Feature photo by thenovys
I was eight when my family moved from Little Village to Berwyn. I was taught by my older sister the art of crushing foil around the antenna for a more static-free listening experience. Oh, and let’s not forget facing it east. That was a must. Once it was set at 90.5 fm, it sat in the kitchen window and I knew – do not go anywhere near it. That meant it was time to dance and lip sync into kitchen utensils on the opposite side of the table. Rushing home after school to my secret paradise of dancing and singing was the highlight of my day. My sisters were older than me, so they would get home later. I would have at least an hour to myself of parading around as the next Lil’ Suzy. Since I was the only one home, and the new kid on the block, I had nobody to share in my joy of what I considered the greatest music of all time. So when I just couldn’t hold in my excitement anymore, I would call my cousin who still was fortunate enough to live in the city. I just wanted to scream sheer happiness when we heard a freestyle hit come on. I was just a kid, I had no idea I was listening to a style of music that would be influencing many other genres of the future.
Although, “When I Hear Music”, a hit by Debbie Deb was the reason “freestyle” was named what it was, she was not the pioneer of my favorite music of the 80’s. However, there is no dispute as to how the genre got its name. It was a Miami mix up! The producer of the single, Tony Butler, was in a singing group called Freestyle and so when his independent project got requested at discos and clubs, the party-goers would simply ask for “freestyle.” The group’s name had been confused with the track and as they say: “the rest is history.” The name freestyle stuck. Thanks Miami!
Freestyle music, sometimes called Latin Freestyle or Latin Hip-Hop, was developed in the north. New Yorkers were the first to experience the new taste of the blended music with vocals from the previous disco era, electro music, and an occasional sampling. The merging of underground urban Hispanic music and African-American sound was fanned by many. It had its own unique sound. The new style was later considered the style of music for urban Hispanic-American communities in New York, Miami, California, Florida and of course, our very own Chi-Town.
The Manhattan clubs of the early 80’s were beginning to see a turn of events while playing the new freestyle music of various artists. They would see an increase in patrons. So of course they “Let the music play” (pun intended). After a wide, welcoming reception to this new trend of upbeat music, the music scene would be turned on its ear for a few years to come. New recordings began to hit the airways as producers and artists collaborated for a more radio-friendly vibe and sent them to local radio stations for airplay. Artists like Sa-fire and Shannon were instant hits on the radio. The radio playlists of that decade began to incorporate the music of George Lamond, TKA, Judy Torres, Cover Girls, Coro, Linear, Tonasia and “Mr. Spring Love” himself, Stevie B. We all know his infamous lyrics, “I remember when we first started, you came to me and you were broken-hearted……” Go’ne ahead, let your freestyle roots show! We can all thank Tolga Katas for his hand in giving us many of Stevie’s hits. Katas was a Florida-based entrepreneur, certainly the Puff Daddy of his generation. He was one of the first people to make a hit record using a computer- pretty snazzy considering the dinosaur technology of the early 80’s.
Eventually, freestyle evolved and was split into subcategories. There was the northern sound which was more of what we know as heart-throb freestyle with emotional lyrics about love, loss, and inner-city blues. There was the southern style- a different stage and sound. Floridians embraced a more upbeat “Party your body” dance-party sound of freestyle. Freestyle was international. We all remember Sa-sa-sa-sa-samanta Foxx. Her music was also considered freestyle. One hit wonder or not, it doesn’t matter, she certainly left her mark. Freestyle music peaked in the mid to late 80’s when California’s Jaya hit the pop charts. Yes, the pop charts. Her single “If You Leave Me Now” was playing on radio stations and was the cross-over hit that kept freestyle afloat a few more years. Artists from California definitely left their mark. Thanks Cali!
We are still graced with many of freestyle music’s contributions. Freestyle artist Franky J recently collaborated with Baby Bash. Pit Bull did a remake with Stevie B of “Spring Love.” Even little miss Jordin Sparks did a freestyle remake of her own. Oh and let’s not forget my personal favorite, Dino Latino’s remake of Forever Amor, an original freestyle song. I find it amusing to school the younger generation on my generation of “Elvis’ ” – there is usually no contest when it comes to what opportunities freestyle presented. It meshed cultures of minorities with the sound of music. I keep my tapes under lock and key, and they are numbered and do not leave my “safe place” – those sounds of my past are weaved into the fiber of my soul. Music of my youth always brings a scream out of me, still to this day! I am a thirty-something woman who embraces all music, but one will always have my heart and that is freestyle. I know I am not alone. I see all my freestyle fanatics crowding the stages when we are lucky enough to get our freestyle artists to Chicago. I see you and I’m glad to be in good company.
I’d like to dedicate this to my cousin, Roberta – thanks for still letting me scream with you and for you I will also dedicate this to your good friend Zeke aka DJ 2 Sweet Zeke. Rest in Peace Zeke.