This is the 13th post in a biweekly series. Read about the series — and just what we mean by “freestyle music” — here. Freestyle Fridays post on the first and third Fridays of each month.
“To me, Freestyle is about good, solid songs over Electro beats.”
Information Society band member Paul Robb*
Information Society, or InSoc, formed in a dorm room at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1982. The name refers, in part, to “Ingsoc,” the newspeak term for English socialism in the Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In 1985, InSoc independently released the album Creatures of Influence. The single “Running” from that album became a favorite with club DJs, particularly in the Latin clubs of New York City. A later remix of “Running” became even more of a club hit, eventually reaching Number 2 on the Dance/Club Airplay charts and becoming an enduring freestyle classic.
Growing success led the group to move from Minneapolis to New York City, where it signed on with Tommy Boy Records – a big player in Latin freestyle and an expert in street-oriented music. In 1988, InSoc released an eponymous album on Tommy Boy, spawning several top 40 hits. “Walking Away” was the second single from this album; other hits included “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” a cover of ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love on Me,” and the remix of their older song, “Running.”
In 1988, I was not a big fan of Information Society, mostly because they were massively overplayed on radio and television. (“Overplayed” tends to be one of my most consistent complaints about music…) I also found their sound to be rather flat, monotone, thin, and sort of uninteresting. Their videos annoyed me, too; I found them derivative of older videos, combining The Breakfast Club’s manic energy and The Thompson Twin’s styling.
Looking back, I see how that flatness and thinness is a pretty common aspect of freestyle music. The cheaply-made, on-the-fly street version of freestyle tends to feature thin synthesizer and electronic percussion loops with a monotone voice playing around the edges. But I’ve mellowed a bit, and now see the fun and creativity that Information Society brings to the genre.
When I first started researching freestyle music, one of the biggest surprises to me was finding Information Society regularly included in lists of freestyle artists. Of course, listening to any of the songs linked in this post, it’s extremely obvious that InSoc was freestyle. I’m also struck, now, by how much their sound – especially the lead vocals – reminds me of British New Wave and New Romantic music. I hear a little Echo and the Bunnymen and maybe some Thompson Twins in Information Society’s lead vocals. InSoc keyboardist and founding member Paul Robb confirms this: “We just naturally built off of and combined what we were listening to: New Wave, New Romantics, Kraftwerk, and Bambaata.”*
When asked if InSoc thought of itself as freestyle: “We used to play in New Wave clubs, and when we first started doing shows in the New York area and South Florida, we were really baffled.… I remember people were calling it Latin Hip Hop, but it was never really Hip Hop, was it? The whole thing was built of off Electro beats: Soul Sonic Force/Bambaata, Kraftwerk, Juan Atkins,. Man Parrish, etc. … I don’t think InSoc was really a ‘freestyle’ group, but I think that ‘Running’ was definitely a freestyle record. I think the song was partly responsible for defining the sound, in fact, but I’m not gonna claim we ever really knew what we were doing.”*
In that interview, Robb also describes how he came to help produce Noel’s “Silent Morning” – being part of Tommy Boy Records put Robb in the same orbit as other freestyle influencers. And the group’s third release, 1992’s “Peace and Love, Inc.,” featured production by Karl Bartos of the legendary electronic band Kraftwerk. The first single, “Peace & Love Inc.,” reached Number 10 on the Billboard Dance Chart.
Think about the path that Information Society took. They began as a bunch of kids in a Midwestern college dorm room, who listened to Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaata, and New Wave and New Romantic artists. Their band combined those sounds into something new, while others — in New York and Miami, especially — also took the same influences and came up with a similar sound. Eventually they all came together under Tommy Boy Records to work together and continue to influence each other. I’m fascinated by these freestyle origins — an example of what I’m told is “convergent evolution.”
One of the most memorable parts of InSoc’s songs are the Star Trek samples, which they secured with the help of Adam Nimoy, fan of the band and son of Leonard Nimoy. “Walking Away“ features Capt. Kirk’s “It is useless to resist us,” as well as Scotty’s “Let’s go see!“
“What’s On Your Mind” includes Mr. Spock’s “It’s worked so far, but we’re not out yet,” as well as the titular “Pure energy.”
Check out the odd collection of charts this song made it to:
- Number 9 on US Billboard Hot 100, February 1989
- Number 1 US Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales
- Number 5 US Hot Dance Music/Club Play
- Number 64 US Hot Black Singles
- Number 15 US Modern Rock Tracks
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