A True Freestyle Legend Celebrates
Twenty Years in The Music Business

By Ivan Diller
Ivan Diller is a feature writer for DMA Magazine


Industry Pioneer Serenaded by Numerous Acts at Anniversary Gala


The Freestyle Concert of The Millenium
CLUB EXIT - New York City - Oct.8, 2000

"It's my pleasure to be here tonight. He was the only one who gave me a chance when I was eight-years-old. He signed me and he was behind me 100%,and I had to be here for him.”

Lil Suzy

When recalling the legends of freestyle, immediately certain names come to mind as if playing a game of word association. Legend: Nayobe. Legend: Coro. Legends: TKA. Legend: Cynthia. Legends: the Cover Girls. And while no one will argue that the aforementioned artists are indeed legendary in their own rights, along with a host of others, most people fail to recognize the people behind the scenes of the early freestyle movement as the true pioneers of freestyle music. Realistically, how many people if asked to free-associate George Lamond would say Chris Barbosa, or if asked of TKA would say Joey Gardner? But on Sunday, October 8th, 2000, both artists and record industry professionals lauded the true innovator behind the Latin hip-hop phenomenon as he celebrated his twentieth year in the music business.

Sal Abbatiello was born and raised in the Bronx, the borough of New York City with the worst, most exaggerated reputation for poverty and crime, but still recognized as the birthplace of rap music.

Beginning his career as a nightclub owner in the early 1970s, Abbatiello’s career skyrocketed with the opening of Disco Fever in 1977. After hearing young guys in the streets of the South Bronx rapping over records,

Abbatiello decided to bring them into the nightclub and allow them to perform for the crowd. Disco Fever’s DJs were Grand Master Flash and Kurtis Blow, two of rap music’s earliest pacesetters. “My thing was owning nightclubs,” says Sal Abbatiello over a cup of hot tea at a fast food restaurant in Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx in Westchester County, amid the chaos of organizing Freestyle Fever 2000, as his twentieth anniversary celebration was dubbed. “I wasn’t really a record person. That was on the side, but I had a good ear for music, for talent and I had a really good sense of trends. I knew the rap thing was a hit. My people thought I was nuts.”  

Crazy as he may have seemed, the Italian in his early twenties was at the forefront of the hip-hop movement and in addition to supplying Grand Master Flash and Kurtis Blow with their first paying gigs, in 1983 he was responsible for co-writing and releasing the first rap single that combined singing with rhyming on Sweet G’s “Games People Play” on his own newly formed label Fever Records. Additionally, Sal discovered the Fat Boys at a talent contest he sponsored with Coca Cola and New York’s urban radio station WBLS. Originally named The Disco 3, Abbatiello changed their moniker to the Fat Boys and wrote their song “Jailhouse Rap.”

As rap music gained popularity and notoriety, it became linked with Abbatiello’s club The Fever. Approached by Warner Brothers with a movie offer based on the early rap music industry, Sal’s club was featured prominently in the 1985 film Krush Groove, exposing the country to the tremendous impact The Fever had on rap music.

In a brief cameo appearance was a young 16-year-old Cuban girl from the Bronx, whom Sal had discovered along with Andy “Panda” Tripoli, who would change the face of the post-disco dance music scene. Her name was Nayobe Gomez and together with Andy Panda she created what is arguably the first Latin hip-hop or freestyle song “Please Don’t Go.”

“I know it was my record,” states Abbatiello, “but it definitely was the first freestyle record.” Explaining his reasons why he feels that “Please Don’t Go” was the leader, Abbatiello continues, “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, 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.”  

