(This article has been posted because of reader request. Personally, I don’t think much of it even though it displays a different angle on the history of this music genre. It is also reprinted single space TNR to save space.)
FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MIAMI FREESTYLE MUSIC
What is freestyle? It wouldn’t be surprising to hear these questions from the current generation of music lovers. Many decades have passed since freestyle flooded the nightclubs and radio airwaves. What is more surprising is when you hear an established music business veteran asking the same question. “I have no idea what freestyle music is,” Ish Ledesma recently said. Ish, as he is professionally known in the music business, is the Cuban-born, songwriter and producer responsible for numerous Top 40 hits on Billboard’s weekly Top 100 pop chart. He is the mastermind behind Foxy, Oxo, and Company B., the latter being a Miami Freestyle act. Ultimately, different people have different definitions for freestyle.
Freestyle evolved from the remains of disco’s heavily orchestrated and lush productions of the late 1970’s. Some music critics claim it originated from electro-funk in the summer of 1982 with Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” while others state it was the gold-selling single “Let the Music Play” by Shannon in late 1983 or even Arthur Baker’s Streetwise Records release of Freeez’s “I.O.U.” around the same time. Who knows with all the widespread confusion? So let’s deconstruct and identify its musical characteristics: simplistic synthesizer riffs and chords, heavy synth bass, orchestral hits and vocal samples, high hats playing 16th or 32nd notes, staggered kick with stress on the second and fourth note on a 4/4 rhythm ranging from 114 to 124 beats per minute with occasional Latin percussion and synth brass. More than half of all freestyle music featured a female lead vocal or vocals and shared the same lyrical simplification common of the Brill building/girl group era when established songwriters wrote about “love and heartbreak” themes.
In the 80’s, trendsetting New York record producers began recording freestyle which was “picked up” by independent labels. Promotional copies of these “indie” records began to trickle down to South Florida via record pools, a service where (mainly) club DJs receive dance music prior to its release for a nominal monthly fee. It wasn’t long until Miami-Dade and Broward county deejays began playing freestyle at their respective nightclubs with great success. Some of these discos included Casanova’s and Rick’s Bar in Hialeah, Banana Boat in Kendall, Parallel Bar in Sunset, Pete and Lenny’s in Fort Lauderdale. South Florida’s independent, dance-oriented retailers noticed the demand for the new dance craze. Urban radio stations began to closely monitor the genre’s street popularity among youths and young adults but pop stations such as WHYI-FM (Y-100) would not play records on independent labels. This obstacle would be solved within a year when many independent label releases were sold or licensed to major labels which had immeasurable power over radio programming through professional promotion personnel. A New York freestyle song on a major label (Columbia), “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, became a radio smash in early 1985 paving the way for Miami’s own style of freestyle.
Miami freestyle’s success was unanticipated. Expose (originally X-Posed), was a female trio formed under the mastermind of Pantera Records co-owners Frank Diaz, Ismael Garcia, and ex-Limelight nightclub DJ, Lewis A. Martinee. The first signs of Miami freestyle started with “Pretty” Tony Butler’s acts Trinere and Debbie Deb predated Expose but their many hits did not feature the distinct Latin flavor which became Miami freestyle’s trademark. “Point of No Return” was an instant hit on local radio station I-95 (WINZ-FM) but if you wanted to go “big time,” you have to get the song played on South Florida’s powerhouse station, Y-100. This presented a major problem for Pantera. “There were times when I would go arrange a meeting with the director and he wouldn’t even see me,” said Frank Diaz in a recent interview. Diaz finally persuaded the station to give it a chance and the station agreed through a “battle of the bands” competition where two new songs would go head-to-head competing for the most votes by listeners calling the station. To his surprise, Expose won the competition. “We actually went against the Rolling Stones and won!” said Diaz. It was the birth of Miami freestyle and it cleared the path for other producer-songwriters like Avy Gonzalez (“Did It Feel Like Love” by Genuine Parts on his own Pizazz label), Ish (“Fascinated” by Company B on The Summer/Hot Productions) and another Lewis Martinee production for the all-male freestyle group, Erotic Exotic (“Take Me As I Am” on Joey Boy). It wasn’t long until the major labels took notice of their respective local success. Arista Records signed Expose while Atlantic Records scored a windfall by signing a slew of Miami freestyle acts including the aforementioned Genuine Parts, Company B and Erotic Exotic, The Voice in Fashion, Wild Mary’s, The Beat Club, original Expose member, Sandee’, Nice & Wild, Promise Circle, Tiger Moon and Linear. Other majors signing Miami freestyle acts included Will to Power (Epic/Sony), Paris by Air (Columbia/Sony) and Sequal (Capitol). By no means did this meant that other Miami acts which were not signed to a major for some reason or another, were not high caliber acts which received extensive radio and/or club play. Stevie B., Connie, Shana, (Suburban) Prototype, Secret Society, Rare Design, London Exchange, Merci-Mercy, and Olga were among the many which saturated the market. WPOW (Power 96) and WTHM (Rhythm 98) further solidified freestyle reign over Miami. What no one knew was how its life would be abruptly shortened.
