Freestyle music  

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"One More Shot" by Jenny Burton's studio project C-Bank is considered to be among the canonical works of "Freestyle". Freestyle is a style of urban dance records known for mixing, among other things, latin influences and hip-hop styled beats." --Sholem Stein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Freestyle or Latin Freestyle, also called Latin Hip Hop in its early years, is a form of electronic music that is heavily influenced by Latin American culture. Performers such as Safire, Information Society, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, TKA, George Lamond, and Expose are notable performers of this genre. Freestyle originated in New York in the early 80's. It continues to be produced today and enjoys some degree of popularity, especially in urban Latino and Italian American communities. Another popular modern dance music genre, Florida breaks, evolved from this sound.

The music first developed primarily in New York City and Miami in the mid-1980s. It eventually spread to many other cities with Hispanic populations. 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.


Term usage

Why Freestyle is actually called freestyle is subject to speculation.

Some feel the term freestyle may refer to the difference between the mixing techniques used by DJs spinning this form of music (at least in its pre-house incarnations) and those who were spinning disco, the only other widely played dance music that incorporated sung vocals. Disco, with its relatively predictable beat structure, could be mixed with smooth, slow, and consistent techniques, but freestyle's syncopated beat structures demanded that DJs get creative, incorporating aspects of both disco and hip-hop techniques; they often had to (or had more freedom to) mix more quickly and more responsively to the individual pieces of music.

Others believe it refers to the vocal technique: singing melodic pop vocals over the kind of beats that were previously used only with rap and semi-chanted electro-funk vocal styles was a form of freestyling —getting creative by mixing up the styles— somewhat akin to the use of the term in reference to competitive freestyle rap.

Another explanation is that the dancing associated with this music allows for a great degree of freedom of expression than the other music that was prevalent at the time. Each individual dancer is free to create his or her own style.

In Miami, the freestyle name evolved after confusion between Tony Butler's track Freestyle Express by Freestyle and Debbie Deb's When I Hear Music, a slightly older but more popular track that was produced by Butler. The sound became synonymous with Butler's production, and the name of the group he was in, Freestyle, became the genre's name.

The Sound

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 stabs (provided as synthesized brass or orchestral samples); 16th beat high-hat; a chord progression which lasts 8, 16, or 32 beats and is usually in a minor key; relatively complex, upbeat 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. It also features complicated drum machine patterns that a human drummer would have extreme difficulty playing.

Freestyle in New York

Many people list Let the Music Play by Shannon 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 New York City. Barbosa changed and refined the electro funk sound, adding Latin American rhythms and a totally syncopated drum sound.

This new, exciting sound rejuvenated the funk, soul and hip hop club scenes in New York City. 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, "Al-Naafiyish (The Soul)" by Hashim, and "I.O.U." by Freeez became huge hits. More established European artists like Kraftwerk ("Numbers") and New Order ("Confusion," "State of the Nation") both inspired the original Freestyle sound and then responded to it by incorporating certain Freestyle elements into their own productions.

Other producers from around the world soon began to replicate the sound in more radio-friendly productions. Records like "Let Me Be the One" by Safire, "I Remember What You Like" by Jenny Burton, "Running" by soon-to-be pop stars Information Society, and "Give Me Tonight" by Shannon were all over New York radio.

Many of the original freestyle artists – and the DJs who played the music, such as Jellybean, Tony Torres, Raul Soto and Roman Ricardo – were of Latino or Italian ancestry. This was one reason why the style came to be very popular among Hispanic Americans and Italian Americans, especially in the New York City area. 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. Of course, performers and producers associated with the style came from around the world. For example, Information Society's notable hit "Running", was written by Murat Konar, who is of Turkish descent, and produced by the band, who are of Scandinavian descent. Two other popular freestyle artists, Freeez and Samantha Fox, were both of British descent. Latin freestyle also touch the Asian community with the release of "Youngboys" by an Asian artist by the name of Leonard (aka Leon Youngboy), with a remix by Eddie Davis ( "Hungry For Your Love" by Hanson and Davis) and became the famous "SYB War Mix". Freestyle became more than a Latin thing, it became an instrument to bring together and unite the dance music lovers of all nationalities.

