Features - Disappearing Act: What Happened to Freestyle?

Words By: Erica Y. Lopez
Photography By: Miguel Cruz

It is both loved and hated by the masses. For many, it is the soundtrack for a simpler time, set in a grittier New York City. It filled a void for many “danceaholics” during the 1980’s and into the early 90’s. It is at once, uniquely Latino, embraced by the Italian community and spawned from the birth of Hip-Hop. It is Freestyle.

It is both loved and hated by the masses. For many, it is the soundtrack for a simpler time, set in a grittier New York City. It filled a void for many “dance-a-holics” during the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. It is all at once uniquely Latino, embraced by the Italian community and spawned from the birth of Hip-Hop. We call it Freestyle.

A genre of music that was never intended to make such an impact (at least according to the record companies), Freestyle music laid the groundwork for all forms of dance music heard in today’s market. From Techno to House, to Trance, to whatever gets your pulse pumping, Freestyle provided the fundamentals. It picked up where Disco left off,
and it incorporated the hunger of an urban community dying for a new form of self-expression.

There are many different perspectives on how the music developed, what made it so popular and why it virtually disappeared for a time from the radio airwaves. Though Freestyle enjoys a certain amount of airplay these days, there are still many who feel it never received the recognition it deserved. I spoke with urban music pioneer, Sal Abbatiello (Fever Records), Dance music’s Mickey Garcia (MicMac Records) and Carlos Berrios (After-Dark Music/ADM Records), and current Freestyle enthusiast DJ Rio Lopez about the rise and fall of the unexpectedly influential genre.

After the death of Disco, radio stations and their loyal young listeners were left with a void. Disco had been the “Queen Bee” for so long that its’ quick and sudden death left many stations without a game plan for what would come next. Radio stations that had wrapped their format around the onetime booming genre had to scramble to find a suitable and equally marketable replacement. Stations in New York City began to
change formats (sparking a nationwide trend), looking for the next pop music phenomenon. They would not find it, at least not right away.

As an alternative, stations began to appeal to specific demographics. Since Disco had been wildly popular amongst Latinos and Italians, Disco 92 (WKTU) decided to abandon its namesake to play more mainstream
pop, and subsequently rock music to attract the Anglo audience. Conversely, another dance station, 99X (WKLO) abandoned its format altogether to make a play for the African American audience, who at that time was exclusively listening to another station. WBLS 99X changed its name and call letters, which completed their metamorphosis
into the well-known 98.7 Kiss FM. Following close in suit was the ubiquitous Z-100 (WHTZ). Z-100 decided to go head-to-head with WPLG to capture the rest of the mainstream Anglo audience who had been displaced by Disco 92’s format change.

Bottom line, everyone was getting a new station and a new sound—everyone that is, except the massive Latino population.

With the Latino population growing by the second, it was only a matter of time before there was some kind of answer to this slight by mainstream radio. That answer was found in Latino communities from the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. It was found at house parties, block parties and Sweet 16’s. It was found on street corners, in talent shows and in small no-name underground clubs. It was a new sound not yet named, and not yet categorized.

“Rock, Rock , Planet Rock”

Along with young African Americans at the time, Latinos began to develop a new style of music—untouched by radio executives and unscathed by the clichés of Pop music. Some called the music “hip-hop be-bop”, others referred to it as “break-dancing music,” but whatever it was called it was a new blending of electronically enhanced rhythms-and-breaks, mixed with samples from the works of other artists. It was unconventional, fresh and totally driven by the urban youth culture. With the release of Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” in 1982, this new sound got its’ first chance to shine in the music industry. Many credit “Planet Rock” for opening the door to a multitude of Hip-Hop acts. However, what goes highly unnoticed, or perhaps ignored is the obvious link between this primitive form of Hip-Hop and the developing style of Freestyle music.

