Let the Music Play (Again)
Latin freestyle's dreamboys and dreamgirls dance back into the spotlight
by Cristina Verán
April 18th, 2006 12:11 PM
"Good things come to those who wait," sang Nayobe in 1987, a year after the Cuban American singer from the Bronx portrayed herself in the hip-hop movie Krush Groove: an apt mantra for a Latino-dominated dance music scene that has since gone underground but refused to die. Twenty years past the days when freestyle, as the music once called "Latin hip-hop" came to be known (after, arguably, the name of a popular free-form dance style, not to be confused with off-tha-dome freestyle rap), branded an unapologetic, apolitical Viva la Raza ethos for second-generation Latinos—and anyone else who wanted a whirl on the dancefloor—the wait is over. On April 20, an all-star roster comprising TKA, Cynthia, Stevie B, Johnny O, Lisa Lisa, Cover Girls, George Lamond, Noel, Coro, Nice 'n Wild, Shannon, and Judy Torres is set to seize the main stage at Madison Square Garden. Freestyle—the Latino music boom that pre- dated America livin' la vida loca to da riddims of reggaetón—is finally getting its due.
How did this otherwise innocuous music become a veritable movement, and why should it matter nearly two decades after it packed seemingly every high-capacity dance venue in the city, from Hearthrobs and 1018 to the Palladium and Roseland?
It arose from the streets of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem, Miami taking it up with gusto soon after. "Life was more funky in New York for this new sound coming out," remembers hip-hop progenitor and adamant freestyle supporter DJ Afrika Bambaataa, whose own Soul Sonic Force–era sound laid the genre's sonic foundation. "Its roots are electro-funk and hip-hop," he says, crediting Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with setting it off. Latinos, though, had made their mark in hip-hop from the beginning: Cold Crush Brothers DJ Charlie Chase, Fantastic Five's Ruby Dee and Whipper Whip, and Fearless Four's Devastating Tito and DJ Master O.C., for starters.
Interestingly, despite a decidedly hip-hop foundation, freestyle emerged at a time when—some say because—New York Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, following breakdance overkill in the media, suddenly found themselves ostracized from the culture they helped create. "It was ours," says Bronx-bred George Lamond, a former B-boy and graffiti writer who became one of freestyle's most popular, enduring artists, "and yet, at one point, suddenly it wasn't ours anymore." The scene began to segregate, with even Latin Quarter (where shared freestyle and rap bills, say Leather and Lace and Cutmaster DC, were once the norm) ironically recast as a black club. Suburban rap groups like Public Enemy stormed the once integrated scene, proclaiming it "a black thing" (read: African American)—and no, Latinos didn't understand.
Performer K7, who co-founded freestyle's first male supergroup, TKA, says, "Our way to do hip-hop became, 'Let's take those same breaks and beats, the hardness of, say, a Rakim track,' and since we weren't being embraced as rappers, we sang." In 1986, their Tommy Boy Records breakout hit "One Way Love" became a top request on black radio powerhouse 98.7 Kiss FM, and the guys hoped their acceptance would reinforce Latinos' hip-hop profile. They were sadly mistaken.
"They loved us," K7 recalls, "until we showed up in person, at the station. When they saw that we were Hispanic, that was that." The very next day, he says, their hit was pulled from Kiss FM rotation and never played again. "Race—that's the only possible conclusion I could draw," he says, still palpably frustrated.
The lines were drawn, and styles diverged. Latinos—ethnic allegiances realigned suddenly with Italians yearning for a new, post-disco dance sound—struck back, with . . . well, with amor. Retiring creased Lees and shell-toe Adidas, freestyle brought a stylized, romantic sound and aesthetic back into vogue.
"Freestyle songs," explains Judy Torres, grande dame among soloists, "are like really dramatic Spanish soap operas—being in love, breaking up, catching someone cheating on you—intense and passionate, slightly overdramatic." Now host of WKTU-FM's Sunday-night "Freestyle Free for All," Torres still regularly performs her early catalog and has a new release on the dance charts: "Faithfully," a Journey remake.
Musically at its best and most fanatically embraced from roughly 1986 through 1992, freestyle also ruled the airwaves on Hot 103 (before it became Hot 97 and changed formats). Performers raked in the dough, up to $8,000 for a five-to-seven-minute set, doing five or six shows per week. Promoters, DJs, and studio wizards—Andy Panda Tripoli, Joey Gardner, Vito Bruno, Jellybean Benitez, Little Louie Vega—saw their stars and bank accounts rise in tune. "We ended up part of this world, and it gave us a shortcut from the streets to success," says actress Elizabeth Rodriguez, who's gone from dancing with key architects of the sound the Latin Rascals and co-hosting 2nd Generation (freestyle's first TV show) to co-starring with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in the big-screen Miami Vice remake out this summer.
Along with those acts scheduled to play MSG, New York favorites included multiple-hit makers like Sa-Fire, Fascination, and Sweet Sensation . The artists were supported by millions of fans, in America's biggest markets. Then suddenly, the gates their music opened slammed shut. To this day, heated conversations erupt in certain circles, with theorizing about why freestyle never reached its expected potential, its artists—except through salsa, in the case of performers like Marc Anthony, India, and Brenda K. Starr—never reaping what they had sown.
"In the '90s," says Noel, one of few freestyle acts to record full-length albums, "I feel like the music really started losing its integrity." Echoing a common sentiment, he explains, "People didn't really care what they were putting out, and these labels trying to make a buck kept shoving bad, half-assed records down the audience's throats."
After raiding rosters of the indie labels—Cutting, Tommy Boy, Fever, MicMac—that gave freestyle its start, the major labels signed but soon dropped a host of artists. Rap was turning into the next big signing frenzy. And by this time, hip-hop's media image was bigger, badder, and yes (Kid Frost, Mellow Man Ace, and Gerardo's "Rico Suave" notwithstanding), blacker than ever.
Eventually, Big Pun, Fat Joe, and co. would resurrect hip-hop's Latino profile. But throughout the intervening years, freestyle refused to dance off quietly into the night.
Madison Square Garden underlines the lasting power of the movement. And yes, new artists like New Jersey's Nu Image, New York's Ayna, and Spain's Arnau are picking up where freestyle forefathers and -mothers left off, moving it beyond the nostalgia of thirtysomethings for a bygone era. DJs like Baron Lopez in New York and Chillski in Miami continue to work freestyle, new and old, into club sets and are amazed to find younger audiences opening up to the music.
To recapture any semblance of its early profile, though, a new generation would need to take the reins with full force and make freestyle its own. "Hip-hop has been successful at changing, taking chances," says New York–based club DJ Lucho. "That's what freestyle needs to do." If its most faithful, die-hard fans will let it, that is.
"We are, in a way, kind of boxed in," acknowledges Evelyn Escalera of the Cover- Girls. "We also want to do more pop, more crossover, too, but you don't want to disappoint those fans who helped get you where you're at."
Old or new, "freestyle's been like this sleeping giant, and I think this Garden show's gonna expose all this, all over again," says the concert's promoter, Sal Abbatiello—a veritable veteran don of both freestyle and hip-hop, helming both Fever Records and the Bronx's legendary Disco Fever nightclub. "The history needs to be told."