Graphic: Olivia de Castro
'80s Freestyle Dance Music is Having A Resurgence Thanks to Bay Area & Detroit Rap
Freestyle music, a subgenre of electronic dance music that emerged in New York City in the 1980s, has resurfaced in rap thanks to SOB X RBE and ShittyBoyz.
The midpoint of Teejayx6's breakout mixtape The Swipe Lessons is a song titled "Evidence." The track starts off with a sample of The S.O.S. Band's "High Hopes." Slap bass fuses with skittering hi-hats from producer Undefined, transforming the instrumental into what sounds like a freestyle beat. Some of the characteristics of freestyle music — a subgenre of electronic dance music that emerged in New York City in the 1980s — are there: an upbeat dance tempo and syncopated bass line, and sixteenth-note hi-hats. And although "High Hopes" isn't a freestyle song, the genre it's classified as — boogie — is one of several that helped birth freestyle.
In an age of bouncy and slow trap-based rap music — where the tempos of songs are usually between 130 and 160 beats per minute (BPM) — it's refreshing that certain rappers are bringing freestyle music into the present by rapping over some of the subgenre's classics, or over beats that feel and sound like freestyle. And that this is primarily occurring in the Bay Area and Detroit — who share a long-lasting kinship as it pertains to rap — is not a surprise, considering how popular freestyle music was, throughout the late '80s and early '90s, in both areas.
There are two songs that are often credited as the foundation for freestyle music: Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and Shannon's "Let the Music Play." Not only were both tracks representative of the Black and Latinx teens and young adults the music primarily catered to — the Puerto Rican-born Chris Barbosa produced and wrote "Let the Music Play;"freestyle music has also been referred to as "Latin freestyle" because many of subgenre's artists were Latinx — but they provided the blueprint for the freestyle tracks that succeeded them. Where the former was one of the first hit singles to use the Roland TR-808, the latter explored the drum machine's capabilities even further and incorporated Latin-American rhythms, particularly the robotic claves (a percussion instrument featured prominently in Cuban music) heard throughout the song.
"We went to 130 beats per minute, and from that came Latin freestyle, Miami bass and all that," Bambaataa said of "Planet Rock" back in 2009.
Freestyle continued to grow in New York City thanks to the likes of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Lil Suzy, The Cover Girls, and others. Freestyle scenes were beginning to pop up elsewhere throughout the country, too. Miami's Debbie Deb, Company B, Exposé, and Stevie B; the Bay Area's Jocelyn Enriquez, Buffy, Jaya, and M:G; and Philadelphia's Pretty Poison. The late '80s and early '90s is when the subgenre peaked, with freestyle artists signing with major labels like Columbia and Virgin, as well as embarking on arena tours.
"The late '80s we were touring the country," George Lamond, a freestyle artist best known for his song "Bad of the Heart," told Red Bull in 2015. "They booked arenas from west to east. We actually had six tour buses."
Freestyle's popularity came to an end around '93 or '94. Not only was the genre oversaturated with vocalists but it was being eclipsed by other types of dance music, as well as New Jack Swing and rap.
"All the major labels thought freestyle was like the next hip-hop, so they started signing all these groups: Sa-Fire, Cover Girls, Coro, Exposé, Stevie B, Sweet Sensation," Sal Abbatiello, a music executive and the creator of The Cover Girls, told Red Bull. "Except what happened was they didn't know what to do with them. They were trying to change their sound to pop."
Louis "Kayel" Sharpe, a member of the New York City freestyle trio TKA, also spoke on the quality of the music being released as a result of that oversaturation, saying:
"The scene became so over-saturated with bad stuff that it almost drowned out the good records that were happening. Imagine if all the greatest hits of Motown were duplicated and sung by people who weren't as good as The Supremes or The Temptations, In '89, there might have been one or two bad records, but by 1990 there were 30 bad ones."
Decades later, freestyle maintains a small, devoted fanbase. Reunion concerts and tours centered around its most popular acts still take place; in 2013, Radio City Music Hall added a second day to its Freestyle & Old School Extravaganza concert after the first one sold out in one week. But the genre hasn't had a resurgence in the 2000s or 2010s. Where other dance genres like house have been taken on by contemporary artists —Kanye West sampling house classics "Deep Inside" and "Mystery of Love" by Hardrive and Mr. Fingers, respectively, on "Fade" — freestyle music has resurfaced as a result of memes. The In A Dream Challenge in 2017 found people dancing to Rockell's 1997 hit song "In a Dream," while the freestyle music-loving social media star Big Time Tommie started regularly going viral.
Rap music throughout both decades has helped to introduce freestyle to new fans, however. Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" has been interpolated by the Black Eyed Peas; the song has also been sampled by Pitbull and Yung Joc. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's "I Wonder If I Take You Home" has been interpolated by Fabolous and Meek Mill; the song has also been sampled by Action Bronson. And although considered electro (a subgenre of dance and early hip-hop) but has characteristics similar to freestyle Detroit's Cybotron made the song "Clear" which is sampled in Missy Elliott's hit song "Lose Control."
