Keeping Freestyle Alive
If you tell an average person you love freestyle music, you’ll likely have them scratching their heads, or possibly asking you about the art of rapping off the cuff. But to a large amount of Latinos and other club-going people who grew up in New York City and Southern Florida during the mid to late 1980’s, freestyle music was an unavoidable part of pop culture, a great source of pride to the Hispanic population, and, twenty years later, is still looked upon with a dewy-eyed nostalgia often reserved for musical movements on at least a national level.
So what exactly is freestyle? A quintessential answer comes from Judy Torres—a former singer who now runs a freestyle show on NYC’s WKTU—during a 2006 interview with The Village Voice:
“Freestyle songs are like really dramatic Spanish soap operas—being in love, breaking up, catching someone cheating on you—intense and passionate, slightly overdramatic.”
Fueling these musical telenovelas was pop music that fused the electro hip-hop sound with Latin rhythms and melodies, and featured young, untrained (often female) singers telling tumultuous tales of love won and lost. Before Reggaeton, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez, freestyle was the musical voice for young English speaking Latinos.
John “Jellybean” Benitez
To set the freestyle milieu, you have to start from a logical point: the end of disco. Disco was a major part of pop music at the beginning of the ‘80s, and the big radio station in freestyle epicenter New York City was Disco 92 (WKTU), which, not surprisingly considering the Latin and salsa elements of disco, attracted a heavy Hispanic and Italian-American audience. So when disco ended in the early ‘80s and KTU changed with the times to a more pop/rock format, this large Hispanic audience in New York was left looking for something new to latch onto.
Like many fans of dance music in the early ‘80s, Latinos sought solace in the music being played in the underground clubs. The first key moment in the development of freestyle was also one of the most revolutionary dance singles in the ‘80s: the release of “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force in 1982. A massively influential record, it started the era of electro-funk, breakdancing music, and electro tinted hip-hop in New York City clubs, and provided new life to the post-disco dance scene. Many of these New York clubs, like The Roxy, The Funhouse, Broadway 96, Gotham’s West, and Roseland, were heavily attended by young second-generation Latinos and Puerto Ricans.
While the majority of freestyle vocalists would sing instead of rap, freestyle’s foundation is very much in hip-hop and the hip-hop culture that spawned from “Planet Rock.” K7 from TKA discussed this relationship in an interview with The Village Voice:
“The thing is that early on in the game freestyle and hip-hop became distant family members of a dysfunctional family. It basically catered to Latin’s, there weren’t a lot of blacks that embraced it automatically. It did not really appeal to them in a sense because it was a bit too fast at the time. They respected it. I spoke with Africa Bambatta and Planet Rock is the base of most freestyle music. Listening to Planet Rock you could practically hum every freestyle record known to man. He was a mentor to me when I was young. He asked me, ‘You know where all this comes from?’ I responded, ‘I know exactly where it comes from, it comes from hip-hop.’ It emerged from all the different facets of it.”
From this relationship, it’s understandable to see why the first freestyle records were called often called “Latin hip-hop.” Even if a track’s vocal melody followed the typical verse-chorus-verse structure of a pop song, placing them against “Planet Rock”-inspired electro grooves automatically linked them back to hip-hop.
The origin of the term “freestyle” to describe the genre is not completely clear and has often been debated, but the term stems from these electro and hip-hop roots. In Florida, the name is said to have come from local producer “Pretty” Tony Butler, who was in a electro-funk group called Freestyle, and also had produced Debbie Deb’s club smashes “When I Hear Music” and “(Lookout) Weekend.” His production work laid down the template for what freestyle music was to become, and so the genre is said to be named after Butler’s group. In New York, the origin of the term is a bit more nebulous, with the broad consensus being that the names “Latin hip-hop” and “Latin freestyle” derived from the way the music mixed the urban cultures of Hispanics and African-Americans. As explained by K7 of TKA, the term “freestyle” likely came about when major labels were looking for a more neutral name for the genre:
“People called it Latin hip-hop, but the pop producers didn’t want to use that term because hip-hop had negative connotations. So they started calling it freestyle.”
