At the Garden, it's a flashback to freestyle

Ed Morales

April 16, 2006

A little more than 20 years ago, a new sound was born in New York clubs. It contained elements of old school hip-hop, disco, R&B, British dance pop and a little bit of salsa. It was called Latin hip-hop by its Latino followers, freestyle by the wider world that embraced it, and created a flood of new singing sensations, almost all of whom were second-generation Puerto Ricans. Next Thursday, at Madison Square Garden, this almost-forgotten moment in music history can be relived in a concert that will feature Lisa Lisa, TKA/K7, George Lamond, Judy Torres, the Cover Girls, Lissette Melendez, Noel and Shannon.

In 1984, Shannon, an African-American singer from Brooklyn, had a huge hit with "Let the Music Play," driven by a hyperkinetic rhythm track and an electro influence derived from Afrikaa Bambataa and the Soul Sonic Force and producer Arthur Baker. The sound of this song strongly influenced what was considered the first freestyle or Latin hip-hop hit, "I Wonder If I Take You Home," by Hell's Kitchen's own Lisa Lisa (nee Lisa Velez).

"I was one of the first Latinas to cross over with that sound, but my main style was 'pop hip-hop,'" Lisa said. She got her start when she was 13 years old and snuck into a club called the Fun House to audition for her eventual producers, Full Force. At the same time, up in the Bronx, club owner and Latin hip-hop manager Sal Abatiello put out a single by a Cuban protege Nayobe, titled "Please Don't Go."

"It was a movement, a culture, and it was Latin," said Abatiello, who is one of the Garden concert's promoters. "They found a sound that worked for Latins, whites and blacks."

After dominating the dance clubs, and to a lesser extent, the pop charts in the late '80s and early '90s, freestyle vanished as gangster rap emerged. But in the past few years, freestyle/old school shows began to draw crowds who were nostalgic for their high school days. After successful dry runs at the Copa and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, Abatiello persuaded co-promoter Adam Torres to bring the show to the Garden. "The 25- to 40-year-olds are fans of salsa and reggaetón, but they seem to be looking for an alternative," Torres said.

"I honestly feel they're ready for a new sound," Lisa said. "It's basically a Latin sound with hip-hop under it. Everybody wants to hear that flavor. What about that new LL Cool J single, 'Control Myself,' with Jennifer Lopez? That's Latin hip-hop right there."

Regardless of whether freestyle is just nostalgia or on the verge of a comeback, this concert will be the biggest thrill of Evelyn Escalera's life. The lead singer of the Cover Girls, who has a son in the sixth grade and works for the board of education in Spanish Harlem, will be playing the Garden for the first time. "It's a humbling experience," she said. "As youngsters, we grew up with a mixture of disco and rock and we fused it with our Latino music. Freestyle is something we can call our own."



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