Freestyle, the subgenre of dance music that emerged in the early years of the 1980s and hit peak popularity toward the end of the decade, isn't a particularly easy sound to define. It's a hodgepodge of various styles; it could include a little disco, a dose of hip-hop or electro, and a dollop of Latin American influences, frequently all wrapped up into one song. It's the club-oriented yet radio-friendly style that gave rise to groups such as Exposé and solo artists like Stevie B. It's music most commonly associated with a single decade (even though freestyle still had its champions in the early 1990s) and certain cities — namely New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
If you grew up in L.A. during the ’80s, freestyle takes on another level of nostalgia. It's the sound of roller rinks and mall stores where you could find bike shorts to match your new miniskirt and crop top. It's the soundtrack to parties where the DJ isn't much older than the teens in attendance. It's the playlist blasting from Power 106 on the way to the first day back at school when you're more excited about your new pair of L.A. Gear sneakers than you are about class and hoping that your teased bangs won't fall flat by lunch.
In Los Angeles, freestyle love didn't completely fade. Today, you can catch some of the artists onstage at events such as the annual Freestyle Festival. At clubs, the songs remain as much a part of flashback nights as new wave classics. And if you're getting friends together for an old-fashioned house party, you really should have some of the jams listed below (and the many more I couldn't fit on what proved to be a difficult list) ready to drop.
1. Sunbelt, “Spin It” (1981)
Shannon gets a lot of credit for launching freestyle with “Let the Music Play,” but Sunbelt deserves a nod for setting the stage for the genre's emergence with “Spin It.” This 1981 disco jam heads into HiNRG terrain with its Giorgio Moroder–influenced synths, but those high-pitched vocals became a template for artists who emerged later in the decade, like Nocera and Cynthia. Plus, that quasi-nursery rhyme melody is surely a predecessor for Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam's hit “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and Will to Power's song “Dreamin'.” Clocking in at more than eight minutes and with a mega-breakdown made for easy and creative mixing, “Spin It” remains a favorite of flashback DJs today.
2. The Jets, “Crush on You” (1986)
The Jets were a bit like the Osmonds for the 1980s: a group of siblings from a large Mormon family with a knack for pop and some really funky moments. “Crush on You,” the Minnesota-based band's second single, remains their signature jam with its slick groove and infectious chorus. The Jets took “Crush on You” to the third spot on the Billboard charts in 1986, and those of us who were kids at the time might recall it as being one of the inescapable songs of that year. The ghost of this former hit resurfaced during the peak popularity of EDM when Nero sampled “Crush on You” for a track of the same name.
3. Exposé, “Point of No Return” (1985/1987)
Confession time: In 1987, when I wasn't even old enough to go to the mall by myself, I was obsessed with Exposure, the debut album from Exposé. That cassette spent so much time in my Walkman that I knew every lyric on the album, much to the chagrin of family members who had to listen to me sing along on road trips. Exposé were aspirational, not just for fourth-graders in the San Fernando Valley but for ’80s dance artists. Exposure spawned four top-10 singles in the United States. The version of “Point of No Return” that's on this album, though, isn't the original. The song was initially released two years earlier with Alejandra Lorenzo, who left the group before the full-length debut, on vocals. The 1987 version was recorded with singer Jeanette Jurado, who remains a member of Exposé. The two versions are similar enough that it's hard to make a call on which one is better. I prefer the more dynamic vocals on the 1987 version and the more club-oriented production of the 1985 version.
4. India, “Dancing on the Fire” (1988)
Today, India is best known as a salsa singer; she won a Latin Grammy for her album Intensamente con Canciones de Juan Gabriel in 2016. However, her 1990 debut solo record, Breaking Night, is the link between freestyle and house with production from Jellybean Benitez, “Little” Louie Vega and Mantronik. The standout cut from the album is the Benitez-produced “Dancing on the Fire” with its dramatic synth lines and India's intense vocal workout. Originally released as a single in 1988, “Dancing on the Fire” is pretty late in the game for freestyle, which began to wane at the start of the ’90s, and the singer isn't all that well-known for her work in this area. Outside of her salsa records, India is widely recognized in the house music world, particularly for the now-classic Masters at Work track “I Can't Get No Sleep.”
