All the Reasons to Love 80s Freestyle—According to the Diehards Who Were There
Crazy stories and fond memories of a Bronx-born music genre that took over nightclubs and airwaves in the 80s.
Luis Nieto Dickens
Photos and interviews by Luis Nieto Dickens
Last weekend, a cavernous former bank vault in lower Manhattan was transported for one night—which happened to be Friday the 13th—back to the 80s, when the hair was bigger, the songs were sweeter, and even the names of reigning pop divas like Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb were twice as long.
Freestyle!!! was a one-night party during Red Bull Music Academy Festival dedicated to a bygone music genre created largely by Latinos in the Bronx in the mid-80s. Sometimes called Latin hip-hop, freestyle has deep connections to breakdancing culture, and is marked by chintzy synths, saccharinely romantic lyrics, and the snaps of an 808. The genre quickly took over the country's airwaves, nightclubs, and roller rinks, and according to freestyle DJ Andy Panda in Vivian Host's excellent oral history, Miami championed a poppier, more carnival-like sound in comparison to edgier New York's. But by the early 90s, freestyle gave way to newer music styles, and as Host puts it, became "a joke in the industry, even as millions of fans from the Bronx to Brazil kept the torch aflame."
Two of the era's top DJs, Jellybean Benitez and Louie Vega, spun freestyle and Paradise Garage-era house classics in between live sets by iconic singers Shannon, Lisa Lisa, and Judy Torres. While the stars performed on a stage designed to look like a massive grinning clown mouth—an homage to the decor at 80s electro club The Fun House in New York City, where Benitez made his name—photographer Luis Nieto Dickens roamed the dancefloor, asking both the diehards and newer converts what speaks to them about this culture.
THUMP: What is your earliest or best memory of a freestyle party?
Thomas Colon: Earliest memory of freestyle was being in the Bronx, hanging out with Louie Vega at Chez Lounge and The Devil's Nest. That's when freestyle was at its top. Some of the best artists were coming out of the Bronx at that time. The sound of freestyle back then was so new, so experimental—something you never heard before, that's why you fell in love with it!
What is your earliest or biggest memory on freestyle?
My first introduction to freestyle was three years ago, with Jellybean Benitez when he used to play the Sullivan Room [a music venue in New York City].
What is the culture like in clubs that play freestyle?
There's nothing like it. You're gonna find love—and a lot of baby powder, because everyone is trying to outdo each other on the dancefloor!
What is your best memory of a freestyle party or club?
Everything started out with Little Louie Vega at The Devil's Nest. Information Society came to The Devil's Nest one summer, it was the craziest experience, "Running" was a big big song, everybody had an amazing time.
Quickstep and Nubia Naenae
What is your best memory of a freestyle party or club? Any songs or artists?
I remember songs like "Diamond Girl" playing at Funhouse, where club dancers and break dancers would be all together. Freestyle is music that allows you to dance and just be free. From Janet Jackson to Madonna, it's just music that makes you feel good.
Speech during her performance: "My music was so hot, I went all around the world and knocked everyone off. I've known Jellybean forever. We made history back then, and we're making history right now."Let the Music Play" knocked Prince on Billboard, we were so hot we were number one! I'm the queen of dance, soy la reina de el baile!"
Livy (left top) and Connie (left bottom)
What is your earliest or biggest memory on freestyle?
My parents used to listen to Jellybean and Lisa Lisa—that's my earliest memory of freestyle.
What do you think is the biggest influence of freestyle in today's music?
I can see the influence of it in funky house now, it's wonderful!
Christian, Rebecca, Marty and Gary
Any crazy stories that happened in clubs or during freestyle events?
I used to breakdance back in '85. I grew up with freestyle—we used to go dance at the Funhouse on 26th Street, all night, and when we would get out of the club, it was dangerous. We would get chased, we would get shot at, that's the way it was. I had an awesome time over there, besides that.
Angel de Leon, from the group Trilogy
What was your relationship with the freestyle scene in the early days?
I go way back with Louie Vega—he's one of the biggest supporters of freestyle. I was part of a group called Trilogy back in 1986. There were a lot of really good records out there back then: Lisa Lisa, Shannon across the board. Back then, there was a great sense of unity—people from Brooklyn, Bronx, Uptown Manhattan... there were some fights, but mostly people came together to dance!
What is your earliest memory of freestyle?
I was 18 years old, hanging out at The Devil's Nest, everyone there wound up being freestyle singers and I worked for them. It's crazy, they are more popular now than they were back then.
What was your relationship with the scene in the early days?
I used to give out flyers for The Devil's Nest, and made friends with Jellybean—he's such a humble guy.
How was the freestyle scene back then? What do you remember the most?
I grew up in Chelsea. We used to roll out of bed and go out in the street with graffiti jackets, go out and listen to freestyle. It would bring all the Latin people together, it was wonderful.