The reign of Latin freestyle—the beloved dance-music genre—spanned about 10 years, kicking off with 1983's “Let the Music Play” by Shannon. It was a staple of a few major radio markets sprinkled throughout the U.S., and the one I grew up around was one of them. Without fail, the opening, tactile synths of Steve B’s “I Wanna Be the One” transport me back to a boardwalk in South Jersey—the sun blazing, the hair big and shiny, the clothing baggy and fluorescent.
Many who grew up with the genre remember it warmly, but legendary producer/DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez knew freestyle from the beginning—and before. When he played his genre-skipping, marathon sets at the casual, amusement-oriented Fun House club on Manhattan’s West Side in the early ‘80s, he’d include tracks that eventually would form the genre’s roots: electro records by Kraftwerk, Newcleus, and the Jonzun Crew. As part of this year’s Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, tonight Jellybean will play a set at the venue Capitale to pay tribute to the history of freestyle; by phone he told me he plans to retrace the genre’s steps and his own. The night’s name is simple and emphatic: Freestyle!!!
Freestyle is essentially old-school electro—think the “Planet Rock” beat and melodramatic orchestra hits—with a usually Latin, typically passionate, often untrained singer floating over top of it.
“We were taking hip-hop breaks and beats and we were doing the beats faster so they had a more uptempo groove to it,” explained Louie Vega, who will join Jellybean at Freestyle!!! this evening, and who is perhaps best known as one half of the house duo Masters at Work. “But when we were doing the chords it was very four-chords, some of it was pop, a lot of it got minor, but they were happy melodies. There was a serious side to it, too.”
Vega cut his teeth DJing at Bronx YMCAs and neighborhood parties in the early ‘80s, and eventually moved to a residency at the Bronx club called the Devil’s Nest. Then, from ‘86 to ‘88, he spun at Heartthrob, which was in the same space the Fun House was just a few years before. Vega would go on to mix and/or produce key tracks in the genre: Noel’s “Silent Morning,” the Cover Girls’ “Because of You,” and Information Society’s “Running,” among them.
“All these kids were dressing a certain way—it was like a mixture of goth and baggy pants,” said Vega of the early freestyle scene. “We’re talking about Latin kids and African American kids. They were great dancers. I was playing all these different kinds of music it was even going into Book of Love, U2, Simple Minds, B-Movie, Love and Rockets, as well as the sound from the Funhouse. That was all the influences—Afrika Bambaataa, Shannon. Those were our classics.”
The records Vega routinely broke may have moved crowds, but they didn’t garner him respect—at least not early on.
“Nobody took it seriously,” he says, underlining a response that the genre never quite shook on a mainstream level. “When I was a kid, [house DJ/producer] David Morales used to call me ‘the Bubblegum Kid.’ These guys told me that in a record store, Rock and Soul, everybody was talking about me, and [legendary Paradise Garage DJ] Larry Levan said, ‘Leave that kid alone. He’s doing his thing.’ He protected me. For me it was an incredible time.”
According to both Vega and Jellybean, who in the genre’s mid-to-late-’80s prime had moved on to crafting more commercial dance pop fare for the likes of Madonna and Whitney Houston, the Latin stronghold on the genre was more a matter of circumstance than anything absolutely inherent to the music.
“It has kind of Latin percussion rhythms in there and some of the phrasing is kind of Latin, but it just happened that way,” said Jellybean.
In my experience, there is so much endearing weirdness about the genre to behold. It’s weird that many of its key acts’ biggest hits on the pop charts weren’t uptempo but instead ballads (this is true for Stevie B, Timmy T, Brenda K. Starr, the Cover Girls, and Sweet Sensation). It’s weird that its lack of polish is key to its charm, unlike the shiny, compressed-within-an-inch-of-its-life dance music of today (said Oscar G in RBMA’s freestyle oral history from last year: “It’s the only area of music where half the artists were off-note, off-key, and no one gave a fuck because the records were selling everywhere”). It’s weird that as a studio genre, it lives on primarily in the live arena today via the reunion shows—year after year, for example, crowds pack into Radio City Music Hall to hear the likes of Lisa Lisa, TKA, Johnny O, and George Lamond play the Freestyle and Old School Extravaganza.
Lisa Lisa, Shannon, and Judy Torres are expected to perform at Capitale on Friday as well. But unlike those nostalgia-tickling arena reunion shows, as fun as they are, the aim of Freestyle!!! is to be a more immersive experience. The clown head that framed the DJ booth at the Funhouse/Heartthrob has been recreated, and Jellybean and Vega envision their DJ sets as history lessons.
“For me, it’s a matter of taking it to the next level and doing it like this, where the props are there, where you feel like you’re in that place at that time,” said Vega.
This night also provides a chance to seriously examine the genre that existed before the music-crit think piece and that has since been largely ignored by those leading the conversation about dance music online and elsewhere. There’s been no shortage of nu-ness in dance music—virtually every micro genre that popped up from disco and beyond has been revived in some noticeable fashion. Yet freestyle largely remains untouched and ignored (a key exception is the hardcore freestyle track “Calling Card,” released last year via Morgan Geist’s Galleria project with Jessy Lanza). Perhaps freestyle’s flair for drama scans as uncool to modern tastemakers. Perhaps circumstance has it that those listeners the genre reached didn’t go on to make music themselves. Whatever the case, freestyle has the unique cultural position of being a dance genre that’s preserved in amber, having lived and died almost entirely during its initial wave.
By the time freestyle’s biggest U.S. pop hit, Corina’s “Temptation,” ascended to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991, the end was nigh. Jellybean and Vega both concede that the genre’s legacy was tarnished by saturation in the early ‘90s and by 1994, the entire genre seemed to evaporate.
“For me it got really bad late, like when the Avon lady was making a freestyle record,” said Jellybean. “Everyone was trying to make a freestyle record. When people understood what the Roland 808 drum machine sounded like and the DX7 emulator—the synthesizers and drum machines we used during the creation of this sound—it wasn’t a new sound to them, then it really came down to quality. And then you had people say, ‘This is selling, so let me try to make something.’”
Vega says he’ll attempt to revisit the “rawness” that he enjoyed in the genre’s early years, and he expects Friday’s crowd to span generations.
“When you have a movement that’s powerful like that, it’s not gonna die,” said Vega. “It may not be in the pop world. The movement happened already. So it becomes this thing where it’s nostalgic and ‘classics,’ but you have new kids that like that sound. That sound is a young sound. For the older crowd, those songs bring back a lot of memories. I listen to that music and it hits me in the heart. I had a really wonderful childhood with that music.”