The next season of Unsung started a couple of weeks ago with two shows that were straight up in my era. One was the tragic story of Heavy D, which I have not seen yet, but I am familiar with many details of, as Heavy was one of my favorite M.C’s as a kid, and the other was a show I got a chance to catch last week, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.
I remember the heyday of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam very fondly. I will soon write a blog about the year 1987 in black/urban pop music, including jazz, R&B, and hip hop, it seems that time period is around when I really became conscious of music, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were seriously cracking around that time. I remember very fondly and personally records such as “Head to Toe.”
The episode took us back to Lisa’s upbringing as one of a large family, all raised by a single mother in New York City. Her bandmates, guitarist/bassist Alex “Spanador” Moseley, and drummer/keyboardist Mike Hughes, were young funk musicians in NYC. Of course, the band came together under the directionof the multi talented group Full Force. One thing that is developing on UnSung is the prominence of certain performers in certain time periods, not only because of their own output, but because of their output as writer/producers as well. James Brown played a prominent part in the Bootsy Collins Unsung, as well as the Tammi Terell episode. George Clinton had his own episode and was a figure in Bootsy’s and Roger Troutman’s. This has happened with many performers, even performers themselves too big for the show, as Stevie Wonder appeared as a key figure in several, including Deniece Williams and Minnie Riperton’s epsiodes. It just goes to show how much a musically talented person can do to help others recognize their dreams as well as their own, as Curtis Mayfield once said, “To do for others.” Full Force work with Lisa Lisa was featured in their own episode, but told in more detail here.
One of the member’s of Full Force who was the lead writer on “I Wonder if I Take You Home”, the bands first monster hit, remarked that he wrote it from thinking of a girls perspective, and that it was in fact a variation of things he’d hear when him and his brothers were out there trying to pick up women. The song itself was a monster hit, helping spark the freestyle movement. It was kind of an example of how music was in the old days, when it was mentioned Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam basically forgot about the record when Full Force called them to tell them it would be released. It broke overseas first, crossing back over to the United States.
I was surprised that Lisa Lisa was not as comfortable with the songs written for their second album, including my favorite “Head to Toe”, and “Lost in Emotion.” They felt it was a much softer approach than the freestyle of their first album. However, that album too had monster success.
Along the way, Lisa Lisa battled breast cancer at a very young age, and kept touring and performing like a soldier all the while she had it. She also had to deal with a certain old school protectiveness from her band mates, in which they wouldn’t allow a male groupie to get anywhere close to Lisa. Basically the group declined when they felt their identity was too closely identified with that of Full Force, eventually the hits just dried up. I forgot their great, funky, hip hop sounding “Let the Beat Hit ‘Em”, from 1991. I really remember the era in which that song came out, and it was produced by the C&C Music Factory production team. The song itself was bad, it had more of an early ’90s hip hop/house (they called it “hiphouse”) feel, and I remember the title reminded me of Eric B & Rakim’s “Let the Rhythm Hit Em”, also, the beat sampled one of my favorite songs, “Think Twice” by Donald Byrd, which A Tribe Called Quest popularized on “Footprints” on their classic first LP.
All in all, despite their brief run, the group was lauded for being a group that brought a new style and a new youthful, female energy to the music of their time. They were one of the first groups in the world of hybridized hip hop/R&B/Dance and therefore, in many ways, one of the groups that predicted where pop music would be in this early 21st century we live in today. They also provided yet another example of how important the Latino contribution is to American culture and big city culture in particular. All in all, another excellent episode of a television show that archives our history, 60 minutes at a time.