wax Poetics
(left to right) Margo, Stevie B, Glenn Gutierrez, Angel, Caroline, and Eric Gomez. Photo by Johnny Cruize.

The Latin Implosion

Freestyle’s mix of rap and dance hit hard then fell into obscurity

published online
Originally published in Issue 41, 2010
By Kenny Herzog

Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 41, 2010.

Growing up in Queens and Long Island in the 1980s, I was saturated with the sounds of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Safire, Noel, Stevie B, and other Latino American dance artists. Their musical style came to be dubbed “Latin freestyle” and, eventually, just “freestyle.” Then-ubiquitous hits like Lisa Lisa’s “I Wonder if I Take You Home” and Noel’s “Silent Morning” were thicker in New York’s air than rush-hour smog, and their unforgettable hooks initiated my lifelong romance with pristine melodies.

Some two decades later, at the far northern end of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, souped-up hoopties still rattle with those transcendent records. Puerto Rican families three generations deep can be seen peeking out from their clotheslines, harmonizing Lil Suzy’s latter-day freestyle smash “Take Me in Your Arms,” hardly differentiating it from the appeal of Lady Gaga’s undeniably freestyle-esque “Bad Romance.” 

What’s more curious is why freestyle, beyond regional devotion and crossover exceptions like Exposé and the Cover Girls, remains a largely undocumented and under-celebrated movement. Despite having helped pioneer post-disco/electro, laying claim to dozens of charting artists, and nearly monopolizing urban radio, freestyle was left artistically fossilized and inaccurately cast aside as indistinguishable ’80s pop (while many still believe the term only applies to improvised rapping). And, according to many freestyle artists and advocates, the scene was left for dead by closed-minded labels and media who didn’t know how, or weren’t willing, to package it distinctly from radio and MTV’s soulless white noise.

“It’s all about what’s hitting at that moment, and I think it would have hit huge, kind of like hip-hop,” affirms Lisa Lisa about the lack of industry support. “In our eyes, it’s still going, because you can go to different countries and they still have a home for it… I really do believe that if they would have focused on it like they focused on everything else, we would have been top notch.”

And while this is in little dispute throughout the freestyle community, there’s an almost unanimous acknowledgment that the artists and producers themselves partially enabled such negligence.

“I think, back in the days when it hit the ’90s, a lot of the records started sounding the same,” says Harlem native and 1988 Spin cover girl Safire. “At the time, they were pretty much signing everybody, and our great writers and some of the great producers moved on to do other stuff. So now you found other people stepping into the game, but not really stepping the notch up.”

Freestyle figureheads like Micmac Records founder Mickey Garcia inevitably point to the King of Pop as an example of ensuring longevity through constant evolution. “Michael Jackson did it over and over in his forty-year career,” says Garcia. “And if the producers they are working with don’t get it, then these freestyle groups need to find the producers that do get it. It’s [either] jump on the bus, or wave good-bye.”

Carlos Berrios at sixteen at Columbia University’s radio station. Photo courtesy Carlos Berrios.
Carlos Berrios at sixteen at Columbia University’s radio station. Photo courtesy Carlos Berrios.


Hip-hop’s genesis in New York’s impoverished South Bronx, much like the blues’ uprising out of segregation-era Southern bayous, has become mythological. But just on the other side of Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, aspiring young beatmakers of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican descent were homing in on their own style of harder-edged dance tracks. 

Like so many innovative hip-hop producers, Latin DJs were floored by Afrika Bambaataa’s epic, genre-defying Kraftwerk cut-up, “Planet Rock.” But rather than retrofit Bambaataa’s vision inside of classic soul and funk samples, freestyle up-and-comers like Andy “Panda”  Tripoli and “Little” Louie Vega were cutting it up with a Latin flavor. If the records that defined early freestyle were pills of ecstasy, the asphalt-hard beats were its dopey undertow, and the joyfully synthesized reduction of salsa and other Latin sounds was its speedy uptick.

