East Flatbush, Brooklyn, mid ’80s. Full Force, a six-man group of singer-producers, reluctantly put their recording dreams on hold to produce U.T.F.O., a rap trio from their block, and a 16-year-old girl from Hell’s Kitchen named Lisa Velez. Both acts score major success. U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” a hit in its own right, gains even more popularity as a slew of artists record answers—some 25, according to Bowlegged Lou George, frontman of Full Force, whose star-studded first album in a half-dozen years hits stores this week.
Lisa Velez, meanwhile, releases a string of late-’80s records as Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam that place her at the top of both r&b and pop charts. So Full Force, who, according to Lou, had been performing since they were “around the same ages as the Jackson 5,” gain recognition as r&b producers with a flair for pop. “Right after U.T.F.O.,” he recalls, “we said, ‘Oh fuck it, let’s keep doing this.’ ”
Full Force were never simply relegated to a behind-the-scenes role—many of us may still have vivid pictures of the muscular, bandanna-wearing group stored in our memory banks. But as recording artists, they were unable to match the success they earned as producers. The team continued to record and produce, and—as veteran r&b acts are prone to do—they eventually fell off.
Fast-forward to the late ’90s: same place, same players. A teenage girl named Britney Spears from Kentwood, Louisiana, is in the Full Force studio, trying out material for an upcoming album. “Britney spent a week with us in Brooklyn,” recalls Lou. “I used to take her to Kings Plaza Mall to eat.” Neither of them imagined the international phenom she would later become. Spears’s footsteps to East Flatbush would be followed by ‘N Sync and, eventually, artists like Ginuwine, Method Man, and Raekwon, all laying down vocals for Full Force’s new album, Still Standing, due July 31 on Forceful/TVT Records, the group’s first since 1995’s Sugar on Top. (Still Standing was originally scheduled to come out on RCA, but, for reasons neither Lou nor the label will reveal, things fell apart.)
Few people can fill in the gap between Full Force’s ’80s hits and their ’90s comeback. In short, it goes like this: “We went out to get more jobs,” recounts Lou, “and the black execs were like, ‘Full Force, I don’t know, man. Those guys were back in the day.’ So we regrouped, and I said, ‘Look, we make music for everybody. Some of our biggest records were pop records. Let’s go see some of these white execs and take it from there.’ And that’s what we did. We went to the white execs, and everything was gravy.” Armed with the blessings and confidence of a few label execs, Full Force stole discreetly into the ’90s and landed on the fringes of the industry’s growing obsession with white kids who could sing black music.
That’s how Lou and the gang ended up producing songs for Spears, ‘N Sync, and Backstreet Boys. Later would come 3LW, LFO, and a laundry list of others. “It was great working with all these young pop artists,” Lou says, “especially Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. They have a lot of respect for us, they are crazy with a good sense of humor like us, and they are really talented.”
When Full Force hooked up with these teen groups, Lou says, no one stateside knew who ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys were. “It was great to see all this new boy-band craze unfold and to see the looks on people’s faces when they found out that Full Force was some of the black magic behind them. We caught everyone off guard, especially the black music industry.” And perhaps got a taste of revenge in the process.
Yet despite the group’s newfound acceptance, Bowlegged Lou wasn’t taking any chances when Full Force decided to release its own record. “I know myself that we can’t come out with a regular Full Force album with a bunch of new songs. People forget. It’s just like when we were trying to come back and trying to get production gigs. People had amnesia about us, and we had to go to the white boys and produce them just to get a breath of fresh air.”
While Still Standing liberally draws on some of today’s hottest talent, the CD’s centerpiece is a nod to the old school: a remake of the 1977 Floaters classic, “Float On.” The album features two versions of the song that made the Detroit harmony group a household name and a one-hit wonder. The “Girls That Live in the Club” mix features Silkk the Shocker, Funkmaster Flex, Method Man, Allure, and Full Force protégée Bam-bué, while the “Classic Ballad” mix features Gerald Levert, Kevon Edmonds, Montell Jordan, and Ginuwine. Three other versions—the “Women Speak” mix, with Regina Belle, Vesta, Vivica A. Fox, Miss Jones, and Full Force artist Reynada Hill; the “Instrumental Plus” mix, with Najee, Nile Rodgers, Bobbi Humphrey, and George Duke; and the “Props and Respect” mix, featuring Meli’sa Morgan, Isaac Hayes, and the original Floaters—appear on a maxi single.
“Float On” overkill? Not really. “That song is a classic,” gushes Lou. “I think it’s going to be a big classic again because we didn’t fuck it up.” The very nature of the original “Float On” was character-driven. Each of the Floaters identified himself and his zodiac sign, and then went on to describe the kind of women he preferred. The song went No. 1 r&b and No. 2 pop; like many of the early hits Full Force produced, “Float On” has had longer staying power than the artists who recorded it.
Boasting shamelessly about the quality of Still Standing, Lou vows that Full Force will set the industry on its ear, just like in years past. “We are going to shock the musical world once more,” he announces like a mad scientist bent on taking over the world. But the new album will truly have to find its legs to match Lou and company’s track record. “All I Have to Give” went double-platinum for the Backstreet Boys. And Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam scored five gold singles, two No. 1’s on both r&b and pop charts, and two platinum albums.
One could praise Full Force as creative visionaries who, since the ’80s, have stayed true to their cutting-edge artistry. Or you could dismiss them as purveyors of lyrics and sounds that were merely consistent with the flavor of the day, clever manipulators of trends; hit-and-run producers who know exactly how to find an artist, write for that artist, then move on to the next one. “I just keep on doing what I’m doing because I know in the long run it’s gonna be successful,” offers Lou philosophically. “We’ve been blessed to be versatile because we can produce and write black music but we can also produce and write pop music that white people do—I wanna do a country record one day. I don’t want to be limited.”
Spoken like a true malcontent with an insatiable desire to be all things to all people “just because we can.” And because it actually seems to work.