Debbie Deb - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Debbie Deb’s reputation is base almost entirely on two of the earliest, biggest and most widely influential freestyle hits. With her almost spoken, flat, girlish vocals and innocent, adolescent concerns, her two initial singles – “When I Hear Music” and “Lookout Weekend” – set the tone for much of the freestyle that would follow. After being unceremoniously replaced by another singer two singles into her career, Debbie Deb turned to work as a hairstylist. However, she remains highly influential, having been listed as an influence by Gwen Stefani, covered by Janet Jackson and Melissa Lujan, sampled by Pitbull, Xscape and Shauna K, and still appears on countless freestyle compilations and DJ sets.
In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force and producer Arthur Baker created electro with the single, “Planet Rock.” Many similarly-styled singles followed. Tony Butler was a Florida DJ who spun electro in high schools and on radio stations. Two Miami Dolphins and a Burger King franchisee next partnered with him and opened a skating rink. Using his profits from the venture, he started Jam Packed, where he began writing, producing, arranging and engineering as well as signed a local electro act, Freestyle. In 1983, the 22-year-old producer, also known as Pretty Tony, began looking for a girl to sing over his own electro-flavored tracks.
Butler found his singer at Miami’s Peaches Record Store on 167th. There, sixteen-year-old, Brooklyn-born, North Miami Beach-raised Deborah Lopez worked as part of a work experience program to earn high school credits. Pretty Tony liked her speaking voice and inquired as to whether or not she could sing. Though not formally trained, Lopez privately sang Deniece Williams and Teena Marie numbers into a tape recorder for her own amusement and she told him yes. The next day, at MSI Studios, Pretty Tony played her an instrumental track. Over the course of a couple of hours, she and Butler wrote the lyrics for “When I Hear Music” which was released as a single that year. That November, New Yorker Shannon released the similar “Let the Music Play” and a new variant of electro, then called Latin Hip Hop was born – its name reflecting the background of many of the DJs and fans as well as the presence of Latin rhythms.
Coinciding with Debbie Deb’s graduation from high school, second single “Lookout Weekend” followed in 1984. Another big hit, naturally there was considerable demand for Debbie Deb to promote the songs with live performances. However, Lopez was deemed too heavy (in 2002, she had gastric bypass surgery and lost 100 pounds) and, in part due to criticisms of her body, was shy and suffered low self-esteem. In her stead, the more conventionally attractive (and more technically-gifted singer) Anne Williams performed as Debbie Deb. At the same time, Butler’s concerns seemed to shift to a new discovery, Trinere, who coincidentally had graduated from the same high school as Lopez one year earlier. With her stronger voice and more marketable looks, Lopez was brushed to the side. After six months in which she saw no profits from her hit singles, Lopez sued for back royalties and an out-of-court settlement was reached. Butler kept the Debbie Deb name. Lopez, just 17, retired from music and began styling hair.
Two more Debbie Deb singles followed in 1988, the Anne Williams-sung/co-written “Fantasy” and “I’m Searchin’.” Their sound was much poppier and less indebted to electro, mirroring freestyle’s by then mostly-completed transformation from hip-hop to Latin-flavored pop. They were less successful than the first two hits, suggesting that it wasn’t just Butler’s cutting edge music that was a necessary ingredient to Debbie Deb’s success, as he may’ve thought. Obviously sung by a different singer, their relative failure suggested the public liked Lopez’s unschooled vocals. For her part, Anne Williams went on to make freestyle under her own name, notably the excellent, hard-hitting “Cries in the Dark.”
After years of silence, the original Debbie Deb released her full-length debut, She’s Back (1995-Pandisc) as freestyle began to resurge in popularity. The record combined remixes, greatest hits, a cover of Connie’s “Funky Little Beat” and serviceable, new freestyle tunes sung with Debbie Deb’s instantly recognizable, barely changed voice. The classic singles compilation, Lookout Weekend (1997-Hot Productions) followed two year later. With only four Debbie Deb singles having been recorded in the ‘80s, it included all of them, paired with their instrumental versions. It also featured Anne Williams’s image on the cover.
Deborah Lopez now lives with her family in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, styling hair. As Debbie Deb, she regularly performs at the many freestyle festivals and gay pride events around the country. There may be more Debbie Deb in the future. She’s talked of a possible collaboration with the still-active Electro giant, Egyptian Lover and has reconciled with Pretty Tony.