5. C-Bank, “One More Shot” (1982)
John Robie is an underrated figure in dance music. He worked closely with Arthur Baker on Afrika Bambaataa's seminal hip-hop tracks “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat.” Later in the decade, he co-produced “Shellshock” with New Order. In the most un-humble opinion of this writer, though, his greatest achievement is “One More Shot,” a 1982 dance tune credited to C-Bank that draws from what he did on “Planet Rock” and points to what he would do with New Order yet remains a completely different beast. Singer Jenny Burton belts pleas for another chance with such passion that it becomes the most intense of earworms, the sort of song that can spend days burrowing in your brain. The vocals are also spaced out well throughout the song's eight minutes and 19 seconds, making it very DJ-friendly. It's a perfect dance song and encapsulates the intertwining styles that morphed into freestyle.
6. Will to Power, “Dreamin'” (1986)
It's hard to believe that a project with a name that's so Nietzschean would be associated with freestyle, but that's the case with Will to Power. Helmed by producer Bob Rosenberg, a Miami DJ who was affiliated with radio station Hot 105, Will to Power emerged in the mid-1980s and essentially bridged freestyle with Miami bass. “Dreamin’” is euphoric, with echoing vocals and repeated lyrics that become hypnotic by the end of the song. While the vocalists have changed over the years, Will to Power remain active.
7. Nice & Wild, “Diamond Girl” (1986)
Nice & Wild might not be an instantly recognizable name, but for ’80s dance music lovers, the song “Diamond Girl” is. This 1986 single hits an electro groove with Kraftwerkian heavy breathing that gets far sexier than “Tour de France” did and a beat that's more hip-hop than disco. It's a busy song that incorporates lyrics in English and Spanish, a strange quasi-rap moment, a guitar solo and some cut-up vocals that imitate what a turntablist might do. For some reason, all those elements work, particularly if you're listening to the “disco version.”
8. Company B, “Fascinated” (1986)
In the video for their breakthrough single “Fascinated,” Company B are a vision of the ’80s with spiky, platinum blond wigs and coordinated turquoise leather outfits that often featured such MTV-era trends as the fringed jacket and strapless dress. They're fierce. As for the song, “Fascinated” starts with haunting disco vocals that recall what Donna Summer was doing on “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” Then there's a drastic shift in the vibe when the chorus hits and the vocals kick into full power.
9. Debbie Deb, “Lookout Weekend” (1984)
Debbie Deb's proletariat jam “Lookout Weekend” is best played at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, when the party is starting to come to life, you and your pals have just slurped down your first round at the bar and you're ready to hit the floor and forget that your boss has made the past week hell. The 1984 single remains one of the most accurate depictions of weekend nightlife pressed to vinyl. From its opening lyrics, “Jumping music, slick DJs, fog machines and laser rays” to its repeated refrain “Lookout weekend ’cause here I come, because weekends were made for fun,” it's the story of why we hit the clubs.
10. Stevie B., “Party Your Body” (1987)
One of the best-known artists of the freestyle era, Stevie B. actually topped the charts with a slow jam, “Because I Love You (The Postman Song),” but his dance numbers are house party–perfect. “Party Your Body” was Stevie B.'s first single and proved him to be a triple threat, as he also wrote and produced it. “Party Your Body” is also one of the best examples of how many different styles collided in freestyle. There's a lot going on in this song that points to the influence of early hip-hop DJs, producer Arthur Baker and recording group Art of Noise. But one of the key elements in “Party Your Body” are the horns, which illustrate the impact Latin American music had on freestyle.