Seated behind the large mixing board of his modest X-Claim recording studio in a Kingston shopping plaza, Scatta Burrell's demeanor belies what one would expect from one of dancehall reggae's hottest producer. Exceedingly humble, uncommonly polite and quite talkative, he often punctuates his comments with surprising personal disclosures.
"Right now I am worried," says Burrell. "If things are going good I might be smiling, but when success comes, that's when I worry about losing it. If I hit this year and don't hit next year, people don't want to know you. I hate when people make an impact and [then] you don't hear nothing about them again."
In dancehall, it's the riddims that run things, and no dancehall fan would dismiss Burrell as a one-beat wonder. Since 2001, he has amassed an impressive resume, highlighted this summer by the simultaneous Billboard Hot 100 charting of four songs (Pitbull's "Culo," Elephant Man and Twista's "Jook Gal," Mr. Vegas's "Pull Up," and Nina Sky's "Move Ya Body"), all of which used his massive Coolie Dance riddim. Just as Troyton Rami and Steven "Lenky" Marsden did in 2002 and 2003 with their respective Buzz and Diwali riddims, Burrell brought an uncompromising Jamaican dancehall sensibility to the American pop charts.
Born Cordel Burrell in St. Andrew, Jamaica, and nicknamed Scatta by a high school friend for the gap in his front teeth (his teeth are "scattered"), the celebrated producer began his career by spending countless hours at Kingston's Celestial Sounds Studio in hopes of becoming a deejay. Instead, the flashing lights of the mixing console and the engineer's pivotal role in a recording session captivated him. With the knowledge gleaned by observing Celestial Sounds' staff, and some formal engineering classes, Scatta soon acquired precision skills.
In 2000, Burrell was asked by an aspiring singer/deejay named Ce'cile to engineer her demo tape. Recorded at the (then neglected) X-Claim studios, which he has since claimed as his home base, the demo included Ce'cile's breakthrough hit "Changez," which used a riddim they co-produced called Chiney Gal. Despite Ce'cile and Burrell's lack of industry experience, several artists subsequently wanted to record over the slow yet bouncy riddim.
"We were eager to get a good foot in, so we voiced them and tried to do it as professional as possible," explains Burrell. "A lot of people were knocking the studio, saying it is too small, it doesn't have no 24-track machine, no analog tape, and you can't do dancehall with the digital stuff. But I said, this is where I am, I gonna use what I have, and we did the whole project on it and it sounded great."
The pair went on to produce the Double Jeopardy riddim, which yielded another hit for Ce'cile, "Bad Gal, Bad Man," a duet with Elephant Man. While Ce'cile's performing career accelerated into high gear, Burrell built upon the impact of Chiney Gal and Double Jeopardy by producing another riddim called Martial Arts. Earning black belt status among 2002's dancehall beats, the high-kicking Martial Arts fueled several boom shots, including Beenie Man's "Bad Man Chi Chi," a lyrical barb aimed at his part time nemesis Bounty Killa; and the Killa's clever retort, "Look Good." Then there were Burrell's Famine and Bad Company riddims, the latter helping Beenie Man paddle his "Row Like a Boat" to the top of the Jamaican charts.
Each of Scatta's riddims has been released on the Kings of Kings label. Its owner, singer Colin "Iley Dread" Levy, first met Burrell at Celestial Sounds. When Burrell left to pursue his own productions at X-Claim Studios, Levy offered to be his executive producer and give him creative control of Kings of Kings's dancehall projects. Burrell's spate of successful beats eventually overshadowed the label's roots reggae music, so it recently launched a separate dancehall imprint for him, Riddim Hard Drive. Burrell has also started a new label, High Society, in which Levy is a major shareholder.
"One thing I admire about Scatta, he is critical of his own productions," admits Levy. "He will build ten rhythms, and I say they're good and he'll say, öNo, I don't feel this, this is the one I feel,' and most of the time that is the one that hits. I am confident in his decisions when it comes to which riddims [King of Kings] will focus on."
Eighteen months ago, Burrell began working on a sound he had created in NYC that featured sampled handclaps and traditional Indian chanting. He loaded the sample into his drum machine, put a bouncy synth bass-driven beat underneath it, and came up with the Coolie Dance riddim.
Sensing its crossover potential (it sounds like the Diwali's distant cousin), Burrell tried selling his Coolie Dance track to a few NYC producers. Fortunately for him, no one was interested. "I was saying, what is wrong with these people?" he recalls. "I must be hearing something they are not, or else I don't know shit. So I said me go carry it to Jamaica. When Bounty Killa hear it and say, öYo, Scatta, this is a bad riddim, me just go ahead and voice a lot of songs.'"
Burrell recorded almost 40 artists over the Coolie Dance riddim, and their songs have been released on two compilations, Coolie Dance (Greensleeves) and Coolie Skank (VP Records). This year, Coolie Dance shimmied into the mainstream through the summer's unofficial boogie anthem, Nina Sky's "Move Ya Body" (which doesn't appear on either compilation) that peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100.
Reflecting on his enormous success, an understandably proud and somewhat overwhelmed Burrell reveals another personality trait. "When something great happens, I like to know that there is something snapping at my heels," he confides. "If that's not happening, I would stay at home wondering what to do next. When I hear a bad riddim I need to do something badder than that! It's the competitiveness that keeps me going."
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