Two Legendary Freestyle DJs Remember the Freedom of 80s Nightlife in NYC

Paradise Garage, one of New York's iconic queer nightclubs.

Freestyle, the electronic dance music craze of the mid-80s, has become a storied phenomenon in Latino culture. Born in New York City nightclubs like Funhouse, The Devil’s Nest, and Paradise Garage, freestyle defined an entire generation. It was the product of a time where inner-city Latinos and African-Americans congregated in nightclubs, school auditoriums, and neighborhood community centers to lose themselves in the rhythm of the night.

Nightclubs were the great unifier for communities of color looking for a social middle ground in the big city. “It’s a lot more splintered now,” reminisces Jellybean Benitez, the legendary Funhouse DJ. “If you went to a black club, a gay club, a straight club, they were all playing disco. Then the media decided disco was dead, even though there were still millions of people going out to clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, so it all went underground. It was during that period that hip-hop, punk, and new wave were all introduced, and things became more defined and thus more segregated.”

More than just venues, nightclubs were the place to hear exciting new music, a battleground where the next big trend was started, and an opportunity to be ahead of the culture curve. Jellybean, who began spinning records professionally in the mid-1970s, noticed the change in the musical tide ushered in by producers like Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker. “Up to that point, records were being made with live musicians,” he says. “That sound, with drum machines and synthesizers, was a new sound in the early 80s. People had never heard it. It was crazy even doing a whole song with no guitar.” These early house cuts would become the basis for freestyle as we know it today.

Madonna and Jellybean Benitez in 1984
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Little Louie Vega, freestyle icon and half of production super group Masters at Work, sites Jellybean as one of the genre’s great catalyzers. “A lot of the freestyle influences came from the early 80s. It came from Jellybean Benitez, Arthur Baker, John Roby, and Chris Barbosa. Danceteria, and that whole new wave sound were big influences for those of us making the music. Myself, the Latin Rascals, Andy Panda, Joey Gardner, Carlos Berrios, and Todd Terry; these are all people who were in the scene making this music, and I was the DJ who was playing at the biggest clubs with the biggest crowds.”

“The music spoke to an urban Latino who had a foot in both worlds.”

Freestyle coincided with the golden age of New York City nightlife, and Louie Vega was one of the era’s great pied pipers. DJing since the age of 13, he talks about it starting as “a neighborhood thing. I was a kid playing block parties and high school parties in the Bronx. Eventually I started promoting my own events at the YMCA back in 1981 with John Rivera, packing in 1,000, 1,200 kids.”

Like most neighborhood kids, curiosity led him to bigger, trendier dance floors. “Imagine being a kid standing in the crowd seeing one of your favorite DJs playing at the Funhouse, seeing Jellybean Benitez playing in the DJ booth, you see Arthur Baker giving him a reel-to-reel, you see Madonna right next to him, just hanging out. You see all this great stuff going on and then four years later you’re playing in the same club and you become that DJ.”

Because so many of the musicians and DJs playing freestyle were Latinos – Puerto Ricans in particular – a strong sense of identity began to emerge around the movement. “Latin freestyle is kind of what boogaloo was in the 70s, or what reggaeton is now,” describes Jellybean.

“Brown-eyed soul that incorporated Latin rhythms and an R&B vocal style. Latin freestyle is a bit more similar to boogaloo because it’s assimilated into American culture, moving away from the traditional rhythms of salsa and merengue, and made these pop records that had a lot of beats and rhythm, that incorporated hip-hop and R&B and created a new genre. The music spoke to an audience who didn’t have artists they could call their own. An urban Latino who grew up listening to Latin music but also liked soul, and spoke Spanish to their parents, but when they went to work and school they had to talk in English. The music spoke to an urban Latino who had a foot in both worlds.”

Though electronic, the music never strayed from its Latino roots. That is most evident with Louie Vega, nephew of salsa godfather Héctor Lavoe. “Mambo is part of my heritage. My uncle was one of the pioneers of the genre, of salsa, of Latin music. And Willie Colón, to me, is the best producer to ever make the music.” Teaming up with Kenny Dope in 1990 to form Masters at Work, they would go on to work with salsa icons like Marc Anthony and La India. “I was brought up in a melting pot of the Bronx and that comes out in my music.”

With the support of radio stations like KTU in New York, Power in Miami, and B96 in Chicago, the music began to extend beyond the clubs and into wider markets. Freestyle stars like Nayobe, Lisa Lisa, Lisette Melendez, and George Lamont became hot names on the scene, and the parties raged. But with all underground movements that hit the mainstream, not everyone was happy.

“Going to a club and having a good time with friends has evolved into shooting videos and taking selfies.”

Shortly after the closing of Funhouse in 1985, Jellybean began a nearly two-decade break from the decks to focus on his own label and production work. And Vega also began to sense it was time for a change. “Once freestyle got on the radio it started getting more watered down and everything began sounding the same,” remembers Vega. “I was more into it when it was real street…Things just started getting a little too commercial for me, and by 1990 I wasn’t playing it anymore and began shifting towards making house music.”

Nightlife has evolved, but these musicians continue to perform on their own terms. As Jellybean points out, “these days it’s not as much of a dancing experience. Clubs were a place where people could go and escape and have a good time and live in the moment. That world of going to a club and dancing and leaving all your troubles at the door and having a good time with friends has evolved into shooting videos and taking selfies. [laughs] I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but people are missing out on a unique experience.”

The friendship that began at the Funhouse over 30 years ago will once again be in full display at RBMA’s Freestyle event on May 13, when Jellybean Benitez and Little Louie Vega take the stage together to give the crowd a musical history lesson. “Louie and I are playing together for the first time in about a decade,” says Jellybean. “My hope is that people come with an open mind and enjoy what helped to create and eventually became Latin freestyle.”

Louie Vega
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With a line up that also includes all-stars Shannon, Lisa Lisa, and Judy Torres, and a rumored replica of the classic Funhouse clown DJ booth, “You’re gonna get the full experience as if you’d been there ‘85 through ‘88, the whole freestyle beginning,” adds Vega. “This is exactly how I want to present freestyle to people who don’t know it.”

Just as exciting as the show is the prospect of new music. Jellybean, currently on his Feel The Spirit tour, has been in the studio with Shannon, and Vega, who is promoting his massive Starring… XXVIII album has been low key laying down tracks with George Lamont and Noel.

“I know it’s become a nostalgia thing to see all the freestyle groups,” reflects Vega as a final thought. “But this event is special, and I think it’s gonna spark a lot of new things. It might be a game changer for freestyle. When people see that, hopefully it’ll spark an interest, and I think the new music that we make is going to be appealing to the youth that likes freestyle today. I know there is a youth culture, the kids of the people who used to like it. As long as it’s authentic, real, and natural I think we can make something cool happen.”

Red Bull Music Academy’s Freestyle!!! event takes place at 10 p.m. at Capitale in New York City on May 13. For more info, click here