Latin hip-hop is a strange animal these days. What was once perceived as a laughingstock or at best a lackluster subgenre of rap is now a multimillion-dollar commodity. Venture into the right nightclubs, where the tastemakers hang out, and it's reggaeton and Spanish hip-hop, not just meringue and salsa, that drives Latin youth culture forward. Artists like Tego Calderon and Miami's Pitbull have record deals and are seen as celebrities, but that's thanks in no small part to the pioneers of urban Latin music, specifically acts like TKA, a group of New York-based freestyle performers popular in the 1980s and '90s. They opened doors and passed the litmus test of the record industry long before names like Marc Anthony and Daddy Yankee were accepted into pop culture, but by and large, history has forgotten their contributions and the freestyle genre they helped create.
For me, hearing the word freestyle in relation to urban music makes me automatically think of street ciphers and burly MCs making up lyrics as they go along. Terms like battling and coming off the top of the dome are what freestyle has always meant to me in relation to hip-hop — but after a thorough conversation with TKA's lead singer, K7, last week, I was reminded of a genre that I used to dig without even realizing it.
From the mid 1980s to the early '90s, freestyle was a hybrid form of dance music popular with Latin audiences along the East Coast from New York to Miami. And TKA were the kings of that scene. With hits like "Louder Than Love" and "Maria," the all-Puerto Rican group was immensely popular for having choreographed dance music fused with Latin pop. It's a little-known fact that salsa starlet La India got her start as an original member of TKA, doing freestyle. As K7, who comes to town this week to perform with TKA, explains: "Freestyle wasn't primarily about rapping; it was about what you did on the dance floor. If you weren't uprocking or floor rocking, you were freestyling. It was a dance term — or at least, that's how it got started."
Local MC Lex-One, who grew up between New York and New Jersey before moving to South Florida, remembers it well. "Freestyle was like Guido music," he says laughing. "All the Italians and Puerto Ricans used to do it. It came from Lisa Lisa and Lil Suzy. Freestyle was like roller-skating music mixed with booty."
Despite the fact that TKA was based out of Spanish Harlem, freestyle itself was still rooted in the sounds of Miami.
"Basically, it was all Miami bass and hip-hop," K7 continues. "But Miami bass wasn't popping in New York, so blacks and Latinos created a hybrid of it. We started writing love songs to it, and then we would speed it up between 115 and 120 bpms. People called it Latin hip-hop, but the pop producers didn't want to use that term because hip-hop had negative connotations. So they started calling it freestyle."
With influences as wide as El Gran Combo, the Four Tops, the Cold Crush Brothers, and Grandmaster Caz, it's no wonder TKA was able to solidify the sound of urbanized Latin pop and drive it forward.
"I wanted to be the Puerto Rican Michael Jackson," K7 offers with a laugh while thinking back on the initial days of the group. "We learned to do flips, the splits — it was always about putting on a good show."
Even though TKA was one of the first Latin hip-hop groups signed to Tommy Boy, had a string of Top 40 hits, and played Showtime at the Apollo, which was rare for a Latin act, its time as a group was short. By 1992, the group had called it quits shortly after its biggest hit, "Maria," was released. K7 was able to reinvent himself from "Kayel" the singer to K7 the rapper and kept on cranking out hits like "Zunga Zeng" and the mammoth Latin hip-hop smash "Come Baby Come," but after that, he too faded into obscurity. Still, "Come Baby Come" left such an impact on audiences, with a music video in rotation on MTV, that it was no wonder acts like Cypress Hill and Fat Joe were able to smooth into America's subconscious as Latin rappers shortly afterward.
Asked how he feels about the Latin hip-hop and reggaeton of today, K7 is both laudatory and cautious:
"Latin hip-hop is the CNN of the Latino street community," he says. "It's where people get their news and views. I respect all the Latin artists that are coming out. I love Pitbull. I think he's fearless; I think what he's doing is incredible. Tego, Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, Ivy Queen, and that new singer, Mala Rodriguez, they're all incredible."
Then K7 pauses and thinks back on his own trajectory through the music industry.
"My only worry is them getting hurt," he continues. "I don't want them to fall into the same mishaps that the freestyle movement fell into, with producers that didn't know what to do with the artists. We oversaturated the market with not-great sound. It's the same with reggaeton. People don't want to hear the "Dem Bow" beat so much. If there is an oversaturation of that style, it makes reggaeton annoying to your ear. That's a pretty common complaint nowadays."
As a producer, K7 clearly knows what he's talking about. And lovers of urban Latin music should be in for a treat as TKA makes a rare appearance at Seminole Coconut Creek Casino (5550 NW 40th St., Coconut Creek, 954-977-6700) on Thursday, July 19.