The Emergence of Freestyle

Catherine A. Jones
 | July 9, 2024

The 1980s gave the world more than big hair and Blockbuster stores. It was also the decade that introduced music fans to freestyle, contagious dance music which followed the disco days of the 1970s. But, unlike disco, and its glitzy beats, freestyle blended electronic dance music with Latin rhythms. Yet, just like disco, freestyle left its mark and gave way to popular genres which remain today. As we let the music play, let’s check out the emergence of freestyle, and the Latino stars who made it all happen.

The Emergence of Freestyle

“Latin freestyle music originated in the early 1980s in urban areas like New York City, where Latino Americans began to blend elements of electronic dance music with the Latin rhythms and melodies of their cultural heritage,” NELA TV explains. “The music was characterized by its fast tempo, energetic beats, and often sentimental lyrics that spoke to the experiences of young Latinos living in urban areas.”

The emergence of freestyle happened simultaneously in the Hispanic communities of New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, and Los Angeles. This fusion genre blended synthetic instrumentation with syncopated percussion from 1980s electro, a favorite among breakdancers.

Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” is often considered the first freestyle song, released in 1983. Then, soon after, in 1984, “Please Don’t Go” by Nayobe topped the charts. And Nayobe, a singer from Brooklyn with Afro-Cuban heritage, became an international star.

The Origin of the Name “Freestyle”

“The origin of the name ‘freestyle’ is disputed,” Art and Popular Culture explains. “One theory is that the term refers to the mixing techniques of DJs who spun this form of music in its pre-house incarnations.”

A second theory lies in the dance moves. Freestyle allowed “for a greater degree of freedom of dance expression than other music of the time, and each dancer is free to create his or her own style,” according to Art and Popular Culture.

Then there’s the third theory that links the music movement back to Miami where there was confusion between two tracks by producer Tony “Pretty Boy” Butler: “Freestyle Express” by Freestyle and Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music.” The confusing sound became popular and named after Butler’s group, Freestyle. Interestingly, the group was named for the members’ love for BMX Freestyle Bike racing, music historians say. However, the name summed up a new music genre.

Rise to Popularity

Freestyle gained prominence in American clubs, especially in New York and Miami. Radio airplay followed in the mid-1980s, propelling Latino artists like Exposé, Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, TKA, La India, The Cover Girls, and Sweet Sensation to mainstream chart success.

“All of these artists had crossover appeal and crossover hits,” the short YouTube documentary “Latin Freestyle Music – A Brief History” explains. 

The Death of Freestyle

Freestyle reached its peak in the early 1990s but gradually faded in popularity.

“As with any genre that becomes so hot so quickly, just as disco did before it, it died hard. As its popularity waned, it gave way to house music and mainstream hip-hop,” “Latin Freestyle Music – A Brief History” explains. 

The rise of house music supplanted its electro and Latin hip hop influences, leading to a decline in airplay. While artists like George LaMond and Exposé continued to be heard on mainstream radio, freestyle as a dominant force waned.

Today freestyle is making a comeback thanks to fans who won’t let it go. Radio stations across the nation devote time slots just for freestyle. And Sirius satellite stations like Pitbull Globalization’s play “throwback” playlists that introduce the genre to new and younger fans.

And then there’s YouTube, which is home to vintage freestyle videos which go viral, like Sweet Sensation’s “Sincerely Yours” which has over 2 million views, and growing. Freestyle even shows up as TikTok sounds, reaching a whole new generation of music fans. Freestyle may have waned in popularity 30 years ago, but the fan base will always let the music play.

Featured image courtesy of Deposit Photos; a special thanks goes out to Nuestro Stories freestyle fans (Alex!) for keeping the music alive.

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