Dance music pioneer Carlos Berrios spent many years as a DJ both in Latin America and around the country. Originally from Queens, Berrios made apart of an elite group of editors known as the Hit Squad, who was able to master the intricate editing style created by The Latin Rascals. Berrios was responsible for editing and producing numerous hits during the golden age of Freestyle, including the smash-hit by Lissette Melendez, “Together Forever”.

“It was funny,” says Berrios, “because with Hip-Hop, Rap and urban music in general— everyone wanted to be apart of it. But for some reason this seed, whatever that Urban dance seed was—split into two. Rap went left and freestyle went right. I really don’t know why—it is a curious phenomenon.”

“Every kid started writing songs, writing poetry, they also started rapping—but then that rap slowly turned into songwriting, and into new melodies that dove into the subject of love and heartache,” Berrios affirms.

The electro-rhythms housed in tracks by the Soulsonic Force were contagious and followed by numerous releases, each showcasing a variation or twist on this new sound. While many clubs in New York City were shutting down after the demise of Disco, certain clubs were cashing in on the rising popularity of the new electro-dance music style. Clubs like The Roxy, The Funhouse, Broadway 96, Gotham’s West and Roseland were bringing in serious numbers and their dance floors were packed. Clubs around New York were rejuvenated and dance music as a whole experienced a reformation.

“Play at Your Own Risk”

Producers began to take these electrotracks and instead of laying rap vocals on top, they added melodic vocals, similar to those found on dance records (Disco) in prior years. What resulted from this practice wereFreestyle classics such as 1984’s “Let The Music Play” and “Give Me Tonight” by Shannon. The music’s popularity continued to grow within the Latino and subsequently the Italian communities—giving the genre a wider audience. In retrospect, what continued to link the majority of this new audience with the burgeoning Hip-Hop crowd was that this music stemmed from the youth of a minority community.

Sal Abbatiello has had his finger on the pulse of the urban music since the mid 70’s. Though not often credited, Sal was one of the first club owners to take a chance on hip-hop before anyone would. A ronxnative,
Sal heard some kids rapping in the street over a DJ cutting records, and instinctively began to ask around about this new style. His inquiries led him to a man by the name of Grand Master Flash. In 1977, he convinced Grand Master Flash to play at his club “Disco Fever” in the South Bronx, giving hip-hop one of its’ first opportunities for widespread exposure.

A few years later, in the early 80’s, Sal had once again heard a sound full of potential coming out of this urban community. Only this time it was Latino kids performing on the street—once again highlighting the very real connection between the two urban genres.

“Now I see this new era of 2nd generation Latinos, in The Bronx, and in New York in general…so I am thinking local—because that is exactly how I started with hip-hop,” explains Sal. “I just knew that this was going to be the new scene.”

“What really makes music blow up is when the movement is started by teenagers, 15-19 years old. Back then the drinking age was only 18, so you could get a whole lot of people into a club, and the 16-17 year olds would just sneak in,” he says. “You could break music in these clubs to a younger generation—which you can’t do anymore because it is 21 and over. Plus the DJ’s are so popular today—you can’t break a record—someone like a Funkmaster Flex is more popular than the recording artist.”

Sal and other producers/promoters at the time, worked hard to get Freestyle artists enough exposure. Along with one of the genre’s most influential producers, Andy “Panda” Tripoli, Sal discovered a variety of Freestyle acts like Nayobe and The Cover Girls. He was also able to give them a venue to showcase their talent and grow as performers.

“I had a club in the Bronx called the Devil’s Nest, Little Louie Vega was my DJ. I would bring in these artists and give them a shot. TKA did their first show there and La India was actually in the group!” Sal recalls.

“Back then there was no radio play, but we didn’t need it because there was such an underground movement in The Bronx, that if you just started playing the music in the Devil’s Nest it became a hit…we discovered The Cover Girls, Information Society—every week a new group came out. I began to book the groups all around, at the Copacabana, etc. From Nayobe to Lisa Lisa to Exposé—they all performed there, we even had Debbie Gibson!”

Though Sal gave much of his credit to the “Boogie-Down” (The Bronx), Carlos Berrios spoke fondly of East Harlem’s contribution.

