Unsung Pioneers: Basement Boys
Initially a trio — Thommy Davis, Teddy Douglas, and Jay Steinhour — the Basement Boys are one of the definitive East Coast house production teams. And this November, Douglas, and Steinhour will celebrate the 100th release on Basement Boys Records. But their work in the late eighties and nineties has a particular resonance — nowhere more than on their biggest hit, Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” A Billboard Top 10 hit in the spring of 1991, it was one of the biggest and best of the period’s pop crossovers from the club world.
The Basement Boys teamed up around 1983. “It was really Thommy and me who started playing around in my studio, trying to do tracks for ourselves to play: We were both DJing in local clubs,” says Steinhour. “Then, Thommy brought Teddy into the group.” Douglas also DJed; all three frequented Odell’s, “the Paradise Garage of Baltimore,” as well as Hats and, in Washington, DC, the Clubhouse.
“We were in the studio five days a week. Basically, every night after work — Thommy and I left the record store, and Jay worked during the day as a graphic designer,” says Douglas. “We were making five or six tracks a week, every night for about two years.” Douglas also wrote songs, adding another layer to Steinhour and Davis’s basic track making, and when they began producing singers, Douglas would act as vocal coach. “I was like, ‘Why don’t we take this to the next level? We’ll get songs and really develop this.’”
Their early sound was shifting along with club music itself. “Baltimore has always had its roots in mimicking what was happening in New York City,” says Douglas. In the early and mid-eighties, that meant electro, disco, funk, and danceable rock. But when the Basement Boys signed their first 12-inch, “Love Don’t Live Here No More,” to the New York indie Jump Street Records in 1986, they were right in time to ride the house wave.
That meant making better deals, as much as it meant getting their tracks played. With Jump Street, Douglas recalls, “They said, ‘We’ll see you on the back end’”—meaning they’d be paid after the record had made a profit. “And you never saw the back end,” Steinhour explains. “At that time, we were not business savvy. We just wanted a record out.”
But the Basement Boys’ records had a more commercial sheen than many of their trackier colleagues’, and it didn’t take long for the major labels to notice. In 1989, they wrote and produced “It’s Over Now” by Ultra Naté, a soulful anthem hooked to a fluttering saxophone riff and stomping drums, for Warner Bros. “She was a club girl,” says Steinour, “but we didn’t really know her in the club.” She came to their attention when they began auditioning singers.
They got the hook-up via Cynthia Cherry, who’d signed them to Jump Street. She’d moved over to Warner’s UK office. “Ultra Naté’s stuff was being played by Tony Humphries at Zanzibar [in Jersey City], so she heard it,” says Douglas. Steinhour adds: “We didn’t want to do a one-off single. We started to get attorneys by that time, as well—‘You got to give us an album deal or nothing at all!’ We started to be a little bit savvier about the business end of things.”
That put them in good stead shortly thereafter, when they met another Baltimore vocalist with character to spare after they’d appeared on a local music-biz seminar panel and were handed a demo tape. Crystal Waters was the vocalist of Modern Art, per Douglas, a “Swing Out Sister/Captain and Tennille kind of thing. I was blown away. I really wasn’t into what was on the tape as much as I was her unique voice. The moment you heard it, you knew it was identifiable, you know?”
Amazingly, the single that made Waters’ name sat on a shelf for a year before it was released. “When we went over to England, I think to do Ultra’s first video, we bought a bunch of demo tapes and set up meetings with a lot of A&R people in London,” says Steinhour. When the Basement Boys played “Gypsy Woman” for Mike Sefton of A&M Records, he told them, “This is either going to be a smash or it’s going to do awfully.” But the producers were adamant: “We decided, we’re not going to sign a deal unless you get a comparable deal in the States,” says Steinhour. “We didn’t want to just come out in England. So it was sitting on his desk for about a year until they found somebody in the States who would put it out as well — Bruce Carbone at Mercury decided he would go along with it.”
Not that “Gypsy Woman” was silent all that time — the Basement Boys were, individually, playing it in clubs. (“Luckily, we didn’t give it out to people,” says Steinhour; Tony Humphries was the exception.) Douglas remembers premiering the track at Baltimore’s Club Fantasy. “I played it off a cassette tape. The crowd had never heard this record before. We had no expectations it was going to be a worldwide success. But this club was just in hysteria when I put it on. They were throwing trash and paper at the DJ booth, screaming and hollering: [high-pitched voice] ‘Put it back on! Tell him to put it on again!’ It was unbelievable, the reaction that first night. I’ll never forget that.”
“Gypsy Woman” sealed its success in March 1991, at the sixth annual Winter Music Conference — then in Fort Lauderdale, rather than Miami, and still small enough to fit a single building. “It was a couple hundred people, maybe — under a thousand,” says Steinhour.
“Winter Music Conference was very exciting back then,” says Douglas. “And it was a time where you could get a record broke there. Danny Tenaglia was the party of the last night of the conference, and he broke that record. It was magical. And you had everybody there. Everybody in the industry was there. By the time people got back to New York, it had already created this hysteria. Frankie Knuckles had a residency at Sound Factory. He came on board with ‘Gypsy Woman,’ and he helped create the whole hysteria for that in New York City.”
Waters’ first album, Surprise, was made without record label interference. “That first album, we pretty much did our own thing,” says Steinhour. “But that changed. By the third album, relationships had really broken down — all of them.” Adds Douglas: “Artists are always torn between management and production companies. She was caught in the middle. I’m imagining it was tough for her, you know?” Steinhour notes, “She eventually renegotiated a little bit and got a little bit more control. All that stuff got worked out.”
Nevertheless, Waters’ second album, Storyteller, featured “100% Pure Love,” another Top 20 pop hit — a rare thing at the time for a dance artist, particularly one following up another hit. “There was enormous pressure, especially on me, who was the guy who had to come up with the goods,” says Douglas. “You don’t want to be a one-hit-wonder. I had an ulcer from that. I had to go to the hospital.”
The big money from that era, though, came from a series of high-profile remix credits. “We got calls from Meli’sa Morgan, Paula Abdul, RuPaul, Michael Jackson — I mean, the list was incredible,” says Douglas. “We wanted Michael to come to the studio, but that wasn’t going to happen.” Adds Steinhour, “Everybody wanted to do a Michael Jackson remix if they could. I’m sure we had dropped [a hint about] our wish to do that.”
They got their shot in 1996, with a reworking of Jackson’s “Stranger in Moscow.” “We definitely dropped everything,” Douglas recalls with a laugh. The team spent two weeks on it. Listening to the multitrack master — containing more than 128 individual tracks — was revelatory: “Michael makes a lot of noise in the vocal booth,” says Douglas. “Yeah, he bumps and flips, clapping and snapping his fingers,” adds Steinhour. “We had to sometimes mix around it. The engineers did a lot of work.”
Get to know Basement Boys in five tracks.
Love Don’t Live Here (Original Mix) – Basement Boys [Basement Boys Records]
100 Percent Pure Love (Original Mix) – Crystal Waters [Basement Boys Records]
The Violin (Basement Boys Club Mix) – Teddy Douglas, Louis Radio [Basement Boys Records]
Gotta Keep Tryin’ (Basement Boys Remix) – Michelle Weeks [Basement Boys Records]
It’s Over (Basement Boys Album Remix) – Byron Stingily [Nervous Records]
Michaelangelo Matos is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and author of ‘The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America’. Find him on Twitter.