next era.
Just as the same, small pool of musicians helped artists like Burning Spear or Bob Marley create their own individual sound during the seventies, so the likes of Sly Dunbar, Dean Fraser and members of the Firehouse Crew have tailored their music to fit Fatis. As listeners to these tracks can attest, the sound they’ve shaped for him is not only earth-shatteringly hardcore, but also embellished with the kind of soaring melodies and arrangements that are tailor-made for mainstream radio, even to the extent of using unusual instrumentation such as the soprano sax. And whilst the rhythms are uncompromisingly heavyweight, there’s a joyous grandeur welling from deep inside the mix that brings a transcendental quality to his music, irrespective of who’s singing or dee-jaying. It’s this wonderful duality that’s kept Xterminator productions playing hard in the roots dances over the years, even as its creators are reaching for the stars, and the chance to take their conscious, lyrical messages to a wider audience. This spiritual dimension, as heard in so many of his artists’ songs, is of vital importance to Fatis, and his whole team know it. It’s as if, having once penetrated his soul, they’ve then sculpted the notes in his image, and if this is true – even on a subconscious level – then it confirms what Fatis has been saying all along; i.e., that his own story’s being told in the music itself, and that it’s love of the Almighty he’s trying to promote, rather than anything more mundane or personal. (This is turn may help explain why Fatis doesn’t give interviews or allow anyone to photograph him, although he’s always ready to help promote his artists, and those in need of most exposure especially).
What we do know is that he was born in Birmingham, England (where he still has strong family connections), but raised in Kingston 13, where as a youth, he got embroiled in local politics for a time. In Fatis’ case, the realities of having to survive in a violent, ghetto environment went hand-in-hand with a musical education that proved second to none. Bob Andy, Marcia Griffiths and Sugar Minott all contributed towards his musical upbringing, as did George Phang and Sly & Robbie, who first encouraged him to turn producer back in the mid-eighties, and then gave him his first set of rhythm tracks, which he used at Channel One for sessions with Cornell Campbell, Michael Palmer, Sugar Minott and Junior Reid. Over in Europe, it was the Kings & Lions label that hosted early productions such as Sugar Minott’s Boss Boss and Michael Palmer’s Higgler Woman. Fatis then started a label called Vena, and began unearthing new talent such as Pinchers, Sanchez, Thriller U and Daddy Freddy, whose first album, Cater For She, was distributed by Original Sounds in the UK, and is one of Fatis’ earliest album releases. After Pinchers’ Lift It Up Again had proved a defining hit for both artist and producer in 1987, Fatis then began licensing albums to leading outlets in Europe and the US, as well as issuing his material in Jamaica on either Vena or yet another new label called Exterminator, which is now famous for Capleton’s earliest singles, as well as classic sides by Gregory Isaacs, Beres Hammond (Full Attention), Tony Rebel, Cocoa Tea, Tiger, Josey Wales, Ninjaman, Ini Kamoze, Frankie Paul and many others.
The “E” was subsequently dropped in 1993, when saxophonist and musical arranger Dean Fraser joined Fatis’ team on a permanent basis, and then served as bandleader on tours featuring his newest discoveries, Luciano and Sizzla. By now, the young band of musicians Fatis had been nurturing were ready to take the reggae world by storm. Named after their native district of West Kingston, the Firehouse Crew were led by Donald “Danny” Dennis, who sings and records as Mr. Biggs, in addition to laying down the kind of murderously heavy bass lines only Aston “Family Man” Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare seemed previously capable of. With veteran engineers Soljie Hamilton and Stephen Stanley (whose distinctive “splashing” style of mixing epitomises the Xterminator sound) at the controls, as well as younger men such as Syl Gordon and Robert Murphy, Fatis now controlled Jamaica’s musical “A” team, and the results really do speak for themselves, as heard on the tracks gathered here. Between them, this dedicated group of people notched up hit after hit on the international reggae charts from 1993 onwards, culminating in Luciano’s seminal Where There Is Life and Messenger albums for Island Jamaica.
After several years of unbroken success, Luciano, Mikey General, Dean Fraser and members of the Firehouse Crew all left the camp in 1998, leaving Sizzla (who was attracting crossover attention in the wake of his Praise Ye Jah and Kalonji sets) as Xterminator’s principal act. Unfazed, Fatis drew for a next generation of Jamaican roots talent led by Turbulence, Chezidek, Singing Cologne (who hail from Hungry Town, Montego Bay and Linstead respectively) and Abijah, and supplemented by the likes of Morgan Heritage, LMS, Jah Cure and British born singer Prince Malachi, whose We Pray Jah provides vital accompaniment to his two Xterminator solo albums, and warned us of the rise of Turbulence – a youthful sing-jay inspired by Sizzla, but whose songs and stage appearances are currently electrifying grassroots audiences the world over, designating him (like Chezidek) as a future star. All had been drawn to Xterminator by the quality of Fatis’ productions, and also the profundity of his spiritual beliefs, with respect for his teachings going hand-in-hand with recognition of the time he spends perfecting his craft. Unusually for Jamaica, these new artists were not only given their chance to shine right from the start, but also encouraged to write and sing from their hearts and to create original songs, rather than imitate others. It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that most Xterminator artists actually believe in the message they're putting across, and are serious about inspiring others to live the life of peace and righteousness so beloved by true Rastafarians. Alternatively they warn us against wrongdoing and corruption, as epitomised in so many of Sizzla’s earlier, and more definitive works for the label.
