Tags Posts tagged with "Freestyle"

Freestyle

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Jesse Perez playing his first ever DJ gig

A few years ago we discovered a form of music that turned our world upside down. It’s called freestyle and we found it via an old Mickey Mixin Oliver show on YouTube. The music epitomises the more optimistic sounds of the eighties; big synths, heartfelt lyrics, 808 beats, catchy melodies – it became one of our favourite genres instantly. Over in Miami freestyle exploded during the eighties and it remains popular amongst Latin and Afro-Caribbean communities in particular, with regular play on select radio stations. Jesse Perez grew up surrounded by freestyle and, when he began to DJ, naturally started out by playing the music. We spoke to him about his love for the music, his beginnings as a DJ and the culture of ‘backyard parties’ in his hometown. To give you a taster of freestyle, Jesse kindly recorded a mix for us featuring some of his favourite jams – so make sure you hit the play button while reading all about the music that changed his life, and ours…

Shannon recorded one of the best-known freestyle records, and TKA were one of the genre's most popular groups
Shannon recorded one of the best-known freestyle records, and TKA were one of the genre’s most popular groups

“I think some of the first freestyle records came out around 1983, which is when I was born,” says Jesse, whose background is Cuban. Growing up in the eighties exposed him to the world of freestyle, a form of music that sprung up out of Latin communities in America, in particular Miami and New York. In Miami it has remained an intrinsic part of the city’s musical fabric, played in clubs, on the radio and at house parties ever since it first arrived back in the early eighties. “I remember it was still going strong in the late eighties, and in the nineties it was still being played on the radio,” Jesse tells us. “In terms of radio play in Miami, it never really fizzled out, there are still shows playing it now.”

As with so many young people, Jesse’s route into the music came via older relatives and the radio. Artists like TKA, Stevie B, Rockelle, Sa-Fire, Company B, Sweet Sensation and many more providing the soundtrack to Jesse’s childhood. The music transcended the Latin community and resonated with other ethnic minorities in Miami, “It was a huge thing,” Jesse notes. “It didn’t just appeal to one demographic. Before I started high school I thought it was just a Latin thing, since so many of the artists were from that background, but a lot of my black friends at school listened to it, too. That said, even though a lot of people from different ethnic groups listened to it, it seemed to be restricted to specific parts of America; Florida, Chicago, New York, LA, Texas… When I say Texas, I mean a lot of the Mexican population down there.”

As he got older Jesse found himself drawn to DJing, and he soon got his first gig; playing at his cousin’s first birthday party (the main picture in this feature is taken from that very party). His set up was about as basic as you could imagine, even resorting to using a mic to his ear instead of headphones. Of course, he played freestyle at that party, “The first parties I did were all freestyle parties. I didn’t play any hip hop or anything, just freestyle, which was pretty difficult as it’s quite limiting. But that was the music that made me want to DJ,” he explains. “So the first party I ever did was my cousin’s first birthday party, these are straight up backyard parties, it was a mixed crowd of people from the neighbourhood and our parents. I started saving up money and buying my own records, then I started to buy DJ equipment; I rented these speakers that didn’t sound very good but they looked like they sounded good, big ass speakers and some tweeters, and I would play parties with this equipment; playing mainly eighties and freestyle music.”

Jesse playing his first gig on the left, and a more recent appearance is shown on the right
Jesse playing his first gig on the left, and a more recent appearance is shown on the right

Having spent a lot of time with Jesse over the last few years, including a stint at his family home in Miami, DLTM got some insight into the culture of backyard parties; a self-explanatory term which nevertheless we quizzed him about so we could enlighten our readers as to what they’re all about. Jesse explains, “In Miami everything is really spread out, most homes had a decent sized backyard and there was a lot of space between houses, too so it was normal for people to invite friends over and have a party in their backyard. Every weekend in my neighbourhood at least two or three people would be having parties like that – they’d have a DJ over and spin all night.”

Adding, “Some people took it to another level, mostly college kids, by making them into actual events; they’d charge a few dollars at the door and I did a lot of parties like, for frats and people like that. They don’t happen that much anymore because there are a lot of crackdowns, but that was what set me up in the beginning, that’s how I started making money from DJing.”

At most of these parties, freestyle would be played in between other kinds of ‘urban’ music, from hip hop through to dancehall and, occasionally, some traditional Latin music, too. That whole period gave Jesse all the experience he needed to become a seasoned pro, the diversity of the parties and crowds meant that he quickly learned how to play many different styles of music and how to adapt to a wide range of party people, “I’ve done parties for everyone you can imagine; I’ve done parties for Jehovah’s Witnesses, where I couldn’t play anything with cursing or sexual content in it, which is really hard to do if you’re playing to a crowd that wants hip hop. I did all the dances at high school, parties for little kids, LGBT parties, swingers parties… all of them through the backyard scene. I learned a lot about DJing from doing all of those different kinds of parties.”

Sweet Sensation and Stevie B were freestyle superstars
Sweet Sensation and Stevie B were freestyle superstars

One thing we here at DLTM always try to imagine is how music is received in clubs and at parties, how do people dance to it? What did they wear? Whether it’s early house or techno, the formative years of disco, or freestyle, being able to picture how people responded to music when it was played at parties is very important to us. Jesse gives us a perfect description of freestyle dancing, “The way people danced to it was kinda similar to the way they dance in the disco scene from Scarface. There was no dirty dancing, there was a lot of b-boying, too. It’s just like how it is with house music, people don’t generally dance in a sexual way, they’re more into shuffling, or footwork, just doing their thing – as opposed to when I played hip hop or dancehall, then everyone’s grinding!”

Freestyle was huge in the eighties, but never managed to really fulfill its potential and ended up running out of steam. In fact, much of the music played on the radio in Miami nowadays was released back in the eighties. A combination of factors led to freestyle hitting the buffers, some blame the lack of commercial appeal of the artists involved, they were good but perhaps not good enough for the major labels and radio producers to support. A lack of ideas – if you spend an afternoon rifling through all the freestyle music on YouTube you’ll notice that a lot of songs have similar melodies, which demonstrates a general lack of creativity. Infamous freestyle producer and DJ, Mickey Garcia put it simply, “The market was saturated. Many of the releases were not very good songs or productions. The groups didn’t look professional enough. Radio saw this and decided to move on.” (From Fever Records)

Maybe it was for the best that the genre only flourished for a short time, a few golden years that have never been repeated. Its legacy is far-reaching, with everyone from Diplo to Masters At Work citing its influence. Jesse now tours the States and Europe on a regular basis, playing his own brand of bumping house music that takes influence from freestyle and hip hop. He runs his own label Mr. Nice Guy Records and has released with BPitch Control, Eats Everything’s Edible label, Hot Creations and several other high-profile outfits. He tells us that freestyle lives on in his own music, “I try to use a lot of the synths that they used back then, almost imitating that exact but in a different genre. Like my remix of Ellen Allien’s ‘The Kiss’, the synth that comes in halfway into the track is a synth you’d hear in a freestyle song. The keyboard that I used is from that era because I researched it and went out and bought it for like 50 bucks on eBay.”

Over three decades on, there are still annual concerts in Miami featuring some of freestyle’s best-known performers and support in clubs, on the radio and at parties across the city. Coming to the end of our chat with Jesse, we ask what the music means to him, “It means joy, it brings me joy because it reminds me of my childhood. The music sounded so pure. If you really analyse the vocals on those tracks the singers weren’t that amazing, but the songs sounded real, they sounded good. I hate to say it but a lot of music coming out now has a short shelf life, whereas the stuff they were making back then has a timeless quality, it’s never gonna die.”

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