Shooting from the New York City club circuit to the national singles charts in 1985, singer Lisa Lisa helped to prove that hip hop need not be confined to the underground. With the assistance of keyboard player and guitarist Alex “Spanador” Mosely and drummer Mike Hughes, together known as Cult Jam, and the production team Full Force, Lisa Lisa created a debut album full of dance numbers and ballads that evoked comparisons to classic 1960s girl groups such as the Supremes. Spanish Fly, the outfit’s sophomore effort, a potpourri of musical styles including salsa and doowop, was even more impressive than the previous album, producing a slew of singles that peaked on multiple charts in 1987. After falling into a relative slump with two albums that passed little muster with critics, Lisa Lisa returned to form in 1994 with the satisfying solo debut LL-77.
The youngest of ten siblings in a large Latino family, Lisa Lisa (born Lisa Velez) grew up in the tough New York City neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen, where she discovered a talent for singing in her church’s choir. As a young teenager, Velez continued her budding career in high school musical theater and made her inauspicious professional debut as a singing prune for a company of local fruit growers. However, it was in the vibrant world of the Fun House, one of New York’s most celebrated dance clubs, that Velez would find her first real break.
Having heard that pop star Madonna had emerged from the Fun House herself, Velez donned the lace and corset couture of that singer and became a fixture of the club scene. Velez quickly caught the eye of musicians Mike Hughes and Alex “Spanador” Mosely in 1983, who also saw the potential for Velez to capitalize on the sound of New York’s underground. “We clearly thought, ‘Madonna left the market,’” Hughes reflected to People magazine in 1987. “The Latin female thing started with Madonna…. She was accepted and became the Latin queen.” While Madonna’s complete lack of Latino heritage made such an acceptance something of an irony if not an outright cultural appropriation, the trio began promoting Velez in hopes of becoming Madonna’s successor.
Within a year, Velez was introduced to the street gang turned music group Full Force, who had scored heavily as producers with the rap hit “Roxanne Roxanne” by the act UTFO in 1984. Although at the time it was Madonna that Velez sought to imitate, for Full Force her voice invoked legendary soul singer Diana Ross, who had defined a generation of all-female vocal acts with the Supremes in the 1960s. As Velez told People magazine, it was precisely that “Supremes type of feel” that won Full Force over. “They wanted that innocent, girlish
Born Lisa Velez, January 15, 1967, New York, NY.
Lisa Lisa joined Cult Jam, 1983; song “I Wonder If I Take You Home” released on the Breakdancin’ compilation, 1984, and as a single, 1985; released debut album Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, Columbia Records, 1985; released Spanish Fly, Columbia, 1987; toured with David Bowie, 1987; left Cult Jam, 1991; released first solo album LL-77 for new label Pendulum, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —1290 6th Ave., New York, NY, (212) 397-2244, fax (212) 347-2240. Home— New York, NY.
voice, yet womanly.” Doubling up her first name in homage to “Roxanne Roxanne,” Velez assumed the handle Lisa Lisa, with Hughes and Mosely backing her up as Cult Jam.
With Full Force’s credibility, attracting a major label posed little problem and, in the fall of 1985, Columbia released the cumbersomely titled debut Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, with the latter writing, arranging, and producing the whole affair. While critics such as Rolling Stone’s Debby Bull reserved much of their praise for Full Force’s impressive behind-the-scenes work, it was clearly the still teenage Velez who was the center of public attention. Comparisons to Ross and Veronica of the 1960s group the Ronettes were again made favorably on cuts like the hit single “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” which Bull assessed as “girl-group innocence married to a big street beat…. What a perfectly conceived pop perfection.” While the single made the group a favorite across the U.S. in dance clubs, the follow-up “All Cried Out” broke the Top 10 pop chart and proved Velez’s mastery of emotive ballads.
After a two year interval, Velez and company returned with the album Spanish Fly, a more diverse ensemble of influences that dominated both pop and R&B charts, in addition to impressing critics. Newsweek’s Jim Miller echoed the majority of writers, summing up Spanish Fly as “a clever synthesis of Motown-style melodies, girl-group nostalgia, and the robotic funk pioneered by [singer/song writer] Prince and his protegees,” featuring “the girlish doo-wop of “Lost in Emotion” and the upbeat hip-hop of ‘Everything Will B-Fine’.” “Lost In Emotion” hit the number one position in two charts, as did the infectious dance cut “Head To Toe,” and the album became Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s second platinumselling effort. Although such success resulted in an invitation to accompany veteran pop singer David Bowie on his world tour and massive media exposure, Velez retained her humility. “I don’t consider myself a star,” she confessed to Newsweek in the summer of 1987. “I’m an entertainer. I like to do my job. If I’m a star, it shows that I’m doing my job right.”
