It's a familiar story: the so-called "Death of Disco" giving way to a new genre of American dance music. But instead of house or techno, I'm referring to freestyle, a genre that fused electro beats with hip hop aesthetics and pop ballad songwriting. Characterized by plaintive diva vocals over 808s, sampled orchestra stabs and lightning-speed edits, freestyle conquered the clubs and the pop charts in the 1980s and '90s, and left a lasting mark on the broader dance music culture.
Listen to a playlist charting the history of the genre through 25 of my favourite tracks.
As the mainstream abandoned disco in 1979-80, there was a realignment of sorts in nightclubs and on the radio dial, especially in disco's capital, New York. Disco's multi-ethnic coalition of Black, Latino, and working-class white (especially Italian-American) fans was fracturing and disco radio stations were switching formats to lock down a share of that audience in the new musical landscape. Many stations switched to rock in an attempt to grow their white audience; others pivoted to R&B to engage African-American listeners. Latino audiences - as well as Black or white listeners who preferred uptempo dance music to rock or R&B - were left out in the cold, until a new crop of crossover dance-pop stations, DJs, and clubs emerged to cater to this growing audience.
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The records they played were largely electro or 'breakdance music' and early hip hop, but soon a new wave of artists and producers added pop vocals and song structures to these beats creating a new genre in the process. And while freestyle's audience was always largely Latino - the genre was also known as 'Latin freestyle', or, early on, 'Latin hip hop' - it attracted significant Black, white, and Asian-American audiences as well, eventually taking over the US pop charts.
Planet Patrol 'Play At Your Own Risk' (Tommy Boy Records, 1982)
Producer Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock', New Order's 'Confusion', New Edition 'Candy Girl') co-produced this proto-freestyle classic: similar production to 'Planet Rock', but with the rapping swapped for a mournful pop vocal.
Shannon 'Let The Music Play' (Emergency, 1983)
Considered the first and maybe most quintessential freestyle track, this #1 US pop hit and its stellar dub mix showcase the drum programming, vocal style, sampled orchestra stabs, and heavy use of effects and edits that would come to define the genre.
Debbie Deb 'When I Hear Music' (Jam-Packed, 1983)
While New York was busy inventing freestyle, Florida was coincidentally doing almost the same thing. DJ/producer “Pretty Tony” Butler met Deborah Wesoff at a Miami record store where she worked, and offered her a recording contract based solely on hearing her voice from behind the counter. This party anthem was one of their collaborations.
The Florida Sound
The South Florida freestyle sound pioneered by Pretty Tony drew inspiration from other Floridian dance music scenes taking business notes from the poppy disco of KC & The Sunshine Band, and musical flavour from Miami bass groups like 2 Live Crew. Known for a generally lighter, more upbeat, and party-centric sound than New York, this scene gave rise to artists like Trinere, Exposé, and Stevie B.
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Connie 'Funky Little Beat' (Sunnyview, 1985)
Another Miami electro banger, not too far from early Detroit techno like 'Clear' by Cybotron, Juan Atkins's first group.
Nice & Wild 'Diamond Girl' (Top Hits, 1986)
The electro beats, rap verse, bi-lingual lyrics, and surprise guitar solo show the broad, multi-cultural constituency of freestyle as a genre.
Exposé 'Come Go With Me' (Arista, 1986)
Hitting #1 on the US dance chart and #5 on the Hot 100, 'Come Go With Me' was one of several huge US radio and club hits from this Miami trio.
New York and the house music connection
The New York scene soon became freestyle's central hub: a mostly straight Bronx- and Harlem-based dance scene running in parallel to the queer downtown garage scene in the years before house music conquered New York clubland. DJs like Jellybean Benitez, Little Louie Vega, Todd Terry, Tony Moran, and Omar Santana all started out in freestyle before migrating to their current sounds.
The Cover Girls 'Show Me' (Fever, 1986)
A group fronted by the sister-in-law of Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory with a remix from a young Little Louie Vega showcasing freestyle's position in New York's dance world before house music took over.
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Monet 'My Heart Gets All The Breaks' (Ligosa, 1987)
A great example of the multiple edits, harder beats, and sadder minor-key compositions that New York was sometimes known for (in contrast to Miami's reputation for bubbly party cuts).
Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force 'Can You Feel The Beat' (Columbia, 1986)
A mega-hit from one of the genre's most successful acts. By the mid-1980s, freestyle had a significant foothold on US Top 40 radio producing a series of huge radio hits.
Freestyle took over US pop radio with surprising speed, and by the mid-1980s, artists from the outside world were flocking to the sound. Hits like Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)', Chaka Khan's 'I Feel For You', and Hall & Oates's 'Out of Touch' all conquered the pop radio charts by borrowing freestyle's sonic hallmarks, all while sharing space on the charts with more authentic freestyle hits from within the scene.
Pretty Poison 'Catch Me I'm Falling' (Svengali, 1987)
An insanely catchy smash from this Philadelphia-based outfit.
Stevie B 'Dreamin' Of Love' (LMR, 1988)
This Miami artist had a string of radio hits, including a US pop #1 with his ballad 'The Postman Song (Because I Love You)'.
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Taylor Dayne 'Tell It To My Heart' (Arista, 1987)
The best karaoke song in human history - don't at me.