“Freestyle music from my point of view organically sprung out of Spanish Harlem,” says Berrios. “Places like the Devil’s Nest became an outlet for the first artists to get on stage and try to do something.”

“Let The Music Play”

Freestyle continued to enjoy success during the 1980’s. Mickey Garcia, owner of Mic Mac Records began as a DJ in the Disco era, but after spinning at places like Studio 54 and the Copacabana, he felt he had what it took to make a successful dance record.

“The sound of Freestyle music is like no other sound in any genre of dance,” explains Garcia. “When you hear break beats like those from James Brown’s “Give it up and Turn it Loose” mixed with the strings of Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “You’re my first, my last, my everything”, then add a little driving bass line, some piano chords and a catchy song that you can hang your hat on…you know you are feeling a Freestyle work of genius. I began feeling like I could write and produce songs that were good or even better than those I played at the club.”

Mickey produced hits for some of the biggest names in Freestyle like Judy Torres, Cynthia, Shannon and Johnny O.

“I discovered Judy and wrote and produced ‘No Reason to Cry’ and ‘Come Into My Arms’. I then decided to start my own company, Mic Mac Records which led me to discover, write and produce songs,” he says. “The timing was right and I was very lucky. I have nothing but great memories of all the concerts—we got to travel all over the country.”

The popularity of the music continued to grow, spreading to Miami and even parts of California. The music was no longer contained within the Latino community—it had spread to mainstream audiences. Singer Nayobe had the #1 Dance song on every radio station in Florida, surpassing superstars like Madonna and Whitney Houston. However record companies were still unconvinced that Freestyle was worth an investment. In response, producers like Mickey, started their own independent record labels.

“The major labels did not think this had any substance, they thought it was going to be a quick passing,” explains Sal. “But independents started selling 100,000 records (back then they were still selling vinyl) the movement had crossed over to the White crowd, and some of the artists started going Pop.”

Groups like The Cover Girls were going mainstream which caused a problem for record labels, as they were taking airtime away from their signed artists. Consequently, major labels tried to block certain records from playing on the air.

“They were like, ‘play the Michael Jackson record’ and some stations responded ‘No, we are playing Lissette Melendez’,” Sal remembers. “They couldn’t stop it because the demand from the public was so great, the radio stations had to play it—because people were requesting the sound.” As a result, Major labels began to wonder if this new sound was the next hip-hop, and as a direct response to that worry, one by one, they signed every major Freestyle artist at the time.

“The Cover Girls got signed to Capitol, Lissette Melendez to Def Jam, Sony signed Fever Records, Nayobe went to Epic and so on…” says Sal.

“Silent Morning”

This move should have been the big break that the genre was looking for; the break that would allow them to finally get the fame, exposure and recognition they desired. However it would have the absolute opposite effect. This was the first step toward the extinction of Freestyle music from the radio airwaves and from the popular music scene as a whole. Though there are several opinions as to why the movement eventually fell apart—the common thread in all of them was the change in the quality of music that followed signing to a major label.

According to Sal Abbatiello:
“The majors wanted to change the music into a [new] Pop sound. They didn’t let them create the records that we created when we were independent, and one by one they fell apart.”

According to Carlos Berrios:
“A lot of people could not think outside the box whether it was because they were limited in ideas, limited in talent or limited in vision. I don’t know what it was, but that is the reason why a lot of garbage was put out and played on the radio.”

According to Mickey Garcia:
“The market was saturated. Many of the releases were not very good songs or productions. The groups didn’t look professional enough. Radio saw this and decided to move on.”

Whether the majority of blame can be pinned on the major labels, the radio stations or the talent no longer matters. The truth is that there was a perfect storm of factors that led to the demise of Freestyle and the subsequent dilution of the Dance music culture. In New York City, then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began a campaign against nightclubs, shutting many of them down and in the same process taking away venues for current and future Freestyle artists. These actions coupled with the pressure from major labels to create a Pop sound caused enough stress on the genre, but to add even more trouble to the mix was the inevitable corporate hand mixing the perennial pot.