But the real watershed was when genre luminaries like the aforementioned Tripoli, Fever Records founder Sal Abbatiello (who also ran popular New York City freestyle club the Devil’s Nest), and Miami-bred Exposé mastermind Lewis Martineé decided to hinge their singles on catchy, melodic vocals rather than confrontational rhymes. And while it remains the subject of much debate (particularly among fans of Shannon’s 1983 smash hit, “Let the Music Play,” and Lisa Lisa loyalists), Brooklyn-and-Bronx-bred Cuban singer Nayobe’s 1984 single, “Please Don’t Go,” is largely credited for fully cementing freestyle’s sound and aesthetic.

“When I made ‘Please Don’t Go,’ my psychology was Latin hip-hop, and I thought it was gonna be the next big thing following hip-hop itself,” recalls Abbatiello from his still-bustling Fever HQ in Yonkers. “Hip-hop was dominated with African Americans, and this seemed to be second-generation Latinos, which was going to give them their own place in music history.”

“We were calling it hip-hop, and then rap become hip-hop, and Latin hip-hop became freestyle,” adds Martineé, who actually sources an obscure Frankie J.–produced track from 1983 called “Manshortage” by Eurofunk—which Martineé happened to remix under the name Lewis Martinez—as the inaugural freestyle track. “So, the names kind of wandered off somewhere.”

The Devil’s Nest, 1985. Photos courtesy of Sal Abbatiello.
The Devil’s Nest, 1985. Photos courtesy of Sal Abbatiello.


With the support of savvy industry vets like Abbatiello and Martineé, freestyle DJs, producers, and entrepreneurs began recruiting local singers and girl groups to ensure their forward-thinking records would also be classically marketable. Tripoli (who conceived the Cover Girls with Abbatiello), Vega, Madonna collaborator Jellybean Benitez, Carlos Berrios, Latin Rascals Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, “Pretty Tony” Butler, Tolga Katas, and other Latino hopefuls had the outlet and resources for their vision. Their tracks were carefully written and commercially minded, but they were also unshakably the work of pop-music outsiders doing something deeply nonconformist.

“It was that crazy drum-and-bass line that hit the walls when you went in the club. That’s what made you move,” reminisces Lisa Lisa. “That’s what the freestyle sound is—and will forever be. If you don’t got that crazy, crazy drum-and-bass hit, it’s not a freestyle song. And, of course, the chorus gotta be a serious melody that people will remember.”

It wasn’t long before radio stations such as Miami’s Hot 105 and New York’s Hot 103 were jamming playlists with the street sounds of Lisa Lisa’s “I Wonder if I Take You Home,” the Cover Girls’ “Show Me,” Exposé’s “Point of No Return,” and TKA’s “One Way Love” (all of which were originally released independently), as clubs like the Devil’s Nest and 1018 hosted line-round-the-corner DJ nights and the artists’ earliest live performances. 

That enthusiasm was mutually infectious between artist and audience, even if groups were a vessel for other people’s compositions. “Everything has more than one angle,” says singer-actress Daphne Rubin-Vega, known to most as the original Mimi in Rent. But Nuyoricans will always cherish her as the sultry voice behind Pajama Party classics “Yo No Sé” and “Over and Over.” 

“I wasn’t gonna bitch and moan that I was just a warm body for a repository of songs that other people wrote and produced,” she explains. “That was a huge element of what was going on, but it was a really special time for me, because I took that opportunity to learn, to write really shitty raps, to write really bad songs, really make a fool of myself in an environment that didn’t shame me or judge me too harshly, ’cause we were all playin’ together. And if they did, fuck it.’ ”

As freestyle began to define the sound of East Coast clubs, Mickey Garcia opened Micmac Records in 1987. Quickly developing a singular aesthetic with his now-iconic, bold-red-lettered 12-inch packaging, Garcia propelled the careers of Cynthia, Johnny O, Soavé, and countless other young talents while also trailblazing sleeker production techniques. Meanwhile, Aldo Marin’s Cutting label ventured into the genre with albums by Safire, Corina, and Yvonne; and Next Plateau was denting the market with releases by C-Bank and Sybil.

