The Only Surviving Member of LFO Has a Story to Tell
"There are moments that are a blur that I wish I’d captured,” Brad Fischetti says of his time in LFO, the pop-rap trio who had a run of hits around the turn of the millennium, including that Abercrombie & Fitch song you couldn’t escape in 1999. “It’s easy to not take the moment and appreciate it.” The moment is over now, because Brad’s the last man standing, barely into middle age and already having buried both his bandmates. He’s getting ready to dive into the whole story in a live-streamed tribute concert on April 30 called The LFO Story, and though he’s still in mourning, he’s determined to do his boys right. “I don’t know if people appreciated their talent,” he says of the late Rich Cronin and Devin Lima, “but I want people to realize they were special.”
Forty-five-year-old Fischetti is the musical director for his church now. It’s near his home in Celebration, Florida, the town that Disney built. Literally. Celebration is a planned city, right next to Walt Disney World, that has “successfully combined education, health, community, technology and architecture into a new and exciting place to live, work and play,” according to its website. “My mom says it’s like the town from The Stepford Wives,” Fischetti admits, “but it’s a nice place to raise a family.” And he’s got a big one: a wife and five children ranging from 3 to 14. “They should teach a class in raising kids, because it is not a thing you can prepare for,” he says. “Especially teenage girls.”
In 1995, when Fischetti and Cronin formed Lyte Funkie Ones with a singer named Brian “Brizz” Gillis, teenage girls were not snapping up CDs by the millions per week like they would four years later. New Kids on the Block had had a bunch of hits, but the mid-‘90s mood was a little darker, a little less poppy. Brizz got antsy and split for a solo career. An open audition brought Lima into the fold, he suggested shortening the name, and LFO was born. Their self-titled debut album came out right at the perfect moment, just as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and N’Sync made pop music cool again, right when TRL was taking off.
LFO went platinum, largely off the popularity of the pop rap single “Summer Girls.” “We really did start as a rap group, so hitting with a sing-songy rap song was really important,” Fischetti says. “And it allowed us to show that we could write music, which most groups like us didn’t do at the time.” “Summer Girls” is breezy and infectious, and—I say this with awe and respect—one of the strangest pop hits of all time. The first verse starts “Hip-hop, marmalade, Spic-and-Span,” and things get weirder from there. (Even the users of genius.com can’t help you; all they have to say about this line is that “marmalade is jam-like breakfast spread, often put on toast.”) The lyrics are so stream-of-consciousness, I tell Fischetti, that they almost qualify as psychedelia. “I can tell you Rich was not on acid or anything like that,” he hastens to point out. “He was just a beautiful lyricist. Some people say it doesn’t make sense. I say: it may not make sense, but it did make dollars.”
“Summer Girls” went to number three in the summer of 1999, right between Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and if you have forgotten how packed that summer was, consider this: Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” only made it to number six. LFO had a hit single, but maybe not the respect that comes with it, even on TRL. “We had an interesting relationship with MTV,” Fischetti says, carefully. “There was some support, but there were some people there who didn’t think we were interesting or important.” He recalls popping his head into a certain VJ’s dressing room to say hello before an appearance and getting the cold shoulder. “I knew he didn’t really care for us.” Fischetti won’t name names, but here’s the video for their second single “Girl on TV,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.
LFO also had to fight against the conventional wisdom of the time, which held that any young male pop group was by definition a boy band, whether they had advanced choreography like N’Sync or were a traditional guitar-playing pop-rock group like BBMak. Each was tarred with the same brush: O-Town was SoulDecision was Evan and Jaron. “Back then we didn’t like it, because the connotation was: these are three pretty boys with no talent.” Fischetti remembers an overseas television performance at the height of “Summer Girls”: “We thought it would be a brilliant idea that at the end of the performance, I’d rip open my shirt and across my chest, we wrote WE AIN’T NO BOY BAND.” He pauses. “That didn’t go over too well with the label.”
The label insisted LFO follow the boy-band template of releasing a ballad as the third single. “It should have been ‘West Side Story,’” Fischetti insists. Instead, “I Don’t Want To Kiss You Goodnight” came out, and “it was embraced by radio, but,” another careful pause, “it was not necessarily loved by those listening to the radio.” It didn’t take off. “And then you’re three singles into a record, and the label has done all they’re going to do.”
The summer of 2001 brought the new single “Every Other Time,” which actually surpassed “Summer Girls” in terms of radio play. “Looking back,” Fischetti says, “I wish we hadn’t spent so much money on the video, but we were trying to keep up with the Joneses.” By this time, an MTV Cribs parody was right on trend. The song set the second album Life Is Good up for big first-week sales numbers. “We were projecting 150-200,000, in that range.” But by this time, kids were cutting back on their CD expenditures and diving into the free-for-all that was file sharing. “It did like 60,000. We were like, wow, the Napster effect is real.”