Most of these interpolations or samples (save for Elliott and Joc) of freestyle tracks often don't maintain their upbeat tempo. This is likely why freestyle hasn't appeared in much of 2010s rap music; it wouldn't be conducive to the brooding, moody, and slow production style that currently defines the genre.
That has changed in the last few years. In 2017, SOB X RBE released its self-titled debut mixtape. The Vallejo, California rap group's project begins with "Lane Changing," a song notably different from the 11 songs that succeed it. Centered around a sample of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," "Lane Changing" feels like a freestyle beat. It has the upbeat tempo (the only song on the mixtape to have a 110 BPM) and uses the sample's original bass to provide the syncopation, with contemporary sixteenth-note hi-hats bringing it all together.
"I found [the 'Lane Changing'] beat on YouTube," SOB X RBE member DaBoii told the East Bay Express in 2017. "[Lul G] kept telling me, 'I want a beat that was old school, like how you did 'Calvin Cambridge.' I pulled that up, he was like, 'OK, this goes crazy.'"
Gangin, the follow-up to SOB's self-titled mixtape, was more obvious in its freestyle music leanings. The 2018 project begins with "Carpoolin'" which samples "Silent Morning," the 1987 debut single from Puerto Rican freestyle artist Noel. "Paid In Full," a standout from member DaBoii, also seems to be built from a freestyle track, and then there's "Once Upon A Time," the album's last song that samples Newcleus' "Jam On It."
No freestyle samples or references appeared on the group's following releases — 2018's Gangin II and 2019's Family Not A Group. But members of the group have used freestyle music in their solo endeavors. In 2017, Lul G released his mixtape Yhung Nigga World, which featured the SOB cut "Lane Changing 2." Unlike its predecessor, the track featured an actual freestyle song — Paul Hardcastle's 1984 hit "Rain Forest." That same year, DaBoii released his own mixtape Young Wild Nigga. The project features his most popular and streamed song to date, "Humble," which samples Shannon's "Let the Music Play."
On YouTube, both songs have been praised for their freestyle samples, with countless users asking for the specific song while others — presumably older users — offer brief posts wondering how the artists discovered the samples in the first place. It's an interesting generational exchange: young fans are being introduced to freestyle music while older listeners who recognize the tracks are being introduced to certain rap artists and groups.
In instances like these, it's interesting to not only hear freestyle music as the base for these songs but also how the members of SOB rap over them. Rarely do they take on the now-ubiquitous triplet flow; it's often more disjointed, energetic, and sporadic, a rhyming style that owes itself to Bay Area and Los Angeles rap legends like E-40 and Suga Free.
Two years since the release of SOB's debut mixtape, freestyle music has since made its way to Detroit, where rappers have started rapping over beats that either sample freestyle songs or sound like them. Along with "Evidence," Teejayx6 has two other tracks that seem to have come from freestyle songs: "Clever" and "Swiper of the Year." The latter is one of his oldest songs to date on his SoundCloud, and foreshadowed the scam raps he has become known for this year.
Then, there's ShittyBoyz. A collaborator of Teejayx6's, the Detroit rap trio is something of a foil to SOB. The members — BabyTron, StanWill, and TrDee — seem to have a preference for rapping over freestyle music. Their 2019 mixtape 3-Peat is a 10-song release that finds nine of those tracks sampling some of the genre's most well-known songs. From "Star Player" sampling Timmy T's "What Will I Do" and "Beast Mode" sampling "Planet Rock" to "Jugg Messiah 2" sampling Shana's "I Want You" and "Spirit Bomb" sampling Shana's "Falling Slowly," 3-Peat is an adrenaline-inducing listen because of the freestyle music it borrows from courtesy of Detroit producers AyeJK and Helluva (who produced Tee Grizzley's breakthrough debut single "First Day Out").
Helluva, who listened to freestyle as a child — Shannon's "Let the Music Play" was one of his favorite songs — said he's always wanted to sample freestyle music but felt rappers wouldn't want to rap over it. That is, until he worked with ShittyBoyz.
"I just feel like I was waiting for somebody like them to come along that liked those type of beats. So I jumped on it instantly and started working with them," the producer said. "The first time I made a pack of beats for them, they just couldn't believe how I knew how to just make those beats like that."
Freestyle samples also appear on the members' solo projects. On his recently-released mixtape Bin Reaper, BabyTron (whose likeness to former Nickelodeon star Drake Bell has become a running joke on his YouTube videos) has a song titled "Lost It," which features Lil Yachty. The track, also produced by Helluva, samples Exposé's "Point of No Return."
"The first question I asked BabyTron the first time I talked to him was, 'Why are y'all rapping off of these types of beats? What make y'all rap off these types of beats?'" Helluva said. "And he said, 'We just do it because nobody else does.'"
It's unlikely that these instances of artists rapping over freestyle music will expand beyond its niche pockets. (Aside from SOB and ShittyBoyz, the New York City-based singer and rapper Maluca released a song this year called "NYC Baby" that is a homage to the freestyle music the city birthed.) But it's interesting how distinct it is from the production that currently defines rap music, despite the source material being around 30-years-old.
Rap could use a little pick me up, and freestyle making a possible resurgence in contemporary rap could do the trick.