Freestyle music


Freestyle or Latin freestyle, also called Latin hip-hop in its early years, is a form of electronic music that is heavily influenced by Hispanic and African-American culture. Freestyle emerged around 1982 and hit its peak in 1989. It continues to be produced today and enjoys some degree of popularity, especially in urban Latino population centers. Another popular modern genre Florida breaks evolved from this sound.

The music first developed primarily in northeastern U.S. states like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Initially, it was a fusion of the vocal styles found in 1970s disco music with the syncopated, synthetic instrumentation of 1980s electro, as favored by fans of breakdancing. It was also influenced by sampling, as found in Hip-hop music. In the 1990s, the electro and hip-hop influences were supplanted by house music. Freestyle music based on house rather than electro is sometimes referred to as freestyle house.


Musical heritage

Before 1982, hip hop was based on rather traditional genres, typically funk and disco tracks such as Good Times by Chic. It was only the rapping that clearly made the distinction as to what constituted a rap track.

The music of early rap records was performed live in the studio and then mixed with the rapping, whereas live hip hop was two turntables and a microphone with DJs such as Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. Herc was a Jamaican, and in the beginning he brought the Jamaican tradition of dee jaying (toasting) and mixing to the Bronx, NY. In the end, Jamaican and African American traditions merged into the new music called hip hop.

Planet Rock

Herc first tried to make people listen to the reggae tracks from Jamaica but it didn't work. Then he started using funk and soul records, focusing on the instrumental breaks. The Ultimate Breaks and Beats series includes tracks from "Mary Mary" to "Apache" which have been sampled many times and are still used today by hip hop DJs. Of course, this music was organic rather than electronic. But hip hop DJs discovered weird sounds from Europe such as Kraftwerk's Numbers and Trans Europe Express, which, although electronic, were funky and danceable. Back then, this music was called techno.

With Baker and Robie, Afrika Bambaataa mixed famous samples from Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express and Numbers with funkier sounds inspired by Captain Sky's Super Sperm and taking melodic elements from a rock version of Ennio Morricone's The Mexican. The result: Planet Rock (1982) by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, a track that transformed hip hop music.

This new style of hip hop came to be called Electro Funk. A group of young singers named Planet Patrol recorded a sung version of Planet Rock, Play at your own risk, also produced by Baker and Robie. Electro Funk was to rule hip hop for the next few years, both in NY and LA (Egyptian Lover, World Class Wreckin Cru), and in Miami, a new kind of hip hop called Miami Bass would emerge. House music was also heavily influenced by Electro Funk. John Robie and Arthur Baker realized the potential of the new genre and went on mixing the sound with R&B Vocals: I.O.U. by Freeez featuring John Rocca was an instant club hit, charting high and becoming an instant classic on numerous compilations.

The music

It is a genre with rather clear features: a dance tempo with stress on beats 2 & 4; syncopation on a bassline, lead synth, or percussion, with optional orchestra hits; 16th beat high hat; a chord progression which lasts 8, 16, or 32 beats and is usually in a minor key; complex melodies with singing, verses, and a chorus, with themes about love or dancing. Freestyle music in general is heavily influenced by Latin music, especially with respect to rhythms and brass/horn and keyboard parts. The latin "clave" rhythm can be felt in many songs (such as in the defining Clave Rocks by Amoretto). The tempo of Freestyle music is almost always between 110 and 130 beats per minute (BPM), typically around 118 BPM. The keyboard parts are often elegant and clever, with many short melodies and countermelodies, again a strong influence from latin music.

Early cultural effects

The new exciting sounds rejuvenated the funk, soul and hip-hop club scenes. While most of the neighborhood clubs were closing their doors for good, some Manhattan clubs were suddenly thriving. Places like the Roxy, the Funhouse, Broadway 96, Gothams West, and Roseland that played this were packed. Records like "Play At Your Own Risk" by Planet Patrol, "One More Shot" by C-Bank, "Numbers" by Kraftwerk, "Al-Naafiyish (The Soul)" by Hashim and "I.O.U." by Freeez became huge hits. Some producers wisely copied the sound and made songs that were more melodic. Records like "I Remember What You Like" by Jenny Burton, and "Let The Music Play" and "Give Me Tonight" by Shannon were all over New York radio. Many people list Let the Music Play as the first freestyle track. Indeed, Let the Music Play became freestyle's biggest record, still getting heavy airplay through radio and other venues. The song was produced by Chris Barbosa, a Latino from NY. Barbosa changed and refined the electro funk sound, adding Latin American rhythms and a totally syncopated drum sound. That was definitely a reason why the style came to be very popular among Latinos as well as Italian Americans. Furthermore, many DJs who played the music, such as Jellybean, Tony Torres, Raul Soto and Roman Ricardo were Hispanic. However, those on stage performing the songs were not, neither were most of the producers making the music. This marks a notable merging of underground Hispanic and African-American urban cultures, hence, the names Latin Hip Hop or Latin Freestyle. Now, the more neutral term Freestyle is generally preferred.