“Please Don’t Go” was a huge underground dance hit, particularly in Florida. “It went to number one in Florida,” Abbatiello remembers excitedly as if it were only yesterday. “It beat out Madonna, Whitney Houston. It was the record of the year on the pop station, the Latin dance station, the record pools, everything. She used to perform there every week.” After the success of “Please Don’t Go,” Andy Panda wrote a song for a Florida-based singing trio named Expose. The song was called “Show Me,” and Expose declined to record it. Not wanting the song to go to waste, Panda and Abbatiello decided to form their own female trio. With auditions being held at Abbatiello’s club called the Devil’s Nest, which he opened specifically to house the type of music he was producing and to draw a Latin audience, the Cover Girls were formed with three local singers: Louise “Angel” Sabater, Sunshine Wright, and Caroline Jackson.

“Andy came up with the name ‘Cover Girls’” Abbatiello recalls, “and we tried to form them as the Latin Supremes. As the other groups tried to be trendy, we went old-fashioned with sequins and big hair.” “Show Me” became an instant, out-of-the-box hit, selling 20,000 12-inch singles the first month after its release.  The Cover Girls then recorded an album’s worth of material with such up and coming producers as the Latin Rascals, and Robert Clivilles and David Cole. Their debut album release party was held at the New York nightclub 1018 and featured performances by an eight-year-old girl named ‘Lil Suzy, Fever’s first lady of song Nayobe, and the Cover Girls themselves.

The crowd went wild for the Cover Girls and it was an early indication of how they would be accepted by mainstream America.  

Shortly after the release of their album, original member Sunshine Wright was fired from the group due to “a difference of opinion on the way the group should go,” and was replaced by the gorgeous Margo Urban. “Her showmanship brought the group to another level,” praises Abbatiello of Urban. “These Latin girls played every little white hillbilly farm show. When they were in a room, the whole crowd would turn around. The had that aura about them.” With quite a number of hits under their belts including “Inside Outside,” “Because of You,” “My Heart Skips A Beat,” and “Better Late Than Never” from the soundtrack of the movie Coming To America, the Cover Girls were well on the road to incredible fame, but like a tale out of Behind The Music, all was not well within the ranks of the group. “We’re opening up for New Kids on the Block,” Abbatiello recalls, “and we’re ready to blow up. ‘We Can’t Go Wrong’ comes out. It’s number five on the pop charts and everything was going great. Right in the middle of the tour Angel thought it was her chance to get out of the group and go solo, and she walks out on us.”  

After missing several tour dates, Angel returned to the group, but the damage had already been done. The Cover Girls were dropped from Capitol Records and Angel left the group to pursue her solo career. “Like I said, I always have the foresight,” states Abbatiello. “I knew things were changing and I said, ‘We have to change the sound.’” Michelle Valentine was brought in to replace Angel as the lead singer, and with the new Cover Girls lineup in place, and two introductory singles “Don’t Stop Now,” and its huge radio-hit B-side “Funk Boutique,” their cover of “Wishing On A Star” flew up the charts to number two. True to the record industry handbook, Michelle Valentine soon wanted out of the group to pursue a solo career and once again, the Cover Girls lost their deal with Epic Records. “Both of them ruined the group by listening to friends and family,” states Abbatiello with a hint of regret in his voice. “If they had stayed in the group, put an album or two under their belts, they probably would’ve gone on to be famous stars because they both had the talent. I always thought Angel could’ve been the next Cyndi Lauper and Michelle could’ve been the next Deniece Williams.”  

No longer known as Angel Sabater, the former Cover Girl Angel Clivilles recently released a progressive house version of “Show Me,” which was produced by Johnny Vicious, and her self-titled solo album hit the streets in September of 2000.

For Nayobe, her two subsequent hits after “Please Don’t Go,” the classics “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” and “Second Chance For Love,” led to a deal with WTG/Epic Records, but they wanted to take Nayobe in an R&B direction. After one album Promise Me and a minor hit with “I Love The Way You Love Me,” Nayobe was dropped from the faltering label. In the mid 90s, Nayobe released a Spanish language album Dame Un Poco Mas and in 1999 she released her first Salsa album Nayobe. Nayobe is now back in the studio recording freestyle tracks with producer Artie Rodriguez.

