A Quick Primer On Freestyle: 1980s Dancepop’s Most Underheralded Genre


Tomorrow night at the Lehman Center, hundreds of electro-pop fans will gleefully inhabit the alternate universe in which freestyle got its due when the Miami singer Stevie B (above, singing “Girl I Am Searching For You”) headlines Forever Freestyle 6, a revue of icons from the underheralded style’s turn-of-the-1990s golden era. The sixth iteration of a throwback festival hardly seems like the type of event about which to wax rhapsodic, but no amount of purple prose feels like overstatement when fighting for the recognition and reputation of freestyle.

Corina, “Give Me Back My Heart”

A not always visibly but nevertheless significantly Latin music, freestyle originated alongside hip-hop in the Bronx and achieved a quicker yet more fleeting commercial success. The style’s similarities to contemporaneous R&B and hi-NRG endeared it to pop radio programmers, and unlike the freak-a-holics of the Los Angeles electro scene, freestyle’s young and lovelorn teenpop stars sang about sex in a fashion more palatable to mainstream ears. The style’s rap inflections, too, made freestyle exciting to young listeners.

Strafe, “Set It Off”

Too many factors to mention contributed to the 1980s’ glory days of dancepop, but one double-edged sword was radio’s fear of hip-hop, which is how pop stations like Kiss 98.7 could dominate ratings by playing heavily requested hip-hop inflected tracks like E.U.’s “Da Butt” in 1988, while “real” hip-hop couldn’t get airplay at all. Once radio embraced hip-hop, though, dance-oriented stations switched formats, and these pop forms were unfairly considered pale imitations of “real” hip-hop—not to mention the ways in which teenpop has always been all too easily maligned.

By some accounts, the “first” freestyle 12″ was “Please Don’t Go,” performed by then-14-year-old Nayobe, who had been recruited by Fever Records head—and co-host of tomorrow’s show—Sal Abbatiello.

Nayobe, “Please Don’t Go”

Today freestyle lives on not only through its undeniable influence—”Vowels = Space And Time” from Grimes’s much-lauded recent album Visions is operating in the genre’s tradition, and Pitbull appeared on a remix of Stevie B’s local hit “Spring Love” in 2010—but also through its still-devoted fans. Singer Judy Torres went on to become a DJ at WKTU, and though her all-freestyle show was cancelled in 2009 (after a full decade!) the station continues to sponsor the Freestyle Free For All, a fall festival that launched six months after the first Forever Freestyle. The complementary shows have become biyearly celebratory gatherings for freestyle devotees, and although freestyle may never get the love it deserves until an enterprising writer canonizes it as 1989’s salsa, they will continue to keep it alive, listening alone, together, to the genre’s hip-shaking dance-floor melodramas of love and sadness.

Noel, “Silent Morning”

Forever Freestyle 6—with Stevie B, Corina, Safire, Cynthia, Noel, Nayobe, Coro, Fascination, Strafe, and the Vargas Brothers—takes place tomorrow at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts.

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