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In Miami, freestyle still reigns supreme. The Latin rhythms and synth stabs, combined with earnest, passionate lyrics, struck the heart of nearly everyone in town old enough to have his or her heart broken in the late 1980s. Anytime South Floridians hear "When I Hear Music" by Debbie Deb or "Diamond Girl" by Nice & Wild, we drop our drinks, grab whoever, dance, smile, and fall in love.
The best freestyle lyrics express exactly what a girl needs to hear and exactly what a guy has to say. Think of the last text message you sent to or received from a lover during a spat: "Baby, I didn't mean to make you cry" or "I had you all wrong" or "Please, let me make this right." If the shorthand of love is the text message, then its true creators are performing May 30 at the Miami Freestyle Invasion Concert at the BankUnited Center.
With its particularly Latin-dance bent, the genre was most popular in the expected markets — besides Miami, in New York/New Jersey and California, and even, randomly, Guam. And even beyond these places, it continues to pop up in unlikely locales. "It's funny; I've gone to some pretty rural places in the country. You wouldn't think they know freestyle, but they do," Debbie Deb said by phone as she geared up for Las Vegas' recent Freestyle Invasion concert. "Louisiana — they love freestyle!"
Debbie's own freestyle career began in 1986, when she was working at a Peaches music store on 163rd Street in North Miami Beach. There she met producer Pretty Tony, and one day he gave her a cassette with the instrumental version of what would become her song "When I Hear Music." She went home and wrote all the lyrics to the iconic song. Sadly the song and movement she helped ignite were soon taken from her. "I only did a couple of shows. I really didn't have the exposure when the songs were really popular. Nobody knew what I looked like, so they had another girl performing as Debbie Deb." After settling out of court in the mid-1990s, the original Debbie Deb has been back, performing her own songs.
At the time, though, she didn't know she was part of a forming movement — the term freestyle was one the industry attached to the genre. The artists themselves thought they were making dance-pop music, perhaps a Latin hybridization of hip-hop. "As a joke, people in the industry would call it cowbell music," said Judy Torres, singer of the 1986 club hit "No Reason to Cry."
"Freestyle is a free style, an expression of the heart," says singer Johnny O, another leader of the genre who still speaks in catchy rhythms without even trying. He sums up his own trajectory in the third person: "Johnny O took a chance. Sometimes he hit a home run, sometimes he struck out, but that's OK. Johnny keeps swinging!"
Though it's been a couple of decades since freestyle first exploded, we still love the songs, and the artists still love singing them. Freestyle, welcome home; you never ever left my heart.