“I think there’s a bitch in everyone,” Liz Torres has said—and she should know. As the self-described “Queen Bitch” of the mid-to-late 1980s Chicago house music explosion, she’s one of the only women to eke out a place in history among the founding fathers of modern dance music. A scorching beauty (just look at that cover photo), the Puerto Rico-born, Chicago-raised preacher’s daughter took all the experience, defiance, and passion you might expect from someone of that upbringing and translated it into her performance on record and in concert. The “house diva” has now become cliché, but all those who made it so owe something to Torres.
Crucially, Torres’ deviously sensual persona was mated to some of the tightest, most deviously sensual dance music of the era. This is, of course, where Master C&J come in: Torres’ then-boyfriend, producer Jesse Jones, and partner Carl Bias. Early house music is usually recognized for its optimistic, even euphoric nature and kinetic energy. But the 11 tracks here, culled from various 12-inch releases circa 1986-‘88, are dark, mysterious, and brooding—which doesn’t stop them being great dance tracks.
The Classics blows its wad up front with “Can’t Get Enough” and “Face It”. The former, probably the group’s best-known track, is an absolute classic and establishes Master C&J’s musical M.O. immediately: slinky basslines that flex like rubberbands, martial rhythms (in short, the stuff Chicago house was made of ), but with added Latin percussion and the trademark anxious, minor-key synth moaning in the background. That synth provides “Can’t Get Enough” with a simple but undeniably powerful hook.
And then there are Torres’ vocals. Unbridled, amateurish, impassioned, bilingual, and full of couldn’t-give-a-damn magnetism. Technically, she’s not a very good singer, pitchy and shrill. But that’s part of the appeal. She’s the girl who you dream about being yours, but secretly know you’d be scared to death if she were. She’s dangerous.
“Face It” is one of a couple tracks that features a Jones soliloquy. His girl doesn’t love him any more, he knows it, and he’s hopeless. “Somebody…help me”, he pleads as that synth seals his fate. Torres can only tell him to “face it”. The rhythm, vocals, and darker theme are more reminiscent of early Yello than anything, which only underscores how, in a scene that was in itself groundbreaking, these guys were really doing their own thing.
If The Classics has any failing, it’s this: The casual listener/archive-digger could stop right there and have a very good idea of what Master C&J and Torres were all about. Although not necessarily chronological, everything that follows offers some variation on the theme. “Mama’s Boy” does show just how ruthless Torres could be (“You’re just a poor excuse for a man”), and includes a nifty, New Order-like refrain. “When You Hold Me” is one of many house tracks from the era to consist of male moaning, possibly alluding to the pan-sexual appeal of the music. It’s also one of the only dated-sounding tracks here.
Horndogs, though, will probably want to check out “What You Make Me Feel”. When Torres says, “You realize what control you have over me” and starts breathing heavily…look out! Also of note is the excellent, sought-after “Touch of Love”, complete with vinyl pops and a more in-tune (but slightly less sexy because of it) Torres.
The two bonus tracks are inconsequential for all but completists. “Dub Love” is an ever-so-slightly tweaked version of “When You Hold Me”, and “Fantasize Me” is a contemporary Jones production that puts a pop spin on the signature sound and replaces Torres with a smoother, more friendly female vocalist. DJs and house music enthusiasts should eat The Classics right up. It about as comprehensive and clean-sounding as you could ask for, and sure beats tracking down a bunch of old vinyl.
After a 1990 solo album that was mishandled by Jive Records, Torres continued working with various big-name house producers well into the ‘90s. But here’s your best chance to catch her in all her bitchy, steamy glory.
// Notes from the Road
"A-WA's debut album Habib Galbi made NPR Music's '30 Favorite Albums of 2016 (So Far)' list.READ the article