After “Planet Rock,” the next seismic shift came in 1983, when Shannon released the single “Let the Music Play.” A massive electro hit in both the clubs and on radio, it was a 12” so heavily in demand that it’s rumored to have put New York label Emergency Records out of business. While Shannon was not Latino, her producer Chris Barbosa was, and his addition of syncopated drum rhythms and vaguely Latin-sounding melodies over the main electro-funk groove proved to be one of Freestyle’s defining stylistic elements. In the wake of “Let the Music Play”s huge success, especially with the huge Latin/Italian American base in the New York metropolitan area, one man saw the possibility of a new movement arising: Sal Abbatiello.
Abbatiello was one of the most well-renowned New York City dance promoters and label owners at the time. His nightclub “The Fever” gave early showcases to such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, and Doug E. Fresh. So influential was The Fever that Krush Groove, Warner Brothers’ 1985 film on early rap music, revolved heavily around Abbatiello, his club, and the people he booked.
In 1984, as The Fever was coming to an end, Abbatiello started perceiving the impact of young Hispanic teenagers on his audience:
“I noticed a growing population of Hispanics in the Bronx and Manhattan. I was doing concerts with one of the legends, Eddie Rivera, and in the cleanup parties and I had all my rappers there, Sweet 6, Love Boat, Starsky, and I had this young Latina, Nayobe, who was 15. I had discovered her at one of the skating rinks in the Bronx called Skate Fever. She was very talented. An 18 year old kid brought me a Demo and I heard it, we played it in the Fever and everyone thought it was cool. It sounded like rap with a Latin Flavor. The song was ‘Please Don’t Go.’”
Nayboe’s “Please Don’t Go,” released on Abbatiello’s Fever Records in 1984, ended up being a huge underground dance hit in both New York and Florida, and was the real bridge between the glut of Shannon-sounding copycats and the freestyle records that followed within the next 12 months. Abbatiello went on to cite “Please Don’t Go” as the beginning of this new movement:
“Lisa Lisa was out with ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home,’ Shannon was out with ‘Let The Music Play,’ Alisha was out with ‘All Night Passion,’ but I just don’t consider them freestyle or Latin hip-hop. I thought Nayobe was the first one. She was your typical, urban Latino artist. She was 16-years-old, she had a Latin 19-year-old producer [Andy Panda], she was Cuban, he was Puerto Rican, she was from the heart of the South Bronx, he was from Brooklyn, and from that came the first true Latin freestyle record.”
If Nayobe had the first true freestyle record, Lisa Lisa became the first real star of the genre, as her debut 1985 single “I Wonder If I Take You Home” crossed over on to the pop and R&B charts, and eventually went Gold. Born Lisa Velez, the Hell’s Kitchen native had auditioned as a singer for the production group Full Force, and turned out to be exactly what they were looking for: not a belting diva or a technically amazing singer, but a vocalist that average teenage girls her own age could sing along to and relate with. Also, with the exception of Nayobe and a couple of Jellybean records like “The Mexican,” most of the Latino DJs in New York were playing records by African-Americans. Lisa Lisa was a Puerto Rican from Manhattan that these DJs and dancers could embrace as their own.
“I Wonder If I Take You Home” also contained the first prominent use of what would become Freestyle’s most recognizable stylistic element: the sampled and mapped vocal phrase. To do this, a producer would sample a vocal snippet or clip, map it onto a controller like a keyboard, and then play around with pitching it up or down throughout the track. This technique can be heard on hundreds of freestyle records that came out in the wake of “I Wonder If I Take You Home.”
Little Louie Vega
With these two records, the stage was set for Abbatiello to open a new venue that could support similar artists. In August of 1985, he opened a club called The Devil’s Nest on the corner of Webster and Tremont Avenues in the Bronx. Originally envisioned as a Salsa club, he discussed what made him change his mind:
“It was a case of second generation Latinos. They found their own music other than their parents or grandparents. It was going to be their sound that they discovered in America. I put [“Please Don’t Go”] out and it was an instant hit. At the same time Lisa Lisa put out a record called “I Wonder If I Take You Home.” We had these two Latinas exploding on the scene very young. I had this Latin Club where Tito Puente and Tito Nieves performed. It wasn’t doing well. So I changed it to a dance club with this music. My thought was that this is going to be like Hip-Hop and it’s going to start all over again. Sure enough I needed to find a DJ. I went into the streets and the name Little Louie Vega was the word. We put him in the club and the whole scene blew up.”
