By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
In the early 1980s, file sharing was still a street-level phenomenon, and the global village relied on word of mouth, radio and the deft skills of dance-floor DJs to spread sounds worldwide. As it emerged from the vibrant Hispanic barrios of New York and Miami, freestyle was a fun-loving blend of slick R&B-derived vocals sung almost exclusively by divas over the motoring, synthetic funk rhythms of electro, which had already made waves with breakdancers. It was the sound of the moment, and it had legs.
Electro in its pure form, of course, was pretty exclusive to the streets and clubs. Its roots in the pioneering electronic music of the German group Kraftwerk, combined with a fascination for roboticizing the still-burgeoning musical form of hip-hop, limited its chances for a wider audience. But when its squawking keyboards and stop-start percussion met the sweet melodies, romantic notions and strobe-lit nightclub tales of the freestyle vocalists, the result was music that not only reveled in new forms of technology and production that were sweeping the music industry, but also pulsed with the energy of America's urban neighborhoods.
Word spread fast, and the hits kept coming. Laser-beam keyboards, whip-cracking percussion and yards of silky reverb mark Shannon's 1983 single "Let the Music Play" as an enduring freestyle classic, while Brooklyn's Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam found stardom with such dance-floor and radio hits as "I Wonder If I Take You Home," "Head to Toe" and "Lost in Emotion." When a pre-Fly Girl J-Lo was still just Jenny from the block, she undoubtedly had a Lisa Lisa poster on her wall.
Los Angeles wasn't silent for the freestyle-electro era. The Egyptian Lover (a.k.a. Greg Broussard) combined electro with rap and the diamond-cut sexuality of Prince and Big Daddy Kane on his 1984 album On the Nile, and his single "Computer Love (Sweet Dreams)" is still ahead of its time.
And while the twittering mechanical dynamo at the center of Debbie Deb's 1983 single "When I Hear Music" keeps it vital—vestiges of her thin, singsong vocal and the track's electro underpinnings can be heard in Madonna's own "Music" from 2000—many of today's contemporary-hit radio divas (Lumidee, anyone?) regularly cop freestyle's more disposable elements. After all, despite its heady mesh of sounds, freestyle was danceable pop music. And danceable pop music is always hungry for what will move feet next.
Bits and pieces of freestyle appear everywhere today, from Fergie's electronicized coochie-coo to the harder, squelchy breaks and beats of LCD Soundsystem, or even those current darlings of indie electronic music, Justice. But freestyle itself isn't so much the motor for these jams as are the vintage sounds it embodied, which is why this show—billed as the Freestyle Experience and featuring Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Shannon, Debbie Deb, Newcleus ("Jam on Revenge," "Jam on It"), Egyptian Lover, and more—teeters between the audience's craving for nostalgia and the artists' quest for contemporary relevance, to not be typecast by their specific brand of success. Fergie's the new model; so is Rihanna. The dance floor favors recognition and instant gratification over most everything else, which is why something like "Let the Music Play" lives on as a classic jam. It needs to stay classic in order to stay classy.
Freestyle was a perfect product of its era, ready to meet the rush of new and exciting technology head-on with a cross-section of dancers, singers, DJs and rappers who were suddenly empowered at street level to make jams that could transcend neighborhood boundaries. But in the years since, electronic music has transformed almost by the year, and hip-hop has exploded to become one of the most significant cultural forces of the past 20 years. Freestyle itself has evolved, too, incorporating elements of house music and new forms of technology for a sound that's part throwback and part niche movement.
While many of the Freestyle Experience artists are still recording today, they all feature their signature freestyle singles on their MySpace pages. They know which butter tracks earn their bread.
THE FREESTYLE EXPERIENCE, WITH LISA LISA & CULT JAM, SHANNON, DEBBIE DEB, NEWCLEUS, EGYPTIAN LOVER, TWILIGHT 22, AND L.A. DREAM TEAM, AT THE GROVE OF ANAHEIM, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700; WWW.GROVE-OF-ANAHEIM.COM. SUN., 7 P.M. $37-$48.