DJ, Producer and writer Thommy Davis has been contributing to the House Music scene for more than 40 years. Boasting a huge musical portfolio, Thommy Davis is highly regarded amongst peers and fans alike as one of the founding fathers of the Baltimore House family.
Many know Thommy Davis for his collaborations with Teddy Douglas and Jay Steinhour as the Basement Boys since the late 80’s releasing hits with Ultra Nate and Crystal Waters. He has had a working relationship with DJ Spen for many years and together launched the successful Quantize Recordings and Unquantize labels.
As Tommy Davis releases his peach of a new album, Mr Davis, we grab a very rare interview with the House Music legend.
Hi Thommy, it’s a pleasure to chat with you today, how is your 2020 going so far?
2020 is tragic year for so many reasons, I’m just grateful to have survived the first half of it. We have been working on my album for at least three years and DJ Spen and I have just been keeping our heads up and positive the past few months. The world state and the pandemic has changed everything forever. That being said, music has been the relief that somehow eases us in rough times such as these.
Who or what first turned you on to DJing producing house and music?
I first turned to Djing when the mixing device became easily available which was around 1978-79. It was at the height of the Disco era. Before then, most party DJs clumsily mixed intros with outros or worse, just changed the record. I can remember watching my local town club jock do this incredible mixing skill back then and knew I had to do it. Early mixers didn’t have cues, but the idea of continuous music enticed me. I spent hours after school playing records, hanging out in a record store instead of the library. In Baltimore a local record store hired me as a salesman and it wasn’t long before I launched my own label Thomix Records, which was followed by the formation of the Basement Boys. The rest is history…
Who did you listen to growing up and do they influence your productions at all today?
I listened to my parent’s music and the radio as a child, which was Soul and R&B in the 60’s, but Funk and Disco changed my personal preference by the 70s. Favorites included Boris Midney, Cerrone, John Davis, Giorgio Moroder and Vince Montana. There was something about the 4/4 beat with both minimum and maximum orchestration that to this very day I can’t get enough of. That goes in reference to another love I have with classical music (preferably composers from the Romantic period). My favorite is Chopin.
A lot of people will know your work since the late ’80s as one of The Basement Boys alongside Teddy Douglas and Jay Steinhour. How did you guys first meet up and what was the Baltimore House scene like back then?
Funny, as if you asked either one of us what we fondly remember you might get several different accounts, but after I created my own label Jay and I wanted to form a production company called Changes and Teddy and I were close friends since we both were DJs and worked in retail. I first met Jay in a night club that had opened and he was on the bill. Back then, in the dance underground, you run the same circuits and you’d get to know others that are in it. Teddy and I were close friends from the beginning and writing songs long before we could produce them – a sort of a McFadden & Whitehead wanna be! He would sing all the vocals and was the very first artist that we got signed on Jump Street records. We went to all the music seminars and religiously hung out in the Zanzibar Club with Tony Humphries, who would play our demos from a reel to reel! We had no idea that it was the beginning of a very long journey into House. No other name suited us better than The Basement Boys as Jay built the first studio in his basement. Originally, Teddy would play a lot of our demos at his gigs and he became my favorite DJ to listen and dance to and he still is to this day! With both of us in the retail end and getting attention around the world, the Baltimore house culture flourished. Before we knew it we were on multi-labels simultaneously, including CBS, MCA, and Mercury! As a trio, we just learned the business as it came. Baltimore was never so proud.
Together you produced worldwide hits for now famous artists including Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters, Mass Order and so many more, creating the famous Baltimore House sound. Which release was the biggest labour of love to create and did you anticipate that your music would have such an impact on the global dance scene?
Hmmmm, wish I could single one out from the many, but I guess it would be Crystal Waters ‘Gypsy Woman’. We had to let our 9-5 jobs go and we would work till late morning and still make all the seminars and nightlife. So you could say the labor of love was sacrificing so much personally to keep up with the demand for album projects that could require the submission of at least twenty songs, although maybe only the best fifteen would make it. Success came with a cost that can test anyone’s fortitude.
What people describe as the Baltimore sound was actually our closest to making the Zanzibar sound – songs by Boyd Jarvis bass, disco drums, gospel or Latin keys on songs written by an amazing lyricist. We would be nothing without the musicians like Mark Harris, Neal Conway, Gary Hudgins, and many more, who believed in what we were doing in a world that had rejected Disco and resurgent in the new thing called Soulful House. Unlike the USA, that has to be proven before adapting, the UK loved it from the first record and Warner Brothers UK signed Ultra Nate. You know the saying about having to go outside of where you are from to be recognized at home. We soon was overwhelmed globally and more people gave recognition to a small town near DC that they’d never heard of.
Fast forward to more recent years, you have been running Quantize Recordings & Unquantize labels since 2012 with DJ Spen and Kelly Spencer. How’s it all going and what have you got coming up in the near future?