“We would have these shows with Billy Joel or Madonna, but the thing that really caught the interest of young New Yorkers was freestyle,” confirms Robbie Woliver, former coproducer of the New York Music Awards, which featured performances from up-and-coming artists. “They were coming for Lisa Lisa, they were coming for the Cover Girls, [and] they were coming for Seduction.”

arlos Berrios with his gear. Photo courtesy Carlos Berrios.
arlos Berrios with his gear. Photo courtesy Carlos Berrios.


By the late ’80s, Miami had developed an equally rabid—if stylistically less street—local freestyle fervor, with Katas’s label Futura launching Stevie B to stardom and DJ Jorge Ojeda’s upstart brand Destune Records creating a home for groups like his own Sound of Destiny. 

“I think the New York end probably took more of the urban side of freestyle, and Miami probably took more of the Latin end of it,” explains Ojeda. But he ultimately sees the two cities’ exchange as symbiotic, pointing out that “you have Nayobe, which is from New York, and [Nayobe’s] ‘Please Don’t Go’ had a lot of the Latin end of it as well.”

“Miami at one time had a lot of low bottom, and then New York picked up on that,” concurs fellow influential Floridian Martineé. “And then vice versa, they did things that we picked up on. It just goes back and forth.”

Concurrently, L.A. radio was picking up on the craze, and before long, West Coast DJs—including notable Bay Area–based producer Glenn Gutierrez—were collaborating with vocalists such as Filipina singer Jocelyn Enriquez, further splitting freestyle’s ethnic atom.

“The Bay Area has a tradition of mixing up styles,” explains Gutierrez, who acknowledges that California’s contribution was invariably imported and then reciprocated back. “[Freestyle] has always been an ethnic style, but the Bay Area includes a little more urban, a little more R&B influence, I think, because of Oakland. Plus, there’s maybe a little bit of an Asian thing.”

Given freestyle’s tristate pervasiveness, it was only a matter of time before major labels came clamoring. By the close of the decade, Exposé, the Cover Girls, Safire, Noel, Lisa Lisa, Stevie B, Pajama Party, George LaMond, Joey Kid, and Lisette Melendez, and several more scene graduates all scored corporate contracts. MTV even produced a syndicated freestyle dance show called Second Generation. However, within four short years, the vast majority would find their albums shelved, under-funded, or poorly marketed, and the genre’s most reputed songwriters and producers—Tony Moran, Louie Vega, and Jellybean Benitez for starters—had departed for house and other more contemporary subgenres of techno. By 1993, freestyle as a relevant pop trend and vital underground movement had, effectively, died.


“Freestyle is the Latino version of disco, where disco came and went, and it shouldn’t be like that,” says Cover Girls vocalist Evelyn Escalera, neatly summing up freestyle’s unjustly fleeting moment. For every Safire or Exposé who broke through to consistent mainstream exposure, there were dozens more that, poetically enough, found themselves fighting a similar uphill battle as Black rappers before them. 

“Pop radio was looking at us like, ‘Eh, your stuff’s kind of, like, underground. It’s club stuff, it’s not stuff that [popular New York radio station] Z100 really wants to touch,’ ” recalls Tripoli. “And our attitude was, ‘No, screw that! Our stuff is legitimate. You need to give our stuff a chance.’ ”

As it happens, Tripoli, Abbatiello, and Fever found an unlikely ally in Russell Simmons, who helped the label score distribution through Columbia Records. It wasn’t long, however, before their golden opportunity turned into an ugly microcosm of music-industry ignorance.

“We were having almost a war with Donny Iner, the president of Columbia Records, who refused to ‘push the button’ on Lisette Melendez,” remembers Tripoli with some exasperation, referring to her single “Together Forever.” As Tripoli tells it, “push the button” was common industry terminology for when a record label head demanded “all hands on deck to promote this record, this artist. That you essentially had the full support of that machine behind you.” 