On the horizon are two duets, one with Lydia Lee Love (“Don’t Take Your Love Away”) and one with Coro, both of which are due out by the end of the year.

As the popularity of freestyle music waned, Abbatiello continued to remain true to the genre by releasing Freestyle Lives, a compilation of songs by such A-list artists as Safire, Tony Moran, the Cover Girls, Nayobe and another Fever discovery Lisette Melendez. Though the songs from the album didn’t receive any radio airplay, the album went on to sell 30,000 copies, which is pretty impressive for an album of all new material that received no promotion. Last year, Abbatiello released Fever Freestyle Flashbacks and The Cover Girls’ Greatest Hits on Warlock Records.

Two more Fever projects are scheduled for release in the next few months: Lisette Melendez’s Greatest Hits and Fever’s Divas, a compilation of songs by Fever Records’ female recording artists. With the number of album releases coming out of Fever Enterprises on the decline, Abbatiello has had more time to manage the careers of some of the artists he helped to develop, including Cynthia, Angel Clivilles and Latin sensation Luis Damon. 

At Club Exit on October 8th, 2000, Abbatiello is dressed in a handsome black suit and both he and Erica Roman, his right hand for many years, are running around with walkie talkies and headsets making last minute adjustments to the scheduled lineup of performers which included DJ Skribble, TKA, Cynthia, Freedom Williams of C&C Music Factory, Seduction, Safire, Lydia Lee Love, Nayobe, Coro, Angel Clivilles, Lisette Melendez, ‘Lil Suzy, Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, Tony Moran and Pajama Party. Without a doubt, all the performers who showed up to pay tribute to Sal Abbatiello did so because they wanted to. “It’s awesome,” said Cynthia backstage before wowing the crowd with a performance of her greatest hits.

“He’s been my manager for about nine years and he’s helped me through the good times and the bad times of the whole freestyle music era. This show is paying tribute to him, saying thank you for all these years of supporting me as an artist and supporting the music in general.”  

“I feel like I’m celebrating my own anniversary,” stated Nayobe, dressed in bright orange denim with blonde hair pulled back into a high ponytail, minutes before performing “Please Don’t Go” and “Second Chance For Love” for the enthusiastic crowd.

“It’s funny to see how something that started twenty years ago has populated the way it has. And you see the turnout.There are quite a bit of people here. It’s packed. I’m bugging out actually.” Echoing Nayobe’s sentiments, K7 from TKA proclaimed, “I feel great being here. Sal is responsible, not only for a lot of the Latin freestyle groups, but a lot of the hip-hop groups that are popular.

He’s responsible for giving those people a break, as well as TKA and all the other freestyle groups. We’re happy to be here because Sal has always been a good friend of ours. He opened doors for a lot of people and just to be a part of anything that he’s a part of is an honor for TKA and K7.” Laughed Angel Clivilles, “He’s a part of my whole life. I grew up working with him. You know what, there’s ups and downs in everything, so yeah, we’ve had our ups and downs, we practically fist fought, but we’re friends. I still love him, he still loves me. I hate him sometimes, he hates me. But we can work together.”  

While much of the freestyle royalty at some point took the stage to pay tribute to Sal Abbatiello, many remained backstage to show their support of him. Both Albert Cabrera, formerly of the Latin Rascals, and George Lamond, who were not scheduled to perform, were seen backstage posing for pictures and making the rounds, as well as many of the “new school” freestyle producers and artists such as Synthia Figueroa, Legit, Willie Valentin and Artie Rodriguez.

In summation, the night of October 8th, 2000 will go down in the freestyle history books as the night Sal Abbatiello, once again, accomplished what he had set out to do for the evening: to celebrate his twenty-year career with all the people whom he helped and who helped him to make it to the top. “I got the cream of the crop [performers] and to bring together all my family and my friends, and all the people from the record industry, to have just one nice blast. That was the purpose for me to do it.”

Congratulations and many thanks are owed to Sal Abbatiello for his numerous contributions to the freestyle music genre.

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