A Look Into Freestyle Music

Freestyle or Latin Freestyle, also called Latin Hip Hop in its early years, is a form of electronic music that emerged in the early 1980s and declined around the early 1990s.

Information Society, Exposé, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Shannon, La India, TKA, Corina, Nocera, Company B, The Cover Girls, Stevie B, Korell, Noel, Sa-Fire, Johnny O, Pajama Party, Shana, Will to Power, Sweet Sensation, Seduction, Judy Torres, Linear, George Lamond, Lil’ Suzy, Lisette Melendez, Coro, and Collage are some notable performers of the genre. It continues to be produced today and enjoys some degree of popularity, especially in the urban Hispanic-American communities, as it did when it first came on to the scene.[1] Another popular modern dance music genre, Florida breaks, evolved from this sound.

The music first developed primarily in the Latino communities of New York City and then Miami in the early 1980s. Initially, it was a fusion of the vocal styles found in 1970s disco music with the syncopated, synthetic instrumentation of 1980s electro, as favored by fans of breakdancing. It was also influenced by sampling, as found in hip hop music. Specifically, Freestyle’s true roots are traced back to Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” (1982) and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play“, which debuted in 1983. Silent Morning, composed by Noel, boosted Freestyle’s popularity and brought it to the forefront of the international scene in 1987, expanding its potential. Before Freestyle could make a permanent impact, however, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, house music, a reincarnation of 1970′s disco, challenged the original, upbeat 1980s Freestyle. In the late 1980s and on through the 1990s, the electro and Latin hip hop influences of Freestyle were supplanted by house music, which marked Freestyle’s downfall. Freestyle reached its peak in the early 1990s before it began to fall in popularity and was slowly replaced by burgeoning house music.

Freestyle has continued to have a strong following in its two founding cities, although a club sound, Freestyle has begun to spread back into the mainstream media. Beginning in 1996 New York’s WKTU radio station began holding live concerts titled “Freestyle Free for ALL”. They also presently hold Freestyle nights (Weekends), dedicating a few hours to freestyle music hosted by Judy Torres. Since its debut the concert reinserted Freestyle into the lime light paving the way for new releases later that year, such as “Do unto me” by Coro. After the popularity of Reggaeton began to diminish interest in Freestyle began to increase, with some radio stations giving up their Reggaeton blocks for Freestyle blocks. In 2006, WKTU invited Coro to perform in their “Beatstock” Concert which was very well received. Although Freestyle remained an “old school beat”, its popularity continued to expand further than New York City and Miami, beginning to spread into Europe. In 2008, arguably the largest Freestyle concert in its existence was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concert titled “Freestyle Extravaganza” sold out and was one of the most celebrated concerts. Freestyle has begun to influence Reggaeton with a few singles being released with Freestyle beats, as well as, remakes of old Freestyle songs; Pitbull and Stevie B releasing a remake of the hit “Spring Love”.[1]

Why Freestyle music is actually called freestyle is subject to speculation. Some feel the term “freestyle” may refer to the difference between the mixing techniques used by DJs spinning this form of music (at least in its pre-house incarnations) and those who were spinning disco, the only other widely played dance music that incorporated sung vocals. Disco, with its relatively predictable beat structure, could be mixed with smooth, slow, and consistent techniques, but freestyle’s syncopated beat structures demanded that DJs get creative, incorporating aspects of both disco and hip-hop techniques; they often had to (or had more freedom to) mix more quickly and more responsively to the individual pieces of music.

Others believe it refers to the vocal technique: singing melodic pop vocals over the kind of beats that were previously used only with rap and semi-chanted electro-funk vocal styles was a form of freestyling —getting creative by mixing up the styles— somewhat akin to the use of the term in reference to competitive freestyle rap.

Another explanation is that the dancing associated with this music allows for a greater degree of freedom of expression than the other music that was prevalent at the time. Each individual dancer is free to create his or her own style.

In Miami, the freestyle name evolved after confusion between Tony Butler’s track “Freestyle Express” by Freestyle and Debbie Deb‘s “When I Hear Music,” a slightly older but more popular track that was produced by Butler. The sound became synonymous with Butler’s production, and the name of the group he was in, Freestyle, became the genre’s name.

