Freestyle is a form of electronic dance music that emerged in the United States in the 1980s. It experienced its greatest popularity from the late 1980s until the early 1990s. It continues to be produced today and enjoys some degree of popularity, especially in urban settings. A common theme of freestyle lyricism is heartbreak in the city.
Notable performers in the freestyle genre include Stevie B, Corina, Timmy T, George Lamond, TKA, Noel, Company B, Exposé, The Cover Girls, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Laissez Faire, Information Society, Pretty Poison, Sa-Fire, Trilogy, Shannon, Johnny O, Coro, Lisette Melendez, Judy Torres, Rockell, and many others. The music was largely made popular on radio stations like WKTU in New York City.
1982–1987: Origin of freestyle
Freestyle music developed primarily in the impoverished Latin communities of Upper Manhattan and The Bronx in the early 1980s, later spreading throughout New York's five boroughs and into New Jersey. It initially was a fusion of synthetic instrumentation and syncopated percussion of 1980s electro, as favored by fans of breakdancing. Sampling, as found in synth-pop music and hip hop, was incorporated. Key influences include Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock" (1982) and Shannon's "Let the Music Play", the latter of which was a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit as early as 1984. By 1987, freestyle began getting more airplay on US pop radio stations. Songs such as "Come Go with Me" by Exposé, "Show Me" by the Cover Girls, Company B's "Fascinated", "Silent Morning" by Noel and "Catch Me (I'm Falling)" by Pretty Poison brought freestyle into the mainstream. House music, based partly on disco rhythms, was by 1992 challenging the relatively upbeat, syncopated freestyle sound. In the early 1990s the electro and Latin hip hop influences of freestyle were met with house music. Pitchfork consider the Miami Mix of ABC's single "When Smokey Sings" to be proto-freestyle.
1987–1992: A pop-crossover genre
Freestyle's Top 40 Radio airplay started to really take off by 1987, and it began to disappear from the airwaves in the early 1990s as radio stations moved to Top 40-only formats. Artists such as George Lamond, Exposé, Sweet Sensation and Stevie B were still heard on mainstream radio, but other notable freestyle artists did not fare as well. Carlos Berrios and Platinum producer Frankie Cutlass appeared to have saved the style's demise by creating a new sound that was used on "Temptation" by Corina and "Together Forever" by Lisette Melendez. The songs were released in 1991, almost simultaneously, and caused a resurgence in the style when they were embraced by Top 40 radio. "Temptation" reached the number 6 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. These hits were followed by the success of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, who had been one of the earliest freestyle acts. Their records were produced by Full Force, who had also worked with UTFO and James Brown. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam had a style that was less electro and more pop, and paved the way for artists such as Corina, Stevie B, George Lamond, Sweet Sensation and the Cover Girls to cross over into the pop market. Cross-over influences became increasingly evident when the Latin Rascals produced a remix of Duran Duran's "Notorious".
Several primarily freestyle artists released ballads during the 1980s and early 1990s that crossed over to the pop charts and charted higher than their previous work. These include "Seasons Change" by Exposé, "Thinking of You" by Sa-Fire, "One More Try" by Timmy T, "Because I Love You (The Postman Song)" by Stevie B, and "If Wishes Came True" by Sweet Sensation. Brenda K. Starr reached the Hot 100 with her ballad "I Still Believe". Freestyle shortly thereafter gave way to mainstream pop artists such as MC Hammer, Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown, New Kids on the Block, and Milli Vanilli (with some artists utilizing elements of freestyle beginning in the 1980s) using hip hop beats and electro samples in a mainstream form with slicker production and MTV-friendly videos. Madonna experimented with freestyle and had great success with her single Vogue. These artists were successful on crossover stations as well as R&B stations, and freestyle was replaced as an underground genre by newer styles such as new jack swing, trance and Eurodance.
Freestyle remained a largely underground genre with a sizable following in New York, but has recently seen a comeback in the cities where the music originally experienced its greatest success. New York City impresario Steve Sylvester and producer Sal Abbetiello of Fever Records launched Stevie Sly's Freestyle Party show at the Manhattan live music venue, Coda on April 1, 2004. The show featured Judy Torres, Cynthia and the Cover Girls and was attended by several celebrity guests. The Coda show was successful, and was followed by a summer 2006 Madison Square Garden concert that showcased freestyle's most successful performers. New freestyle releases are popular with enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Miami rapper Pitbull collaborated with Miami freestyle artist Stevie B to create an updated version of Stevie B's hit, "Spring Love".
In the modern day, freestyle music continues a thriving fanbase all across the country. In cities like New York, recent concerts by freestyle artists have been extremely successful, with many events selling out.
