Welcome to Freestyle Friday!

The idea for Freestyle Fridays came to me while working on another project, where my friend Brian and I interview Boston DJs who worked in gay dance clubs from the 1970s up to today. One of our subjects talked about how, around 1990 or so, she loved to play most types of popular music in her sets – except freestyle. She hated freestyle. And Brian agreed with her.

After we stopped recording, I mentioned to them that I loved freestyle, especially “Fascinated” by Company B – and they both agreed, yes, that’s a good song. And, I said, Noel’s “Silent Morning.” Oh, they agreed, that one’s pretty good, too. I mentioned a few others, some of which they liked, some not so much. This got me thinking. Why did freestyle have such a bad rep among these pretty seasoned DJs, while I had rather fond memories of these songs? Was I missing something? And what exactly was freestyle, anyway?

After a bit of research and more than a few YouTube rabbit holes, I started posting freestyle videos on Facebook, and settled into a Friday schedule: Freestyle Friday was born. Patrick enjoyed the posts and the music, and invited me to contribute. So here we are!

A note on me, for context. I was born in 1967. I loved disco in the late 70s, just like the rest of America. Then I dove into pop and alternative music in the early 80s. I graduated high school in 1985 and college in 1989, so my experience of 80s culture is pretty clearly delineated: early 80s was high school, late 80s was college. In late 1989 I moved to Boston and started going to gay clubs. As it happens, all of this gave me a good vantage point to watch (popular) freestyle from its inception, to its saturation of the Top 40 in the early early 90s, to its near disappearance by the mid-90s.

So, what is freestyle?

Record producer and manager Joey Gardner’s “The History of Freestyle Music” is thorough, detailed, and full of songs and artists to send you down your own YouTube rabbit hole. I used that article for the summary below.

Freestyle was born out of the death of disco. Disco was pop music in the late 70s, dominating the charts and dance clubs. A backlash occurred (see the racist and homophobic “Disco Sucks” movement), and disco’s popularity started to wane in 1979. With disco gone, NYC radio stations that relied on it for their programming changed their formats in the early 80s, in order to survive. Along with the radio stations, the huge NYC radio audience splintered into different niche formats: hard rock, “urban” or R&B, and mainstream pop. But one significant part of the audience was overlooked: Latinos. Some Latinos accepted the new radio formats, but others headed underground to hear new music.

The clubs that thrived during this time, such as the Roxy and Roseland, were in the right place to start playing a new sound that was popular for breakdancing. This sound traces back to Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” and, interestingly, to early songs from electronic bands like Kraftwerk and New Order. Producers – especially electro godfather Arthur Baker – took the synth and drum style of these songs and added more melody (think Shannon’s “Let the Music Play”). Clubs thrived on this new sound, radio stations started to notice, and producers started scrambling to create (and sell) music for this new audience.

As New York freestyle grew, a similar Miami freestyle sound developed. The Latin-flavored Miami sound was slicker and more upbeat than the raw, moodier New York sound. The Miami sound was also more radio-friendly, and the producers and labels were more radio-savvy, so much of the most popular freestyle tended to have a Latin feel. (e.g. Expose).

Freestyle grew in popularity and airplay throughout the late 80s. By 1990, there was a bit of a glut, and quality dipped as producers tried to make quick money with rushed, repetitive and uncreative songs. The play freestyle was getting on crossover radio stations started to shift to bigger MTV stars like Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown, and NKOTB. In 1992, influential radio stations that played freestyle shifted toward a hip hop format, pretty much ending the freestyle era. Like disco, though, freestyle never really died.

What does freestyle sound like? I’m no music journalist, and my brain can’t really understand music without hearing it. (I have the same problem with cooking reality shows like “Top Chef,” where I find it difficult and pointless to judge food I can’t taste.) So take a listen to these foundational songs that directly influenced freestyle. Listen to the repetitive electronic beats, the synthy melodies, the voices and samples laid over them. Then check out next week’s post, on Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” I think you’ll hear what it’s all about.

“Numbers,” Kraftwerk (1981)

“Planet Rock,” Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force (1982)

“Play at Your Own Risk,” Planet Patrol (1982)

“Confusion,” New Order (1983)

I culled information from Joey Gardner’s “The History of Freestyle Music” and Vivian Host’s rather recent “Freestyle: An Oral History.”  If you enjoy any of what I’m talking about here, both articles are well worth your time!

A note on scheduling: Look for the first official Freestyle Friday post next week. Thereafter, we’ll post on the first and third Fridays of each month, for as long as you can stand it.