Not all was exemplary in Miami, though. While some producers and freestyle acts were ecstatic because they had been signed to a major label, music business personnel in other fields such as retailers and independent wholesalers openly expressed their dislike over the outcome. For retailers, it meant higher costs and fewer profits for records on acts they had promoted since their infancy. It was even worse for independent distributors. They had also helped in developing artists while being on an indie but now had no access to the major label re-release. It was a victory for the one-stop and a defeat for the independent distributor. Eventually, these distributors curved their attention to the “permanently indie” Northeastern freestyle labels like Mic Mac and Cutting Records, both based in New York City and Metropolitan, based in New Jersey. Another misconception began circulating about record producers losing control over their artistic creativity once signed to a major label. This declaration may have been accurate in the distant past but didn’t apply to Miami freestyle. Avy Gonzalez, who had five different acts signed to Atlantic, states the contrary. “They (Atlantic) gave us plenty of space to do our own thing. Atlantic was very good to me and gave me total autonomy over my groups and music production.”
The obstacles were far from over. Miami freestyle music had heavy competition from other music genres which were being discovered by some of the most popular club DJs. Artists like Hazell Dean, Fun Fun, Lime, Patrick Cowley, Fancy and Paul Lekakis were selling strongly at retailers and played extensively at clubs. “Miami freestyle was destined to have a short life. Club DJs like Ciro Llerena, Scott Blackwell, and Bobby Eckenwiler were on top of the game promoting Italo House and Hi-NRG into their formats. The Latino crowd was split in half between these two genres and Miami freestyle and the gay clubs like Backstreets, The Copa, On the Waterfront and Club 21 totally embraced Hi-NRG,” said Miami producer/songwriter Bibi A. LaRed who scored with “Come Back to Me” with his group, Suburban Prototype. “We couldn’t make up our minds on whether to be Hi-NRG or Miami freestyle so we did both. Ciro was definitely a mentor.” House was also progressing in New York. DJ turned artist Lil Louie became a hot item in the house genre and British songwriter/producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman were at the forefront with a new signature sound which became the hottest commodity of the times. The list of crossover pop/dance hit records produced by this trio was colossal including Donna Summer, Rick Astley, O’chi Brown, Mel & Kim, Samantha Fox, Kylie Minogue, and Bananarama.
For the most part, the 90’s decade found Miami producers of major label acts prioritizing their respective acts and ignoring new and potential homegrown second generation of freestyle. This new wave either lacked the flair or was a new experimental breed incorporating musical hybrids such as alternative or straight-out Latin music. They were also devoid of the unprecedented luck their freestyle predecessors had had years earlier. Expose had become a decade-long success story and had somehow avoided their troubled past to become public while most of the other Miami freestyle acts tested new and different styles which ultimately failed. There was no going back now. Everyone had been discriminatorily profiled as producers/songwriters of a genre considered passé. They, too, had to make career-altering decisions. “Should I try producing new genres or do I go back to my DJ’ing roots?” was a question circulating through their respective thoughts. No longer was Miami in the spotlight. The Cocaine Cowboys, Miami Vice, and Don Johnson had disappeared into oblivion. Freestyle was experiencing a rapid death and was anticipating its demise prior to the coming of the new millennium. Recently, the freestyle crowd of the 1980’s has solidified a revival. The glamour of yesteryear’s Miami freestyle artists had eroded and any attempt at recreating the sound would be futile. The old nightclubs are gone but the aging freestyle DJ of days gone by hosts freestyle nights at several locations throughout Dade county. He looks out towards the dancefloor and sees the same crowd from three decades ago. Many of their faces show their age as they reminisce quietly. Others have attempted to stop time through cosmetic surgeries which makes them look like they did before their grandchildren came along.
© 2018 Douglas Lynn