By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
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 Forceera 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 whensome say becauseNew 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. "Racethat's the only possible conclusion I could draw," he says, still palpably frustrated.
The lines were drawn, and styles diverged. Latinosethnic allegiances realigned suddenly with Italians yearning for a new, post-disco dance soundstruck 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 operasbeing in love, breaking up, catching someone cheating on youintense 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 wizardsAndy Panda Tripoli, Joey Gardner, Vito Bruno, Jellybean Benitez, Little Louie Vegasaw 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 artistsexcept through salsa, in the case of performers like Marc Anthony, India, and Brenda K. Starrnever reaping what they had sown.