[Editor’s Note: Summer SOULstice is a new nostalgia-fueled soulhead column that revisits the memorable songs that have defined the summers of our past. We hope you enjoy these sonic strolls down memory lane, and stay tuned for more classic tracks to be celebrated throughout the summer.]
Summer SOULstice – 1985: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home”
by Michael A. Gonzales
Living in New York City during the summer of 1985, my favorite jam was “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. With its heavy synths, Linn drums and irresistible bassline, the defiant groove and teenage romanticism of the soulful single became an anthem. One heard it booming from zooming taxi cabs, screaming from behind the counter of uptown bodegas blasting WKTU, and shrieking from the massive boom-box speakers of Times Square breakdancers. With Ronald Reagan serving his second term in the White House, crack cocaine hitting the streets hard, Hollywood royalty Rock Hudson dying from AIDS (at a time when the press and government barely mentioned the disease), Jean-Michel Basquiat creating life on canvas, the introduction of new Coke and Back to the Future in theaters, 1985 was a pivotal twelve months that changed the world, and “I Wonder…” was an essential part of the year’s soundtrack.
Three months after the single was released, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam visited Tower Records on 4th Street and Broadway, where I worked at the time, to promote their recently released debut disc Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force. During the cocaine-riddled ‘80s, when albums and cassettes still sold briskly, the massive Tower Records in the East Village was one of New York’s most popular meeting and hang-out spots. With its three floors and extensive selections, Tower was where young folks chilled with their friends, older folks lingered in the jazz department, and one could sample new music through old headphones. At 22 years-old, clerking at the busy store was my third full-time job in three years.
Two weeks into the gig, my supervisor asked me and few others to help move the record shelves upstairs for an in-store. Noticing my puzzled expression, he explained that an in-store referred to recording artists coming to the store to autograph their albums and meet the fans. “So who’s coming?” I asked with a hint of fan boy excitement. “Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam,” he answered. For a moment, I was stunned silent; and then, I smiled like a fool on the hill. Without a doubt, I was a huge fan of their hit first single and danced too it at the Ritz and Danceteria (where the group performed their first show the year before), but I was also crushing hard on the cutie-pie lead singer who reminded me of every girl I’d ever lusted after during the Puerto Rican Parade, every girl I’d knelt beside at mass inside St. Catherine’s of Genoa, every salsa dancing women I encountered at Broadway 96, and the red lipstick wearing chicks in-line at the Funhouse.
Lisa Lisa was a Puerto Rican cutie from the streets of New York whose real name was Lisa Velez. The youngest of ten children with six sisters and three brothers, she was a buxom girl with a less-than-perfect voice, but enough attitude, vision, and sass to blossom into a star. Born in 1966, she grew-up in Hell’s Kitchen, which spanned from 34th Street to 59th Street between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River. Raised by a strict, religious mother back in the day when her hood was no joke, Lisa Lisa’s Hell’s Kitchen was a strange melting pot that a wild Irish gang known as the Westies called home, where a bugged-out Puerto Rican crew sporting the moniker the Vampires once ruled the night, and the relations between the two groups inspired the classic musical West Side Story.
Yet, amongst the rampant violence, salsa music wholesalers, cutthroat bars and spiritual Botanicas, there were also decent folks striving to survive against those mean streets. Although her father left shortly after Lisa was born, the family was tight. “We were very close,” Lisa Lisa said years later. “I learned from their mistakes what not to do.” Local boys also knew that she wasn’t the one to mess with. “My oldest brother Raymond did three tours of Vietnam, and had a rep in the neighborhood; nobody messed with him.”
When she was a girl, Velez was a choir singer in La Hijas De Maria (Daughters of Mary) at her Catholic church and sang her first solo (“Ava Maria”) when she was nine. “I noticed my mother crying, and my first thought was, ‘Hey, I could make some money off of this shit,” Lisa told me, laughing. “I just loved the reactions, so I just kept on. I performed at school and got involved in different neighborhood things at the YWCA.” A few years after her first communion, when Lisa was a teenager and began craving independence, she started sneaking out of the house to dance the night away at clubs 1018, Danceteria, and the Funhouse.
“I later confessed to my mother that I had been sneaking out, but she refused to believe me,” she said. At that time, Lisa was like one of the girls her future label-mate Cyndi Lauper sang about, who just wanted to have fun while a part of her also wanted to be famous. In the meantime, she was content to party with her friends, tease the boys, but never really do anything too bad. One night, when Lisa least expected it, she got her chance. Reminiscent of the Lana Turner mythology in which the starlet was discovered by a Hollywood producer while slurping pop at some soda shop, it was at the Funhouse where Velez encountered the man with the musical plan to take her away from the ordinary world.
“I had met (Cult Jam keyboardist) Mike Hughes at the Funhouse (a former NYC disco) and he said that he heard that I could sing,” Lisa said. “He told me Full Force was looking for a singer and did I want to audition. I didn’t know anything about Full Force or the music business, I just knew I wanted to be a singer and be on stage.” Like many New York City singing sisters before her, from Ronnie Spector to Lesley Gore to Valerie Simpson, little Lisa wanted more from life than the leaning tenements, screeching subway cars, and neighborhood boys with hollow promises and dusty pockets. Willing to take a few risks to get what she wanted, Lisa decided to audition.