After the enormous popularity of Spanish Fly, the reception of their third album in 1989 was a major disappointment. Despite the autobiographical hints of rags to riches success in its one minor hit “Little Jackie Wants to Be a Star,” as well as the ascendant outlook of its title, Straight to the Sky showed signs that Velez had seen her fame come and go. While a moderate seller in R&B charts, the record was attacked in many reviews. “Straight to the Sky is a conflict of interests,” asserted one Melody Maker critic. “The electro and Latino hip hop roots are in evidence, but Full Force’s polished production, more than ever, is part of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s attempt to maintain their pace in the pop straights. It’s neither gracious nor glamorous, [and]tepid in comparison to the spartan spontaneity of their earlier work.”
In response to the claims of blandness leveled at Sky, Velez and her cohorts aimed at an edgier sound for their next release, entitled Straight Outta Hell’s Kitchen. For this 1991 release, the group secured hit-making producers David Cole and Robert Clivill&eaccutes of the outfit C&C Music Factory to handle half of its cuts, in hopes that the duo’s finesse with club tracks would spark a new chemistry. Although Clivill&eaccutes and Cole’s efforts gave shape to the memorable “Let the Beat Hit ‘Em,” a single that hit the top of the R&B charts, the group’s status as a “crossover” act in the mainstream did not recover. Still, the record testified to Velez’s increasing scope as a singer, which no critic would have denied. “I wanted everyone to realize that I’m a true vocalist,” Velez told Billboard upon the release of Hell’s Kitchen. “I’m not one of those rinky-dink girls that come out of nowhere and makes a little money and is here for a little while. No”
After leaving her longtime collaborators Cult Jam and Full Force, Velez made good on her promise of being a long-term artist with her solo debut LL-77, released on the Pendulum label in 1994. For the first time, Velez cowrote her songs with an impressive lineup of partners including co-producer guru and funk vocalist Nona Hendryx. While not a radical break from her work with Cult Jam, LL-77 evidenced that Velez was able to take on more subtle, adult-oriented material without sacrificing the energy that had made her famous. “The lyrics on this album are all a reflection of me and my life,” Velez told Billboard ‘in early 1994. “My darker side came out [on this album], I guess because it had the opportunity. There’s always been a hunger inside me to do this kind of music, and now I can finally do what I want to do.”
LL-77 was on the whole overlooked by record buyers, with its single “Skip To My Lu” barely skimming the R&B Top 40, but it was probably Velez’s most critically acclaimed album yet. Both Rolling Stones Paul Evans and the Village Voice’s Rob Sheffield praised the album for its remodeling of earlier club sounds,the latter critic proclaiming it was “not really a dance record, but a fantasy of how yesterday’s dance-pop mainstream might sound dressed up in today’s studio tricks.” In addition to the album’s diversity of instrumentation, thanks largely to co-producer Giovanni Salah, LL-77 showcased Velez’s most refined singing to date. “Lisa Lisa plays it cool vocally,” wrote Sheffield, “so that where her voice once sounded charmingly thin, she now sounds lazily ethereal.” If Velez had needed to make a comeback, LL-77 was critically more than an ample one, paving the way for a reinvented career as a mature pop chanteuse.
With Cult Jam and Full Force
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, Columbia, 1985.
Spanish Fly, Columbia, 1987.
Straight to the Sky, Columbia, 1989.
Straight Outta Hell’s Kitchen, Columbia, 1991.
Lisa Lisa and Friends, Alex, 1995 (compilation).
Head to Toe, Sony, 1995 (compilation).
LL-77, Pendulum/ERG, 1994.
Billboard, May 23, 1987; August 19, 1989; September 21, 1991; January 15, 1994.
Melody Maker, June 3, 1989.
Newsweek, June 22, 1987.
People, September 14, 1987.
Rolling Stone, October 10, 1985; May 5, 1994.
Village Voice, March 15, 1994.
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