To hear bandmate Mike Hughes tell it, Lisa Velez owes much of her good fortune to Madonna and the trend-vacuum left behind when the Material Girl zoomed to stardom from the downtown New York City club scene that spawned her. “We clearly thought, ‘Madonna left the market; we want this market,’ ” says Hughes of the strategy that gave birth to the band Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. “The Latin female thing started back with Madonna. She was part of the Fun House [club] crowd, playing the Puerto Rican role, dressing that way, hangin’ out with that crowd. She was accepted and became the Latin queen. Now Madonna and everyone knows that Lisa is the new queen.”
Although people with an allergy to hype may break out in hives at the sight of such a statement, Velez is a hot commodity. Last June Head To Toe, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s third Top 40 single, became the No. 1 pop song in America. Formed in 1983 by Hughes, 24, Velez, 20, and Alex “Spanador” Mosley, 25, with the guidance of the entrepreneurial Brooklyn production team Full Force, LLCJ has seen its second LP (Spanish Fly) go platinum and land in Billboard’s Top 10 six weeks after its release. A new, Motownish single, Lost In Emotion, as well as gigs opening for David Bowie and a fall tour, have widened the band’s audience. Velez, whose light, sexy vocals have been compared to those of pop-soul queen Diana Ross, says her Full Force mentors “wanted that Supremes type of feel. They wanted that innocent, girlish voice, yet womanly.”
Raised in Manhattan’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, the youngest of ten children, Velez was a high school theater enthusiast whose quest for stardom once led her to a gig as a singing fruit in a California prune company promotion. Hughes says he was bullied into music by Full Force, a local street gang cum music group. “They moved onto the block, terrorized the neighborhood, then all of a sudden they got into music. You either joined them,” he says, chuckling, “or you were in trouble.” “In Brooklyn you get evil,” says Mosley, who admits he looted stores during New York’s 1977 blackout.
Now making honest livings, Hughes and Mosley, like Velez, live at home when they’re not on the road, where the action is decidedly “wholesome” for the drug-and booze-free trio. “We’re not idiotic drunks fallin’ around, actin’ stupid,” Hughes says. “We’re just away from home in these strange little towns. We try to bring a little bit of New York wherever we go.” While the boys in the band admit to dalliances with female fans, Velez says she is true to her boyfriend, a Federal Express delivery man from the Bronx. “The guys won’t allow one guy to enter my hotel room,” she says. “Men are banned.”
Once a Madonna wanna-be who wore lace and “high-heel roach killers way high and the corset all tight to move the boobs up,” Velez now usually wears flats onstage, a miniskirt and a jacket. “I want my fans to know that I’m not over at Saks buying furs. I want them to look at us and think, ‘If they were able to do it, we can, too.’ ”
Look out, Madonna—here come the Lisa Lisa wanna-bes.