Growing up in South Texas isn't as bad as I sometimes bemoan it to be. I don't ever have to eat at Taco
Originating in New York and Miami, with later roots in heavily populated Latino cities like Los Angeles and my hometown of San Antonio (hello!), the vibe of Freestyle is high intensity Latin-inspired beats laced over tortured and sometimes over dramatic romantic declarations. In short, and as best described in this great article from Stylus, Freestyle music is sort of like musical Telenovelas, or Spanish-language soap operas.
The history of Freestyle is quite diverse in its fruition and the directions it took as it picked up steam in the 1980's and with popular Latin based acts like Gloria Estefan &The Miami Sound Machine making waves in the mainstream, the genre and Latin culture in general gained traction that lasted well into the new Millennium to where Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Enrique Ingelsias, have a lot to thank the genre for. Like most decade based genres, there were a number of one-off artists and groups that possessed the sound and carried it from its beginnings to later modern mutations, and boy was it fun. While it's arguable what the first and most authentic Freestyle track is exactly, it's nothing to really get your underoos in a bunch considering that's not the objective --- the objective is to get wrapped up in the spirited flow of synths and just dance away that broken heart.
After being in the mood for some 'stylin' I got the light bulb to compile a list of my fifteen favorite Freestyle tracks, and since I hadn't done a list on this blog in a looong while, why not, right? Since I'm the perfectionist, I have a master list that is compromised of ALL my favorite Freestyle cuts --- because fifteen really isn't just enough to cover this excellent genre. So for fifteen of my favorites, dive on in after the cut....and for the FULL 50 item list you can check for it here.
When Staten Island native Rockell came into the scene in the late 90's, Freestyle was sort of in its last gasps. Still Rockell didn't get that memo as she released the atmospheric electronic heaven known as "In A Dream" --- and scored a big dance chart hit with it. This was around the time when all my friends decided that Freestyle was "cool"...pfft, how late of them. Still no middle school roller skating party back in my day wasn't complete without this getting a spin or two. I swear, every time I put it on, I'm back to wearing body glitter, butterfly clips, and toting around my Dear Diary. Good times.
In the infamous words of Noxzeema Jackson to Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo: "It's as if the Miami Sound Machine just exploded all over you!" That's pretty much how I would describe Bronx's own Sweet Sensation's "Sincerely Yours". I have to say it's the most Latin sounding Freestyle track in existence. This song has it all from some snazzy brass, to bongos, to strumming Spanish guitars --- and it is fun. I pretty much judge people who don't get up when this song comes on. It was even hard for me to even type this because I'm listening to it right now and I feel the need to dance and wave a lace fan around. SS's other big hit was "Take It While It's Hot" which was just as caliente! and full of stylin' abandon. It's just a shame the sappiest inspirational song from the 'everyone is special' 90's was "If Wishes Came True" --- and it was their only #1 hit. We can't have nice things I see...
With "All Night Passion", "Baby Talk" and "Stargazing" flying off of Alisha's debut album, the Brooklyn native had the stylin' game down pact. It was pure toss up between "Baby Talk" and "Stargazing", but "Baby Talk" won out, well, because it has a music video --- and you have to see the garish 80's garb and eye makeup on display --- but no, really, it's a great song that deserves repeat listens as it snap, crackles, and pops along. Alisha's music would go on to become one of my guiltiest of listening pleasures, starting with her 1987 Nightwalkin' album, where she played more in the synth-Pop sandbox with little to no Freestyle in it's repertoire.
One of my favorite things ever is duets --- the cheesier and sappier the better. "Dream Boy-Dream Girl" is far from sappy, and okay okay it's got a little bit of Provolone in it, but still this song does a body good like most dairy (unless you're lactose intolerant, then I'm sorry 'bout that...). Johnny O., another king of the stylin' ring, joins forces with Cynthia for one of Freestyle's greatest duets and the two really put on the sizzle for this jumping dance number.