Even as Tripoli gathered grassroots support for Melendez, it did nothing to dissuade label execs’ perceived infinite wisdom. “Crossover radio was basically saying, ‘We’re playing this record, we’re getting requests for this record, why isn’t Columbia Records putting the full press on this?’ ” remembers Tripoli. “And the bottom line was, there was a certain amount of discrimination against freestyle from the labels that it wasn’t pop music.”

“All the majors thought they had a new hip-hop,” adds Abbatiello, inflecting a mock-executive tone. “‘Oh God, this is gonna be the new hip-hop. Hurry up, let’s sign everybody.’ So they started signing every one of the groups. Except when they signed all the groups, they were trying to change the sound. They didn’t understand it; they were trying to make it pop music. It was pop music. They needed to leave it alone.”

Soavé, who sang the 1989 Micmac anthem “Crying Over You,” is more explicit about the racial subtext. “Put it this way: the reason why my name is Soavé is because it couldn’t be Jeffrey Martinez,” he says candidly. “I would have loved it to be Jeffrey Martinez, but that would have meant I wouldn’t have sold a record. I wouldn’t have gotten any shows. You can ask any artist the same thing.”

It’s almost as if freestyle acts were in a paradox: if they stayed underground, they wouldn’t cross over, impact the mainstream, and sell records, but if they took a leap of major-label faith, they were setting themselves up for a different kind of betrayal. 

“From the beginning to the end, it was never Latinos that were running the show,” laments Carlos Berrios, who produced Melendez’s “Together Forever” and is raising funds for a freestyle documentary. “Nobody was looking out for our interests. We were just being exploited, just like anybody else.”


If you ask anyone who was there in the early ’90s, they’ll tell you, almost without exception, that freestyle songwriters, vocalists, producers, and DJs were accomplices in their subculture’s obsolescence. Dejected by industry mistreatment, torn apart by competitiveness, and tantalized by suddenly hipper forms of dance, original freestyle artists who didn’t migrate toward new trends simply declined to push the boundaries of a now decade-old sound.

Tripoli, Martineé, Berrios, and a select few were incorporating elements of new-jack intensity and house’s looser rhythmic DNA, and even attempted to re-brand the genre. “I think what Carlos did with what we tried to call ‘new-school freestyle,’ I’m real proud of that,” says Tripoli. “We were trying to prove that we weren’t just some grungy street sound that couldn’t compete with the other stuff that was being recorded nationally… There was a desire for recognition that we’re good at what we do.” 

“I was trying to do what Phil Spector did with the Ronettes,” says Carlos Berrios, “creating this wall of sound and having this very unique voice cut through it.”

But they and their like-minded, would-be innovators had trouble gathering support from their community. This complacency created a disconnect between freestyle’s legacy and dance music’s mainstream crossover, which was spearheaded by underground house kings Clivillés and Cole.

“People look back now, and they think of Lisa Lisa in terms of MTV as opposed to being a real pioneer in freestyle music,” says Woliver. “It’s the essence of what freestyle is anyway. You go out of the boundaries of rap; you’re still rapping. In freestyle, you change it up a bit, and it’s a different kind of music… Those in the know would call it freestyle. The rest of the world would just call it dance music.”

“It was a very dark time,” agrees Berrios. “Many artists realized all the stations were changing to R&B and hip-hop, and then, all of a sudden, everyone wanted to do R&B. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t do R&B… If this is it, then there’s no more place for me, and I quit.’ But I watched these artists do the demos and attempt to release records, and you could hear the clash. It didn’t work. And I think they took it as a rejection of who they were at the time… It never really swung back the other way.”

“I think it was just a chance that they took on something else, and [they] left us all behind, which is all right,” Lisa Lisa reconciles. “They had to choose. Labels do that, music does that.”


