Lisa Velez, more commonly known as Lisa Lisa, first appeared on radio and MTV as a teenager, when Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home” became a hit in 1985. A long string of Billboard hits followed, including “Head to Toe,” “Lost in Emotion,” “All Cried Out” and ‘Can You Feel the Beat.” Today, her legacy endures among her fans and a generation of artists that followed her.
In this conversation, she discusses her lifelong love of music, the surprising early rise of her career, DMX’s recent display of appreciation for her, the unusual way in which she competed against Michael Jackson, and the job she was fired from because she became too famous.
Lisa Lisa will perform with Taylor Dayne and Jody Watley in a show titled “Ladies of the ’80s,” Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury in Westbury, N.Y., Jan. 31 at 8 p.m., and the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m.
Q: New York City is the mecca of Freestyle music, so I think the media tends to focus on your hometown when they discuss your backstory. I would think that being the youngest of 10 children, and the youngest of seven girls, had to shape your personality just as much.
A: Oh, 100 percent. And in all good ways. I was able to learn from all of my older siblings. Not only from their mistakes but also about what I wanted out of life, and what I didn’t want (laughs). We were also raised in the church choir and the church band, and when my mom was young and growing up in Puerto Rico, she was in a band. Everything was about music in my life right away and that definitely influenced me. There was nothing ever done in our house unless there was music playing.
Q: So your family was a lot like The Jets, except not everyone made it onstage.
A: (laughs) Yes. And we’re still all very musical and very close.
Q: I’ve heard interesting stories from musicians regarding how they first learned that they were on their way – that their big break had arrived. I have to say that you have one of the better ones.
A: I started with Full Force (the legendary collective of songwriters, producers and musicians from Brooklyn) when I was 13, and had already recorded with them professionally. The music was being released overseas, but it wasn’t being played here. I was just a teenager in New York working at a clothing store (Benetton). It was funny because I hadn’t learned that the record, “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” was released out here in the States until my girlfriend called the store while I was working the cash register. She said, “You need to turn the radio on right now!” And there it was. Our record, and my voice, were being played on Z100! I just started screaming! The store manager came running out of the back and was like, “What the hell?”
Q: It sounds like a rags-to-riches story that should have began right there, but … you didn’t quit your job.
A: I know, right?! (laughs) I didn’t want to quit because I had bills to pay and it was hard to get by at the time. The record was charting and I was doing shows but I still needed to work because I had family to take care of, and had myself to take care of as well. Friends literally had to come to the store and drag me out. They came in and said, “Okay, you really need to quit your job, Lisa, because we got a call from your manager at the store, and this is becoming a problem for her.” She called on them to do it because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings!
Q: What was the problem? Fan attention?
A: Yeah, people found out that I was still working at the store so they would come in to say hello or just see what I was doing. (laughs) I was confused by it, like, “Wait … what?” I would be folding sweaters, doing stock or working the register, and there they were.
Q: After they dragged you out of Benetton, you and (Cult Jam bandmates) Alex Moseley and Mike Hughes went on to have five consecutive hit singles over a span of two albums. Your face was on MTV for the rest of the decade, and your existence changed dramatically.
A: It did. It really did. I lived out of a suitcase for years because we were always on the road — which, don’t get me wrong, I appreciated. I loved the fact that we consistently had work and people loved the music and kept requesting our songs. I had no problem with all of that. The thing that changed that was difficult for me was that I didn’t have any privacy. It was hard to do pretty much anything because I was growing up in the eyes of the public, and I was young. So the guys (in the Cult Jam and their crew) didn’t let me do anything, anyway. They would take me straight from the stage, back to the hotel and then lock me away from trouble. I was just a kid on the road and they know that my mother would have had their butt. (laughs)
Q: You were also suddenly earning a lot of money. That had to be something new to get your head around, as you were still young. Did you have any idea how much you were making while you were out there making it?
A: I had no idea. None. Because I honestly didn’t know a thing about money. But you know, thank God I had an accountant and a group of people who really helped me manage everything. And my mother wasn’t dumb. She put me on an allowance. (laughs) Which was great for awhile, you know? But as I got older I had to say, “Okay, I’m in control of my stuff now, in regard to the shopping and everything else.” It was difficult. I don’t care what anybody says, money changes people and it changes relationships. 100 percent.
Q: “All Cried Out” was one of those hits that were bringing in all that money, and I thought it was a really important song for you because your voice stood apart from a lot of the female singers in Freestyle at the time. They would often mask or get around their limitations by harmonizing their choruses or heavily layering their vocals in the studio. With “All Cried Out,” you’re basically out there on a limb vocally, and the song distinguishes you. Am I leaning too hard on this, or do you see that song as being important?
