Freestyle 101By: Marcelo Báez
When it comes to pop music it seems that most artists in the world are always playing catch up to whatever American, British or, more recently, Swedish producers are putting out. The process has been going on for decades—even within the powerhouses. For example, early on the Beatles constantly copied Motown, most American “classic rock” bands were little more than Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin knockoffs, and Kent was Sweden’s answer to Radiohead (though, in my opinion, Kent is actually much better than Yorke & Co).
The Latino planet has great pop artists, and we write about them a lot here at Manero, but, historically, the rest of the world has never looked our way for anything other than tropical-sounding music (salsa, bachata, cumbia, reggaeton, etc.). The oversight might be justified since our biggest pop stars really are little more than American or British clones (remember when Gloria Trevi was the “Mexican Madonna”?). Don’t get me wrong: our pop peddlers have their rightful place in history, but being good or relevant doesn’t mean an outsourced fad, style or formula wasn’t being followed by our idols. (Soda Stereo was great, but they did take a lot of “inspiration” from the Police before they moved on to putting their Argentine swagger on other influences.)
So besides tropical music, did Latinos ever come up with an original, influential genre? A few, yes. Esquivel basically came up with one all on his own (space-age pop, that is), but he was just too ahead of his time. And then there’s one other style—one of the coolest in existence, if you ask me—that was entirely driven by Latinos. But is it collecting any accolades? No, just dust.
It’s a travesty because freestyle, aka Latin freestyle or Latin hip-hop, as it used to be called in the ’80s, was innovative and ingenious. The genre took shape in New York City around 1982, and shared certain similarities with its relatives—namely new wave and old-school hip-hop—but, because of its unconventional use of drum machines, vocoders, synthesizers and heavily processed vocal effects, it stood in a completely different class.
Sadly when some of its biggest names tried to go mainstream (Exposé, for example), the core sound was sterilized and repackaged as straight-forward pop. Also, according to some people, freestyle never fully took off because “rap was turning into the next big signing frenzy.” According to those same people, “Big Pun, Fat Joe and Co. would resurrect hip-hop’s Latino profile,” but by the time they came around (mid to late ’90s), the kids were all about hard rap and rock, not weird break-dancing music with robot voices and atypical drum patterns.
Eventually freestyle producers opted to work on more prevalent forms of dance music (house, techno) but the dream wasn’t completely dead—well, not to everyone. Plenty of Nuyoricans, Floridians and Mexican cholos on the West Coast, all hardcore fans since the beginning, kept blasting the funky beats from their stoops in Harlem or their lowriders in LA. Revival concerts remain fairly popular in most American cities with a large Latino population.
Interestingly a lot of the core elements of freestyle were duplicated in the early ’00s when electroclash became a thing. Certain tracks, such as “Invisible” by Fischerspooner, seem plucked out of Connie’s own repertoire (with louder, modern production, of course). As they often do, hipsters though there were reinventing the wheel by making dance music with secondhand gear while dressing up in wild outfits. Little did they know certain Latinos had already done the same thing over 20 years ago.