What is Freestyle? In order to answer that question you’d have to go back as far as the death of Disco back in the early 80’s. Disco was Pop music in the late 70’s and one of the biggest radio stations in the country was Disco 92 (WKTU-FM) in New York. Disco 92’s core audience was made up primarily of Hispanics and Italian Americans. When Disco faltered in the early 80’s, so did WKTU’s ratings. In a move to bolster their sagging ratings, WKTU changed their format (and eventually their call letters) to a more mainstream pop format and eventually to rock. Another station cross-town, WXLO (99X) also was changing its format. By 1981, 99X changed to 98.7 KISS-FM, an urban station hoping to chip away at WBLS’ stronghold on New York’s African American audience. In 1983, WHTZ (Z100) went on the air to take on WPLJ for the mainstream, primarily white audience abandoned by WKTU. Through all these format changes, one demographic – the huge Hispanic audience in New York went – overlooked. Most Latins opted for KISS-FM and WBLS, who did play the occasional club record, but other Latins found an alternative to hear new music. They went underground.

In 1982, when Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released “Planet Rock,” a new sound was born. Some called it “hip-hop be-bop” or breakdancing music. While most of the neighborhood clubs were steadily closing their doors for good, some Manhattan clubs were suddenly thriving. Places like the Roxy, the Funhouse, Broadway 96, Gothams West, and Roseland who played this new sound were packed. Records like “Play At Your Own Risk” by Planet Patrol, “One More Shot” by C-Bank, “Numbers” by Kraftwerk, “Al-Naafiyish (The Soul)” by Hashim and “I.O.U.” by Freeze became huge hits in New York. Some producers wisely copied the sound and made songs that were more melodic. Records like “I Remember What You Like” by Jenny Burton, and “Let The Music Play” and “Give Me Tonight” by Shannon were all over New York radio. Many of these performers performed at the Funhouse and Roseland to packed dance floors. The people packing these dance floors were young Latins, mainly Puerto Rican. The D.J.’s who played the music, (i e. Jellybean, Tony Torres, Raul Soto. Roman Ricardo, etc.) were also Hispanic. However, those on stage performing these songs were not, neither were most of the producers making the music.

There were exceptions. In 1984, Nayobe released her first single “Please Don’t Go.” Nayobe, a Cuban American who was sixteen years old when she recorded the song, was the discovery of Andy Panda who co-produced and co-wrote the song “Please Don’t Go” became an instant club classic and served as a bridge between the Shannonesque records that were flooding the market and the sound that developed the following year – Latin Hip-Hop. This was also true of Jellybean’s remake of the classic “The Mexican.” The single that many consider the first true Latin Hip-Hop record was Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home.” The song was originally signed to Personal Records in New York and not released in the U.S. It was licensed to CBS Records in England and became a big club record on import. The response the record received from the Latin Hip-Hop clubs led Columbia Records to pick up the single for U S release where it became an anthem for teen-age girls. The song reached #34 on the Pop charts in August of 1985 and Lisa Lisa became a role model for young Hispanics all over her hometown of New York.

It was also 1985 when I discovered three young Puerto Rican teens named Tony, Kayel and Aby – TKA. Kayel came to Tommy Boy Records, where I worked at the time, with rap demos, but I turned them all down. When he told me he could also sing, I agreed to go to a performance at a sweet sixteen party in the basement of a church in East Harlem. It was there I first heard “Scars of Love,” a song Kayel wrote that they would perform over the instrumentals of the biggest rap tracks of the moment. When I saw the reaction of the largely Latin crowd of kids, I knew I had to do something to get them signed. It was at this party that I also met the Latin Rascals – Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, whose names I knew from their editing work on Arthur Baker and John Robie productions and their D.J. work on WKTU and KISS-FM. We went into the studio and recorded a rough version of “Scars Of Love.” By summer of that year TKA had begun to build a following in New York performing the song for free wherever someone would let them, such as radio station events and benefit concerts. Word of mouth finally reached Tommy Boy Records who decided to sign the group. Although we had recorded a rough version of “Scars Of Love,” we felt it needed reworking and decided to record a new song to be TKA’s first single.

At the same time, Andy Panda was working on a new girl group he envisioned as being a Latin version of the Supremes. The group was the Cover Girls. He and the Latin Rascals produced a demo for the group and began working on a stage show for the girls. Andy and I were Iooking for the same thing; a group that Hispanics could look up to and feel represented by.

