Bright lights and sweaty bodies adorned with leather, bomber jackets, tracksuits and high-waisted jeans fill the hazy space. A live sound of syncopated percussion, repetitive tempo and melodic words has the crowd dancing. It is the 1980s and freestyle is carving its place into the club scene and the world.
Decades later, the genre lives on returning to the stage this Saturday at 8 p.m. with Forever Freestyle 15 at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx. The concert will feature performances by iconic freestyle artists like TKA, George LaMond, Judy Torres, The Cover Girls, Rob Base, Brenda K Starr, Cynthia, C-Bank, Soave and Pretty Poison.
A musical genre that emerged in the early ’80s due to the decline of disco from Latino and Italian American communities in New York City, like the Bronx, freestyle soon expanded to cities like Miami, Philadelphia and others in the Bay Area, where artists formed their own distinct style. Also known as Latin hip-hop and Latin freestyle, the music genre bridged the sounds of hip-hop and disco together — a funky electronic beat against a backdrop of romantic and heart-wrenching lyrics.
Many can’t pinpoint who made the first freestyle song but notable trailblazers shaped the genre since the beginning. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” in 1982 was said to be the precursor of the genre with their use of Roland TR-808, a drum machine. The infusion of Latin rhythm cemented its place within the genre. Hits like Shannon’s 1983 “Let the Music Play” and Nayobe’s 1984 single “Please Don’t Go” showcased that.
Andy “Panda” Tripoli produced “Please Don’t Go” and Sal Abbatiello, founder and president of Fever Records and Disco Fever Enterprises, brought them into the studio, where his role in pioneering a genre began way before his Forever Freestyle concerts.
There is no freestyle without Abbatiello.
Known as the “Godfather of Freestyle,” he has been instrumental in paving the way for the genre. Born and raised in an Italian American family in the Bronx — specifically Bronxwood Avenue and Gun Hill Road — Abbatiello had a passion for music. He grew up listening to Motown and doo-wop. The 70 year old’s passion manifested into South Bronx clubs he opened and the record label he founded. From Disco Fever, where he brought “hip-hop indoors” to the Devil’s Nest, where freestyle artists such as The Cover Girls — who he helped assemble and signed to Fever Records — performed.
“The great thing about freestyle is that nothing took our place yet,” Abbatiello said. “Since freestyle ran its course in the mid ’90s, nothing took its place. So we reinvented ourselves.”
Abbatiello reinvented the genre in 2000 during his 20th anniversary of Fever Records’ party at Club Exit in Manhattan, now known as Terminal 5. He realized putting 10-15 groups together to make one headliner was the way to go — the concerts would sell out. They’ve since had shows at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and casinos like Mohegan Sun.
The Lehman Center took notice and reached out to him to produce one there. And the rest is, as they say, history.
So after 15 years, which would have been 16 if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bronx native knows how important it is to have freestyle at the Lehman Center — since the genre was essentially born in the borough and is embedded in its history.
Through the tradition of his Forever Freestyle concerts, freestyle lives on. It may have lost its appeal in the early- to mid-1990s, but the genre remains resilient.
For 39 years, Abbatiello has been involved with freestyle and hopes to continue for many more. He also hopes that radio stations will play new freestyle songs, which he said could “help maybe kick off the genre again.”
Until that happens, Abbatiello will continue to produce freestyle concerts and support freestyle artists. One thing he is looking forward to at Forever Freestyle 15 is seeing familiar faces from the days of the Devil’s Nest and Disco Fever. He’s happy to see more of a younger, under 40, audience coming to the shows and embracing the music, but isn’t surprised by the turnout because freestyle “is good music, and it will last forever.”
“They can expect an experience of being a teenager for one night, to take you back,” Abbatiello said. “It’s an experience that they’ll be standing, dancing and singing all night for four hours. And then the next day they (will) get up with aches and pains. And they (will) wait for the next one.”
“We just want to keep the music alive,” he added.
Get your tickets to Forever Freestyle 15 online here or by calling (718) 960-8833 Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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