Freestyle is a type of dance-pop music that evolved from Hi-NRG, Electro, and Hip-Hop in the early 1980s— primarily in New York City and specifically the South Bronx. Due to the ethnic and musicological background of some of its producers, performers and many of its fans, Freestyle was originally often referred to as Latin Hip-Hop. After enjoying a period of crossover popularity in the second half of the 1980s, Freestyle stopped being a major musical force in mainstream but was kept alive by a cult largely comprised surprisingly perhaps, largely of Filipinos.
In the early 1980s listeners could still discern the unique cultural contributions that made pre-corporate Hip-Hop a complex Afro–Caribbean–Hellenic–Italo–Teutonic gumbo. The syncopated rhythms of Electro-Funk owed their popularity to Nuyoricans’ central importance in the emerging subculture. Electro-Funk branched into something distinct (what came to be known as Freestyle) in 1982 and ’83, with the release of songs likePlanet Patrol’s “Pay At Your Own Risk,” C-Bank’s “Get Wet,” and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” and the production efforts of figures like John Robie & Arthur Baker, The Latin Rascals, and Mark Liggett & Chris Barbosa.
Freestyle arose in and around New York with performers like Corina, The Cover Girls, Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, Noel, Sa-Fire, Sweet Sensation, and TKA. It quickly found a second home in Florida with acts likeCompany B, Connie, Debbie Deb, Stevie B, Trinere — often produced by guys like Amos Larkins, Tony “Pretty Tony” Butler, and Lewis Martinee. In the UK, groups like Freeez, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and Samantha Fox all dabbled with Casio claves, synth trumpets, and choppy polyrhythms.
Freestyle produced more hits as it became less-recognizabley Hip-Hop. In the late 1980s, probably no one would consider contemporaries like N.W.A. to be in the same genre as Expose. Many acts associated early on with Freestyle transitioned into more mainstream dance-pop and Freestyle was increasingly marginalized by the growing popularity of House music and New Jack Swing. Freestyle never vanished completely.Fresno-born Mexican-American singer Timmy T received considerable airplay on Los Angeles’s Power 106 and New York’s Hot 97, both of which then played a good deal of Freestyle into the mid-1990s.
Even in after its banishment from the mainstream, a febrile Freestyle underground perdured in places likeChicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Toronto, and Texas. Many of the new Freestyle releases were produced by Filipino performers.
Jaya (nee Maria Luisa Ramsey Buffington) was born in Manila in 1969 to a Jamaican father and Filipinamother. Her debut single, “If You Leave Me Now,” was released in 1989 on New York’s Lefrak-Moelis Records, then home to Stevie B and Glenn Gutierrez, a Pinoy producer who’d first joined Stevie B‘s band in 1986 and had since gone on to work as his and other artists’ producer.
Jocelyn Enriquez grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, raised by immigrant parents from Pangasinan. She graduated from Pinole Valley High School in 1993 and was signed by Burlingame-based and Pinoy owned-and-operated Classified Records. In 1994 she released “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” co-written and produced by Glenn Gutierrez and another Stevie B collaborator, Mario L. Agustin.
Classified followed Joy Enriquez’s success with another Pinoy Freestyler, Damien Bautista.
In 1995 Classified released a compilation, Classified Dance – Freestyle Volume One, which included Kuyaand other artists, not of all whom (I don’t believe) were Pinoy.
Classified was also the first home of Freestyle group Pinay (whose members have included at various timesAngelica Abiog, Jocelyn Enriquez, Loredie Reyes, and Maylene Bnones) recorded Freestyle for the label.
Buffy then and more recently
Buffy (nee Buffy Solango), a singer from Fremont, was the first artist on another label associated with Filipinos and Freestyle — Velocity Records. She released her single “Give Me… A Reason” in 1994. The song was written and produced by Dadgel Atabay, a musician who’d played keyboards on Stevie B’s Love & Emotion (which included his prom jam “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)”).
Velocity Records went on to release music by another Bay Area Pinay part-time Freestyler, Kim Del Fierro.
Korell (ne Philip Melegrito) released “Paradise” in 1994 and was co-produced by Korell and Stevie B onThump Records, a label which billed itself as “The Party Label!” and was based in Walnut, California. His album failed to dent the charts but he gained a following in Brazil and moved to the Brazilian label, Spotlight Records.
Sharyn Maceren, from the San Francisco Bay Area, debuted as The S Factor with “Hard To Get” in 1997 on S.E. Records, then also home to Slammin’ Sam (ne Sam Maxion), a Pinoy producer/DJ from Pittsburg, California.
As Sharyn Maceren she moved to Fremont’s Planet Hype, currently also the label home of Pinay and co-founded by Gutierrez, JP Nebres and Matt Villacarte.
One Vo1ce (Monica Castillo, Anne Marie Ceralvo, Edna Mae Ceralvo, Melissa Ruiz, Moreno Aimee Castillo, and formerly Lindsay Mangoba) area a Pinay group from Vallejo who often record Freestyle and debuted with “All Day All Nite” in 1998, on Kamikaze Records.
Finally, as a Freestyle fan, I occasionally notice those distinct, Colby posters stapled to a utility pole, and usually listing some upcoming Freestyle concert that’s already occurred. Get the word out and show me the way to San Jose, OK?
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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