The future, despite the state of the world today, looks bright for Quantize and Unquantize. We put out two or more releases a week and at least two albums a month. It takes a lot of work to perform at this rate, but we work with many great producers, artists, remixers, musicians, writers and a dynamo distributor – MN2S! In the beginning Spen and I tried to do it all, now the label engine runs with so many people in various positions just to keep up. The near future has so much music coming that my head spins to digest the constant grind that takes no holiday. Quantize and Unquantize have a fundamental solid ground in the belief that everything we do is run, guided and attributed to God. It keeps us centred and responsible in what we do, and who the credit goes to. Do look out for Timmy Regsiford’s new album coming soon.
You’ve produced a lot of tracks and remixes together with DJ Spen, how did you guys first meet and what’s your working relationship like?
Destined to be friends for life says it all! Long, ago when I was working retail and pitching this new thing called House with so much fervour, a young DJ Spen would visit the store to buy this new phenomena called “Hip Hop”. Still in high school, he had already made his mark as a skilful Hip Hop DJ and was breaking into radio fast. He and his friends (Numarx) loved the energy of House, although they did Rap and R & B. Long story short, they, in humor of the growth of the house underground, gave me a cassette of a song they did. I was selling hundreds of records a week in the store and I challenged them to do some alterations to it and I would put it out. They did, and I pressed it from a cassette! The song, “Git Da Hole”, became an underground smash!. We did a lot of things together, even an Ultra song before they blew up with the global song that Milli Vanilli covered “Girl You Know It’s True.” Flash forward ahead, he joined Basement Boys and the production company continued with more hits, writers and producers. He and I didn’t partner together again until we launched Code Red Records and then later, Quantize. Spen is a genius and I honestly would never do anything without him. He is the key to the sound that makes everything sound incredible. Yes, there could be a Thommy Davis without him, but I would never be that foolish! The most humblest man you would ever want to know and a purest in sound and ethics. In this business, at the end of the day, it counts to trust who you work with.
You’ve just released your exciting new album ‘Mr Davis’, please tell us a little about the release and how it sounds?
“Mr. Davis” would never have happened if I didn’t regard the history of house dear to my heart. Spen and I were doing so much that we developed an anthem sound that was reminiscent to where it all began. That love for the new ‘classic’ sound inspired us to do my first solo album – a collection of all reproduced tracks and covers of some of the tunes that I will never forget and ones that I would love to do. It’s a mix of classic disco and soulful house grooves. All it took was to ask my friends in the business if they were in and they all wholeheartedly said yes! Almost three years in the making the album was finally completed. It took a lot of man hours with my close friend Greg Lewis to record most of it. Each person on it, both in production and artists are super close friends and I can’t thank them enough.
You have worked with lots of different artists on the album, please tell us a bit about who is involved in the project and what they brought to the table?
The list of credits to make this album is extensively long. So let’s begin with “Think” with my idol and dear friend Barbara Tucker. She and Quantize have done a lot together and in one of the sessions I begged her to do Lynn Collins and James Brown cover. I never thought that she would said yes. I ran around the studio during the whole session! It took almost two years before the single saw the light of day. Tracy Hamlin is an established international jazz and soul artist and when it comes to working on song ideas, she takes them and rolls with ease. “Home” was a more difficult session as it’s an emotional song and it resonates with anyone. “MacArthur Park took a great deal of time because the musicianship had to be on the anthem level. Tracy has an incredible range and control and can rival Donna Summers original with her beautiful delivery. When I asked her could she do the classic ballad “Isn’t It A Shame”, she smashed it out the hemisphere! Forever in gratitude, is my love for the musicianship of the legendary work of Gary Hudgins. It’s not very easy to re-create a ballad for the dance floor, but he takes a song and makes it his own and is a consummate of sounds with a long history in music all the way to Parliament and Funkadelic. You will see his credits on almost everything on Quantize!
The album also includes several brilliant Disco cover versions – Karen Young’s ‘Hot Shot’, The O’Jay’s ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet and Tender Love)’ Jean Carne’s ‘Was That All It Was’, among others. What made you choose these to cover in particular and are you pleased with how they turned out?
This album had to show my love for great songs and quite simply, these are some of my favourites. Each song had to embody the energy of the original. To do this meant that many of them had real musicians performing on them to reproduce the authenticity. A close friend Randy Roberts studied “Darling, Darling Baby (Sweet and Tender)” and he nailed it. The music re-composed by Neal Conway who I’ve known since the Basement Boys days. He actually wrote the music for Crystal Waters “Gypsy Woman” and when I asked him to recreate this O’Jays classic, he went to work. His flair and friendship is undeniable and I’m very grateful. He also did the re-make of “Make My Body Rock” that has the awesome vocals by Dana Weaver! I love her!