It's odd. Tina B worked a lot with husband (and one of Freestyle and Pop music's leading producers), Arthur Baker, but she only released one full album in 1984 and had "Honey To A Bee" be the single most people know from her. For shame. To be real honest, she shouldn't be negated to just that one song as she had a lot of loose singles that were, in my opinion, better and all can be found on her comprehensive greatest hits album (check out "Miracles Explode" and the fabulous "Bodyguard") Still if you want to go stylin' with a little pop n' lock melodies then "Nothing's Gonna Come Easy" is Tina B's best bet. This song was so good that it found it's way on the Beat Street soundtrack. So all hail campy dance flicks and the soundtracks that made them!
It's best to attack The Cover Girls through their singles, and the best example begins in 1987 with their debut single, "Show Me". They would bounce around in various genres in later years as well as change members like someone changes sheets, but it all begins with the shrill proclamation known as "Show Me". Helium high vocals never sounded so good as the trio's single plowed through the charts making Cover Girls one of the many stylin' acts that were solid chart toppers well into the 90's. Any Freestyle playlist is pretty much bare if this song isn't included.
Going into the 90's, Freestyle got a fresh new coat of paint with the domination of House and Euro-Dance taking over and Lisette Melendez's "Together Forever" showed that marriage in a thunderous way. I've always thought Ms. Melendez had one of the best voices in Freestyle and when she went all R&B songstress for her later albums, I wasn't all that surprised considering the vocal chops she had. 1991's Together Forever was a gold snatching album for Ms. Melendez, that pulled out such great jams like "A Day In My Life (Without You)" and "Never Say Never", but the title track is just a downright classic.
Stevie B. was crowned 'King Of Freestyle' with his series of Freestyle stompers, proteges, and probably for having the most luscious and juiciest Jheri Curl in the game. Like Sweet Sensation, Stevie B. is best known for having a ballad be the #1 hit of their careers as his song "Because I Love You (The Postman Song)" (which graduated from the 'Keith Sweat School of Begging Men') was a huge A/C hit back in '91. But Stevie B. was all about partying bodies as he ruled the dance floor with his energetic 'stylin' numbers in the mid-to-late 80's. My favorite from the bunch is "Spring Love" which does a little good ol' fashioned loverman begging, but of the most sweetest and grooving kind.
Like a lot of artists featured on this list, Freestyle crossed over into a lot of other genres, making for a unique gumbo of sorts. Brenda K. Starr is an artist who doubled-dipped from synth-Pop to R&B and back into Latin, so dull she was not. It was difficult for me to pick just one BKS song considering her first two albums are solid examples of the genre. I actually flipped a coin between this and "Breakfast In Bed" and this came out on top (2 out of 3 if you must know), and actually it is the better choice. Off of BKS' 1985 debut, I Want Your Love, "Suspicion" just sizzles off the wax and for a little extra kick the late Adam Yaunch (aka MCA) of the Beastie Boys drops a few verses, making this a true by-the-books Latin Hip-Hop record. Aside from her hits and crossover appeal, Ms. Starr is also known for introducing us to none other than Mariah Carey, whom was a former back-up singer for Starr. We all know that Mariah returned the favor, by reviving Starr's signature song, "I Still Believe" for all the 90's kids out there, but it's a little known fact that Mariah got her first breaks in the Freestyle game as she is unmistakably in the background of a 1986 BKS demo called "Weakness Of The Body".
Let me just say that "Catch Me (I'm Falling)" is one of my all-time favorite songs from the 80's. Yet, when you're pitting it up against the spirited synth bounce of "Nighttime"...it sort of plays like that younger brother who couldn't really amount to the older, more doted on one. The crew from Philadelphia released this back in 1984 --- several years before they struck a hit with "Catch Me" --- and the moodier original version of "Nighttime" hoisted itself up as a massive club hit. It's revival came when it was refashioned for PP's one and only mainstream album 88's, Catch Me I'm Falling and still the song sounded just as kicking as it always did.