The sound

It is a genre with rather clear features: a dance tempo with stress on beats two and four; syncopation with a bass line, lead synth, or percussion, with optional stabs (provided as synthesized brass or orchestral samples); sixteenth-note hi-hats; a chord progression that lasts eight, 16, or 32 beats and is usually in a minor key; and relatively complex, upbeat melodies with singing, verses, and a chorus, with themes about love or dancing. Freestyle music in general is heavily influenced by Latin music, especially with respect to rhythms and brass-horn and keyboard parts. The Latin clave rhythm can be felt in many songs (such as in the defining “Clave Rocks” by Amoretto). The tempo of Freestyle music is almost always between 110 and 130 beats per minute (BPM), typically around 118 BPM. The keyboard parts are often elegant and clever, with many short melodies and countermelodies, again a strong influence from Latin music. It also features complicated drum machine patterns that a human drummer would have extreme difficulty playing. Most lyrics involve breaking up or someone leaving another for the wrong reasons.

Freestyle in New York

Many people cite “Let the Music Play” (1983) by Shannon as the first freestyle track. However, many contend that it was Afrika Bambaataa, with his hit release “Planet Rock,” that conceived Freestyle’s first child and indeed earmarked that song as the first freestyle song produced. Let the Music Play became freestyle’s biggest recording, and still receives frequent airplay through radio and other venues. The song was produced by Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa, who changed and refined the electro funk sound, adding Latin American rhythms and a syncopated drum-machine sound.

This new, exciting sound rejuvenated the funk, soul and hip hop club scenes in New York City. While most of the neighborhood clubs were closing their doors for good, some Manhattan clubs were suddenly thriving. Places like the Roxy, the Funhouse, Broadway 96, Gothams West, Roseland, Webster Hall, The Underground, Palladium, and The Tunnel, that played this were packed. Records like “Play At Your Own Risk” by Planet Patrol, “One More Shot” by C Bank, “Al-Naafiyish (The Soul)” by Hashim, and “I.O.U.” by Freeez became huge hits. More established European artists like New Order (“Confusion,” “State of the Nation”) both inspired the original Freestyle sound and then responded to it by incorporating certain Freestyle elements into their own productions.

Other producers from around the world soon began to replicate the sound in more radio-friendly productions. Records like “Let Me Be the One” by Sa-Fire, “I Remember What You Like” by Jenny Burton, “Running” by soon-to-be pop stars Information Society, and “Give Me Tonight” by Shannon enjoyed heavy New York radio airplay.

Many of the original freestyle artists – and the DJs who played the music, such as Jellybean, Tony Torres, Raul Soto and Roman Ricardo – were of Puerto Rican ancestry. This was one reason why the style came to be very popular among Hispanic Americans especially in the New York City area. This marks a notable merging of underground Hispanic and African-American urban cultures, hence, the names Latin Hip Hop or Latin Freestyle. Now, the more neutral term Freestyle was preferred. Both performers and producers associated with the style came from around the world, including Information Society‘s “Running”, was written by Turk Murat Konar, Paul Lekakis is Greek, while, Freeez and Samantha Fox, are British. Freestyle also touched the Asian community with the release of “Youngboys” by an Asian artist by the name of Leonard (aka Leon Youngboy), with a remix by Eddie Davis ( “Hungry For Your Love” by Hanson and Davis) and became the famous “SYB War Mix”.

Freestyle radio in New York was exemplified by the production team of Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, known as the Latin Rascals. Their original music on WKTU included Freestyle classics like 1984′s “Arabian Nights”, and later more hip-hop oriented projects, such as the Cover Girls’ “Show Me” (1986). Tony Moran later went on to form his own project, Concept of One, and the duo continued to produce big name Freestyle artists into the early 1990s. (Shapiro, 2000:104-105)

Freestyle around the USA

KPWR (Power 106) in Los Angeles, WQHT-FM (when it was Hot 103.5) in New York, and XHRM-FM (Hot 92.5) in San Diego began playing hits by artists like TKA, Sweet Sensation, and Exposé, Sa-Fire on the same playlists as Pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Tracks like TKA’s One Way Love, Sa-Fire’s Don’t Break My Heart and Sweet Sensation’s Hooked On You received new life and the success of these tracks as well as the just-released Show Me by the Cover Girls helped get them added to stations around the country. “(You Are My) All and All.” by Joyce Sims became the first Freestyle record to cross over into the R&B market. It was also one of the first Freestyle records to crack the European market. Although still in its early stages, Freestyle was now getting national attention, and was fast becoming dance music for the 80s.

“Pretty Tony” Butler produced several huge freestyle hits on Jam-Packed records out of Miami. Most notable for Debbie Deb – “When I Hear Music” and “Lookout Weekend” Trinere- “I’ll Be All You’ll Ever Need”.

