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Freestyle Lives Deep In The Hearts and Roots of Latinos 
 January 11, 2006  

Ivan Diller  

Freestyle Lives Deep In The Hearts and Roots of Latinos

The Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation and TKA still receive airplay in major urban radio markets across the country.

by Ivan Diller 

           Twenty years ago, few would have believed that the post-disco genre of music, created primarily out of frustration for lack of something to dance to, would still reign supreme in such urban markets as New York, Miami, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area. But freestyle, with its syncopated beats and lyrics of desperation and lost love, remains popular in these regions because it is kept alive and thriving by nightclubs who continue to book freestyle artists, by radio stations who continue to play it in regular rotation and during weekly mixshows, and by its fans who flood message boards on such websites as freestylemusic.com and clubfreestyle.com.

Visage “Freestyle came off the tail end of disco,” says Michelle Visage, former lead singer of the gold-selling group Seduction who had hits with “Two To Make It Right,” and “Heartbeat,” and now hosts the morning radio program on MIX 102.7 in New York.  “People were craving music with the Latin lean of freestyle. We were primed and ready for a different sound.” That sound came with a different face than disco. While disco artists were primarily either Caucasian or African American, freestyle brought Latinos into the forefront long before the “Latin invasion” of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin.       

“Freestyle was an opportunity for some really talented people to have the light shone on them when there wasn’t a place for them,” opines Corina, whose “Temptation” reached the top ten on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it one of the highest-charting freestyle songs ever. “It was a new home [for us] and an underground thing that took on a life of its own.”     

Arguably, the life of freestyle began with Nayobe’s “Please Don’t Go” in 1985. Sal Abbatiello, the brainchild behind “Please Don’t Go,” as well as the creator of the legendary freestyle girl group The Cover Girls, has said, “Nayobe was your typical urban Latino artist. She was 16-years-old, she had a 19-year-old Latin producer [Andy “Panda” Tripoli]. She was Cuban, he was Puerto Rican. She was from the South Bronx, he was from Brooklyn, and from that came the first true Lain freestyle record.” With the success of “Please Don’t Go,” there was only one direction for freestyle, then called Latin hip-hop, to go, and that was straight to the top.

Nayobe

Judy Torres “We had nothing to call our own until freestyle hit the market” states Nyasia, a freestyle artist who debuted in the late 1980s with such infectious hits as ‘Who’s Got Your Love,’ and ‘Now and Forever,’ “and when it did, we took it and ran with it.” Judy Reyes, who plays Nurse Carla Espinosa on NBC’s hit sitcom Scrubs, was born and raised in New York and related to the music on a cultural level. “For me it was the teen years,” she says, ”and freestyle seemed a music that was pursued by people like me: young Latinos who recognized the culture, the beats, and the need to dance from their parents’ music, and the language and moves of American culture without compromising.”

         In the late 1980s, there was no escaping freestyle or its influences. Artists like Safire, Sweet Sensation, and Brenda K. Starr all achieved phenomenal success and toured the world on the backs of their hit songs. Not only were their freestyle hits popular, but also when these artists released ballads, they charted even higher. Freestyle was unstoppable, or so it seemed. And as the bottom had fallen out of disco before it, history, as it always does, repeated itself and attempted to bestow the same fate upon freestyle.

            The backlash came quickly and furiously when rhythmic radio stations changed their formats to hip-hop, and pop stations dropped freestyle from their playlists. Even the artists were expected to conform to radio’s dictation of what was popular. Nayobe’s second album was entirely R&B, TKA favored a more pop sound on their second album, and Corina fought to be released from her recording contract rather than be forced to do an R&B album. Admits Visage, “When we recorded the Seduction album, everyone wanted to label it as freestyle because Robert Clivilles and David Cole were the producers, and we flipped! We didn’t want to be labeled as freestyle. It was almost an insult and looking back, I have no idea why I would be offended. Music is music, and call us what you will, as long as you’re buying my records.”

            But freestyle has persevered and while it doesn’t see the same nationwide success it did in the late 80s and early 90s, the now-classics are still quite popular in urban markets around the country. With over one million listeners each week, New York’s WKTU boasts the number one freestyle radio show in the nation, hosted by Judy Torres, the veteran behind such anthems as “No Reason to Cry” and “Come Into My Arms.” James Anthony, mixshow DJ for “KTU’s Freestyle Free For All” finds joy in spinning freestyle records for older fans, as well as for newer ones hearing it for the first time. “It makes me happy to know that every week, someone out there is listening to my show going, ‘Oh man, I haven’t heard this song in ages,’ or some younger fan is sitting by the radio saying, ‘I’ve never heard this song before, I have to find out what it is.’ Rival station MIX 102.7 features freestyle in its regular rotation. “I play it on my station,” says Visage, “and it always conjures up some feelings for people. They always call in when we play any freestyle cut, but mostly classics like ‘Show Me,” or ‘Sincerely Yours,’ or anything by Stevie B.”

George Lamond By and large the nightclubs that still play freestyle and book its artists to perform can be found in big cities and their surrounding suburbs. In New York, the legendary Copacabana features a blockbuster lineup of freestyle artists once or twice a year, organized by Sal Abbatiello himself. Surf Club, Joey’s, and Tribecca in New Jersey, Chromium Nightclub in Chicago, Bongo in Miami and Ladybug in Detroit all employ freestyle artists regularly.  Many of the artists continue to record music today and have found other ways to express their creativity. Artists like Marc Anthony, India and Brenda K. Starr have all found success with Salsa music.  Corina recently appeared in two off-Broadway productions, Yo Soy Latina, and Fear and All of Me, a one-woman show she wrote and in which she starred, and has co-written several screenplays.

George Lamond, who also found success as a Salsero, continually pushes himself to break new ground. “I’m trying to find my place in music again,” he says. “Basically I’m in the lab trying to create a new sound for myself. Something Spanish-oriented with a pop sound.” Cynthia and Lisette Melendez, two core freestyle artists, have recently collaborated on a brand-new track called “I Can’t Change Your Mind,” which was first broken in New York by James Anthony, and Nayobe’s latest single “You’re My Angel” is getting widespread spins in nightclubs and recently debuted on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart.

           In 2006, the one thing that remains certain about freestyle is that it conjures great memories for fans and its artists alike. “It’s like disco in that it reminds people of special times in their lives,” offers Corina. “I have always loved freestyle,” Visage concurs. “It was a major part of my life.”  Adds Reyes,  “Freestyle marks the first days that I started to go dancing. Growing up, I’d watch my sister and cousins enjoy disco and a special time in their lives that I was way too young for, but when freestyle came along, it was all ours.” “People do not forget the music they grew up with,” concludes James Anthony. “It brings them back to a much more carefree time in their lives.” That stated, it’s time to slip all ten volumes of Tommy Boy’s Freestyle Greatest Beats: The Complete Collection into the CD changer and reminisce about teenage life and finally being able to relate to artists with a shared heritage and music that spoke directly to the Latino culture. 

 


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