Imagine a recording studio, the kind used to make hit singles, and what springs to mind are spacious rooms with glistening hardwood walls, thick, soft carpeting and tons of quietly blinking equipment.
Which is probably why most people walking by the Basement Boys' studio on Druid Hill Avenue wouldn't even know it was there. From the street, it looks like many other midtown row houses, cramped and aging and in obvious need of paint.
Inside, it's not much better, with piles of records crowding the floors and the studio's 24-track recording equipment crammed along with synthesizer modules, digital samplers and several drum machines into a back room in the basement. The vocal booth is a converted bathroom down the hall, its walls hung with blankets, a mike boom set up in the shower.
It may not look like much, but it's one of the hottest studios in the country right now. Because this is where the Basement Boys -- Tommy Davis, Teddy Douglas and Jay Steinhour -- put together the biggest dance record of the season, Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman."
An instant smash with the dance market, "Gypsy Woman" is, as dance-music critic Vince Aletti recently put it, "the record of the moment." Rhythmically insistent, with an odd, slurred vocal and a memorably infectious "La da dee, la da dah" chorus, it has dominated the Billboard dance charts for weeks, topping both the club play and sales listings.
Nor are dance fans the only ones grooving to "Gypsy Woman." An immediate hit on radio, it has been receiving more national airplay than current singles by such established stars as Whitney Houston or Sheena Easton, and seems well on its way up the Top-40. Which is nothing compared to what it's doing overseas; in Britain, "Gypsy Woman" debuted at No. 3 on the pop charts.
Ironically, it's a hit that almost got away. "Gypsy Woman," says the Basement Boys, was recorded eons ago, and pitched unsuccessfully to a host of record companies. "That cassette sat on people's desks for a year," laughs Douglas. "Now that it's a hit, there are all these people going through their stuff, checking to see if there are any other Basement Boys tapes in there."
But then, the Basement Boys are almost used to being ignored. Although the three have been recording together since 1987, when they remade the Rose Royce ballad "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" as a dance track for Jump Street records, most of their acclaim has come from overseas. "In London, they take us everywhere in limos," gripes Steinhour. "Here, we can't even get our names mentioned on the radio."
Still, they understand that being record producers is not a glamour role, and frankly, that's fine with them. "We knew we were producers," says Davis. "We didn't want to be artists."
"It's just that . . . we're shy," adds Douglas, and the three erupt in laughter.
Davis, 33, Steinhour, 43, and Douglas, 27, started out in the record-end of the business. They worked at local record stores, including Music Liberated, where they first met. And they were ++ DJs in Baltimore and Washington clubs, such as Odells, Hats, Club Fantasy and Tracks.
Apart from being able to program their drum machines, none of the three play instruments, but that hardly keeps them from getting the job done. Because, as Davis explains, production isn't a matter of knowing how to play the notes -- it's about knowing where the notes should go.
"What most people don't understand is that producers are just the organizers," he says. "We bring in talented keyboard players, like Neal Conway on 'Gypsy Woman,' and these guys actually create the music. Except that they don't have a concept."
Having a concept, the trio explains, means understanding what makes a song work -- what sort of beat can move a crowd, what sort of hook will catch the listener's ear. Part of it, as Davis says, is "knowing what the labels want, and what the mass audience wants." But part of it is also the ability to recognize a diamond even while it's still in the rough.
"Gypsy Woman" is a perfect example. The song started out with Neal Conway, who'd recorded a keyboard part on one of the Basement Boys' synthesizers. Crystal Waters heard it, added a melody and some lyrics, and played her demo for the team. "Then we came in and structured it," says Davis. "We'd say, for instance, 'Crystal, we need two verses more, and we need a bridge.' 'Neal, fix this and change that.' "
Sometimes, they even make the changes themselves. "See, the way technology is these days, the keyboard player puts his music into a computer," explains Steinhour. Once in the computer's memory, the keyboard part can be altered by the producers as easily as an editor on a word processor can move sentences around.
"We did that pretty extensively on the Crystal Waters record," says Steinhour. "We even restructured the vocals, by putting stuff in the sampler and just flying it in where we needed it."
"Like Crystal only said, 'La da dee, la da dah' one time on the demo," adds Davis. So the group "looped" the phrase, and repeated it throughout the single.
"We took that and made it the hook," says Douglas. "We just knew it would get everybody to sing the song."
Obviously, they were right, and as "Gypsy Woman" climbs the charts, the Basement Boys keep getting hotter. And busier. "Tonite," a single the trio recorded with singer Eleanor Mills under the name Those Guys, is currently the nation's No. 2 club single, right behind "Gypsy Woman." They just finished work on a full album by Waters, and are scheduled to remix the next Paula Abdul single, "Vibeology."
Yet their basement studio looks as unimpressive as ever. Which, no doubt, just goes to show that in the recording business, looks still don't count as much as sound.