Mar 31, 2023, 05:57AM

Rediscovering Freestyle Music

Nostalgia and Dance Party USA.

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We treasure the music of our youth. Whether your parents played Motown on vinyl or you grew up with the Backstreet Boys as your first CD, nostalgia will always accompany the soundtrack of your childhood.

I remember my parents coming home from disco dancing lessons and showing us “The Hustle” in the living room. The soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever was in that room on vinyl along with Earth Wind and Fire, my Grease soundtrack, and, taking up space, my mother’s collection of every Johnny Mathis album. A bizarre obsession; but I still have his Christmas album.

As for me, attending high school in the 1980s, I had eclectic tastes, best represented on my bedroom wall: posters of Michael Jackson, Billy Squier and Laura Branigan co-existed fine. My vinyl always included K-tel and Ronco compilation albums that were a mix of late-disco and what I’d much later learn were “Freestyle” music. 

Freestyle is the earliest form of electronic dance music that emerged in New York and Philadelphia, primarily among Hispanic and Italian-Americans in the 1980s. The song Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force is considered an early precursor while Let the Music Play by Shannon is the first major Freestyle song. I’ve recently enjoyed learning more about the history of Freestyle music and created a Spotify playlist to collect many of these old forgotten favorites from a niche nostalgic era.

Through social media and in the process of making the playlist, I wondered how I knew the lyrics by heart to so many one-hit wonder songs that were never big radio hits until one day a dance video came across my Instagram feed that looked familiar. The images immediately transported me back in time: everything from the Aqua-netted huge hair, flashy neon, big eyebrows and bangs, and pleather skirting, to the elbows-and-hips dance ass-shaking moves. I’d seen it all before, and not just at my proms.

It turned out the video was shared by one of the original dancers of a show called “Dancin’ On Air” that later became “Dance Party USA.” With a production company in Camden, New Jersey (where I was born), the show was filmed in Philadelphia (where I grew up) from 1981-1991. Cue the Celine Dion in my head, because it’s all coming back to me now.

This was our American Bandstand. This show, though it only aired locally, was home to the first television appearance of Madonna. It was where Kelly Ripa got her start in television. It launched the careers of the Beastie Boys; and Duran Duran made their first American appearance on the show.

It was where I learned an appreciation for this Freestyle music that I still listen to nearly every day making candles, in my car, in the shower. I was raised listening to Funk and Disco, and had a love of Rap in its very earliest beginnings. Freestyle seemed like a love child of those three genres, so it was the next natural progression of a music choice for me as a lower-middle class Philly teenager. It’s interesting as an adult to learn more about the history of the music you love, and to suddenly discover a memory that transports you back to a different place and time.


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