To hear Lisa Velez talk, you’d think New York City’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen--a dangerous, drug-infested slum--was paradise.
No, Velez is not a member of Hell’s Kitchen’s Chamber of Commerce. Better known as Lisa Lisa, she’s a pop singer specializing in dance/R&B; music.
So why is one of the hottest young stars in the business boosting a place that outsiders regard as one of most rotten parts of the Big Apple?
Velez, 20, still lives there with her mother and her brother, who is two years older. It’s not, Velez said, that she can’t afford anything better.
Two years ago she could have moved to the fancy part of town with the money she and her group, Cult Jam, earned from two hit singles, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and “All Cried Out,” from their best-selling debut album on Columbia, “Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force.” She’s doing even better now, thanks to a recent No. 1 pop single, “Head to Toe,” and a current Top 10 album, “Spanish Fly.”
But, as the tiny, tough-talking brunette explained, living in luxury isn’t everything: “I’m a down-to-earth girl and this is a down-to-earth place. It’s real here. It’s not phony. It’s a good base. It’s very comfortable here. I intend to stay for a while.”
Then her Chamber of Commerce persona really took over, extolling Hell’s Kitchen renovation projects and the influx of new businesses. She almost makes you want to move there.
Usually kids grow up in Hell’s Kitchen with one thought: escaping as soon as they are able. But Velez, the youngest of 10 children, had a different goal. She wanted to be a singer.
At 9 she started singing in church and fine-tuned her skills by working in small clubs and with a community music troupe that played benefits. “I listened to a lot of Motown music and black music as a kid. I always liked to sing doo-wop.”
It shows in her vocals. She often sounds like a younger version of Motown’s Martha Reeves, who sang with the Vandellas. But what really makes Velez so riveting is that she comes across as an innocent teen-ager who’s trying to sing like a sultry siren. The result is a sort of sexy choir-girl sound.
It was that innocence in her voice that intrigued the members of Full Force, the black group that was auditioning female singers in 1983 to front a band they planned to produce.
“They were looking for this young girlish voice, the kind that teen-age girls could identity with,” Velez recalled of the audition in a Brooklyn basement. “But they wanted the voice to have some toughness too. They auditioned tons of other girls too but they liked my voice. Within a week I was in the studio recording a song.”
Velez found out about the audition when she meet percussionist Mike Hughes at the Fun House, a hip New York dance club. “I had just started to hang out at clubs,” she said. “But I wasn’t hanging out just to be hanging out. I wanted to be discovered. I heard Madonna had been discovered there (at the Fun House). I figured I was as good as she was. It could happen to me too.”
Full Force, which writes and produces for Velez’s group, eventually paired her with Hughes and multi-instrumentalist Alex Mosely (better known as Spanador), who form Cult Jam.
The members of Full Force didn’t think the name Lisa Velez was very colorful so they dreamed up something better. “They had a hit with this song ‘Roxanne, Roxanne,’ so they figured using my first name like that might work too,” Velez said. “So I was Lisa Lisa from then on.”
The group’s first album, featuring some high-spirited, cleverly arranged material, was one of the best dance albums of 1985. The new one is even better.
The “Spanish Fly” album is like an urban contemporary kitchen sink--everything is in there, from dance to doo-wop to crackling funk to spicy salsa.
“We wanted this album to have more variety,” Velez said. “The first one was loaded with dance music. We wanted to show people we could do more than just play dance music.”
Normally, Velez is confident and business-like. But bring up her private life and she can turn into a giggly adolescent. “I don’t like to talk about that. I’m very shy about talking about things like that.”
It seems that Velez’s social life has suffered since she became a star: “Work comes first. I’ve got to work before I think about having a boyfriend.”
When she was just Lisa Velez, she lamented, life was simpler. She had an active social life. But becoming Lisa Lisa changed that. “I had a boyfriend for a long time. I was with him for 5 1/2 years. But my career came between us. I was gone all the time.”
So Velez buries herself in work and shies away from romantic relationships.
“I’m not going to get involved again for a while,” she said. “I’m very sensitive. I don’t want to go through being hurt again. I’ve grown used to not having a social life. I don’t like that part of it. But it’s the price I pay.”