The more difficult truth, according to Berrios and others, is that freestyle was always destined to register on music’s endangered-movements list.

“The strange thing about freestyle is that, I believe, it’s a music that came from a social dilemma, but that dilemma was never articulated through the music itself the way that hip-hop did,” argues Berrios. He invokes Melle Mel’s landmark “The Message” and continues, “I think there’s a lack of understanding from the people involved themselves as to what it was that originally inspired the music.”

Berrios then traces how city planner Robert Moses’s urban renewal generated low-income projects in the Bronx, which ultimately inspired late-’70s hip-hop culture. “When they say urban, you immediately think Black, but no, we were there too,” he explains. “And the strange thing that happened—and it’s all choices—was Blacks chose to express themselves with their words through rhyme. Over the same beats that people were doing hip-hop to, we started doing love songs, and that’s where hip-hop went that way and we went the other way, and we never looked back.”

Tripoli suggests a more historical explanation. “If you follow Latin music, from mambo to the days of boogaloo, salsa, merengue, reggaeton, Latin artists were never really about making any kind of statement,” he suggests. “It was mostly about dancing... And you can certainly make that case for rap to a certain extent, but Latin music is more defined by that concept of enjoying life and having fun.”

Or as Soavé proudly depicts it, “Freestyle artists spoke of love, romance, the happiness of getting together with someone, and the pain of losing them. Freestyle spoke to all listeners, because most of the messages were transparent and completely relatable.”


If the conventional wisdom is that musical movements, like fashion trends, get revisited every couple decades, freestyle would certainly be due for a close-up. “It’s the longest drought in music history that someone hasn’t replaced with another sound,” claims Abbatiello. And whether that’s true or not, if New Order and Anglo new-wavers received their second coming, Latin hip-hop alumni deserve to hear their familiar hits pouring out of car windows and college-dorm iPods. 

But they need an ambassador from today’s mainstream. Whether it’s Jordin Sparks, who recently covered Shannon’s “Let the Music Play”; Brit sensation Jay Sean, in light of his glossy, oh-so-freestyle hit “Down”; Pitbull, who recruited Stevie B for a redux of the singer’s “Spring Love”; or, of course, New York club kid Lady Gaga, the closest that contemporary pop has to a descendent of Cynthia and Lil Suzy, somebody needs the self-assurance and sense of history to acknowledge freestyle’s influence. 

“If someone young comes out with a record that has elements of dance and a little house and a little bit of that R&B flavor, [and] all of that can get collaborated into one record, that can create a new sound,” says an admittedly skeptical Safire, who also echoes the need for a current freestyle advocate, the same way modern-rock artists reintroduced Santana. 

It would probably please her to know that there are new, young artists looking to heed her advice. This is especially evident in Miami, where New Yorker Vanessa Conde and Katja are two of the scene’s many rising stars.

“There’s a very specific melodic structure to [freestyle],” concedes Conde. “The question is how to expand on it and to invite all these other genres and create a sound that still is clearly freestyle but has the influence of R&B, the influence of pop.”

Even skeptical freestyle veterans are rooting for her. “If there are groups emerging out of Florida, then that’s gonna be the center,” Berrios confirms. “New York’s sort of holding on to what’s left.”

Escalera, however, sees freestyle’s immortality as dependent on a universal artistic truth. “Just be who you are,” she says plainly. “If you’re gonna make it—whether you started off as a freestyle artist or you are a freestyle artist—as long as you do what you do with your heart, put your passion into it, and all that you’ve got, that should be good enough.”

Personal discrepancies, industry burnout, and creative stagnancy aside, what’s so remarkable about the Latino dance music dreamed up in major U.S. cities between 1983 and 1993 was that the classic records from Fever, Micmac, Futura, Panther, Cutting, and others still sound vital and contemporary. And, frankly, they hold up better from a purely production standpoint than much of that era’s canonized hip-hop. It may be both freestyle’s essence and undoing, but the music is, and always will be, its message.

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