After two decades in the music business, Lisa Velez continues to show the world why she is the "Queen of Latin Hip-Hop." Over the course of her career, she has sold more than 20 million records—serving as an inspiration to artists like Gloria Estefan, Shakira, Selena, and Jennifer Lopez.
On July 14, 2009, Lisa Velez will release her seventh album, Life 'N Love, with Mass Appeal Entertainment. 22 years removed from Spanish Fly, "Lisa Lisa" still makes music that entices its listeners to move and groove from "Head to Toe."
Upon the release of Life 'N Love, Lisa Velez managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Breakdancing, Jellybean Benitez, and the origin of her stage name, "Lisa Lisa."
Although it's been 15 years since your last studio release, over the years, you have managed to stay relevant in the contemporary music landscape. What factors do you think have allowed you to maintain such longevity?
I think by the fact that we had such special hits — "I Wonder if I Take You Home," "All Cried Out," "Can You Feel the Beat" – the lyrics were so relatable, for lack of a better word. We have a strong following. And to this day, we're still out there performing on stage. People are still requesting us. Ninety percent of the shows that we do are radio shows because the audience had called in and asked for us to be brought into these towns to perform. I think those are the reasons we've been able to come back out with an album.
What's the hardest thing about trying to record an album for this generation? Do you go with what you know and the sound that you're used to? Or do you mold your sound to contemporary stylings?
I go with the flow, definitely. I go with what I'm used to. We always have to keep it back to basics because you have to please the fan base and people who do buy your music and listen to you. But, you know, you update it. You keep it fresh and new and original. I have a lot of the stuff that's on the album now that we have completed and will be released soon that still had a lot of the original sound – just updated – a lot more R&B, though, a lot more Spanish guitar that's underneath it. Everything that I've learned in the 20 some odd years that I've been in this business has been put into this album. I think that's what keeps us out there.
That being said, what do you consider to be the biggest lesson you've learned, in your 20 some odd years in the business?
The only thing that I have definitely learned in this business and in my career is to keep it real. Take my craft, master it and stick to it. I don't like to follow in anybody else's footsteps. I don't want to have to do what somebody else is doing. I stick to what I know best and that's just to be me and sing like me and do me. That's the one thing – keep it real. Keep it grounded, down-to-earth and that carries me.
Your breakthrough single, "I Wonder If I Take You Home," was featured on the Breakdancing LP, which was distributed in Europe before its debut in the United States.
Yeah, it was released out there first. It took almost a year to bring it back to the U.S. When it was, people thought that we were a European group. That was our door opening, a little crack in the hole just to get in and make sure something was released. Once something was released and started hitting hard, people wanted to know where this hit was coming from. They released it out here and we became number one quickly. It was cool.
Why do you think people abroad were so receptive of you before you were received in America?
I think it was the beginning of a new sound for them and for us, you know? They needed something fresh and new then. The reception was fantastic. Then when they brought it out here, it was the same reaction. You know, something new, something danceable, freestyle, cool. People liked it. This is good. You need a lot more of that today – originality.
In recent years, you have been dubbed as "The Queen of Latin Hip Hop." When did you first learn about this title?
I think I first heard about that in the early ‘90s. You know how music goes. It changes. Things change. First it was cult music, then the disco, then all that other rock stuff. Things change and because it changed and when it started to come out, a couple of radio stations in the United States were still playing that kind of music. I guess I was the first Latina to cross over and it was pop hit. I was the first crossover going from the R&B charts to pop, you know. I was the first Latina to do that. That community started making that kind of music and they just labeled me. I guess that's how they did it. I don't know. I personally think my music is pop R&B. Hip hop – it doesn't really sound like that but that's my opinion. All I have to say about that is I really appreciated any door that I have opened. I am thankful for that title, you know? But music is music to me. I try not to really think about all that. Categories to me is just … I don't know.
When you look back over your career, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the music industry?
My biggest contribution I would love to say is not only a different sound, but as a female, as a woman, I crossed a lot of barriers and was able to have and maintain a great deal of success. There weren't a lot of females out there who were crossing over and doing everything that our group was doing, especially with a female as the leader of a group. No offense to you but it's a man's world – keeping it real. It's a man's world in business and in music, too. My opinion is that I gave females the courage to make moves and do what they love. As a female, it was hard and it was struggle but I kicked ass, I have to say. It was hard. Nobody ever focused on the female. I was only 14 when I started with Full Force, you know. I started early. Nobody focused on that and I was out there doing it. I think that would be my best contribution. Besides the sound, it was the contribution of being a female in a hard-ass business.
At what point did you fully realize your success?
As soon as we released "I Wonder If I Take You Home" on the Breakdancing compilation. It was great because it was all about breakdancing. I was like, "Wow, they really like our style. The breakers loved it out there." But when it really hit me hard was when I came home from a huge tour and I saw my name in lights up on Radio City. We did three nights – sold out – at Radio City. I was like, "Oh, s**t!" I used to dream about seeing my name in lights. Then a year later, it was, "Woohoo!" To be on the stage with major, major names like Grace Jones and The Whispers, Teena Marie, that was huge for me. I grew up to all that and I still am following all that. To be on stage to see these kinds of people, these groups, was an honor.