Now a somewhat controversial figure, Sizzla joined Xterminator after recommendations from Dean Fraser. His debut album, Burning Up, appeared in 1996, since when he’s recorded at least nine others for Fatis, including the highly regarded Words Of Truth, Taking Over and Rastafari Teach Us Everything. These days he’s not averse to chatting slackness when the mood takes him, but he rarely, if ever, does so when recording for Xterminator, as the profound Life’s Road and the previously unreleased As For Now demonstrate. He and Ninjaman’s Who Is Laughing is also a classic of its kind, as the notorious gunman dee-jay and his sing-jay partner ride a typically brooding Xterminator rhythm that combines crushing intensity with the most impeccable musicianship.
Luciano was still recording for Freddie McGregor and Castro Brown when he auditioned for Fatis at Gussie Clarke’s Music Works’ studio back in 1993. The singer hadn’t yet embraced Rastafari, and was still searching to absorb his Dennis Brown influences. Their first collaboration was a cover of Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, but greater works were to come, and an abundance of them at that. The opening Love Jah And Live found here was among the many tracks recorded during the period 1994-7, and was overlooked by Island Jamaica; hence it’s appearance on album for the first time. A similar fate befell both Gunzalis and Rebel With A Cause, shared with former Sturgav pair Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales, and conceived during an impromptu meeting at Anchor studios in Windsor Avenue. Gussie Clarke had moved his equipment from Slipe Road to new premises in uptown Kingston and Fatis had duly followed suit, thereby retaining the consistency of his sound. Psalm 24 came about when Mutabaruka visited the studio one day, and Luciano asked if he had a Bible to hand. The resulting track is still played in reggae dances to this day, as is that matching piece by Ini Kamoze, the incomparable How U Living. Both recall Alton Ellis’ old Treasure Isle side I Can’t Stand It, but as is often the case whenever Fatis covers an old rhythm, it’s been extensively reworked to give it a more original flavour. Incidentally, Ini had recorded an early forerunner of Hot Stepper for Fatis way before his crossover success with Columbia, and as illustrated on this remixed version of Hill And Gully Ride, continued to save his best work for Xterminator, even whilst riding high on the pop charts.
Capleton too, flirted with the mainstream after signing to Def Jam. He’d voiced his debut singles, Bumbo Red and Bible Fi Dem, for Fatis circa 1988, and several years later, Armshouse was one of the biggest hits of 1993, just prior to Capleton embracing the Bobo Ashanti faith and reinventing himself as the Prophet. Jah Kingdom is the best of several duets featuring him and Luciano, who in keeping with the family vibes felt around the camp at that time, shared a mic with many of his fellow Xterminator acts, including Beres Hammond, Louie Culture, Terror Fabulous, Sizzla, Marcia Griffiths and even Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal. He and Cocoa Tea had already recorded another duet, Mr. Governor, before voicing Rough Inna Town, which like the vocal piece to Repatriation, first appeared on Cocoa Tea’s Israel’s King album, again produced by Fatis. He and Cocoa Tea share a love of horse racing, as well as music, and the chemistry between them is unmistakable. As for Mikey General, he recorded his first ever tune for Fatis before heading for London in the mid-eighties, where he established his reputation with hits for Blacker Dread, Fashion and other UK reggae labels in a mixture of roots, dancehall and lovers rock styles. He rejoined Fatis after moving back to Jamaica in 1990, recording two albums, Sinners (on which Many Have Fallen first appeared) and I’m Just A Rastaman. Their association arguably peaked with hits such as Babylon Cake and Never Give Up, and in fact the latter was also written by Fatis, whose songs ache with such delicacy of feeling, yet are rarely heralded, perhaps because of his reputation as a reformed bad man.
But whilst there’s certainly enough people in Jamaica who’ll suddenly treat you with more deference once they realise you’re under his protection, such negative images soon evaporate once this kindly, generous and warm hearted man starts quoting Kalil Gibran, or leading his artists in prayer during their regular reasoning sessions. A family man whose jurisdiction now extends far beyond wife Donna and their children, he’s transcended his background and his past, and today, is a don of nothing more sinister than music. It’s said that a true faith is one that triumphs after being tested in the realms of human experience. For Fatis, as for all of us, the tests are never-ending, but he’s certainly passed his fair share of them, and today stands comparison with even the greatest of JA producers. He’s also Jamaica’s best talent scout since the late Junjo Lawes, and like Junjo, inspires considerable loyalty from those close to him, with most of his discoveries continuing to record for him long after spreading their wings further afield.