Although she’d never ventured into the borough before, Lisa boarded the #4 train to Brooklyn, hailed a dollar cab and headed to Lenox Road and East 49th Street where Full Force had a home studio in the basement of their mom’s house. Dressed in blue jeans, a pink t-shirt, pink sneakers, and a pink thing in her hair, she sat shyly as group members Bow Legged Lou and Paul Anthony walked into the room. “I was only sixteen years old and I had these big titties out to here,” Lisa said, “but, I still looked like a little girl.”
Paul Anthony kissed her on the cheek and remarked, “You’re very pretty; can you sing?” Lisa laughed at the memory. “I got all sassy and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can sing.’ The only song I knew by heart was ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (a Sheena Easton Bond Theme), because I used to sing that in my theater class at Julia Richman High School.” Standing in the middle of that Brooklyn basement, Lisa closed her eyes and sang the syrupy song (“…you can see so much in me that’s new / I never felt until I looked at you”) with much conviction. “Afterwards, Paul said, ‘Wow, you have a big voice for such a little girl.’ I was such a little thing compared to them.”
A few years before, Detroit-born Madonna had appropriated much of her sexy bike messenger style from the Spanish girl swag she spotted on the Lower East Side and her boyfriend, former Funhouse DJ Jellybean Benitez. Lisa Velez might have danced to the grooves of “Everybody” and “Lucky Star” at the Funhouse, but given the opportunity, she was determined to represent for New York Ricans in her own special way.
“That night, Full Force taught me a new song they had written and gave me a cassette tape with the music to practice at home. That song was ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home.’ That was a Thursday night; the following Tuesday we were in the studio recording the track.” Although the Full Force posse was primarily known for their hip-hop productions with U.T.F.O. (“Roxanne, Roxanne”), the Real Roxanne and Doctor Ice, the brothers knew how to combine boom-box techniques with dance floor flavors and still get played on the radio.
Guiding Lisa through the process of becoming a recording artist, their own wall of sound was covered in graffiti as they molded the teenaged singer to follow in the path of the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), the Crystals (“Then He Kissed Me”), and the Supremes (“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”). “Full Force had these incredible melodies that they fused with Lisa’s voice and wrapped it all up with their hip-rap-pop sound,” film producer (Precious) Lisa Cortes says. “I loved that song. Lisa Lisa was also an important player in introducing the freestyle to the mainstream.” The track also served as a different blueprint for the Latin Hip-Hop/Freestyle movement that would give the world Expose, The Cover Girls, TKA, Noel and others.
Whereas a decade before many Latinos were listening to the salsa beat of Ray Baretto, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and Eddie Palmieri (to name a few), by 1985, freestyle became the alternative to the old school sounds of their parents. Many of these kids, raised on Motown and disco, didn’t have the same connection to “the island” that their parents did. Lisa Lisa said, “There was a lot of freestyle happening (“Please Don’t Go/Nayobe,” “Summertime Summertime”/Nocera) during that period on the underground, but nobody was really doing the right thing with it. Once we came out and started doing our thing, we took it a step further. I was ready to be out front and kicking, letting everybody know I’m a Latina from New York; we opened doors for a lot of people.”
As best described by singer Judy Torres to journalist Cristina Veran, freestyle songs sung by women, like the best of the original girl-group era, were pop dramas about “Spanish soap operas (about) being in love, catching someone cheating on you…intense and passionate, slightly over dramatic.” Serious music critics from Spin (John Leland), The Village Voice (Robert Christgau) and Rolling Stone (Debby Bull) had no shame when it came to loving the song. “Girl group innocence married to a big street beat,” wrote Bull. Pop critic Amy Linden said, “Lisa Lisa did have elements of Latin Hip-Hop, but at the same time she was bigger than the genre. Not in a bad way, but from the jump she was groomed to be more mainstream.”
Although Lisa Velez claimed to be quiet and shy when she started, she soon perfected her own version of the fabulous senorita spitfire image (dancing, swirling, and being the sexy center of attention) that Rita Moreno showed the world when she played the “sizzling proud” Anita in West Side Story. Clad in a bright pink dress in the video for “I Wonder…” shows Lisa walking through her home turf of Hell’s Kitchen and later performing with her new group on a soundstage. Staring into the camera, her earrings dangled as Lisa, looking fine and fierce, walked that sexual desire fine line between adolescence and adulthood; one was assured that whatever path she decided upon would be the right choice.
Back at Tower Records that late summer afternoon in 1985, I stood on the balcony staring down at Lisa as she signed autographs for a group of giggling girls. For the millionth time that day, their hit single blared from the store speakers as I fantasized about dancing the night away at the Funhouse with the pop PR of my dreams.
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam would go on to grand triumphs, including more successful singles (“All Cried Out,” “Lost in Emotion”) and three more albums before finally disbanding in 1991. Decades later, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” has been used by the Black Eyed Peas (“Don’t Phunk With My Heart”) and Meek Mill (“Take You Home”). But for me, nothing has ever quite matched the New York City sweaty groove and adolescent angst of this original summer jam.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.