Emotional freestyle: The power ballads of club music
As house and hip hop gained traction in clubs and on radio, one thing that set freestyle apart was its heavy use of lovedick vocals and over-the-top melodrama, drawing on the songwriting styles of classic disco, love ballads (especially Latin ballad traditions), and R&B slow jams.
Tiana 'Tell Me Why' (MicMac, 1990)
This is basically Bonnie Raitt's 'I Can't Make You Love Me' rewired for the club. I love the early-90s Korg M1 synth presets in the intro on this one.
George Lamond 'Without You' (Columbia, 1990)
Another melodramatic freestyle cut from a singer who would eventually leave freestyle for even greater success as a salsa singer.
Yvonne DeLeon 'I Can't Face The Fact' (Cutting Records, 1990)
Another sad banger from Cutting Records, a New York freestyle/house/electro label responsible for hits as varied as Hashim's electro anthem 'Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)', the Masters At Work house classic 'I Can't Get No Sleep' featuring India, and Fulanito's massive hip-hop-influenced merengue hit 'Guallando'.
The early '90s: New genres on the rise
1989 Marked the peak of freestyle's mainstream popularity. As hip hop, new jack swing, house, and other dance-oriented genres climbed the charts in the early 1990s, freestyle attempted to adapt. By 1993, gangsta rap's influence on hip-hop and R&B radio and Eurodance's success on the Top 40 pushed freestyle off the radio almost completely.
Nyasia 'Who's Got Your Love' (MicMac, 1992)
This hit from 1992 shows a more breakbeat-driven production influenced by new jack swing and golden-era hip-hop.
Corina 'Whispers' (Cutting Records, 1991)
I bet you didn't know there were freestyle tunes with an amen break in them! To all the junglists who made it this far through the article, this one's for you.
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Information Society 'What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)' (Tommy Boy, 1990)
Here's a curveball - a synth-poppy boy band of pretend hackers, using cyberpunk-inspired imagery to market their freestyle album on the same label as Queen Latifah and Naughty By Nature.
New York and Miami had the biggest freestyle scenes, but this music popped up in other places as well, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Toronto. Perhaps the most fertile of these smaller scenes was in the San Francisco Bay Area where the large Filipino-American community in San Francisco's suburbs built a self-sustaining network of freestyle artists, producers, and labels. This helped usher in another wave of freestyle that would occasionally break through to the mainstream, and represented perhaps the first US underground dance music scene with significant Asian-American participation.
Jaya 'If You Leave Me Now' (LMR, 1989)
This half-Jamaican, half-Filipina Miami transplant from Manila started in Stevie B's band before signing to his label. While Jaya wasn't from the SF Bay area, she nevertheless was an early trailblazer for Filipino-American freestyle as the genre was picking up steam in the Bay.
Buffy 'Give Me...A Reason' (Velocity, 1994)
An emotional freestyle tune from Fremont, California-based Velocity Records, one of several Bay Area labels catering to the Filipino-American freestyle scene.
Jocelyn Enriquez 'Do You Miss Me (Freefloor Mix)' (Classified / Tommy Boy, 1996)
The former lead singer of a Filipina girl group called Pinay Divas, Enriquez had two crossover pop hits in the mid-1990s - part of a brief mini-resurgence for the genre.
The mid-1990s: Atlanta, Europe, and the freestyle mini-revival
By 1995, Eurodance artists like The Real McCoy, Ace of Base, and La Bouche were dominating US pop radio's dance programming. Simultaneously, a wave of R&B-inflected bass music from Atlanta with songs like KP & Envyi's 'Swing My Way' and Ghost Town DJs' 'My Boo' found success on pop and hip-hop/R&B stations marking the first time uptempo dance tunes made significant waves on R&B radio since the disco era. Freestyle took note, incorporating elements from both of these genres in the second half of the 1990s.
Planet Soul 'Set U Free' (Strictly Rhythm, 1995)
This US hit - #3 dance, #26 on the Hot 100 - sports an acid bassline and a house intro released on legendary New York house label Strictly Rhythm.
Lil Suzy 'Promise Me' (Empire Records, 1995)
A mid-90s hit from a freestyle staple artist, with strong Miami/Atlanta drum programming and trancey gated synth effects.
Rockell 'In A Dream (Freestyle Mix)' (Robbins Entertainment, 1996)
Another minor hit - #13 Dance, #73 on the Hot 100 - showing a strong debt to Atlanta bass production and drum programming. Lime many freestyle tunes of this era, the single came with a Hi-NRG / Eurodance mix in addition to the freestyle mix.
Sweet TB 'Let Me Fly' (MNF, 2000)
An underground cut from a German freestyle group showing the two-directional influence between late-90s freestyle and Eurodance.
Despite the genre's fall from the spotlight, freestyle continues to remain popular as an old school genre with throwback radio mix shows, club nights, and annual festivals in several American cities. More importantly, freestyle's blend of electronic beats and pop vocals paved the way for much of what would happen in both pop music and underground dance music up to the present.
Chrissy is a San Francisco-based DJ/producer with releases on Hooversounds, Dansu Discs, Pets Recordings, Classic Music Company, and more. His new project, a freestyle-inspired collaboration with Maria Amor called Community Theater, is out now on Sorry Records.
Listen to Chrissy's freestyle playlist below.