Under the glittering, pulsating lights, the soundtrack to 1980s New York City — “freestyle” music — made its thunderous return to its home borough before a sold-out crowd at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts on March 3.
Freestyle legends, including singer and so-called “Queen of Freestyle” Judy Torres and Spanish Harlem-based Latin group TKA, and hip-hop pioneers Soulsonic Force were just a handful of the performers to take Lehman’s stage for Forever Freestyle, a concert that for the last 12 years has doubled as a love letter to the niche club music genre.
Freestyle was born three decades ago, a creation of the city’s various Italian and Latino communities. Dismayed by the death of disco music, musicians from these neighborhoods sought to fill this sonic gap by mixing elements of hip-hop, disco and pop music.
In other major cities across the country — including Miami, Los Angeles and Philadelphia — regional freestyle scenes began to spring up, each with their unique flair. For example, New York-based musicians typically relied on heavier drums to emphasize the grittiness of the city, while Miami-based freestylers aimed for a more upbeat sound.
By the late ‘80s, freestyle had successfully seeped into pop music. “Show Me,” a 1986 release by The Cover Girls, who performed at Lehman, remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 18 consecutive weeks, while Philadelphia-based dance group Pretty Poison scored a top 10 hit in 1987’s “Catch Me.”
The genre’s popularity continued to spread like wildfire, thanks to the large crowds gathered at dance clubs such as The Devil’s Nest — a club opened just nine months in the mid-1980s on the corner of Tremont and Webster avenues.
“I knew it was going to be the next movement of music,” said Sal Abbatiello, the owner of the famed, yet shuttered, South Bronx club. “I didn’t know how it would go, but I knew it would have legs.”
Despite the meteoric rise of the genre, the origins of the word “freestyle” remain unclear.
Some contend the name is derived from the fact music was often played while breakdancing, or “freestyling.” Others suggest it refers to the mixing technique used by D.J.s who spun freestyle tracks as part of their club setlist.
By the start of the 1990s, however, the tables for freestyle musicians had quickly turned as mainstream artists began to emulate the freestyle sound in their own work, and as hip-hop became the dominant form of the music in the city. By 1993, Abbatiello said, “the music died out.”
“I didn’t ever think it would ever have a comeback like it did,” he added.
In 2000, Abbatiello decided to try something new. Rather than just invite one performer to headline his 20th anniversary party, he had 16 different acts on hand to perform.
On the night of Oct. 8, Abbatiello said some 4,000 people packed into Club Exit — now known as Terminal 5 — in Hell’s Kitchen to see the performers live, and Forever Freestyle was born.
“That’s when I realized that the (classic freestyle) groups were having trouble by themselves,” said Abbatiello, who grew up on Gun Hill Road and Bronxwood Avenue. “But when I put them together as a unit — with like 10 or 12 — they would bring in thousands of people.”
Some 20 years later, the shows go on, organized primarily by Abbatiello’s label Fever Records, which he founded in 1976.
Riding that wave of success, Abbatiello has managed to sell out other venues across the city, including Radio City Music Hall, the Copacabana and Madison Square Garden. But Lehman and the Bronx still remain freestyle’s home, having sold out in each of its 12 concerts at the center.
“It needed time to become classic music,” Abbatiello said. “This is going to reinvent itself now that we’ve figured out to bring in the people again.”
For artists such as Torres, performing before the roaring 2,000-person Lehman crowd was more than just a mere gig. After graduating from high school, the aspiring singer struggled to get into college music programs due to her inability to read … music.
“They all loved me, but the second they found out I couldn’t read music, they said no,” Torres told the crowd. “Lehman College was the only place that heard me and said, ‘You know what? If you take classes in the summer and get all A’s, you can major in music right here.
“Here I am 30 years later,” she said with a laugh as her words were drowned out by the crowd’s shouting and applause.
“Not bad, right?”