Three years ago, I went to a friend’s record release party at a club in New York City. In an adjacent room, there was a DJ playing Noel’s “Silent Morning“. I walked in, listened to this Classic record at full club volume, and it was like hearing it for the first time. I being not old enough to hear this record in a club when it first came out understood immediately why this music became huge in the first place. It is tailor made for a dance club. Massive bass and infectious rhythms assault you at every moment. Do you know what freestyle music is? I’m not talking about it in the hip hop “freestyling” sense. I’m talking about an extremely important and often overlooked branch of electronic music that emerged in the early eighties in New York City. It began with a record called “Planet Rock” by the legendary Godfather of hip hop Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force.
BAM revolutionized hip hop by incorporating drum machines over samples, a practice which remained the dominant approach to hip hop production until the early 2000’s. No one was doing the drum machine thing at the time, and the drum machine is now so essential to hip hop it would be unthinkable without it. When “Planet Rock” came out in 1983, it became one of the most influential records of all time. On the one hand it was the only hip hop record at the time to use a drum machine, and on the other hand it birthed a new genre of music. That music was Freestyle.
The beat that BAM created, was quickly recycled with one major change. Instead of rapping on the beat there was singing, and that change was enough to warrant a new genre. The amazing thing about genres is that they are sometimes created by musicians who did not have any intention to create one. Obviously James Brown is as important to hip hop as Bam is to Freestyle. Neither knew that aspects of their sound would create these huge musical movements. Planet Rock was so infectious that when it came out almost all the hip hop records emerging from NYC sounded like it. It is what the clubs and roller rinks sounded like in the early eighties.
Some would cite Shannon’s “Let the music play” as the first freestyle record. A case might be also made for “Play at your own risk” by Planet Patrol, though the Shannon record went on to be a massive hit and an all-time classic. At the time, these records would have been more likely classified as “electro”, another spawn of BAM’s genius. These records were played heavily by Latino DJ’s. Though the music had it start with mostly African American performers, Latino’s, mostly of Puerto Rican descent took this sound and incorporated their own musical influences, rhythms, and approach to the music and the rest is history.
It was at this point that the music began being termed “Freestyle”. In the mid-eighties New York, Miami, and LA, were the only markets that heavily catered to this music on the radio airwaves. It was not until the late eighties that more mainstream acts like Expose and Sweet Sensation brought the sound to a larger audience. However some would consider Expose and Sweet Sensation “Club” music. But “Club Music” was less of a genre and more of a word that described this sound. This word described a more watered down mainstream version of the music that came shortly before it. Oddly enough
Freestyle music, created mostly by Puerto Ricans, was heavily identified with Italian Americans in New York City, to the point where I have heard people calling it “Guido music”. Anyone who was born in New York in the late seventies or early eighties that had left their window open knows what this music sounds like.
Why is this important? In the mid to late eighties Freestyle was the dominant dance music in New York. In the nineties mainstream “dance” music borrowed heavily from freestyle and WKTU in New York became the most listened to radio station in the city. Listen to Le Bouche’s “Be My Lover“, a song heavily influenced by freestyle though categorized as “Eurodance”. This record is the link between freestyle and the modern mainstream dance music world. Any Ibiza DJ spinning trashy Eurodance/Pop/Dance is spinning music heavily influenced by freestyle whether they know it or not.
And now I leave you with my favorite freestyle record of all time. Lil Suzy, a Brooklyn native of Puerto Rican and Italian descent (duh), put out “Take Me in Your Arms” at the ripe age of twelve.