Author: Damien Paul
Every year, our friends at Tight Crew organize one of my favorite beach parties of the season on the scenic Rhode Island coastline. With tropical drinks, sandy beaches, and lots of underground music, it's consistently one of my favorite events that they produce. So, when Brian contacted me with a booking offer I couldn't say no, but when he told me he wanted me to do something a little different, I was really excited.
Freestyle is a lesser-known genre of dance music that evolved from the NY club scene at the Devil's Nest around the same time that garage was emerging at the Paradise Garage. It holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first style of dance music that my late father exposed me to as a little kid. Growing up in NY, it was a rather prominent genre in the club community, but I was surprised to learn that it was lesser-known in New England. So, I'm very excited to have the opportunity to educate some people on a piece of dance music history, as well as paying tribute to my dad's influence on my musical palette. You can read a brief history of the genre after the fold.
Event info: https://www.facebook.com/events/412169105812337/
After the decline of Disco, a musical void was left in the New York City dance music scene. Facing club closings left and right, some owners took risks embracing new and emerging musical styles. Clubs like Roxy, the Funhouse, Gothams West, and Roseland thrived during this downturn by adopting new sounds coming out of the NY breakbeat community that bridged not only genres, but also racial divides. Africa Bambaataa and others on Tommy Boy records were pushing the envelope with a new style called “hip-hop be-bop” or “electro”. Interestingly, most of the DJs playing it in NY clubs were of latin heritage, garnering the genre a huge following in that community. When Tommy Boy signed their first latino group, TKA, “latin hip-hop” or “freestyle” was born.
The small niche genre was soon propelled into the spotlight at a struggling salsa nightclub in the Bronx called the Devil's Nest. The owner took a massive risk and booked a DJ known for playing underground parties (before the concept of “raves” existed) because he was too young to get into the clubs. “Little” Louie Vega (a partner in house/garage pioneer group Masters at Work) was responsible for putting this nightclub on the map as a home of Freestyle. Soon Little Louie and others were playing the genre all over NYC and freestyle singers were booked to accompany the DJs with live vocal performances of their songs. By the late 80s, NY radio station 103.5 began showcasing Freestyle tracks in regular rotation, which it still does to this day thanks to resident host and former Freestyle vocalist Judy Torres.
Unfortunately, with major label and radio attention came eventual exploitation of the genre. Soon producers began incorporating freestyle elements into other musical forms and record labels began pressuring artists to appeal to more mainstream sounds to fit the new radio “crossover” format, which was marketed to the young English-speaking latin audience.
However, Freestyle’s influence on underground dance music remains undeniable. These artists inspired the sounds in future genres like house, eurodance, Hi-NRG, hip-house, garage, acid house, and new jack swing. Today, the genre is seeing a resurgence in cities across the US.
It's my pleasure to be able to not only share a piece of this history with New England, but to also help keep Freestyle alive!