Company B, Stevie B, Paris By Air, Linear, Will to Power and Exposé’s later hits defined Miami Freestyle. One of the most important pioneers and influential players within the Miami freestyle scene is the entrepreneur, music executive and music producer Tolga Katas. He is credited with being one of the first persons to create a hit record entirely on a computer. His top notch productions influenced many copy cat producers that tried (and failed) to copy the sound he created for hits such as “Party Your Body”, “In my Eyes” and “Dreaming of Love”, all performed by Stevie B. His record label Futura Records became an incubator for great, high quality Freestyle music. The group Linear, who got its start there, was eventually picked up by Atlantic Records which resulted in the group achieving international success. Many labels confused New York Freestyle and Miami Freestyle, thinking they had the same audience. They thought their promotional strategy would work for both genres, which resulted in skipping the all too important step of cultivating a record at the street and club level before going to radio. This often led to poor results for the New York–based Freestyle. New York Freestyle, even in its most polished forms, retained a raw edge and underground sound, using minor chords that made the tracks darker and more moody. The lyrics also tended to be about unrequited love or other more somber themes, dealing with the reality of what inner city teens were experiencing emotionally. Also in the development of Freestyle was a club in the Bronx called The Devils Nest on the corner of Webster and Tremont avenues. It opened on August 2 1985 Freestyle legends The Cover girls, Expose , and TKA performed there. Lamour East, Avonti’s and Silver Screens were some notorious freestyle clubs in urban Queens New York, hosting many Latin freestyle artists and groups.

California freestyle

Although Freestyle’s main territory was New York and Miami it did have a recognizable following in California, particularly on Los Angeles radio stations KDAY AM-1580 and Power 106, on San Francisco Bay Area stations Hot 97.7, KMEL and 107.7 KSOL (now Wild 94.9), XHRM-FM (Hot 92.5), and in San Diego.

Given California’s large Latino community they greatly enjoyed the sounds of the Latin club scene in the East Coast, and although California Freestyle wasn’t as prevalent New York or Miami Freestyle, there were a number of successful California Freestyle artists that also gained popularity from Freestyle fans in the East Coast. California Freestyle leans more toward a high-tempo dance beat,some of it sounding almost like HI-NRG mix with freestyle most of this style was being made in Los Angeles but, still most of California Freestyle retains the sound of freestyle.

California’s large Filipino American community also embraced freestyle music during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Filipina songstress, Jaya (Maria Luisa Ramsey) peaked at number 44 in 1990, with her hit, “If You Leave Me Now.”

Timmy T, Caleb-B, Jocelyn Enriquez, The S Factor, Angelina, Buffy, Adriana, Daize, One Voice, M:G DJ Spanish Fly and from San Diego artist Internal Affairs”Gustavo Campain, Alex Campain, Jose Santos, Robert Romo“,other artist F. Felix, Marcus Gil, Tury Q and Frankie Boy aka Frankie J were notable freestyle artists from California.

Freestyle as a pop-crossover genre

By 1987, Freestyle was at its peak as an underground genre until house music replaced it in popularity in the 1990s. By 1990 Freestyle was disappearing from the radio air waves with Radio stations such as Hot 103.5 turned Hot 97 starting a trend of changing their format to Top 40 music only. While the artists of the music such as George Lamond, Safire, Corina, Sweet Sensation and the Cover Girls continued to play on mainstream radio, other notable Freestyle artists did not fare as well. Carlos Berrios almost single handedly appeared to have saved the apparent demise of the music by creating a new sound, along with another writer, producer, Frankie Cutlass, used on Temptation by Corina and Together Forever by Lisette Melendez. Both songs released almost simultaneously were not only embraced by Top 40 radio but gave Freestyle a much needed resurgence in 1991 with Temptation going to the number 6 spot on the Billboard Pop Charts. However, before its decline in 1990′s, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, one of the first freestyle acts to get behind the microphone, began to make it big on the freestyle scene. Their records were produced by Full Force, who also made UTFO‘s music and even once worked together with James Brown. The music of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam was less electro and more pop, and that was also probably the reason why groups such as, Corina, Sa-Fire, TKA, Sweet Sensation and especially the Cover Girls were able to crossover into the pop market. Cross-over influences became even more evident with greater fervor when the Latin Rascals produced a remix of Duran Duran‘s “Notorious” and The Pet Shop Boys’ hit smash, Domino Dancing produced by Lewis A. Martinee, who produced many of Expose’s hits.

Also notably during the 1980s, ballads released by primarily freestyle artists either cross over to the pop charts, or fare much better than their existing chart entries, such as the number one hits “Season’s Change” (Expose), “One More Try” (Timmy T.) and “If Wishes Came True” (Sweet Sensation). The ballad “I Still Believe” debuted Brenda K. Starr to the Hot 100.

