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Big Music Issue

It’s (Not) Over

House music returns to Baltimore—not that it ever really left

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Ultra Naté and King Tutt bring down the house


Big Music Issue 2011
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“I think the Black Eyed Peas really started this whole shit,” Teddy Douglas jokes, as he ponders radio’s renewed interest in four-on-the-floor dance. Jay Steinhour, Douglas’ more reserved friend and collaborator of 25 years, wryly grins. It’s a sunny but not too sunny Thursday in late June at a Mount Vernon café and the Basement Boys are talking house music: what it was, what it is, and if what’s popping off on the radio right now even qualifies.

Will.i.Am, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and, well, everybody else’s anthemic dance pop, however you want to label it, does at least have its roots in European dance, and that stuff most certainly stems from the house that came out of Chicago, New York, and other dance-music hubs, including Baltimore.

“People from Baltimore don’t know how pivotal the city was to house as a global sound,” legendary house diva Ultra Naté notes in a conversation with Baltimore club/house/electro/everything producer King Tutt over sushi. Her speaking voice is eerily similar to her smoky vocals on numerous underground and mainstream house classics, including the 1989 Basement Boys production “It’s Over Now,” which turned the singer and the then trio (Thommy Davis left the group in 1993) into house-music stars.

In the late ’80s, when club music was just starting to figure itself out, Baltimore house spread far beyond the city limits. The genesis of both genres, one hyper-regional, the other soon to be massively influential, began, according to Douglas, at the Baltimore dance club Odell’s, during “the tail end of disco.” Wayne Davis, who would later open Club Fantasy and the Paradox, was a DJ there. He played what Douglas excitedly calls, “a big soulful mesh” of disco, Philly soul, new wave, and house. Davis’ sets, along with trips to clubs “all up and down the East Coast” like New York’s Paradise Garage, inspired the Basement Boys’ sound.

Thommy Davis, Douglas, and Steinhour formed the Basement Boys in 1986, developing a decidedly modern take on house that also looked back to disco’s live instrumentation. They recorded in the basement of Steinhour’s Druid Hill Avenue rowhouse—hence the name. Perhaps their best known track is Crystal Waters’ 1991 hit “Gypsy Woman,” which at one point or another has wormed its way into your head thanks to Waters’ “la da dee, la dee da” chorus, but stayed there thanks to the song’s ornate, sturdy drums and fluttering keyboard line.

“It’s Over Now,” however, is where it began. The record, tugged along by a saxophone, shuffling electronics, and Naté’s confidently conversational vocals, got into the hands of Tony Humphries, who hosted a radio mix show in New York and London and DJed at the influential New Jersey nightclub Zanzibar.

“The Basement Boys and I wrote a song, and they sent it to Tony Humphries, and next thing I know I’m offered a deal with Warner Brothers UK,” Naté recalls, still a bit stunned 22 years later. Like that, Baltimore became a part of house’s shift from the underground to pop. By the early ’90s, the Basement Boys were producing for three acts on three different major labels: Naté on Warner Brothers UK, Waters on Mercury/A&M, and Mass Order on Columbia.

By the mid-’90s, hip-hop fully wormed its way into the mainstream and house started to splinter into dozens of subgenres, making it harder to package the music; American record labels moved on. House stayed—and stays—wildly popular outside of the States and in devoted scenes around the country, but it was no longer “pop.” For a while it became a dirty word, like “disco.” Naté never stopped recording or touring—she was on her way to Montreal when we spoke—and the Basement Boys continued producing, starting their own label in 1994 and working with Baltimore producers DJ Spen and Karizma.

Locally, house was hurt by the same after-hours restrictions that muzzled the club-music scene and nightlife in general in the late ’90s. Instead of supporting a “cosmopolitan” scene, Naté explains with an eye roll, “local government [was] interested in putting everybody to bed by 9 o’clock.” Also, like everywhere else, the radio got increasingly unfriendly to anything interesting or rarified—and not just the big bottom-line-obsessed urban stations like 92Q. In 2001, Morgan State University’s WEAA-FM canceled the long-running Underground Experience show hosted by Morgan alums and house DJs Pope and Oji. In 2007, the Basement Boys sold the studio they moved into in 1991, when Steinhour’s basement no longer fit for their work load.

There were, however, significant moves to keep house alive in the city. In September 2003, Naté started Deep Sugar at Sonar and the party’s still going, now every second Saturday at the Paradox. Former Basement Boy Thommy Davis is the president of the Collective Minds Festival, an outdoor event held in Druid Hill Park since 2005. Both events were, at the time, hard-headed refusals to let house die, but now they look like the seeds for the steadily rejuvenating scene.

House-related events in July that happened or are about to happen: King Tutt and Say Wut at Deep in the Game two Fridays ago, Deep Sugar featuring Thommy Davis and KW Griff last weekend, Teddy Douglas at the Windup Space this Friday night, and next week a tribute night to Odell’s and other legendary clubs at the Paradox.

“When everyone was listening to Wu-Tang and Biggie, I had a club and a house tape on,” King Tutt boasts between bites of sushi. Tutt is best associated with club music due to his affiliation with Unruly Records, but beginning with the 2008 EP The Evolution, his work molted into an ineffable club/house/electro hybrid—not all that different, but much more sophisticated than the big loud stuff on the radio right now.

Tutt released the first volume of Say Hello to the Bad Guy, a mix that indulges his interest in European house, in April, and the second volume’s out next week. He’s also working on a new album that he describes as “a big collage of dubstep, club, house, and disco.”

Which brings us back to “that Black Eyed Peas shit.” Tutt’s 2009 collaboration with Naté, “Faster, Faster Pussycat,” is a dance-pop hybrid of house and club, just one year too early. Listen to Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday, particularly the Will.i.Am-produced “Check It Out,” and there it is, that same combination—“Check It Out” even has club music’s signature “Think” break. It’s actually kind of gross. The majors, who once stretched out and found new, regional talent—like the Basement Boys—now swoop in on an underground, strip it for parts, and have one of their already branded stars drum up a shiny approximation.

Baltimore’s house veterans are doing quite fine, unimpressed by radio’s temporary embrace of something tangentially related to house and much more determined to feed a Baltimore scene that’s on the upswing. “It’s our job to keep [house] alive and flourishing and accessible,” Naté intones. “Turn it Up,” her latest single, is a propulsive dance-pop record with just the right amount of Auto-Tune and even some throwback disco strings. She’ll release her eighth album, Hero Worship, later this year.

Thommy Davis is the A&R for Code Red Recordings, a deep-house label run by DJ Spen. September means it’s time for another Collective Minds Festival. This month, Douglas and Steinhour are reopening their Basement Boys label. “We’re back,” Steinhour declares, and rather modestly adds, “We’ll be puttin’ out records.” n

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