This is the 18th 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.
Exposé was initially formed in 1984 by Lewis Martineé, a Miami disc jockey and producer. Martineé and his partners used talent scouts to hire three singers: Sandra Casañas (Sandeé), Alejandra Lorenzo (Alé), and Laurie Miller. The next year, the trio recorded and released “Point of No Return” as a 12-inch single, and the song hit Number 1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.
The success of “Point of No Return” caught the attention of Arista Records, and the group headed into the studio to start work on their first album, “Exposure.” That’s when things got a little crazy. All three singers either quit or were fired (depending on who’s telling the story), and were replaced by Jeanette Jurado, Gioia Bruno, and Ann Curless. This new trio re-recorded “Point of No Return,” but the timing of the group’s overhaul caused some confusion: The first pressing of “Exposure” contained the original 1984 version of that song, and subsequent pressings contained the new version. Regardless, “Exposure” was a huge hit, with four singles hitting the Top 10: “Come Go with Me,” “Point of No Return,” “Let Me Be the One,” and the dreaded Number 1 hit ballad “Seasons Change.”
Portland, Oregon-based group Nu Shooz — fronted by husband-and-wife team John Smith and Valerie Day — released their first single, “I Can’t Wait,” in April, 1985. This song was a big hit, but only in the Portland area; it found its way to the Netherlands, where it was remixed and released on a Dutch label; the remix then caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which finally signed Nu Shooz in 1986. They re-released “I Can’t Wait” on a their first Atlantic album, “Poolside,” and the song became a massive hit (Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and 15 weeks in the Top 40.)
The next single released from “Poolside” was “Point of No Return,” remixed by prolific and influential record producer Shep Pettibone. Pettibone got his start at New York City’s top urban radio station, 98.7 Kiss-FM, and cemented his reputation as a remixer/producer for the disco/dance label Salsoul Records. His production and mixing skills led to work with such artists as Madonna and George Michael in the late 1980s, during the height of their popularity. He also worked with freestyle god Arthur Baker. Check out Pettibone’s EXTENSIVE list of credits and collaborations. “Point of No Return” was another big hit for Nu Shooz, topping the dance chart in September 1986 and peaking at Number 28 on the Hot 100.
Fun Fact: Nu Shooz was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best New Artist in 1987. The other nominees that year were Glass Tiger, Simply Red, and Timbuk3, but the award ultimately went to Bruce Hornsby & the Range.
These two songs, with the same title, from roughly the same time period, represent very different forms of the freestyle genre. The massive success of Exposé’s “Exposure” album helped launch the popularity of the Miami freestyle sound, which dominated radio airplay in the late 1980s. I would argue that this tremendous amount of airplay — and the copycats it inspired — were part of the reason many music fans eventually came to dismiss Miami freestyle as derivative, monotonous, and uncreative; there was just so much of it on the air at the time that many people got bored with it, assuming they ever really liked it to begin with. (A similar situation: when Nu Metal took over alternative music in the late ’90s.) I also seem to remember knowing a little about the group’s erratic history, which — combined with the obvious guiding hand of their producers — gave them a sense of inauthenticity, as if they were more a consumer product than actual artists. Admittedly, I had rather rigid and pretentious opinions about artistic expression back then.
On the other hand, Nu Shooz harkens back to the spare production of early, cash-poor freestyle bands. The group had formed in 1979, and its sound evolved from jazzy soul fusion to poppy new wave to the spare but perfectly-produced freestyle of “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return.” Notice, too, how literally distant Portland-based Nu Shooz was from the usual NYC and Miami freestyle epicenters. It reminds me a little of Information Society’s “convergent evolution” of freestyle in their Minnesota dorm room, though Nu Shooz spent many, many years on stage developing their craft and their sound. I’m not sure what drew the group to freestyle, though John Smith credits a late 1970s “trip to New York City” as influencing his musical direction.
I’m also amazed by the circuitous — and, in Exposé’s case, somewhat troubled — route that these two bands and their lead singles took to fame. Exposé reminds me of another Miami-based freestyle group, Company B, in that they’re both producer-created girl groups with dramatic shake-ups in their membership. And, much like Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” Nu Shooz only became famous after their single was discovered and championed by European DJs. I feel we’re circling around some greater truths about the changing music industry of the mid-1980s, the relationship between producers and artists, the role of the profit motive… It could make a great TV drama —someone get HBO on the line! Oh, nevermind.
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