Power 106, WQHT and Hot 103 began playing hits by artists like TKA, Sweet Sensation, and Expose on the same playlists as Pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Tracks like TKA's One Way Love and Sweet Sensation's Hooked On You received new life and the success of these tracks as well as the just-released Show Me by the Cover Girls helped get them added to stations around the country. "(You Are My) All and All." by Joyce Simms became the first Freestyle record to cross over into the R&B market. It was also one of the first Freestyle records to crack the European market. Although still in its early stages, Freestyle was now getting national attention, and was fast becoming dance music for the 80s.

The Miami scene

Not only electro was very popular in Miami, also freestyle was embraced with the southern Latin capital of the US. Pretty Tony, a.k.a. Tony Butler, actually first made electro, then bass and finally freestyle. He had a one man group called Freestyle and his success would begin in 1983 with the hit single 'Fix it in the Mix' and later that year a strong showing with artist Debbie Deb singing "When I Hear Music". Joining him in early 1984 New York rapper TK Rodriguez fronted the group Fastlane and would release the single 'Young Ladies' Hip hop's first southern track. That year TK Rodriguez introduced Pretty Tony to Arthur Baker, Kurtis Blow and Afrika Bambataa and he worked alongside Butler on Debbie Deb's 'Look Out Weekend'. Rodriguez' introduction of freestyle singer Trinere would become Butler's most successful collaboration.

Company B, Stevie B, Linear, Will to Power, and Exposť's later hits defined Miami Freestyle. Many labels confused New York Freestyle and Miami Freestyle, thinking they had the same audience. They thought their promotional strategy would work for both genres, which resulted in skipping the all too important step of cultivating a record at the street and club level before going to radio. This often led to poor results for the New York-based Freestyle. New York Freestyle, even in its most polished forms, retained a raw edge and underground sound, using minor chords that made the tracks darker and more moody. The lyrics also tended to be about unrequited love or other more somber themes, dealing with the reality of what inner city teens were experiencing emotionally.

Miami records on the other hand, tended to be more optimistic, using major chords similar to those used in early disco giving them a more upbeat sound. This is probably why the Miami records fared better at mainstream Pop radio than New York Freestyle. Some Miami artists like Stevie B, after doing their first shows in the New York market, saw the difference and began using the Miami sound combined with New York Freestyle, often with successful results.

Freestyle as a pop-crossover genre

By 1989, Freestyle was at its peak as an underground genre. Around this time, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, one of the first Latino freestyle acts to get behind the microphone, began to make it big on the freestyle scence. Their records were produced by Full Force, who also made UTFO's music and even once worked together with James Brown. The music of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam was less electro and more pop, and that was also probably the reason why groups such as Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, TKA, Sweet Sensation and especially the Cover Girls were able to crossover into the pop market at the end of the 1980s.

Soon thereafter, however, freestyle was seemingly swallowed up by the mainstream pop industry: MC Hammer, Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown, New Kids On The Block and Milli Vanilli had definite freestyle influences, with their hip-hop beats and electro samples, but were undoubtedly a new pop-mainstream form of the underground dance music of the 1980s, repackaged with catchier tunes, slicker production and MTV-friendly videos. Along with this pop appropriation of the genre and the success of these artists, not only on crossover stations but R&B stations as well, freestyle ceased to be as important as an underground genre, giving way to newer genres, such as Gangsta rap and new forms of Dance music coming from Europe and Detroit, such as House, Trance and Rave, which seemed younger, fresher and newer than their freestyle influences.

Freestyle hits



The "freestyle" name

Why freestyle is actually called freestyle is subject to speculation. Maybe the term freestyle is due to the DJs spinning the wheels of steel, mixing. Others claim the singers were "freestyling" to the music, giving the same meaning as with "freestyle rap". Another explanation is that the dancing associated with this music allows for a great degree of freedom of expression. Each individual dancer is "free" to create his or her own "style."

However, many have despised the term, saying that there is nothing "free" about freestyle music but just planet rock-beat ballads mostly sung by females about love, romance, and having a good time. Other genres with "pointless" names include freeform and acid jazz.


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