“Every Other Time” ended up being the only single from Life Is Good. LFO decided to take a hiatus. “That’s boy-band for we broke up.” Fischetti started working at an independent record label, learning the business from a different perspective. Cronin joined the cast of the VH1 reality show Mission: ManBand, briefly starting a new group with Chris Kirkpatrick of N’Sync, Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees, and Bryan Abrams of Color Me Badd. Lima recorded some solo tracks, and sang a Sly Stone duet with Fantasia Barrino at the 2006 Grammys. But their solo careers never really materialized.
The three had planned to reunite for a tour in 2009, but broke up again shortly thereafter, as the leukemia Cronin had fought earlier in the decade returned. Rich Cronin died in Boston in the autumn of 2010 at 35. The In Memoriam montage in the following year’s Grammys did not include a mention. “I don’t like to focus on those who don’t respect us, I like to focus on the fans,” Fischetti says. “But it hurt. Rich Cronin was literally one of the best rappers alive, which is not to say he’d beat Eminem in a freestyle battle. But if you gave him a mic and beat, he could hold his own with anyone, with Biggie, anybody. That kid was so creative.”
Brad Fischetti, Devin Lima, and Rich Cronin attend the First Annual Teen Choice Awards on August 1, 1999 at The Barker Hangar at The Santa Monica Air Center in Santa Monica, California.
Fischetti and Lima thought they’d hung LFO up for good, but as the teenagers of 1999 became the thirty-somethings of 2016, things came all the way back around. 98 Degrees, who headlined the My2K Tour with Dream, O-Town, and Ryan Cabrera, asked them to make a cameo at the tour’s Coney Island stop. The fans ate it up, and agents came calling. The boys got Cronin’s mother’s blessing and went back out on the road, starting each show with a moment of silence, and keeping a pair of Adidas shell toes tied to a mic stand, center stage. Cronin’s favorite sneaker. The LFO tour played a couple dozen dates in the summer of 2017. Fischetti drove the bus. “Rich loved LFO,” Fischetti says, “and when you love something, you don’t want to see it die.”
“And then two months later, Devin’s in the hospital.” He’d been having stomach pain, which neither of them thought too much of. “He ate well, he didn’t live with stress, he was just an amazingly fit man.” A scan found a tumor the size of a football on one of his kidneys, and while surgery managed to get it all out, the cancer had spread to his blood and bones. “He really suffered bad,” Fischetti says, his voice shaking.
They’d find time to spend together through 2018, Fischetti and Lima. Even with Fischetti’s five kids, the youngest of whom would undergo heart surgery that year. Even with Lima’s three stepchildren and the three more he and his wife had adopted. They’d play music when Lima was up to it, and when he wasn’t, Fischetti would read Ray Bradbury books to him. He’d rub Tiger Balm on Lima’s back to ease the pain. “At that point, you could actually see the tumors, he was so skinny. But I loved those moments, just sitting on his couch, just reading to him.”
Devin Lima died in November of 2018 at 41.
“I don’t want to go out there and pretend I don’t need those guys,” Fischetti says, now that he’s had a chance to perform a bit on his own, in the 2019 Pop2K tour with O-Town and Ryan Cabrera. “I’d thought about it, prayed about it, discerned it, and the mission of LFO now is to honor Rich and honor Devin. I want to remind people how special they were, and to bring a little joy to the fans who remember 1999 as a simpler time in their life. It’s not about fame. I don’t desire fame.”
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Which brings us to this week’s LFO Story. Fischetti had been thinking about pulling together some musicians from his church and doing something bigger than those package tour sets, something with a narrative arc. He’d start it in 1974, the year Cronin was born, and it would be a multimedia experience: “At every seat, I wanted there to be a box, filled with things you can taste or smell or feel that bring back memories.” The reality of 2021 has scaled those ambitions back a little; now he says we can expect some anecdotes, some cameos, a lot of music. If he can raise some money for some cancer charities, and put a few dollars in the pockets of some local crew who haven’t worked in more than a year, all the better. But the focus is on Lima and Cronin. “I try to examine my intentions, and my intentions are pure. They’re to honor the boys.”
Fischetti is composed when he talks about this stuff, most of the time. But there are moments in our conversation when it feels like he’s only beginning to process the enormity of the loss, like the grief has just caught up with him this second. He needs a moment from time to time, and you can’t blame him. The rest of us have to face the very real possibility that we too will become deeply emotional in a tribute to a group whose most famous song contains the line “Fell deep in love, but now we ain't speakin’, Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton.” Fischetti will just be trying to stay present. “When I’m playing music for somebody’s wedding, I always tell them ‘make sure you capture every moment,” he pauses again, breathes deep. “Because it’ll be over just like that.’”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.
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