Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were one of the most musically diverse and successful recording acts of the '80s. With hits produced and written by Full Force, the six-man performing/songwriting/production team from East Flatbush/Brooklyn, NY, they scored million-selling hits with dance-based tracks ("I Wonder if I Take You Home"), beautiful ballads ("All Cried Out"), and unabashed pop tunes ("Head to Toe," "Lost in Emotion"). They were one of the early exponents of what later became hip-hop R&B. With five gold singles, two number one singles on both the R&B and the pop charts, two platinum albums, and inclusions on various compilations and movie soundtracks, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were the most successful act of Full Force's "One Big Family" roster of acts.
Born Lisa Velez on January 15, 1967, in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Lisa Lisa, the youngest of ten children, dreamed of becoming a recording star while working at Benetton, a New York City clothing manufacturer where she folded sweaters. After hearing that Madonna was discovered by top dance-pop producer Jellybean at the Fun House, a non-liquor-serving hangout for rappers and breakdancers, she'd sneak out of the family apartment after dark hoping to be discovered in the same way. That's where she met percussionist Mike Hughes, who played with Full Force and was a roadie for the band. He was thinking of forming a group and invited the aspiring 16-year-old singer to the group's Brooklyn/Flatbush home for an audition. Velez's older brother Raymond told him she couldn't go unless he accompanied her. One evening, the two clandestinely met without telling Raymond and took the subway, en route for the FF audition.
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's success seems like kismet, since Full Force and their manager Steve Salem were already thinking along the same lines. With New Edition being in their heyday, FF and Salem had decided that they'd form a group that was also inspired by a Motown group. In essence, since there was a "new edition" of the Jackson 5, they'd create a new edition of the Supremes. Meeting Full Force -- Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou, B-Fine, Baby Gerry, Shy-Shy, and Curt-t-t -- who were built like pro football linebackers, was quite an intimidating experience for Velez, who was visibly nervous. After singing some songs Hughes wrote, she sang Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only," the title theme from the 1981 Roger Moore James Bond movie. With that, FF were sure that they'd found the singer that they were looking for. Not a powerhouse vocalist or a "super" singer, but one that average teenage girls her own age could sing along with and easily imitate when they heard her records.
Signed to Full Force's management and production company, the group dubbed her Lisa Lisa and added Hughes and his friend, guitarist Alex "Spanador" Moseley, as Cult Jam. Combining their signature beat, which was influenced by Stax/Booker T. & the MG's/Al Green drummer Al Jackson, Jr. (whose work on Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' "Tramp" was sampled by early rap and hip-hop artists ad nauseam) with the electro sound of Kraftwerk/Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," the first single Full Force produced on Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam was "I Wonder if I Take You Home." Billed as "Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force," the group was signed by N.Y.-based label Personal Records. The label leased "I Wonder if I Take You Home" to the European division of CBS Records for the compilation album Breakdancing.
Stateside club DJs began playing the single from the import LP. The U.S. division of CBS, Columbia Records, released the record with it quickly becoming a chart-topper on Billboard's Hot Dance/Disco chart. The single went gold, crossing over to the R&B chart, peaking at number six, and the pop chart at number 34 in summer 1985. The follow-up, "Can You Feel the Beat," made it to number 40 R&B in late 1985. Their third single, the beautiful ballad "All Cried Out" was billed as "Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force featuring Paul Anthony and Bowlegged Lou," and it went gold, going to number three R&B, number eight pop in summer 1986.
Their debut album, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam With Full Force (which included the standout tracks "Behind My Eyes," the flip side of "All Cried Out," and "You'll Never Change," the B-side of "Head to Toe") went platinum. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's next album, Spanish Fly, went platinum, peaking at number seven pop and included two Motown-influenced gold singles; a combination of the sound of the Supremes, Lulu ("To Sir With Love"), with a sprinkling of the 5th Dimension and FF's hard-driving beats, "Head to Toe" parked at number one R&B for two weeks and hit number one pop in spring 1987, and with its strong Mary Wells influence, "Lost in Emotion" held the number one R&B spot for two weeks and made it to number one pop in summer 1987.
Other hits from Spanish Fly were the ballad "Someone to Love Me for Me" b/w "Spanish Fly" (number seven R&B), "Everything Will B-Fine" (number nine R&B), and the top-notch LP track "Face in the Crowd." Lisa Lisa/Full Force also had a track in the Chevy Chase movie Caddyshack 2, "Go for Yours," in summer 1988. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's 1989 LP Straight to the Sky yielded the singles "Little Jackie Wants to Be a Star" (number three R&B), "Just Git It Together," and "Kiss Your Tears Away" b/w "Dance Forever."
For their next album, Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen, the production chores were split, with Robert Clivillés and David Cole of C+C Music Factory producing side one of the LP and Full Force side two. The catchy Clivillés and Cole-produced single "Let the Beat Hit 'Em" hit number one R&B and went gold in summer 1991. The FF-produced follow-up, "Where Were You When I Needed You," charted number 65 R&B in fall 1991. One standout track on the LP is a cover of the Isley Brothers' "Sensuality."
Lisa Lisa resurfaced as a solo act on Pendulum, charting with "Skip to My Lu," number 38 R&B in late 1993, and "When I Fell in Love" from the LL 77 album. Lisa Lisa guested on Full Force-produced LPs. Most notably "Love Scene," the last track on Full Force's second LP, Full Force Get Busy 1 Time!, and the flip side of "Old Flames Never Die" and "Sisters" from Cheryll "Pepsii" Riley's "Me, Myself & I," which included her 1988 number one R&B single "Thanks for My Child." ~ Ed Hogan~ Rovi