by Katixa Espinoza
In the sweltering Hialeah heat of Papi’s 1996 Navy Blue Buick Roadmaster, being that there was only one functioning radio station in the car, we exclusively listened to Miami Freestyle. I considered it a treat since construction work had Papi busy most days. Tio, though, would always leave his boombox playing Power 96, Miami’s hottest radio station, loud enough for me to hear all of DJ Laz’s mixes that were all Miami Freestyle. Amongst all the Britney Spears and Selena that I could have been listening to like every other five year old girl, I chose Miami Freestyle. It was unlike anything the playground kids talked about. I would dance in the backseat and scream out every lyric in terrible, broken English. “Ay, como le encanta la musica a mi cachetona!” Papi said almost every other day. It was the sounds of lasers, the obnoxious high hats, and that the lyrics repeated that always did it for me. Most kids my age were singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” but I, instead, was busting out pew pew pew sounds and yelling lookout weekend ’cause, here I come / because weekends were / made for fun as if I could ever leave the vicinity of my home.
When we moved to Miramar from Hialeah a few years later and upgraded to a car with a functioning radio, Mami began to play Power 96 for their famous “Traffic Jams” where Miami Freestyle was always played. She always knew to turn up the volume whenever they were about to drown out my voice. It was inexplicable how quickly my serotonin would shoot up when the music played. It was high energy and reminded me of Hialeah, unlike the mundanity of suburban Miramar. As a first generation Latina, this was my version of Salsa. It was the music that Mami y Papi listened to. It was something that was reminiscent of their youths back in South America. It still feels that way even as an adult, but it’s reminiscent of the hot afternoons listening to Power 96 in Mami’s car. It’s reminiscent of home – my home being the hub for Miami Freestyle.
Latin Freestyle emerged from the death of Disco in 1979. The popularized electronic sound with salsa overtones originated in the New York club scene, although others argue that it occurred in Miami simultaneously. This cultural phenomena was carried, created, and supported by Latinx youth of the late 80s to early 90s. Latin Freestyle was also created in a manner so it could make it to the mainstream like pop music did. This music was integral to first generation/American born Latinx youth as it was a style of music that they could identify with, like the music of their mothers before them. This was their way of imposing their own cultural identity as a chance to bring further representation into mainstream pop music. It was community. It was a place where we proved we existed outside of the Latin American market.
New York radio, though, rejected New York Freestyle since it wasn’t marketable to a pop audience. Miami Freestyle got more play time because of it’s positive lyrics and it’s upbeat composition. New York Freestyle had somber themes with minor chord arrangements. Radio became integral to Freestyle; Power 96 was a pioneer for Freestyle due to DJ Laz’s mixes. Laz had an incredible impact on the careers of any artist involved in his mixes, eventually getting them signed to a record label in New York right after such as Company B, Stevie B, Linear, Will to Power, and Exposé. It was the way DJ Laz seamlessly brought in every song while mixing other upbeat genres as well that caused this sort of success. He always made you feel like you were at the club. He was also Pitbull’s uncle, helping him in his early career by producing and incorporating Pitbull’s earlier mixtapes into Traffic Jam mixes until he landed his first hit, “Dammit Man” in 2009.
The decline of Latin Freestyle started around the 1990 with the emergence of a new genre entering the club scene, Electronic Dance Music, also known as EDM. EDM first emerged in Europe. Its sub genres were created in the states and popularized in 1991, a year prior to the death of Latin Freestyle. Club life in Miami almost immediately started incorporating EDM. It started translating into Power 96 radio mixes and even Pitbull was creating music that was heavily EDM based, such as Move, Shake, Drop (2004), which was produced by DJ Lazz and contains a beat sample from Benny Benassi’s Satisfaction (2003). Laz tried very hard to keep the life of Freestyle alive even after its death in 1992. It was the sound of Miami and to see this death was also to see the death of what Miami sounded and felt like in the 90s. Miami eventually to exclusively play EDM wherever people got their music; radio and the club. Thus, the erasure and death of Latin Freestyle began.
In 1999, the city of Miami entered the first phase of the world’s largest Electronic Dance Music Festival, Ultra Music Festival. Launching as a one day event, this not only brought tourism to Miami, which was its purpose, but also invited cishet white male hedonism and cultural appropriation. Cishet white men began to create this sort of “Bro-culture” into EDM that was hyper masculine, making these spaces into a danger zone for QTWOC and nonbinary people. This created a dissonance with the way EDM and Ultra marketed themselves, which was as a form of unity. This form of unity eventually was used an excuse to appropriate other cultures via aproporitating dreads, bindis, and indigenous people’s headdresses.