Freestyle features a dance tempo with stress on beats two and four; syncopation with a bass line, and a louder bass drum, lead synth, or percussion, and optional stabs of 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; relatively complex, upbeat melodies with singing, verses, and a chorus; and themes about a city, broken heart, love, or dancing. Freestyle music in general is heavily influenced by House and Hip-Hop music, especially with respect to rhythms and horn and keyboard parts. The Latin clave rhythm is present in many songs, such as Amoretto "Clave Rocks" by Rae Serrano aka Amoretto. The tempo is almost always between 110 and 130 beats per minute (BPM), and is typically 118 BPM. Keyboard parts are influenced by House music, and often contain many short melodies and countermelodies.
The genre was recognized as a subgenre of hip-hop in the mid-1980s. It was dominated by "hard" electro beats of the type used primarily at the time in hip-hop music. Freestyle was more appreciated in larger cities.
The origin of the name "freestyle" is disputed. One theory is that the term refers to the mixing techniques of DJs who spun this form of music in its pre-house incarnations. Freestyle's syncopated beat structures required that DJs incorporate aspects of both electronic and hip-hop techniques, as they had to mix, or had more freedom to mix, more quickly and responsively to the individual songs. Another belief is that it refers to melodic pop vocals sung over beats of a type that previously were used only with rap and semi-chanted electro-funk. This combination of vocal styles was a form of freestyling akin to the use of the term in reference to competitive freestyle rap. A third explanation is that the music allows for a greater degree of freedom of dance expression than other music of the time, and each dancer is free to create his or her own style. Yet another story holds that the freestyle name evolved in Miami over confusion between two tracks produced by Tony "Pretty Boy" Butler: "Freestyle Express" by Freestyle and Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music." The sound became synonymous with Butler's production, and the name of the group he was in, Freestyle, became the genre's name. The group was named for the members' love for BMX Freestyle Bike racing.
"Let the Music Play", by Shannon, is often named as the genre's first hit, and its sound, called "The Shannon Sound", as the foundation of the genre. Others like DJ Lex and Triple Beam Records contend that Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" was the first freestyle song produced. "Let the Music Play" eventually became freestyle's biggest hit, and still receives frequent airplay. Its producers Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa changed and refined the electro funk sound with the addition of Latin-American rhythms and a syncopated drum-machine sound.
The new sound rejuvenated the funk, soul and hip hop club scenes in New York City. While many neighborhood clubs closed their doors permanently, Manhattan clubs that played freestyle music began to thrive. 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 hits. Established European artists such as New Order helped to inspire the original freestyle sound, then incorporated freestyle elements into their own productions.
Producers from around the world began to replicate the sound in productions that were more radio-friendly. Records such as "Let Me Be the One" by Sa-Fire, "I Remember What You Like" by Jenny Burton, "Running" by Information Society, "Give Me Tonight" by Shannon and "It Works For Me" by Pam Russo enjoyed heavy New York radio airplay. Many original freestyle artists and DJs such as Jellybean, Tony Torres, Raul Soto and Roman Ricardo, were of Puerto Rican ancestry, which was one reason for the style's popularity among Latino Americans and Italian Americans, especially in the New York City area.
The production team of Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, known as the Latin Rascals, created original music for radio station WKTU that included freestyle classics like 1984's "Arabian Nights", and later hip-hop oriented projects such as the Cover Girls' "Show Me". Tony Moran later formed his own project, Concept of One, and the duo continued to produce freestyle artists into the early 1990s.
Freestyle continues to have a strong following in New York. Freestyle has begun to regain airtime in clubs across the nation . Interest in freestyle increased as reggaeton's popularity waned. Coro performed in WKTU's well-received "Beatstock" concert in 2006, and the 2008 "Freestyle Extravaganza" concert sold out Madison Square Garden.
In March 2013, Radio City Music Hall hosted the very first freestyle concert. Top freestyle artists included in the line-up were TKA, Safire, Judy Torres, Cynthia, Cover Girls, Lisa Lisa, Shannon, Noel, and Lisette Melendez. Originally scheduled as a one-night event, a second night was added shortly after the first night was sold out in a matter of days.
Radio stations nationwide began to play hits by artists like TKA, Sweet Sensation, Connie, Exposé and Sa-Fire on the same playlists as Michael Jackson and Madonna. "(You Are My) All and All" by Joyce Sims became the first freestyle record to cross over into the R&B market, and was one of the first to reach the European market. Radio station WPOW/Power 96 was noted for exposing freestyle to South Florida in the mid-'80s through the early '90s, as well as mixing in some local Miami bass into its playlist. 'Pretty Tony' Butler produced several hits on Miami's Jam-Packed Records, including Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend", and Trinere's "I'll Be All You'll Ever Need" and "They're Playing Our Song". Company B, Stevie B, Paris By Air, Linear, Will to Power and Exposé's later hits defined Miami freestyle. Tolga Katas is credited as one of the first persons to create a hit record entirely on a computer, and produced Stevie B's "Party Your Body", "In My Eyes" and "Dreamin' of Love". Katas' record label Futura Records was an incubator for artists such as Linear, who achieved international success after a move from Futura to Atlantic Records. Many labels expected New York freestyle and Miami freestyle to have the same audience and thought that the same promotional strategy would work for both genres, which often led to poor results for the New York–based freestyle. New York freestyle retained a raw edge and underground sound even in its most polished forms. It used minor chords that made the tracks darker and more moody, and its lyrics tended to be about unrequited love or more somber themes that dealt with the reality of what inner city teens were experiencing emotionally.