Soon thereafter, however, freestyle was seemingly swallowed up by the mainstream pop industry: MC Hammer, Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown, New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli, with their hip hop beats and electro samples, were undoubtedly a new pop-mainstream form of the underground dance music of the 1980s, repackaged with catchier tunes, slicker production and MTV-friendly videos. An exception to this was Linear with the crossover hit “Sending all My Love.” The reason for this exception is that Tolga Katas, inspired by Milli Vanilli’s commercial success, incorporated their sound with his own which resulted in a top ten hit that definitely benefited from the group’s MTV-friendly video. Along with this pop appropriation of the genre and the success of these artists, not only on crossover stations but R&B stations as well, freestyle ceased to be as important as an underground genre, giving way to newer genres such as New Jack Swing and new forms of dance music coming from Europe, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Detroit, such as Trance and Eurodance, which seemed younger, fresher and newer than freestyle. R&B sensation Ciara featured freestyle on her third studio album, Fantasy Ride, having already used it on her “1,2 Step” hit single.

The freestyle comeback

Freestyle saw an unexpected revival in dance/pop after the 2004 popularity of the songs “Lose My Breath” by Destiny’s Child, “Dreamin” by Jennifer Glass and “Rumors” by Lindsay Lohan. In 2005 The Pussycat Dolls album “PCD” featured a strong freestyle presence, and most of the freestyle songs on this album achieved notable popularity. In 2006 Nelly Furtado’s album “Loose” and Danity Kane’s first album “Danity Kane” each featured several freestyle songs, some of which achieved significant popularity. That same year Paris Hilton’s first album “Paris” also featured some freestyle songs. In 2007 Rihanna’s album “Good Girl Gone Bad” featured several freestyle songs which rose to great popularity. Also in 2007 Hilary Duff’s album “Dignity” featured some prominent freestyle songs, some of which became popular; her song “Burned” bears a remarkable resemblance to the style of classic freestyle artist “Debbie Deb”. Also in 2007 Katherine McPhee’s self-titled album featured a freestyle song titled “Open Toes”. 2008 saw the release of Danity Kane’s second album “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, and The Pussycat Doll’s second album “Doll Domination”.

Freestyle, staying largely an underground genre with still a sizeable following in New York, has seen a recognizable comeback in the cities the music once dominated. In Miami, a Latin radio station shoved aside their Reggaeton music blocks to make room for Freestyle playlists. In New York, freestyle artists languished in small venues mostly in the outer boroughs until April 1, 2004 when local NYC impresarios Mike Cornette and Steve Sylvester contacted Fever Records honcho and rap/freestyle pioneer and producer Sal Abbetiello, the former owner of the Devil’s Nest club in The Bronx, and single handedly brought freestyle back into the New York City mainstream with StevieSly’s Freestyle Party show at Coda, a live music venue in Manhattan that featured Judy Torres, Cynthia, and The Cover Girls and was attended by several celebrity special guests. The success of the “Coda” show breathed new life into freestyle in Manhattan. Subsequently, a summer 2006 Madison Square Garden concert showcasing Freestyle’s greatest performers went very well-received, and new Freestyle being released appears to be well-taken by longtime Freestyle enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Black Eyed Peas often use Freestyle lyrics, and Miami rapper Pitbull collaborated with Miami Freestyle artist Stevie B to create an updated version of Stevie B’s 1988 hit “Spring Love.”

Freestyle influences can be heard in modern indie electro acts such as Chromeo.

In 2008, famed freestyle music producer Carlos “After Dark” Berrios released a double CD titled “Don’t Look Back” Sessions One and Two with 22 new tracks of freestyle and Latin freestyle. Known artists George Lamond, Lisette Melendez, Joei Mae (formerly of C-BANK), and K7 perform on the album as do new artist Katya and Jessica Fabus. Berrios produced most of the albums while Frankie Cutlass and Eddie Frente produced a track a piece as well.

Jordin Sparks’ 2009 single “Let The Music Play” can be considered part of the freestyle genre.

Freestyle
Stylistic origins electro, disco, post-disco, Italo-Disco, hip hop, R&B, and various forms of Latin music.
Cultural origins Early 1980s, New York City and Miami, Florida, United States
Typical instruments Syncopated beats and bass lines—use of the Roland TR-808 and other drum machines—Usage of synthesizers
Mainstream popularity Mainly popular in New York and Miami, with several national hits in the 1980s and early 1990s. Popularity declined around 1992, mostly underground now.
Derivative forms Florida breaks, Melodic Funk, Funk Carioca
     Regional scenes
New York-Philly, Miami-Orlando, Los Angeles-San Diego, Chicago metropolitan area
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