A: No, I do too. I really do. It was a chance to let people hear my talent. Still to this day, I love to sing, I love to perform and I love that song. And as far as what you are saying? Definitely. I will never go up on a stage and not give my audience the full effect. There will be no lip synching with me — everything is fully live — so it was very important for me to get “All Cried Out” out there. I wanted people to see and hear what I can do.
Q: People adore that song, women most especially. Forgetting the charts and the sales, and just based on your interactions with everyday people, what do you feel your most popular song is?
A: “All Cried Out.” And then “Take You Home.” But you’re right, women love “All Cried Out.” (laughs)
Q: The songs and videos that would immediately follow your debut came from the Spanish Fly album, and “Head to Toe” and “Lost in Emotion” were both No. 1 hits for you. It was a huge success. In the process it sounded like you might have taken the edge off of your sound a little bit. Was that something you did consciously in order to appeal to a larger audience?
A: No, I was just following my gut and doing what I wanted to do and that’s where it led. I think I tapped into a lot of different styles like R&B, pop, hip-hop — and I will continue to do that. I know I was very well known for what they call Freestyle and a lot of people wanted to hear me stay with just that, but … sorry.
Q: That’s a refreshing answer because most artists who have their music move towards pop attribute it to record company pressure.
A: Oh, no. Never. I mean, that’s true. A lot of artists do experience that. But I do what I need to do. If I don’t want it and I don’t love it, I’m not doing it.
Q: The need to star in videos came along with all of these hits as well. One minute a few fans are watching you fold clothes at Benetton, the next, millions are watching you dance on television as a sex symbol. How did you feel about doing that?
A: Well, at that age, it was just a fight for me. I was fighting with people about, “No, I don’t want to wear that!” because I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl and back then, at that age, I didn’t want to dress up in all these things they wanted me to. But my mother told me, “Lisa, you are going to put that on and not say anything and look beautiful.” (laughs) Back then I didn’t really think about it, like you are saying. The sex symbol part, and the attention it was going to bring to me. I just saw it as an argument. “Why can’t I wear my sneakers!?”
Q: Using the “Lost in Emotion” video from that era as an example (see below), there are several close-ups where you were obviously directed to dance or smile or show some kind of reaction on cue. It’s a music performance, but you’re basically acting. That was new to you.
A: That part I liked. I thought it was all about a good time, and we were truly having fun. The directors would tell us, “All right, we want this, this, this and this.” But I would say, “Look, just have the camera follow us and we’re going to have fun with this. That’s what this is going to be like.” I don’t want to have too much structure when I do things like that. It makes it boring, and I didn’t want to go there with it because that video was in a fun setting, you know? We were at the 116th Street Carnival in New York. If we’re going to choose a carnival to do a video, it’s got to be about having fun.
Q: In regard to Spanish Fly … you suggested that you can’t always do what some fans might want you to. That usually leaves an artist’s hardcore fans wringing their hands, but it’s fun to watch the reaction if and when that artist takes a step back toward them later on. When you released your song “Let the Beat Hit ‘em” in 1991, many Freestyle fans lost their minds. (Lisa Lisa laughs)
A: That’s true! I was having fun with myself for awhile, you know? But at that point I was like, “Okay, it’s time to go back to basics, man. It’s time to do this.” So I brought in some other producers to work with as well, and that combination really turned up. People loved it.
Q: So many different types of fans show up for the various things that you do, which is a major compliment to yourself and your career. “Let the Beat Hit ’em” was a soft Top 40 Billboard hit, but it was a No. 1 hit in Dance and R&B charts, across the board.
A: Thank you for saying that, because that has always been what I wanted to do from that start — tap into and succeed in every style of music. I can’t live without music. I would simply die without it. So, I have always been about whatever came through to my heart. If it was a great song, we were doing it and I didn’t care what genre of music it was. It was going to get done. I haven’t done country yet, though. (laughs)
Q: No big deal. I mean, why bother becoming just one more in a long line of famous Puerto Rican country singers? (both laugh)
You’re a very sweet person, but I also love hearing you speak authoritatively about the control you have over your life and music. I wasn’t fully aware of that side of you until I saw Steve Stanulis’ “The Legends of Freestyle” documentary.
A: Oh, I loved it! I was really raw in that, wasn’t I? (laughs) You know, they asked me for my true opinions … and they got ’em.