“[Eventually,] radio stations started to get overtaken by corporations. Hip-Hop at the same time was out-selling rock, however this shift was not reflected in its radio play,” explains Berrios. “When they switched the system from Billboard DJ—which was a manual system of finding out what DJ’s were playing—to Soundscan, this changed everything. Every time someone bought a CD in Omaha, it would go into a computer somewhere and every record company, radio station and marketing group got these lists,” he continues, “they realized that Hip-Hop was outselling everything —so they completely changed the format of their stations. Stations were forced by the corporations to go after the top dollar, and in turn phased out all dance music…it wasn’t just Freestyle, practically all Dance music was eliminated from the Top 40.”

Stations and new forums like Music Television (MTV) had limited their expansion to one form of Urban pop music; and the winner by virtue of sales and nationwide popularity was Hip-Hop.

By the end of 1992, the reign of Dance music, and more specifically Freestyle, had ended. Dance stations either went out of business or changed formats, and artists were dropped from their labels. It was very quiet for the next few years and it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that New York’s WKTU resurfaced as a dance music station. As a result, everyone in the genre began to make music again—however to their dismay the stations were not interested in playing any new freestyle releases, and stuck to playing the classics.

“The sound that everybody made was the same sound from the beginning,” says Sal. “That was a mistake by the writers and the producers.”

However, efforts were made to take the Latin influence in Dance music to another level. While some artists continued to try and make Freestyle music, other labels like Aldo Marin’s Cutting Records, spun off in a different direction. In perhaps one of the most successful attempts to do so, Cutting Records focused on blending forms of Latin music, like Merengue with Dance. What resulted was the smash club hit “Tumba La Casa” by Sancocho in 1996, and a number of hits from the Platinum-selling recording artists Fulanito in 1997.

Unfortunately for many of the original Freestyle artists, the deals they made with record labels were coming back to haunt them.

“When freestyle was blowing up in the late 80’s they would go and approach these kids (Nayobe was 16 when she first recorded) offer them a little bit of money, take them to the studio and record the track,” says DJ Rio. “The record company would make all the money and the singer was making nothing. The only way they got paid was by performing.”

DJ Rio Lopez is a part of a current generation of freestyle enthusiasts who like many, grew up listening to the music. Both a DJ and the host of a digital radio program—he attempts to give new life to Freestyle by bringing the music into new media and organizing platforms for artists to perform.

“Together Forever”

Rio isn’t the only person still attempting to keep the music alive. Fever’s Sal and Mickey Garcia continue to organize freestyle concerts, ski trips, boat rides etc. Though many have moved on to different business ventures, they remain loyal to the passion that drove the Freestyle movement. “Without the loyalty of the fans, freestyle would be really out of the picture,” explains Mickey. “But they have kept it alive—every time there is a concert anywhere in the country, the fans come out and support— they don’t mind seeing the same groups over and over.”

Carlos Berrios continues to create music, but has since moved on to ventures in Film. A current project of interest is a documentary on the contributions Freestyle made to dance music.

“I feel it is important to leave a legacy, otherwise everything we did was for nothing, since there is no documentary, no recognition— nothing about our contribution to pop music,” Berrios affirms. “I mean techno is something that sprung directly out of the way we used to edit.”

In the end, though freestyle artists had enjoyed success in their markets and created chart-topping hits, their songs were dropped from rotation and their videos denied airplay on MTV. The finger could again be pointed in the direction of big business, but there is also one factor that must be recognized— Freestyle heavyweights dropped
the ball.

When Hip-Hop was rejected by radio— pioneers like Russell Simmons, did not give up. They did not start making a different kind of music solely to get airplay—they cultivated their sound and made it their own. Yet the major players in Freestyle for some reason were unable to do that, which ultimately led to the downfall of the first form of urban Latino popular music. With the advent of Reggaeton and its currently precarious position— one is left to wonder, is it all about to “Without the loyalty happen again?

 


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