Freestyle radio in New York was exemplified by the production team of Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, known as the Latin Rascals. Their original music on WKTU included Freestyle classics like 1984's Arabian Nights, and later more hip-hop oriented projects, such as the Cover Girls Show Me (1986). Tony Moran later went on to form his own project, Concept of One, and the duo continued to produce big name Freestyle artists into the early 1990s. (Shapiro, 2000:104-105)

Freestyle around the USA

KPWR (Power 106) in Los Angeles, WQHT-FM (Hot 97.1) in New York, and XHRM-FM (Hot 92.5) in San Diego began playing hits by artists like TKA, Sweet Sensation, and Exposé, Safire on the same playlists as Pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Tracks like TKA's One Way Love, Safire's Don't Break My Heart 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 Sims 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.

"Pretty Tony" Butler produced several huge freestyle hits on Jam-Packed records out of Miami. Most notable for Debbie Deb - "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend" and the queen diva of freestyle Trinere- "I'll Be All You'll Ever Need".

Company B, Stevie B, Paris By Air, Linear, Will to Power, and Exposé's later hits defined Miami Freestyle. One of the most important pioneers and influential players within the Miami freestyle scene is the entrepreneur, music executive and music producer Tolga Katas. He is accredited as being one of the first persons to create a hit record entirely on a computer. His top notch productions influenced many copy cat producers that tried (and failed) to copy the sound he created for hits such as “Party Your Body”, “In my Eyes” and “Dreaming of Love”, all performed by Stevie B. His record label Futura Records became an incubator for great, high quality Freestyle music. The group Linear, who got its start there, was eventually picked up by Atlantic Records which resulted in the group achieving international success. 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.

California Freestyle

Although Freestyle's main territory was Miami and New York, it did have a recognizable following in California, particularly on San Francisco Bay Area stations Hot 97.7 and 107.7 KSOL (now Wild 94.9), XHRM-FM (Hot 92.5) in San Diego and on Los Angeles radio station Power 106. Given California's large Latino community (predominantly Mexican), they greatly enjoyed the sounds of the Latin club scene in the East Coast, and although California Freestyle wasn't as prevalent New York or Miami Freestyle, there were a number of successful California Freestyle artists that also gained popularity from Freestyle fans in the East Coast. California Freestyle leans more toward a high-tempo dance beat, referred to as Hi-NRG, but still retains the sound of freestyle.

Timmy T, Jocelyn Enriquez, S-Factor, Angelina, Buffy, Daize, One Voice, M:G and DJ Spanish Fly were very notable Freestyle artists from California.

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 scene. 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,Safire, 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. An exception to this was Linear with their cross over hit “Sending all My Love”. The reason to this exception is that Tolga Katas, inspired by Milli Vanilli commercial success, incorporated their sound with his own which resulted in a top ten hit that definitely benefited from the groups MTV – friendly video. 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, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Detroit, such as Trance, Rave and Eurodance, which seemed younger, fresher and newer than freestyle.

The Freestyle Comeback

Freestyle, staying largely an underground genre with still a sizeable following in New York, has seen a recognizable comeback in the cities the music once dominated. In Miami, a Latin radio station shoved aside their Reggaeton music blocks to make room for Freestyle playlists. A summer 2006 Madison Square Garden concert showcasing Freestyle's greatest performers went very well-received, and new Freestyle being released appears to be well-taken by longtime Freestyle enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Black Eyed Peas often use Freestyle lyrics, and Miami rapper Pitbull collaborated with Miami Freestyle artist Stevie B to create an updated version of Stevie B's 1988 hit "Spring Love."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Freestyle music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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