1989 + 1991: Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam Give It To You 'Straight', No Chaser

Thursday, April 10, 2014

You know what makes me twitch? Whenever I hear a really great song and discover that it wasn't released as a single when "hit single" was tagged all over it. You know what makes me twitch even more? Whenever I find out that the singles that were released from the initial project were terribly lackluster and were being complete jerks by not letting the greater material take center stage.

Now I understand that another man's trash song is another man's treasured song, but sometimes stuff is just too glaring to ignore. Last week I got wrapped up into listening to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam after re-watching their Unsung special, and from there I was reminded of a few things when I listened to their final two albums, 1989's Straight To The Sky and 1991's Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen. Not only was I reminded as to why they are one of my favorite musical acts of the 1980s, but I was also reminded about the latter part of their career, and how to me, it didn't deserve the bittersweet curtain call it received.

From their 1985 arrival to 1987, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam were racking up all kinds of hits. "I Wonder If I Take You Home", "All Cried Out", "Can You Feel The Beat" (aka one of the greatest songs in the history of mankind), "Head To Toe", "Lost In Emotion", "Someone To Love Me For Me", "Everything Will B-Fine" --- all of these were super hits that later spawned a conscious plan for the next wave of dance and R&B architects to mobilize. What is impressive about these hits were that they they were culled from just their first two albums, 1985's Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force, and 1987's Spanish Fly, the latter being their most crossover album yet. Prior to this, the group (comprised of vocalist, Lisa Velez, guitarist/bassist, Alex "Spanador" Moseley, and drummer/keyboardist, Mike Hughes) had been just a couple of talented kids from Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, but by the time they released their third album, they were chart-topping game changers.

The latter part of LL&CJ's career is described with their final two albums, 1989's Straight To The Sky and 1991's Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen, and both were the backing soundtrack to a time where the the trio were trying to keep their heads above water as they struggled to find durability in a swiftly changing music market as the '80s turned into the '90s.

Bigger voices like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were coming for Velez, and pop-up dance outfits from overseas began to form the new breed of club kids and aural trends. After successfully bringing Latin freestyle and its cultural movement to the mainstream by bridging the genre with soulfully skilled and radio friendly pop elements, where did LL&CJ fit in? Naturally, the trio transitioned into new (then) popular formats of New Jack and house music, and it was an agile move, but these changes are somewhat belittled and glossed over. Even the group themselves were critical and almost passive towards it during their Unsung special as creative differences between them and longtime production partners Full Force formed along with Full Force's dominant presence whittling out band members Moseley and Hughes began to take a toll. The music, on the other hand, tells another story as the trio were about as vibrant and engaging as ever as they tried to stay afloat in a windfall of musical change.

Straight To The Sky pokes right from jump that this is a new era for the group, as the razor-sharp New Jack mindset slices through with the sample heavy opener, "Just Git It Together". Yet, the record scratch interruption to this occurred when the acoustic froth pop of "Little Jackie Wants To Be A Star" was the album's introductory single. "Little Jackie" affectionately cuddles semi-autobiographical lyrics, but this wasn't enough to get the project up and running. There isn't any denying that Velez has a great emotive voice, and it was first alerted to when "All Cried Out" became the group's signature cut in 1985, but the soap operatic ballad seemed to plague the group as they kept trying to make and release ballads that were replicas of it (also see "Someone To Love Me For Me"). For Sky, the third single, "Kiss Your Tears Away" was this album's melodramatic "All Cried Out" entry, while "Little Jackie" appeased to the pop crowd that had been won over from the #1 hits of "Lost In Emotion" and "Head To Toe" previously. To me, this decision to release these slowed down cuts, pulled down the momentum for Straight To The Sky, when catchier fare like "U Never Nu How Good U Had It", "Give Me Some Of Your Time", "Dance Forever", and the street corner croonage of the title track were single contenders that showed off Velez's potent pipes, but also kept the feet moving and their sound evolving into the new phase of R&B.