Latin Freestyle was addressing the lack of spaces where its performers felt accurately represented. The problem is encountered when with EDM is the whitewashing of Latin Freestyle and erasure of the catalysts of EDM, who were black men.The genre became replications of what DJ’s such as Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of House music, did, but white DJ’s were the ones championed for it. Ultra’s first line-up was composed of only white men, one white woman, and one black man. In the bylines, it even says that these people were pioneers for the sub-specific genres like House, Techno, etc when that wasn’t true whatsoever. The pioneers for House were Chip E and Steve Hurley. One of the early pioneers for Techno was Carl Cox. All of these were black men who were overlooked. It placed white, cishet male DJ’s on a pedestal and made the genre and the scene very unsafe for QTPOC, erasing these spaces where communities of color could safely thrive in.
With Ultra becoming a brand name for listeners and creators of EDM, the music began to market to a specific audience, one that could afford $400-$500 tickets – more specifically, white, bro-y men. The issue with both early EDM and EDM today is the whitewashing of Latin Freestyle and the original pioneers of EDM. To be clear, it was the marketers and promoters who whitewashed (not forget to mention, promoted sexism as well) these genres, marketers and promoters.
EDM and its practice of whitewashing then began to flood into the thriving Latin music culture in Miami. The city itself was exoticized for its vibrant people and culture, which invited even more racism into the state and sped up early gentrification. The festival also wasn’t exactly accessible to people from Miami as it was incredibly expensive. My home began a place where people vacationed rather than lived. The music became the sound of Miami, and Miami never sounded like that in the first place. It felt like my home was colonized by EDM.
Musicians began to believe that if they weren’t creating music that was embraced by EDM, they were going to be overlooked by the music industry. This was the fear of almost every Latin Freestyle artist and how it manifested inevitably since there wasn’t a way to keep up with the demand of EDM, becoming a thing of the past.
Watching Ultra Music Festival livestreams at age 12 and listening to EDM since I was 9, I never saw myself nor heard sounds that I had grown up with like Latin Freestyle did. I wanted EDM to represent me in the way Latin Freestyle did and it never did. I didn’t have the language for it then, though.
In 2014, I began to feel unfulfilled by EDM. I didn’t know why but I just began to get tired of what was considered “good” in EDM. I didn’t hear ‘Miami’, I didn’t hear it’s people. I thought of making my own music and DJ’ing because I felt like I thought I could reclaim EDM and turn it on its head, imposing my own cultural roots. I never could make my own music though because I thought I needed the whole expensive nine-yard set up. Whenever I talked about EDM with the DJs at my high school, I was always looked as like a dumb girl who just likes the pew-pew sounds and raving rather than someone who analytically listened to it for arrangement. It was here where I was alienated from EDM. In 2014, EDM represented something gross, toxic, and cringey. I lost all hope with EDM. It represented patriarchy and the “Bro” culture, a space in which I would become an object. I wanted to see DJ’s that looked like me and hear music that reminded me of home.
Eventually in 2015, clubs, festivals, and radio stations brought in more POC representation in EDM and some of the music did have a “Miami” sound. These DJ’s were the faces of what the pioneers of this genre looked like such as Krewella, two Pakistani women DJ’ing on the Mainstage at Ultra. Now, the “Miami” or more so Ultra sound began to fall into a vacuum where all the DJ’s where making the same sounding music, without much nuance. The people maintaining the vibrant sound and life of EDM are people of color, and even more so women of color. These spaces, where queer women and non-binary folks of color such as Julianna Huxtable or Tygapaw can successfully create electronic, is where I got to exist again. I considered being a DJ again and actively listened to it the way I did when I was 16 years old. I began to find pleasure in all things electronic, like I did when I was a teenager, rather than feel embarrassed about it.
During my summers back at home as a college student, I would make playlists that replicated the warmth I felt in Miami. The fullness and warmth of family, happiness, love, and dopamine was the opposite of New York winters – isolated, silent, terrible coping mechanisms, and a load of seasonal affective depression on top of my major depression already. In the last year, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find pleasure in these playlists. My “you lack vitamin d” playlist, my “melting in the miami sun” playlist, and my “stop being sad u dumb punk” playlist all stopped working. I cycled through every genre possible to find a glimmer of excitement, but I was disinvested in everything, perpetuating a continual bleakness.
It was on one of the those familiar banal long winter days in New York when I found a familiar happiness. A car with its windows down blasted an upbeat rumbling that could be heard from two blocks away. When the car passed by me, a man was propped out the passenger car window, singing lookout weekend ’cause, here I come / because weekends were / made for fun in pure bliss. I immediately stopped walking and placed my hand over my chest. I was propelled back into Papi’s half functioning Buick on hot Hialeah days. Until that moment, I’d forgotten that song, Lookout Weekend by Debbie Deb, had existed. I had forgotten about Latin Freestyle and what home actually felt like. I tried accessing my Spotify to queue up the song as quickly as I could. Here was where I found that glimmer. Although Latin Freestyle is dead, it still lives on for the most of us. It’s a reminder of what community looked like and a space where people of color existed and were represented. From the man yelling outside in the streets of Myrtle Avenue. There in my dad’s car. I felt full again. I felt community. I felt at home. I will always feel at home in Latin Freestyle.