Maria Cavalluzzo of Babylon has one rule when she goes to a freestyle concert with her girlfriends — she insists on having seats upfront.
“I will not go unless I get tickets in the front row,” she says. “Everybody knows us as the Front Row Crew. We’ve been doing it for years now.”
The 51-year-old is admittedly a freestyle fanatic who grew up going to Long Island clubs like Jamz in West Hempstead, Metro 700 in Franklin Square and Zachary’s in East Meadow dancing to freestyle music. Today she attends freestyle concerts twice a year at NYCB Theatre at Westbury and the annual Freestyle Feast, which is coming to the Long Island Community Hospital Amphitheater at Bald Hill in Farmingville on Saturday featuring over 15 acts.
“When you attend these shows you kind of feel like you become a teenager again for the four hours that you are there,” says Cavalluzzo. “Every song comes with a memory and a story. It takes you back to the good old times.”
WHEN/WHERE 7 p.m., July 30, Long Island Community Hospital Amphitheater at Bald Hill, 1 Ski Run Lane, Farmingville
INFO 631-676-7500 licommunityhospitalamp.com
WHAT IS FREESTYLE?
Freestyle is a hybrid of pop, disco, R&B and hip-hop that was born in New York’s Latin music community then rose to popularity in the late ‘80s and died out by the mid-‘90s.
“Freestyle is like the brother of hip-hop,” says singer George LaMond, who is commonly known as the “King of Freestyle.” “We were writing songs across those beats, adding Latin rhythms and percussion. The songs contain a busy electronic drum pattern, fast danceable basslines and minor chords made with a synthesizer. In the Bronx, we called it Latin hip-hop, then the sound was coined freestyle.”
Lyrically, the music is typically centered around the subject of love.
“We all sing about falling in love, falling out of love, being betrayed by love, questioning love or getting a second chance at love,” says singer Judy Torres, nicknamed the “Queen of Freestyle.” “It comes from pure innocence.”
LONG ISLAND REVIVAL
Back in the mid-'80s Sal Abbatiello, president of Fever Records and Fever Entertainment, signed a teenage artist called Nayobe and launched her freestyle career with the song, “Please Don’t Go.” He even opened a club in the Bronx called The Devil’s Nest that catered to freestyle. But after freestyle’s popularity died down, Abbatiello headed east to help revive the genre when he partnered with promoter Brian Rosenberg, president of Brian Rosenberg New York, in 2014. Together they began putting on biannual freestyle shows at NYCB Theatre at Westbury featuring multi-act throwback bills with artists like Torres, LaMond, TKA, Cynthia, Soave, Coro and others.
“These are not just concerts. We turn it into a four-hour party,” says Rosenberg of Garden City. “It’s like going back to the club in a giant setting.”
Before heading out to a freestyle show, Cavalluzzo always gets dressed up for her big night out.
“Back in the day, we all had big hair, hoop earrings, fluorescent clothes, tank tops, miniskirts, combat boots with puffy socks plus lots of bling and shiny sequined outfits,” she recalls. “Now I just dress classy but clubby. However, my hair and nails are always done!”
The energy at each freestyle show is typically through the roof. No one sits down.
“There are times when we will shut the music off and just let the crowd sing the lyrics,” says LaMond. “We call it Freestyle Karaoke. They jump in and sing every line. It’s the best feeling in the world!”
Local radio station Party 105 (105.3 FM WPTY), which is based in Ronkonkoma, has kept freestyle alive on the dial, spun by on-air personalities such as former owner/DJ Vic Latino and current morning man DJ Impact.
“Party 105 was one of the only radio stations playing that style of music,” says Latino, who now runs a chain of radio stations in Florida. “When no one else in the country was playing freestyle, we were playing it on Long Island and supporting it.”
DJ Impact adds, “Long Island has always had love for freestyle since day one. Today we play freestyle at least once an hour, sometimes twice.”
TKA ALL THE WAY
Jennifer Frank of West Babylon has loved TKA since high school. Today at 51 she makes a point of seeing freestyle’s most popular group wherever they play.
“I went to see them in Staten Island and at the Long Island Gay Parade in Farmingdale in June. I’m going to Bald Hill on July 30, Coney Island in September, Monsters of Freestyle at Westbury in October and Mulcahy’s in December,” she says. “TKA is electrifying. The way they perform and present themselves — there are no words.”
Jamie Prince, 60, of Farmingdale will never forget the night TKA gave her a big surprise.
“One year at the Long Island Hospitality Ball, TKA was performing and I got pulled on stage with the group,” says Prince. “It was one of the happiest nights of my life!”
Despite massive success, the members of TKA don’t let popularity go to their heads.
“Freestyle is a community. It takes all the spokes in the wheel to move it,” says lead singer K7. “We are no bigger than anyone else.”
In the freestyle community, the artists make a point of maintaining a close connection with their the fans.
“These acts are accessible and in some cases they know fans by their first names,” says Abbatiello, who serves as the emcee of each freestyle show. “They take pictures with every person who wants one even if it takes two hours.”
Cynthia likes to give her fan base a special personal touch at each show.
“The fans tell me stories about what my songs have meant to them and what they were experiencing at the time,” she says. “We all truly appreciate our fans. They are very special to me.”
PASSION DESPITE PANDEMIC
The Long Island freestyle fans really showed their dedication on Sept. 6, 2020 when they came out in full force in the middle of the pandemic to see their favorite freestyle artists at a drive-in concert, “Freestyle Carstock” at Adventureland in Farmingdale.
“It was touching. At one point on stage, I had tears in my eyes,” says Torres. “To see people come out and flash their headlights was amazing. It didn’t matter that they were far away, I could still hear them singing the music. I get emotional just thinking about it.”
K7 added, “The freestyle fans cared enough about this music that they kept us alive during a time when we thought we’d be forgotten. It’s a testament to their loyalty and devotion.”
How long can this party last? Many wonder if people will get their fill of freestyle or even deem the genre passe.
“I think we are going to ride this thing until the wheels fall off,” says DJ Impact. “These fans are dedicated like the followers of the Grateful Dead, KISS or the Dave Matthews Band. Going to see artists like TKA, Judy Torres and Cynthia is almost like a tradition now. The people always want to come back to see their favorite artists because they keep reliving the memories.”
Rosenberg adds, “Long Island has become the number one market for freestyle. People keep saying, ‘The crowds are going to get tired of it.’ But, it’s like the Billy Joel shows at Madison Square Garden. People can never get enough. You could see it a million times, but you still sing the songs like it’s the first time you heard them.”
Don’t know freestyle? Here are four classic jams that will get you to turn up the volume and dance:
George LaMond, “Bad of the Heart” “The song is about someone that’s being mean to you and treats you like dirt,” says LaMond. “The hook is very catchy and the vocals are new and clean, less processed.”
Judy Torres, “No Reason to Cry” “It’s an anthem of hope. I used to close my eyes and picture people singing it everywhere because it has a positive message,” says Torres. “When people tell me they play it at their wedding or a friend’s funeral, I feel like the song has done the job it was meant to do.”
Cynthia & Johnny O, “Dream Boy / Dream Girl” “This was the biggest song of my career hitting #53 on the Hot 100 Billboard chart,” says Cynthia. “It a perfect love song about the ultimate dream couple.”
TKA, “Maria” "I wanted to tell a New York tale that's a modern twist on ‘West Side Story’ reflecting what was going on in our communities,” says K7. “The song is about a girl who falls in love with two guys — a bad guy and a saintly guy.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