The groundbreaking "Nightime" by Pretty Poison featuring red headed diva Jade Starling in 1984 initially put Philadelphia on the freestyle map. Their follow-up "Catch Me I'm Falling" was a worldwide hit and brought freestyle to American Bandstand, Soul Train, Solid Gold and the Arsenio Hall Show. "Catch Me I'm Falling" broke on the street during the summer of 1987 and was the #1 single at WCAU (98 Hot Hits) and #2 at WUSL (Power 99) during the first two weeks of July. Virgin Records was quick to sign Pretty Poison helping to usher in the avalanche of other major label signings from the exploding freestyle scene.
Several freestyle acts followed on the heels of Pretty Poison emerging from the metropolitan Philadelphia, PA area in the early 1990s. Artists such as Dulaio Twins, D.T.U. (Doin' The Ultimate), Full Afekt, Denine, Marré and T.P.E. (The Philadelphia Experiment) enjoyed regional success. Anthony Ponzio and Anthony Santosusso of D.T.U. teamed up with DJ Mike Ferullo in 1993 to form Tazmania Records, and T.P.E.'s Adam Marano formed Viper-7 Records. The two labels produced radio hits by such artists as Collage and Denine that would lead the resurgence of the freestyle genre in the mid-1990s. Tazmania closed in the late 1990s, while Viper-7 is now known as the Viper Music Network and covers a broad spectrum of music genres.
Freestyle experienced another resurgence of popularity in the late 2000s, as older, well-known freestyle artists, producers and record labels released new music, and old and new freestyle artists performed at Philadelphia-area bars and night clubs. Tazmania Records reopened in 2009 and began to release new music. The Tazmania Freestyle compilation album Overloaded featured some of the biggest acts from their past, such as Pure Pleazure, Stefanie Bennett, Sammy C and Samantha, but the label has since shifted focus toward pop and house. Previously announced Viper Music Network projects have failed to materialize.
Freestyle had a recognizable following in California, particularly in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego. California's large Latino community enjoyed the sounds of the East Coast Latin club scene, and a number of California artists became popular among freestyle fans on the East Coast. Northern California freestyle, mainly from San Francisco and San Jose, leans towards a high-tempo dance beat similar to Hi-NRG. Most freestyle in California emerged from the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions.
California's large Filipino American community also embraced freestyle music during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jaya was one of the first Filipina-American freestyle singers, and reached number 44 in 1990 with "If You Leave Me Now". Subsequent Filipino-American freestyle artists include Jocelyn Enriquez, Buffy, Korell, Damien Bautista, One Voice, Kuya, Sharyn Maceren, and others.
Timmy T, Bernadette, Caleb-B, SF Spanish Fly, Angelina, One Voice, M:G, Stephanie Fastro & The S Factor are from the Bay Area, and San Diego artists Gustavo Campain, Alex Campain, Jose (Jojo) Santos, Robert Romo of the group Internal Affairs, F. Felix, Leticia, and Frankie J were popular freestyle artists from southern California.
Freestyle's popularity spread outward from the Greater Toronto Area's Italian and Greek populations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was showcased alongside house music in various Toronto nightclubs, but by the mid-1990s was replaced almost entirely by house music.
Lil' Suzy released several 12-inch singles and performed live on the Canadian live dance music television program Electric Circus. Montreal singer Nancy Martinez's 1986 single "For Tonight" would become the first Canadian freestyle single to reach the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while the Montreal girl group 11:30 reached the Canadian chart with "Ole Ole" in 2000.
Elsewhere in the world
Performers and producers associated with the style also came from around the world, including Turkish-American Murat Konar (the writer of Information Society's "Running"), Paul Lekakis from Greece, Asian artist Leonard (Leon Youngboy) who released the song "Youngboys", and British musicians including Freeez, Paul Hardcastle, Samantha Fox, and even Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, who also adopted the freestyle sound in his 1984 album Secret Agent, having worked with producer Chris Barbosa. Several British new wave and synthpop bands also teamed up with freestyle producers or were influenced by the genre, and released freestyle songs or remixes. These include Duran Duran whose song "Notorious" was remixed by the Latin Rascals, and whose album Big Thing contained several freestyle inspired songs such as "All She Wants Is"; New Order who teamed up with Arthur Baker, producing and co-writing the track "Confusion"; Erasure and the Der Deutsche mixes of their song "Blue Savannah"; and the Pet Shop Boys, whose song "Domino Dancing" was produced by Miami-based freestyle producer Lewis Martineé.
Notable freestyle artists
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list.
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