Created by producer and former Foxy member, Ish Ledesma, Company B were just one of the many producer-led girl groups of the 80's and 90's, and whose success really rides this one song. Donning stark white wigs, Company B scored at #21 hit with "Fascinated". A cornerstone of the Freestyle movement as it migrated into the thick of Freestyle's hey-day, "Fascinated" was just hot on arrival. Singles like "Full Circle" and "Signed In Your Book Of Love" would subsequently follow, but "Fascinated" remains to be the trio's biggest contribution to the world of dance music. If I could be a one-hit wonder, going in and out with a bang like "Fascinated" isn't a shabby deal.
The trio that were straight outta Hell's Kitchen were responsible for taking Freestyle to the mainstream audience. With help from those bodybuilding producing crooners known as, Full Force, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam released their With Full Force debut to some mighty big singles. The more soap operatic, "All Cried Out" would prove to be their biggest crossover, while other biggie hit "I Wonder If I Take You Home" was some funk that just wouldn't quit. Still "Can You Feel The Beat" is a haunting stylin' cut that sizzles as it flows on an authentic Latin rhythm and hypnotic synths. LL&CJ would pretty much cross-over into more pop and later New Jack terrain with subsequent albums, but it all began right here.
What was your Sweet Sixteen year like? Obviously mines didn't include changing the music world as we know it. Coming out of North Miami, the then-16-year-old Debbie Deb along with producer and fellow songwriter, "Pretty" Tony Butler released two of the biggest Freestyle slices around the mid-80's --- "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend". Both songs have become dance music classics, and have been covered and sampled by the likes of Kelis, Pitbull, Kid Sister, and Miss Janet Jackson herself. Iconic they both are, which made it difficult for me to really peg which one to highlight on this list, but "When I Hear Music" won out simply because it was first, and because it helped shape the genre what it came to be. "Peppy" is one word to describe "When I Hear Music", and it is packed to the gills with strident synths and vocoder effects that feel as if you've climbed into an arcade game. Fun!
Not to be confused by another Freestyle hit by the same name, "Point Of No Return" is smack dab in the middle of Expose's hit-laden and fantastic '87 debut, Exposure and is the energetic nerve center of it all. With those unmistakable synth opening and a hi-NRG Salsa inspired beat, "Point Of No Return" is easily, to my ear, Expose's finest hour --- an hour that had been clocked in before. Prior to the familiar Expose trio comprised of Gioia Bruno, Jeanette Juardo, and Ann Curless, another trio of ladies were shopped as the band in 1985 with this exact single. The original said demo version of "Point Of No Return" features lighter vocals and isn't as high-charged thanks to no attack of the drum machine going on. Not that it's bad, just that the polished-up finished product is what I've been accustomed to and it will always reign with me. Oh, and think Freestyle acts were vocally clobbered by all those synths? The ladies of Expose had some chops on them as forgo-ed the lip-synch during their sizzling appearance at the Apollo Theater back in the day.
I could just say that this song is flawless and bring this list to a close, but that's no fun is it? You want to know why this song is numero uno and I'll tell you why: It's flawless and amazing. Still not good enough? Okay, back-story. "Let The Music Play" is pretty much the historical marker of Freestyle as it had the opportunity to be the first song to get the accolade. It's the song that brought Freestyle out of the precious claws of East Coast cool kids and to the masses. Still I think boxing in as just simply "Freestyle" is doing it a disservice as "Let The Music Play" in all of it's jerky synth paradise is the Simba of the Pride Lands that is Pop music. Rafiki holds it up, Mufasa smiles, and Scar growls with jealousy. It's one the many beginnings of greatness as it picked up the shards of Disco balls and rebuilt the pop-dance culture to what it is today. Shannon wasn't really done showing off as she churned out three more dance/Freestyle classics like "Give Me Tonight", "Sweet Somebody", and "My Heart's Divided" and all three were present on her 1984 debut, Let The Music Play. Three more albums and dance gems followed, but Shannon's pièce de résistance will always be the song that gave us the great line: "...and love said, let the music play!"