When you look back on the early days, what comes to mind when you think about your time at The Fun House?
I heard Madonna was discovered by Jellybean Benitez, so I made it a point to get his attention. No offense to her – I love her to death, I think she's phenomenal – but, you know, I can sing. I'm not trying to take that away from her, but I thought, "Wait a minute, if she could do it, I could do it, too." When I met him and I gave him a tape – it was cassette back then – that was great for me. I was like, "Here's my chance." But then I met a guy from Cult Jam there the same night when I went to that audition.
Back then, you were only 16, so you had to sneak out of the house, in order to go to the club. Did you ever get caught?
Oh, yeah. My mother called the cops. I remember she called the cops. "You didn't come home. Where the hell were you?" She looked in the room and I wasn't there. I almost got my ass beat from my brother. My older brother was my personal bodyguard when I started touring. He's an army vet. He did Vietnam War and all that.
When I look back over your career, I am amazed by the diversity of your radio and club hits. You had a number one in R&B, a number one in dance, a number one on pop. So I came up with a list of my favorite songs, and I want you to give some insight on the memories you have attached to each song. Let's start with "I Wonder If I Take You Home."
As a kid, you know, trying to get out there and the dreamer that I am, I'm so busy trying to focus on me and what to do with myself out there. Can I let somebody in? You know what I mean? If I do, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to hurt me or what? Should I? Should I not? That's what that was.
The first real crossover: "Head to Toe." It was number one on the R&B, dance and pop charts. What memories shine bright?
I remember I was on tour for the very first album and we had just gotten to the hotel. We just got into town very early in the morning. I got out of the tour bus and two of the guys on Full Force called me in my room and said, "Get over here. We have an idea." I love Martha and The Vandellas. I so love them. I used to say, "I want something like that," but they always came up with the idea. "We can do this. We can do this." We kind of have that sound, you know? I guess I kind of have that happy voice. They're like, "Sing it. Sing it." At the very beginning I'll be honest, I didn't like it. But after doing it, I was like, "Woohoo!"
What about "All Cried Out"? It wasn't a number one hit, but it's one of my favorites.
That was a song that one of the guys on Full Force wrote. Of course, the conversation started. It was fabulous. It was about a conversation and a little girl growing up. It was all about me.
And last but not least, "Let the Beat Hit ‘Em."
It was about funk and dance. Everybody was hitting hard with the dance tracks and I wanted to do one that was funky. This one was the one that came up.
So after all of these years, what led you to Mass Appeal Entertainment?
Well, the owner of the label is a personal friend of mine that we've known for many, many years. My manager, Stephanie Saraco, and I, we've known Marcus Siskind for many, many years. We talked about it all the time. "We got to do this. We got to do this." I've been through so many different labels. With the ideas that we have and we're putting on now, I don't think they got it. They're willing to do it but they never said the right thing to us. Marcus did. He got it – he just knew what we're about and what we're willing to do and how far we can take it. Mass Appeal got it. He was the only one who really, really led me to believe that this can truly work, you know. And we did it and here it is. It's about to be released. It's taken many years. I've known Marcus for over 10 years now. I've done work with him on other labels. Latifah had a label back in the day and I was on the label with them for about a year and it didn't work out. Nothing against Latifah – I love her to death still, and God bless her but they never got it. They just never got what I was about, what I was willing to do and what I could still do. Marcus got it. And so I signed with Mass Appeal.
Fair enough. [laughing] You know, one thing I've always been curious about is the origin of your stage name. You have always been called "Lisa Lisa" but your government name is Lisa Velez. When did "Lisa Lisa" become your official stage name? Did you want to hit the audience with it twice, so they wouldn't forget? [laughing]
Well, I didn't come up with it. Like you said, my name is Lisa but the guys in Full Force always said my name twice—and really slow—like this: "Lisa, Lisa," because they weren't looking in my eyes; they were looking below my chin. That's the honest-to-God truth. You can write that. Just like that. They never look me in the eye. They were always looking below my chin. I'm sure everybody won't forget it.
You're right about that! [laughing] So what's your favorite memory with Alex and Mike?
Oh man, the fun we just had on the road and the fact that they always, always, always watch over me like a cop. Man, we would finish a show and everybody would be like, "We'll meet after at the club." They never let me go out. Those were the best memories because they were just looking after me. I was their baby sister on the road. I grew up with them. We were kids and they took really good care of me, really good care of me. I love them still to this day. We still do shows together.
And how's family life treating you?
Family life is wonderful. My best accomplishments are my babies, because I get to share all of this great stuff with them! [laughing]
For more information on Lisa Velez, visit her MySpace page.