Farewell to Fatis Burrell

The death of Fatis Burrell dealt another blow to Jamaican music, laments David Katz

–Philip “Fatis” Burrell, left, with the singer Half Pint in Brixton in 1986. Photograph by David Corio

The death of Fatis Burrell has dealt another blow to Jamaican music. He died on December 3, at 57, after a stroke, and leaves a void in the music production field.

The sadness of his early passing is compounded by the fact that he was building a recording studio of his own when he died, which could have been the site of another revolution in Jamaican music. After all, Burrell had revitalised dancehall during the early 1990s, when he nurtured the careers of some of the most important artists to emerge since the passing of Bob Marley. Sizzla, Luciano, Capleton, Turbulence, Chezidek, Mikey General and Prince Malachi were all discovered by Fatis, and recorded their greatest works for him.

He also totally changed the style of music being made in Jamaica at that time, by bringing live musicians back into the recording arena, which had been dominated by computers since the mid-1980s.

Born Philip Burrell in the west Kingston ghetto of Whitfield Town in 1954, he moved to Birmingham, England, when he was five years old. Burrell returned to west Kingston as a teenager during a time when the country’s two political parties began aligning themselves with street gangs that would ensure voter loyalty during elections. Like many of his peers, Burrell briefly became part of a politically-backed street faction, but switched to music production during the mid-1980s after being encouraged to do so by musicians Sly and Robbie and producer George Phang, himself a former gang member. Soon Burrell was recording artists such as Sugar Minott, Michael Palmer, Wayne Wade and Tenor Saw.

In 1985, Burrell launched a label called Vena, recording dancehall productions with upcoming talent such as Thriller U, Sanchez, Pinchers and Daddy Freddy. A few years later, he launched the Exterminator label, as a home to the earliest recordings of Capleton, and for work with veteran artists such as Cocoa Tea, Frankie Paul, Ini Kamoze and Ninjaman. Then, in 1993, saxophonist Dean Fraser began arranging Burrell’s material, leading to more complex productions with Luciano, who became a major star through the Fatis-produced albums Where There Is Life and Messenger. Sizzla’s Praise Ye Jah also created a sensation.

The “Rasta Renaissance” that graced Jamaican music during the mid-1990s was largely down to Burrell’s transformed productions, and he continued to break new ground. However, his attention to detail made his productions more costly than those of his peers, meaning that his material often did not recoup its costs.

As his son Kareem had recently joined him in production, we can only hope that Kareem will build on the foundation established by his father.