Vega, a Puerto Rican DJ and future member of the production duo Masters at Work, became one of the first freestyle tastemakers, and along with the additional bookings of musical acts like Expose, TKA, the Cover Girls, Sa-Fire, and Information Society, he helped The Devil’s Nest become not only the first real freestyle club, but the place which really set the genre in motion. Even if the live shows were notoriously rough around the edges, the Latino audience were very receptive, thrilled to see one of their own on stage performing.
Two of the biggest freestyle trios made their initial splash at The Devil’s Nest: TKA and the Cover Girls. While the lineups of freestyle vocal groups became a revolving door policy by the 1990s, manufactured groups like the Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation, and Expose indirectly paved the way for future teenybopper acts like New Kids on the Block.
TKA were made up of three male teenagers of Puerto Rican descent from East Harlem, and were discovered by Joey Gardner, an A&R rep from Tommy Boy Records who convinced them to switch from rapping to singing. The Cover Girls, envisioned as “a Latin version of the Supremes,” were three Latinas discovered at one of the talent auditions at The Devil’s Nest. K7 from TKA reflected later on how there was a void for this type of pop music within the Hispanic community:
“We became popular at the Devil’s Nest. We used to do local shows for radio stations that were popular like KISS FM and places like that. When they saw we were Hispanic they were surprised. We gained popularity in our neighborhood and throughout the Bronx and Brooklyn. Our name started circulating. We got lucky to be honest with you. Music is all about chance, having the right thing at the right time.”
Both groups became big sellers in 1986: TKA’s debut album had six Billboard dance hits, and the Cover Girls “Show Me” reportedly sold 20,000 copies in its first month. It was then that freestyle started to be taken seriously on the radio waves and with major labels.
Previously, it had been hard for new Latino artists to break onto R&B or Pop radio. As hip-hop started to become more segregated, so did urban radio. Case in point: TKA’s “One Way Love” was pulled after a brief run on New York’s R&B station 98.7. “They loved us,” TKA’s K7 says in an interview with Cristina Verán, “until we showed up in person, at the station. When they saw that we were Hispanic, that was that. Race—that’s the only possible conclusion I could draw.”
It was the summer of 1986 when freestyle finally started getting an outlet outside of the clubs. This was largely in thanks to the new “crossover” radio format that was pioneered by LA’s KPWR. Crossover radio, which later became known as Rhythmic Contemporary or Rhythmic Top 40 in Billboard terms, played a mix of current dance singles as well as up-tempo pop & R&B hits, much like the old Disco 92 did in New York during the late ‘70s. Soon after the 1986 launch of crossover station WQHT (Hot 103) in NYC, they began playing current freestyle singles as much as they played tracks by pop stars like Madonna or Whitney Houston.
The Cover Girls
By this time, the stylistic hallmarks and features of a freestyle record were pretty much set in place. As evidenced by the rejection of TKA on urban and black radio, and by the success of high-strung love songs like “Please Don’t Go,” “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” and “Show Me,” freestyle vocals and lyrics diverged away from the futuristic and street-tough sounds of electro hip-hop and went into more romantic fare. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost every freestyle song deals with variations on love lost, love found, love lost again. But what sets the genre apart in this regard is how literal the emotional appeals are presented: no matter how overwrought and dramatic the vocals may seem, there is no winking or irony to be found on these records. This rawness is enhanced by the fact that vocalists like Lisa Lisa or the Cover Girls were not the most technically proficient singers, and their producers didn’t do much to hide this.
Alongside these wailing singers were equally shrill bursts of synthesized brass, simplified salsa piano, and staccato orchestral hits, all done in minor keys. At around 110 to 120 BPM, freestyle was faster than hip-hop and a bit slower than house, but the rhythm was always syncopated, never strictly on the beat. Add in some sampled vocal bits pitched way up, and you’ve got a backdrop that, while tactlessly and flagrantly tied to its time period, perfectly matched the vocal content.
The Latin Rascals
Also developing around this time was the creative use of reel-to-reel tape edits, or “machine gun edits,” with freestyle production team the Latin Rascals at the forefront of this innovation. The Rascals (New York DJ Albert Cabrera and Record Shop Employee Tony Moran) made their first impact by hosting a series of “continuous mix” radio shows on local New York stations like WKTU and KISS FM. Their mixes were eventually heard by Arthur Baker (the producer of “Planet Rock,” New Order’s “Confusion,” and many others underground hits). Baker hired them to do the editing for his 1984 single “Breaker’s Revenge,” a high-profile slot which helped the duo get more editing and remix work with the likes of the Force MD’s, the Cars, Hall & Oates, and Diana Ross. Through this studio experience, Cabrera and Moran started to develop a flashy cut-up sound in their own mixes and productions.