Randy Roberts also did the Third World classic “Try Jah Love” at a faster pace which is a feat in itself. A lot of people might now him from the Jasper Street Company, he has so much vocal talent that nothing is impossible for him. We have worked on so many projects together, and he is hands down a guy that is diligent about his craft, and always ready to tackle a project. Now for my most newest, but nonetheless close friend Ms Tasha LaRae, there is so much I can say about her and her dynamic voice. With already a pre-existing history from Arrest & Development, I have been working with her on a lot of stuff. When I asked her to do the difficult song “Hot Shot” that includes another longtime friend Sheila Ford, she simply asked me how did I want it? The combination of Tasha and Sheila is a perfect match and not many can cover Karen Young. Spen and I knew that we were going to respect the orchestration, so there was no room to improvise too far from the classic. I am so happy about the way this turned out. We all know Sheila Ford’s work and her seemingly effortless skill, but she too is a classically trainer vocalist trained under the tutelage of Quincy Jones! Jazz, Blues, Classical, and dance are in her blood. She also sang on “Acid Love” that MicFreak remixed. Believe it or not, she sang the entire song in Italian! It has been slimed down for the album, but you will hear the complete song in the future. Funny story is that I asked her is she could do it operatic style like the song in the movie “Fifth Element” and she did it complete with a three octave range! There are also the performances of my longtime friend Richard Burton on “Love To The World” and “Was It All It Was”, which are phenomenal. Richard is the most adaptable vocalist I love to work with.
You’ve seen the music industry change a lot over the years since you first started out, how does then compare to now and what needs to change for the better now in your opinion?
I can say this about music that I have learned over the years; it never actually changes. There is nothing that hasn’t been done before and there is a mechanics to what is pleasant or inspiring. Over the years, I still can hear a tune and remember it. Retail taught me that what anyone really wants in music is to be introduced to a story, whether it is in house, classical, or rhythm. I am a product of what I digest and internalize, so I am careful to what I expose myself to as it will get stuck in my head. As for what needs to change, I think the domain constraints on music is stifling the global connect and growth of music. The U.S. blocks a lot of what we can hear and play like a lot countries. Music should not have boundaries as it isn’t fair to the artists or industry. It’s a double edged sword, in my opinion, major labels can go global in saturation and independent label have limited territories, its the same old story, but from the independent label’s struggle comes the sound that changes the world, breaking all barriers.
What pearls of wisdom do you have to share with up and coming producers?
Remember that a producer is the guy that is like a chef. He doesn’t have to be able to break an egg to bake a cake. He just needs to know how to get the right people together to make one. The producer sometimes has to do many of the things to make that great cake, but new producers should find the best people to go in the kitchen with in the first place and then you can create one delicious cake! Stay in your lane too, after you ride in the passenger seat a couple times, then you can drive. A producer seldom does everything, if they did everything, it will all taste the same. Basically, I’m just suggesting new producers to work well with each other, especially in genres like House and Hip Hop.
Which are you top 5 tracks from your own discography? You can include Thommy Davis tracks too!
1 Home – Tracy Hamlin
2 Gypsy Woman – Crystal Waters
3 Take Me Away – Mass Order
4 Rejoice – Ultra Nate
5 Hot – Thommy Davis & Greg Lewis
What’s the secret to sustaining such a long career in the music industry?
It’s no secret. I never take sole credit for anything except the original love of music. It is so easy to let ego, success, and shortcomings soil that love that is a personal conviction. I go into each project as if it were my last and I never judge music by financial success. Yes, we all want that, but I have seen it destroy so many. I have learned that if I respect the music, and love the good with the bad, then I can keep going, taking very little personal. Trust, in a business that requires it because of its nature, is the most important thing that I must do. To convince someone that I believe in what I am doing means to earn that trust, which means that I believe in what they are doing. I have never uttered the fatal words, “We gonna make a lot of money!”
What’s next for Thommy Davis?
Lately, due to the global pandemic, my online DJing experience is off the chain and gaining appeal. What happened is that I embraced the sound and let the world see it. Most people don’t know that theater is in my veins, and today when some people just love to watch, all I have to do is be there and do my thing. As a good friend said to me, “I was built for performance.” It will only engage the sound that I love to the next level and it is so great to hold firm to that sound and march to my own drum. Also, look out for a biographical movie in the making. I have devoted an entire life to music and the story might uplift many. And in addition I’m active in the Recording Academy as a Governor in The Washington DC Chapter, which gives me opportunity to speak and advocate Soulful House and dance community’s rights in streaming and in the Recording Academy. It just doesn’t make sense that there isn’t a category in most award recognitions for a genre that is worldwide. I might not see that day that it comes to fruition, but I will fight so that the next man can – in art, in sound, in culture, and in dedication.