Various Artists - Rough Inna Town: The Xterminator Sound
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.