Using a quarter-inch reel-to-reel machine, the Rascals would physically cut the original reel-to-reel master tape numerous times with a razor blade, and then piece things back together the way with splicing tape. It was a very time consuming process, but it resulted in a highly-precise set of stuttering loops, odd drop-outs, arrhythmic breakdowns, and abrupt, seemingly random edits. Freddy Fresh, a fellow editor at the time, remembers how distinctive they were on radio at the time:
“It was a legendary thing to hear a Latin Rascals or Awesome 2 mastermix. You’d know them by the incredible edits that could NOT be done live or on decks, but were made with surgical-like precision.”
These “mastermixes” were often stylistic hodgepodges of disco, electro, hip-hop, and freestyle, often with a warped abstract sense to them due to the tape edits and cut-ups. Throughout the rest of the decade, many freestyle and dance producers (like Omar Santana, Carlos Berrios, Charlie Dee, and Chep Nunez to name a few) would employ similar editing techniques to their remixes and productions. Even as the computer production age started in the ‘90s, you can hear debts to this rapid-fire editing style in the collage methods of artists like DJ Shadow and Peanut Butter Wolf.
With the Latin Rascals holding down the innovative end, Hot 103 providing the commercial exposure for artists, and new freestyle-oriented clubs like Heartthrob and 1018 opening to supplement The Devil’s Nest, freestyle was at its underground peak from the summer of 1986 to the summer of 1987. So it wasn’t a surprise that halfway through 1987, New York’s Top 40 station WHTZ (Z-100) began adding freestyle tracks to their playlists, in response to being surpassed by Hot 103 in ratings. It was around this point that major labels started signing freestyle artists, and the genre began spreading to other areas with Hispanic populations, namely New Jersey, Florida, and California.
Southern Florida, especially Miami, developed the largest freestyle scene outside of the New York area, led by the prolific Stevie B, one of the few freestyle artists who wrote, produced, and sang his own tracks. It is often said that Miami freestyle is more polished, upbeat, and brighter sounding than New York freestyle, and although that is generally true, the overall sound is often negligible. Along with Stevie B., whose first two albums eventually went platinum on the strength of underground hits like “Party Your Body” and “Spring Love,” Miami had its own answer to the Cover Girls in Exposé, a manufactured girl group whose upbeat and radio-ready “Point of No Return” defined the shiny Florida sound.
As 1988 started, freestyle seemed to benefit from major label exposure. With the Cover Girls (Capitol), Sweet Sensation (Atlantic’s Atco), Sa-Fire (Mercury), and TKA (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.) no longer on independent labels, new freestyle-devoted imprints sprung up to fill this new demand. Metropolitan and Mic Mac Records were the most successful indies, supplementing Sal Ausiello’s Fever Records and Aldo Marin’s Cutting Records. The clubs were also still flourishing, with Louie Vega residing at the reopened Studio 54, and freestyle nights being common at other clubs like L’Amour East (Queens), 4-D (Manhattan), and La Mirage (The Bronx). Columbia Records also wound up signing one of the genre’s most popular male vocalists at this time, Bronx-bred George Lamond. Lamond, whose biggest hit was 1989’s “Bad of the Heart,” was perhaps the most theatrical and aggressively over-the-top vocalist freestyle ever had. As the ‘90s started, such success turned out to be inauspicious, even as freestyle elements were being absorbed into Top 40 dance and R&B artists like Seduction, Debbie Gibson, and Taylor Dayne.
Three things happened during the beginning of the ‘90s to contribute to the downfall of freestyle. The first was the new wave of dance-pop, R&B, and rap that was crossing over to the mainstream. Artists like MC Hammer, Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block, Bobby Brown, and Vanilla Ice not only got heavy exposure on radio, but their videos were all over MTV. Second, in order to compete for radio airplay, many freestyle artists on major labels altered their sound or resorted to schmaltzy adult-contemporary ballads for success (Stevie B, Sweet Sensation, and Expose all had their highest charting hits using this latter method). Third, the residual effect of new producers wanting to cash-in on Freestyle’s major label exposure led to a glut of cheap, formulaic records, and a seemingly endless parade of nails-on-the-chalkboard “singers.”