Q: I was happy to hear you saying those things (in regard to her place in Freestyle history), because many people have been saying them for you for years. I was having a conversation with Jeromme Graham who is a music aficionado and the administrator of a Club MTV fan page, and I said, “I probably don’t have to ask you your feelings about this artist to know how you feel, but I’ll be speaking with Lisa Lisa this week.” And he said, “You guessed right. I LOVE her!” The comments on YouTube videos wherever your music appears are overwhelmingly positive. The love you receive stands out.
A: Yes, it does! And I value it and giggle a lot about it because it makes me feel great. Look, I love my fans and they’re the ones who have made me who I am today, you know? So theirs is the only opinion that I really, truly appreciate. Whether I’m doing something that’s gonna make them smile or think twice, I’m doing it right, and I’m doing it right for them.
Q: Snoop Dogg has spoken quite a bit about his appreciation of you — we’ll mention him again in a minute — and there are many artists who started their careers a generation or two after you who feel similarly. DMX is one of them, and his enthusiasm while watching you perform recently was a big entertainment news item. (the initial video share has been removed, but the one posted below still exists)
A: Oh, wow. I have always been a huge fan of his because I think he’s one of the most intense rappers and performers when he’s onstage. He’s so intense! So for me to be coming offstage and told that he was standing back there? I was like, “What? Where?” I ran to him! (laughs) I told him, “Oh my God, I so appreciate you.” He lifted me and hugged me and I just thought, “This is great.” It wasn’t until later on that someone showed me that he was back there the entire show. I was in shock. I’m so appreciative of him.
Q: You were born and raised in New York City, you are Puerto Rican, and you came to great success through dance and pop music. This has brought many comparisons to Jennifer Lopez, where you’re often mentioned as an O.G., so to speak, and a blueprint for her career. How do you feel about being mentioned with her so frequently?
A: I don’t really mind it because she’s very talented and she’s, like, one of the Top 10 entertainers in the world today. I think it’s going to happen a lot because of everything you mentioned. You know, we’re both women with the same ethnicity, born and raised in New York. I can say that I don’t mind it.
Q: There is at least one thing you and Jennifer do not have in common — your interest in the Elephant Man’s bones.
A: (laughs) Oh, man.
Q: What was or is your interest in Joseph Merrick’s remains?
A: That subject was such a big deal back then. I read about it, and I saw the movie and the exhibit and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I remember being a fanatic over the whole thing to the point that I was like, “I want to try to get (the remains) and donate them somewhere.” And I did try.
Q: You did, and you were bidding against Michael Jackson. That accountant you mentioned earlier must have been one hell of an accountant.
A: Yeah, well, that accountant was telling me that I was out of my mind! In the end it actually worked out that I didn’t win.
Q: You’ve been out there all along, but it appears that you’re busier now than you have been in awhile. Tell us about your new connection with Snoop Dogg.
A: Unfortunately, my manager was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away recently, so we had to have some meetings at the time about who was going to take over my management and career. We had a few names in mind, and Snoop was one of the people who kept popping up. After my manager passed, I got the phone call from (Snoop’s organization) and I decided to come onboard. It’s been nothing but onwards and upwards with him ever since. We have so many things coming. We have a film in the works, more music, and a lot of stuff that is in the really early stages. Like child stages. (laughs) But it’s all coming along really well. And you know, I have a boot line that I’m putting out as well. So look out for that. Movies, music, and clothes. There you go. That’s all a woman needs.
Q: You are also performing several dates on the road this year with Jody Watley and Taylor Dayne. You covered Taylor’s song “Stand’” in the past, but have you had any personal or professional history outside of that with either Jody or Taylor?
A: It’s a musical sisterhood. We are friends from the road, you know? We’ve bumped into each other so many times over the years in this industry, and done so many gigs together. We actually did a few together last summer and it was fun, so when the offer came I said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Q: You’ll also be playing for “your” audience. All three of you owned a big part of radio airplay at virtually the same time, so this is a great lineup for fans of that era. As a veteran performer who has played everywhere with everyone, I’m sure you’ve found yourself in less inviting situations.
A: Oh definitely. And that’s okay because anything I go through onstage or along the way is a sacrifice made so that I can be up there performing. I told you, I would die without music! Besides my children, that’s what I care the most about and I’ll do whatever I have to do to be out there. Just let me sing!
Follow Lisa Lisa on Instagram: @lisalisall77
Follow Lisa Lisa on Twitter: @LisaLisaLL77
Find Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam music: Lisa Lisa & The Cult-Jam
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts who interviews pop culture figures.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.
Follow Ferraro on Twitter at: @PopCultRob
Follow Ferraro on Facebook at: @ofpersonalinterest
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence, though, depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.