The dominance of Full Force further shows up, but with their expertise (and underrated expertise at that) they are able to form them into some New Jacks and Jill without a speed bump as "Just Git It Together" was a solid hit on the dance and R&B charts, though it had the unfair slot of being cast in the shadow of their previous, more radio accessible hits. Still, Straight To The Sky isn't foolproof, especially as it goes on and begins to lag in inspiration with certain songs obviously bating off of previous successes ("Gotta Find Someone New" is really "Lost Emotion Part II"), but when listening to it in full, it carried out the responsibility to balance out their updated New Jack guise as well as keep the kinetic energy of the pop market they cornered, except that it fell on deaf ears.

For Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen, the trio were thrust into the 1990s, and what better than get a push from the guys who set the tone for the decade with the boisterous anthem, "Gonna Make You Sweat"? David Cole and Robert Clivilles of the C+C Music Factory found themselves recruited as the outside help for what would end up being Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's final release. Full Force was still on the roster, but room had to be made in the production shotgun as both acts were each given an album "side" to work on.

This result to halve up the album has SOHK breathing an "anything you can do I can do better" air, where it's drenched in too many ideas, and isolates Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam from the material with each production team trying to outdo each other. Cole and Clivilles go for sharper, condensed dance songs that are uniquely them and flirt wildly with radio admission, while Full Force retool and experiment with lengthier deep house sounds that still have an edge of New Jack to them. Uneven it is, but rhythmically the album is interesting and ambitious, as SOHK is a stylish haven of techniques and experiments, all of which would ultimately rear its head when the onslaught of '90s revivals came into the 2010s.

To me, the rousing slickness of "Let The Beat Hit 'Em" is the best joint here, and easily pulls the group back on top. For awhile it was a lifeline, as it was their last hit single, hitting #1 on the Billboard R&B/Dance charts and bringing them back in the dance music fold. But once again while trying to chase that "All Cried Out" pot of gold, the lukewarm ballad "Where Where You When I Need You" was released thereafter, dragging the Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen project down into obscurity.

What should have been the second single was "Something 'Bout Love", which was En Vogue, before En Vogue knew what to do when Funky Divas came out a year later. Sass packed with basslines thick, it had the potential to be yet another trendy detour for the group, in addition to shining a spotlight on Velez's vocals, which at this point were at their diva gusto best. To some extent SOHK plays like an audition tape for Lisa to make a solo album case for herself, and this ideal further pushes the Moseley and Hughes out of the portrait once again. Still Velez is able to elbow in and handle whatever the two production crews throw at her as she coasts through these numbers with a skillful vocal range --- a far cry from the shrill schoolgirlness of the group's early material.

The rest of the album, while craggy and lacking in individualism, does have some spotlight moments, and as expect, they are the uptempo numbers. The sensual courtside stomper "I Like It, I Like It", while simple in its direction, has an in the pocket groove that is infectious to the core, along with the hi-NRG Latin infused spin of "Let It Go", which is only slightly marred by a silly radio intro and outro. "Let The Music Play" interpolates "Gonna Make You Sweat" (for obvious reasons), but ends up soaring above it's sample thanks to Velez's vibrant vocals. The sprawling "Love Will Get Us By" places socially conscious lyrics over a deep house funk beat, and tops it off with the cutest of children's singing voices. Even the gooey R&B valentine, "You + Me = Love" is worth a second look, as it predates a number of R&B slow jams that were to come as the rest of the decade played out.

I know not every project is handled perfectly, and if I possessed a time machine I would right the artists and representation bungled wrong these albums got, but at the end of the day it's just nice to nestle back into Straight To The Sky and Straight Outta Hell's Kitchen, and wonder the "what if", and hear how a group (and their production collectives) handled the changing times and still managed to create lively new sound ideals that are still in practice, and considered the norm, today.

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