I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Latin Freestyle is due for a re-evaluation. With the sci-fi electro of Cybotron, Hashim and Man Parrish explicitly informing a lot of today’s most interesting dance music production—its wiggly synths and mechanized funk percussion creeping into the Night Slugs camp’s output, among countless other proponents of the post-funky/dubstep/wot do you call it scene—it’s only a matter of time before their teen-aged, emotionally confused latino little cousins get some shine. Although much of Latin Freestyle’s production is incredibly futuristic and avant-garde—as in Boulez and Stockhausen tapes-and-razor-blades avant-garde, just check the Latin Rascals for proof—the overt sentimentality of the lyrical content often proves too sweet a pill to swallow for most. But I argue that is why Latin Freestyle is so good: the seemingly broad-stroke, teen-diary lyrics often tackle very ambiguous situations, earnestly reflecting the turbulent emotional landscapes of under-represented youth. And while the New Romantic genre tackled similar emotional content, Latin Freestyle’s no-frills lyrics, amateurish singing and funky musical backing truly set it apart. It is ironically an antidote to both the vacuousness pervasive in today’s pop music, and the cynicism holding court in much of the underground.
Released in 1985, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home” is an early example of the Latin Freestyle genre. Produced by Full Force—who created “the record that spawned a hundred answer records”, UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne”—this song was dug up from a pile of rejected demos only to hit #6 on the Billboard R&B chart, #34 on the Hot 100 and even climb up to #1 on the Dance chart for one hot week in June of ’85. “I Wonder If I Take You Home” strikes a delicate balance between the harsh, start-stop beat, the floaty, sunny melodies, and Lisa Lisa’s slightly off-key voice singing about a relationship precariously at the tipping point between consummation and estrangement. The combination of all these elements—rough beat, fun melodies, complex emotional content, plain speak—is dizzying. It spells “loneliness on a crowded dance floor”, to quote a great article by Maura Johnston on the subject. The accompanying video to this song is quite a piece of work in its own merits, mixing front-view choreography, arty cut-aways and extravagant speculative fashion (unicorn-do, anyone?). While there are more musically adventurous examples of Latin Freestyle, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” is still one of my favourites. In these late autumnal days, I hum it to keep warm while a tinge of recognition makes the corner of my eyes sting a little.