It’s not that there weren’t big freestyle singles during the first few years of the ‘90s. It’s that the majority of what was being produced wasn’t moving beyond the established template. The closest freestyle got to progressing was by adding more house rhythms and modern sounding hip-hop loops into the mix. Carlos Berrios was the leader of this slightly updated sound, producing major chart hits like Lisette Melendez’s “Together Forever” and Corina’s “Temptation.” Yet just as TKA had trouble breaking onto urban radio, freestyle artists had little luck making it onto MTV. Despite Stevie B having a #1 hit in 1990 with the ballad “Because I Love You,” his video got no airplay. Carlos Berrios described the struggles of the time:
“We were not included in MTV’s driven pop culture. We filmed music videos for our records but they were never played. Ever. So even though we had huge records, no one knew what we looked like. So if you ask the average Joe if they’ve ever heard ‘Let Me Be the One’, chances are that they’ll have heard the record. But they won’t know what Safire looks like because they never saw her on MTV. They can’t connect a face to the music.”
While Latin music would eventually find acceptance on MTV with Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and later on, reggaeton, freestyle artists were neglected at the time. As an interesting sidenote, The Jukebox Network (aka “The Box”), which was a Florida-based cable station that allowed viewers nationwide to call in and request which music videos they wanted to see, played freestyle videos frequently.
Unable to keep up in the urban market, and lacking in musical creativity, freestyle fizzled out by the end of 1992. Sal Abbatiello reflects on the end of the era:
“In the early ‘90s the major labels started grabbing all the freestyle artists because they saw this as the next hip-hop. The major labels then tried to turn them into pop acts and it didn’t work. They tried to change the sounds and the producers and it was one album and out. The music died in ‘92. It was a case of as the music was growing the sound wasn’t. We didn’t get that second wave of writers and producers that would have taken it to another level. In ‘93 it just got played out.”
While freestyle artists were dropped from national radio playlists and major labels, it stubbornly refused to disappear in New York. In 1993, Tommy Boy Records released the first of their “Freestyle’s Greatest Beats” series, a ten volume CD set of freestyle hits that is the genre’s most definitive collection to date. Right up until its closing, one could still see stacks of freestyle compilations in the bargain bins at Tower Records. In 1994, with the return of WKTU in New York, old (but not new) freestyle hits were brought back in radio rotation. As Abbatiello commented years later, “Radio had given up on the sound but they never stopped playing the old hits. All these years people have living off the old sound.”
Freestyle has also managed to persevere due to intense nostalgia. The old hits are still played on dance radio stations in New York, New Jersey, Miami, and San Francisco, often during a mid-day block known as a “Freestyle Lunch.” KTU’s highly-rated Sunday night show, the “Freestyle Free For All,” has been going strong for the past ten years. There has also been a bit of renewed interest in freestyle during the past couple of years with the advent of reggaeton (poignantly, KMW recently did a reggaeton version of Nice N’ Wild’s “Diamond Girl”) and some current artists recording tracks with freestyle influences (see Pitbull’s cover of “Spring Love,” Gwen Stefani’s “Crash,” and the chorus of Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”). Such interest has brought the older acts back to the touring circuit, culminating in 2006 and 2007’s “Freestyle Reunion” concerts at Madison Square Garden, which both featured a dozen of freestyle’s most popular performers.
One thing that has always stood out amongst current discussion of freestyle is the personal connection it seems to have struck between not only the Latino and Hispanic communities, but to many people in the NYC and South Florida area who were growing up in the mid to late ‘80s. As K-7 from TKA explains, this rose-tinted nostalgia not only comes from their heritage, but was also a reminder of one’s carefree, youthful days:
“[Young people] listen to freestyle as our parents listened to Salsa when we were little kids. Parents raised us on it, listening at home on a summer afternoon or a drive in Bear Mountain for the weekend or Orchard beach with our parents. That is what freestyle has become for a lot of these kids. It was the music that your mom cleans the house to, or plays on the radio on Sunday morning while making breakfast.”
For many people, freestyle music conjures up a more innocent time, and if you search out people talking about freestyle on the internet or in person, you’ll find little criticism and a lot of love. As music that spoke directly to American Latinos, it recognized the need to celebrate their current culture without compromising their heritage. Like disco before it, and like reggaeton after it, freestyle will remain a source of pride for many Latinos and, as cliché as it sounds, will have a special place in the hearts of the many people who grew up with it.