The History of 80s Freestyle Music

Freestyle or Latin Freestyle, also called Latin Hip Hop in its early years, is a form of electronic music which emerged in the early 1980s.

The music first developed primarily in the Latino communities of New York City and then Miami in the early 1980s. 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. Specifically, Freestyle’s true roots are traced back to Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” (1982) and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play”, which debuted in 1983. Silent Morning, composed by Noel, boosted Freestyle’s popularity and brought it to the forefront of the international scene in 1987, expanding its potential. Freestyle reached its peak in the early 1990s.

Freestyle has continued to have a strong following in its two founding cities, although a club sound, Freestyle has begun to spread back into the mainstream media. Since its debut the concert reinserted Freestyle into the lime light paving the way for new releases. After the popularity of Reggaeton began to diminish interest in Freestyle began to increase, with some radio stations giving up their Reggaeton blocks for Freestyle blocks. Although Freestyle remained an “old school beat”, its popularity continued to expand further than New York City and Miami, beginning to spread into Europe. In 2008, arguably the largest Freestyle concert in its existence was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concert titled “Freestyle Extravaganza” sold out and was one of the most celebrated concerts.

Why Freestyle music 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 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 greater 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.

Many people cite “Let the Music Play” (1983) by Shannon as the first freestyle track. However, many contend that it was Afrika Bambaataa, with his hit release “Planet Rock,” that conceived Freestyle’s first child and indeed earmarked that song as the first freestyle song produced. Let the Music Play became freestyle’s biggest recording, and still receives frequent airplay through radio and other venues. The song was produced by Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa, who changed and refined the electro funk sound, adding Latin American rhythms and a syncopated drum-machine 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, Roseland, Webster Hall, The Underground, Palladium, and The Tunnel, 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 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.

Many of the original freestyle artists – and the DJs who played the music were of Puerto Rican ancestry. This was one reason why the style came to be very popular among Hispanic Americans especially in the New York City area. This marks a notable merging of underground Hispanic and Black-American urban cultures, hence, the names Latin Hip Hop or Latin Freestyle. Now, the more neutral term Freestyle was preferred.

Freestyle is a genre with rather clear features: a dance tempo with stress on beats two and four; syncopation with a bass line, lead synth, or percussion, with optional stabs (provided as synthesized brass or orchestral samples); sixteenth-note hi-hats; a chord progression that lasts eight, 16, or 32 beats and is usually in a minor key; and 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. 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 counter melodies, again a strong influence from Latin music. It also features complicated drum machine patterns that a human drummer would have extreme difficulty playing. Most lyrics involve breaking up or someone leaving another for the wrong reasons.

Modern Freestyle and Freestyle influences can be heard today.

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