If you're old enough to recall the mid '80s, you can probably recognize the sounds of Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend" in an instant. The freestyle hits were the teen anthems of their day, ubiquitous soundtracks at roller rinks and mall parking lots. Younger listeners may know them too. Years later, they're still played on "party stations" like Miami's Power 96.
But most likely you know nothing about the singer behind the tracks, Deborah Wesoff Lopez (now Deborah Lopez Kowalski). After recording her two hits in 1984 and 1985, respectively, her label, Music Specialist/Jam Packed, hired other "Debbie Debs" to perform her songs and record new (albeit far less successful) ones, effectively writing her out of her own history.
Nearly two decades after she helped forment the partly Miami-originated freestyle sound alongside legendary 305 producer "Pretty" Tony Butler, "the real Debbie Deb" is on the road, reclaiming her legacy one show at a time. We here at Crossfade spoke to her ahead of her apperance at Magic City Casino this Saturday.
Crossfade: Is this the real Debbie Deb? It's not one of those impostors, right?
Debbie Deb: This is the real one who wrote "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend" back in '84 and '85. And then...they dissed me.
Dissed you, huh?
Back then, MTV was just coming out and nobody knew how I looked, and they didn't want a heavy girl. They wanted a Madonna type. A sexy, dancer type. So they did a Milli Vanilli kind of thing. There was no picture of me [on the singles], so nobody knew the difference. But this is the real Debbie Deb. My name is Deborah.
When you say "they," who is that?
When I say "they," I am referring to [producer] Pretty Tony, his record label back then. It was called Jam Packed, or Music Specialist. I really wasn't too sure. I was never told any information back then.
What have you been doing all these years since?
I did the two songs, and never had any idea that they were going to blow up and become club anthems. I was just having fun in the studio. I liked to play around and sing. I was never looking be a singer. It just happened. When the songs became popular, I had no stage presence, I didn't know how to fight stage fright. I had no training. I didn't know how to perform for people. And they saw that, obviously. The voice was good for them but the rest of the package wasn't. So they had a couple other girls going around doing clubs in the '80s as Debbie Deb. That scarred me pretty rough for a few years. I became a hairdresser, had my son back then, got married and did the mom thing. And I just didn't want anything to do with the music business. At the same time, there were other Debbie Debs out there performing my songs. That's why I say, "The Real Debbie Deb."
And nobody knew any better...
People in Miami knew the story, nobody else. Eventually Bo Crane, the president of Pandisc Records, got hold of the situation and he found me [in the mid '90s]. I was a hairdresser in Aventura. He asked me if I'd like to get back into the industry. I spoke about it with my husband and said why the hell not. The songs were all over the radio still. It was horrible for me. And ever since then, every year I do more and more shows. [This summer] I have a show every weekend, and 13 shows in a row. When computers came in, that changed the whole industry for me. People were able to type "Debbie Deb" into Google and find me. I just got over my stage fright. I took a deep breath, and I got back into it.
Are most of your shows with other freestyle artists?
I do a lot of nightclubs with me alone on the bill and I do a tour with Lisa Lisa, Stevie B, and the whole freestyle gang. I think there are 30 of us who are real freestyle artists. It's not a lot of us. We got lost somewhere in the industry, not knowing what to even call it. We all get along very well. It's almost like brothers and sisters.
A lot of people would say freestyle comes from New York, but Pretty Tony was kind of the start of the freestyle sound...
No doubt. For all of the things that were done to me, I don't think he got the respect he deserved. That's a talented guy right there, and he put some good tunes out. I don't know what he's doing right now, all I know is every day my phone rings for bookings. It's funny how things change.
So how did you and him find each other?
I was in high school at North Miami Beach. I was a senior and not a good student. They put me in a work program, and said, "What interests you?" and I said, "Music." I was really into the whole rap scene, because I would go to New York every summer and stay with my grandma, and that's where all of the rap was coming from. So they put me in a record store, and I would get credits towards graduation for that. And Pretty Tony would come in there, and buy records. It was Peaches on 163rd Street in NMB. It was called work experience. I had to stay in school and do my math and English and go to work. I was able to graduate, with a regular high school diploma.
You never sang before then?
Never. I didn't sing in school. To me, it was just a fun thing to do. My own family never even knew that I liked to sing. I would sing to myself and record it with a little recorder. But I had no confidence because of my weight. So I didn't pursue it. I went to the studio just out of curiosity, and we ended up doing, "When I Hear Music." [Pretty Tony] put a tape together for me and said, "Here, take this home and see if you can put some words to it."
How many songs did you end up recording with him?
I just did "When I Hear Music" and then, a few months later, when "When I Hear Music" was blowing up, we did "Lookout Weekend" the same way. When both were blowing up, and there was demand for shows, they would call Tony, they wouldn't call me. I was 18, and knew nothing about the industry. And Tony would have other girls go out there. The first show I did they just threw me on stage, and I just totally screwed it up. It was New York, I believe. And then they had another girl start going out as me.
The other Debbie Deb songs that came out later, who sang those?
I don't even know how many songs came out. Maybe three to five songs, but that wasn't me, that was another girl named Ann.
Freestyle as a whole was kind of an anonymous genre. You didn't hear much about the artists behind the songs. I wouldn't be surprised if there were others with similar stories.
The whole weight discrimination back then affected a lot of people. I'm so busy now and I'm still heavy. It's more accepted now. I rock arenas, and the whole arena sings every word of the song with me. I'm doing shows, and getting a lot of love. Much needed love. A lot of years of heartache I went through with this. It's rewarding. When I do a show, I try to look at everybody and sing to everybody individually [and] make everybody feel like I'm their friend. I'm very close with the crowd. I'm kind of known for that now.
A lot of people have covered and sampled your songs. What is your favorite thing that someone has done with one of them?
Janet Jackson did "Lookout Weekend," and it was just terrible. She botched it terribly. I saw Jason Mraz do an acoustic "Lookout Weekend," and it blew me away. I want to hear Skrillex do something. I want people to take it to the next level. I don't really have a favorite. I love when I hear samples in songs. When Pitbull did it, it was OK.
Debbie Deb and Stevie B. Saturday, August 3. Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and admission is free. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-649-3000 or visit magiccitycasino.com.