Let the Music Play (Again)

Latin freestyle's dreamboys and dreamgirls dance back into the spotlight

"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."

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