On August 2, 1985, a club called the Devil’s Nest opened its doors on the corner of Webster and Tremont Avenues in the Bronx. The club was originally intended to be a salsa club but the turnout was very light and the club owner, Sal Abbatiello, knew he had to think fast to keep the club alive. After a visit to a Manhattan club called Inferno which was packing in a large Latin teen crowd, he decided he should try to make Inferno’s formula work in the Bronx. In order to succeed, he needed the right D J., the most popular new D J. on the street, to draw the crowd to the Devil’s Nest. He heard about a young Puerto Rican D.J. who didn’t play in clubs because he was too young, but when he played at local street jams, crowds followed him. The D.J. was Little Louie Vega. Two weeks later the Devil’s Nest booked Expose, hired Little Louie, and Sal crossed his fingers. Luck he didn’t need. The combination of Little Louie’s following and the popularity of Exposé’s hits “Point Of No Return” and “Exposed To Love” paid off. The club was packed and stayed packed week after week.

Little Louie started playing “Show Me” by the Cover Girls and “One Way Love” by TKA on demo reels. They soon became Louie’s biggest records even before they were officially released. On March 1, 1986, one week after the release of “One Way Love,” TKA performed at the Devil’s Nest. The club was packed with kids waiting to see who sang the record that they had heard in the club for weeks. When TKA walked on stage, the crowd went crazy. In all honesty, the show was rough around the edges, but the crowd loved them. They were happy to see one of their own on stage. TKA wound up repeating their entire show twice that night.

The same response greeted the Cover Girls at their first performance at the Devil’s Nest. Dressed in sequined gowns, Caroline Jackson, Sunshine Wright and then lead singer Angel Sabater nervously took to the stage to perform “Show Me” for the first time. By the first few notes of the intro to the song, the crowd was screaming and pushing to the stage to get a closer look at the Cover Girls. By the song’s end, the whole audience was singing the chorus and the Cover Girls, no longer nervous, exuded the confidence of twenty-year veterans of the business. To the Devil’s Nest, they were the Supremes – their Supremes. Although Freestyle was not conceived at the Devil’s Nest, this is where it was born.

By the spring of 1986, Freestyle was exploding in New York clubs. New York radio however, was not impressed. Nor were radio stations around the country. With the exception of HOT 105 in Miami, and Power 106 in Los Angeles, who made the first singles by TKA, Nayobe, and Expose #1 hits in South Florida and Southern California respectively, radio station program directors ignored Freestyle.

Power 106 (KPWR) and Hot 105 (WQHT) were pioneers of a new type of station that were starting up in early 1986 – crossover radio. These were CHR stations that leaned heavily toward Dance music. The target audience for Power 106 and Hot 105 was the large English-speaking Latin population of these two cities. The success of those stations brought attention to the large hole left in New York radio when WKTU signed off the air three years earlier. On August 13, 1986, WAPW, a fledgling CHR station in New York, changed its call letters to WQHT and switched its format to that of its sister station in L.A. (Power 106). WQHT (Hot 103) began playing much of the hits by TKA, Sweet Sensation, and Expose in the same rotation as Pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Freestyle tracks like TKA’s “One Way Love” 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. Freestyle was now getting national attention.

Despite the renewed interest in the older Freestyle tracks, these artists were already releasing their follow-up singles. In the fall of 1986, Sweet Sensation released “Victim of Love” and TKA released “Come Get My Love,” a raw, more club-oriented and less pop sounding record than “One Way Love.” It set the tone for a new crop of Freestyle records produced by Mickey Garcia and Elvin Molina that were released in late 1986 and early 1987, including “I Won’t Stop Loving You” by C-Bank and Judy Torres’ follow-up single “Come Into My Arms.” Both of these tracks became huge hits in a new club called Heartthrob, which opened up in the old building that had housed the Funhouse. The owners of Heartthrob were able to convince Little Louie’ Vega to leave the Devil’s Nest to play at the new club. At around the same time a new club, 1018, opened a half a mile away and directly competed with Heartthrob, often outbidding each other for the exclusive performances of Freestyle artists. The demand for Freestyle was so great that both clubs prospered and the artists wound up performing at both clubs, often on the same night.

In early 1987, Sa-Fire also released her follow-up single, “Let Me Be The One.” Like “Come Get My Love,” this song was a departure from the sound of her first single. It proved to be a welcome one as the song outperformed its predecessor in chart performance and sales.

The Cover Girls second single “Spring Love,” again a departure for them, didn’t fare as well. They were, however, able to bounce back in a major way with their third single. “Because Of You.” The song, produced by Louie Vega and Robert Clivilles and written by David Cole before the latter two went on to become mega-producers with C&C Music Factory, became perhaps the favorite Cover Girl song of all. It reached #24 on the Pop charts and top 10 on the Dance charts in the spring of 1987 and propelled their debut album to nearly gold status.

“Like A Child” was the second single from Noel. “Silent Morning” was a tough act to follow, and although it did not match the success of “Silent Morning,” it set the pace for his successful self-titled debut album. Joyce Simms, although not Hispanic, was enjoying the distinction of having the first Freestyle record to cross over into the R&B market with the classic “(You Are My) All and All.” It was also one of the first Freestyle records to crack the European market.Although Freestyle was still in its early stages, it was fast becoming dance music for the 80s.

Thank you to Joey Gardner for this Article