Though best known for his house and hip-hop productions, Brooklyn’s Todd Terry caught his break producing freestyle records like Giggles’s “Love Letter” and Fascination’s “Why You Wanna Go.” Late last year, he returned with Freestyle Forever, a new LP of original songs, and in anticipation of Saturday’s unrelated Freestyle Forever concert at Lehman College, we talked to Todd about clubbing in the ’80s, breaking into production, and what makes freestyle so fun make.
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When and where did you first come across freestyle?
I guess it was ’84, ’85, whatever. We’d go to clubs and DJs would be playing just club music. That’s what they called freestyle at that time. They played all different styles and “freestyle” became known three to four years later. They gave it a name, but it was just electronic club music.
What clubs were you going to? Devil’s Nest?
We went past Devil’s Nest, La Mirage, L’Amour East. There were so many clubs playing, I would say, just club music. It wouldn’t just be freestyle; it would be reggae, funk, hip-hop. They would play a little bit of everything. It was different than how things are now where they have freestyle night or a house night. They mixed it up.
What DJs were playing freestyle at the time?
Big J at Roseland, Lil’ Louis at Heartthrob, Jellybean at Fun House. That’s where I heard a lot of stuff, through Fun House. I think that was the key: Fun House, Jellybean Benitez. And Larry Levan in the Garage played stuff that was like freestyle, but he played everything as well. A lot of those clubs were where we got into it.
And then when did you start DJing?
I was DJing at that time. I was kind of like just in the park cutting up great beats and stuff like that. More like the Bizarre and stuff like that because my friend was having a birthday party. I didn’t take it seriously until I started doing more weddings and Sweet 16’s, and then I pursued it. I did a business of DJing just through word of mouth. Just doing everybody’s parties to make some money. As I was hanging out, going back into the clubs like Roseland and stuff like that, I always wondered what it would be like to make a record. I could make some more money off the records. So that’s how I really got into it. Just by being in the club scene.
Some of your first records — “Love Letter,” for instance — were freestyle records. How did you then get into that side of things?
I was kind of doing hip-hop at first. I had hip-hop groups I was producing, like this guy named Kwan off of Flatbush Avenue. I produced his album. I did a lot of hip-hop, but I didn’t get record deals for them. I did some freestyle records with friends of mine, and I did it for fun just to see if we could do it and just come up with some songs. I always wanted to do something that was like Shannon. That was like one of my favorite records from back in the day. I wanted to do something like Chris Barbosa. That’s what I was kind of mimicking when I did “Love Letter,” which was kind of crazy. But that’s what it was. I just kind of got in through stuff like that, and I got a record deal. Next thing you know, there were calls back. I used to send out cassette tapes to a bunch of people to check out my freestyle but nobody picked up on it until Fourth Floor later. I got introduced to them somehow after “Alright, Alright.” So I had “Alright, Alright” out, “Love Letter,” “Why You Wanna Go.” Things started to pop out, one thing after another.
When you’re in the studio, how different is your process when you’re making a house record or a freestyle record or a rap record or whatever?
Til this day, every record is different. I can go to somebody’s house and produce a record and it’ll come out this way. Or I’ll have the music idea first and later I’ll add a beat to that. Some singer would come into my house and sing a song, and I would just take her a capella and add music to it then take it into the studio and add some beats to it. Every records seems to become different. Rap records… I used to do rap records back in the day with the rigged beat. Something like “Here We Go” by Run-DMC, that was the idea of making records. The DJ’s cutting it up and the MC’s just going for it. I used to go watch Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five. I used to watch Theodore and Fantastic Five. I used to watch those guys, and they would make routines to the beats.
When you played out, did you play a lot of freestyle records?
I played everything. I did Sweet 16’s or any party that I did. I even played meringue. I played Spanish records; I played everything. We went to the Isley Brothers to Prince to Quincy Jones to whatever electronic record was out at that time. “Planet Rock,” whatever it was, we went into. It’s different. You had to play every style — hip hop, funk, soul, reggae. A lot of reggae tracks back in the day too.
So why did you want to make a freestyle record now
It was just like a breath of fresh air to me. I think the house thing, I think everybody kind of knew each other and knew any and everything. They were just so fickle and freestyle was just… I always do a “breath of fresh air” every now and then. I did a drum and bass album — breath of fresh air. I’m just going to do what I do. Whatever criticism’s out there or not, I don’t really care. Too bad for people that are stuck in the same thing in their life. I feel bad for them. I always felt like I was always in different styles of music.
What was it like making these tracks in 2014
It was dope! It feels good making those beats. It’s creative. The house beat is basically the same shit all the time. I’m not knocking it — I love house like I love any type of music. I like music; I don’t care what it really is. Freestyle you’re just really able to entice a really funky beat and sound. It’s different every record. You can sound like Art of Noise one record and the other records can sound like John Robie and Arthur Baker. And this record you could sound like Elvin Molina and Mickey Garcia You can pick and choose your sound. You’re not stuck. You’re not alienated into one style of sound.
Last question, what are some of your all-time freestyle records?
Shannon’s “Give Me Tonight” or “Let the Music Play.” “Planet Rock,” “Looking for the Perfect Beat.” Going down the line, those were key ones you can play to this day and somebody will remember that record. They’ll be like, “Remember that record? That record’s dope!” Or “Where did you get that? You still got that?” Some people feel as though they have all of your records. I have all my old records. It’s just cooler. We need a new sound out there, and I better do it before Rihanna does it. She’s gonna come out with a freestyle record, and everyone’s going to think she thought of it.