What happened to freestyle? Two kings of the genre still going strong

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

Freestyle – the dance-pop electronic genre with an added heap of emotion and romance, was at the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The genre, created by Latinos in New York City, continues to be followed by loyal fans today as they flocked to freestyle concerts across the U.S. this year.

After performing in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last winter, as well as a summer tour on the West Coast last Saturday, more than 10 freestyle performers, including including Cynthia, Johnny O., and Stevie B, sang to a packed house in New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center. Louis “Kayel” Sharpe Figueroa, the lead singer of TKA, as well as George Lamond were also there, and NBC Latino got to catch up with these two kings of freestyle to find out a little about the beginning of the genre, as well as what they’re up to now.

“Kayel,” also known as “K7,” was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City when he was four. He is the writer and lead singer of the popular freestyle trio, TKA.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

Kayel: Today I have studio time. I write songs and produce tracks that I submit for different artists.  I got into this business to be a musician, so I still crave it and have the hunger for it as when I first got into it. I’m still searching for that next hit, and I’m still in that search, and I haven’t given up on it yet.

We [TKA] perform weekly. The resurgence and popularity of freestyle music has resurfaced. It is feel-good music, and it has some angst. It’s inspiring a new generation to find themselves in music. Today’s music is good, but it’s more macho bravado. TKA, and freestyle music as a whole, still has that bravado, but it is still able to relate to feelings and truth across the board.

I also perform as a solo artist. K7 is more hip-hop based; the energy of both combined together feels very modern.  I have new songs coming out with TKA – still freestyle, but I’m the creature of the times, so when I go in to record new music, I’m not there to record what I’ve already done – I’m looking upwards and forwards. Fans like to come to the freestyle shows, but I’ve noticed that in our community when a new artist comes out in freestyle – there’s not many people that rush to buy it, because radio doesn’t rush to play it anymore. Freestyle went the way of jazz. It’s very rare that you hear Miles Davis on the radio. It’s not as prominent as it was in the late 80’s and late 90’s.

NBC Latino: What makes freestyle so special in your eyes?

Kayel: Latinos didn’t have a voice in hip-hop early on. We were part of founding it. There were Latin groups like Rock Steady – a group of break dancers – but the mainstream wasn’t about to accept us in the market yet. We had to find a way in which we could find our niche in this music…We were dancing to the hip-hop and club music, and we found ourselves starting to write these love songs – then we started to rap over the intro, and sing melodies over it after we sped the record up…Our own community started liking it. They could find their pain in urban living and in falling in love. That’s how it grew. Originally freestyle wasn’t called “freestyle,” the real term for this music was called, “Latin hip-hop,” then it was called “heartthrob,” but it wasn’t name that was cool enough. So when people danced to it, they would say “I’m gonna freestyle.” If I could be frank, we embrace it, but we always wished another name would resurface, because it limits us to a box.

NBC Latino: What’s you favorite TKA song?

Kayel: “Tears May Fall” changed the direction of where our music was at the time, and I also wrote “Maria” and “Louder Than Love.” “Maria” was a combination of two girlfriends I had. They both had similar looks…I was describing one that stayed in my head and haunted my mind. When I sing about the projects, it was about another one…In the song, I had to have a villain, so I chose a drug dealer. When I originally wrote the song, I was arguing and asking, “Why are you dating the bad side of me?” I made myself the drug dealer mentally. One guy who didn’t care and did all this wrong to her. The nice side of me was against the bad side of me. The same thing with “Louder Than Love” – it’s based on a relationship between two of my female friends. They really loved each other but couldn’t be in the same room. One of them is Elizabeth Rodriguez – she’s on Broadway now and “Orange is the New Black” – she was the basis of it.

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

Kayel: I’m the biggest nerd. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m a big TV buff, and a movie guy. I can tell you what’s going to be cancelled before they cancel it. I’m a human Neilsen box.

George Lamond, now 46, started singing when he was 9, growing up in the Bronx, NY.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite freestyle moment?

George: There was a lot of them, but I guess my favorite one is performing in front of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like performing in your hometown.

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

NBC Latino: Why do you think freestyle was a genre so dominated by Latinos?

George: Because it came from the Bronx where the majority of Puerto Ricans lived. Our parents landed in the Bronx for better jobs. Freestyle, for me, is the sister of disco. That’s the best way to put it. I was a huge disco fan when I was young, and a lot of the songs were played at clubs. I saw TKA perform, and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music at a young age – when I went to see Menudo in Radio City Music Hall, and they started singing in Spanish and English.

NBC Latino: What do you think happened to the genre?

George: It ended because the majority of the performers didn’t graduate to bigger and better things…It just got monotonous and died out like everything else, but freestyle is still living as well, because it’s a part of our culture and lifestyle…We have hip-hop, freestyle, and salsa.

I see a resurgence in salsa now  – a new singer, David Kada, has new record that is doing very, very well. Record producer Sergio George, has a lot of new kids. When it comes to salsa, it’s not going to go anywhere.

NBC Latino: What do you think made your salsa version of Juan Gabriel’s “Que Te Vas” such a chart-breaking hit in the 90’s?

George: I felt a connection to it, because at the time I was going through a really bad relationship with my ex-wife and that song was helping me out. It was a therapeutic moment. I didn’t know the effect I was having on the audience, but they still tell me.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

George: I’m constantly recording and touring a lot. I’m also a dad to a 17, 14, and 7- year-old. I never remarried again. Maybe somebody will want to deal with me one day (says laughing), but I’m looking to put a salsa single together. I’m also releasing a new single called “Brining My Love Down” on Thanksgiving day – this song is another sound of George Lamond – R and B that I’ve been dying to do for my crowd – the people that used to listen to me and now have kids and families – I want to slow it down a little bit. I’ve been doing music for 25 years – it’s my full-time job.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite song to sing?

George: “Without You” – you can hear a pin drop when I sing that song. The title speaks for itself. Have you ever loved someone so passionately and intimately you never want to lose that moment? How do you live without them?

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

George: I’m a great cook. I can make a really good lasagna, and a really good shrimp bisque. I invested in a restaurant once, but I thought it would keep me away from my kids. I grew up without a father so I promised I would never leave my kids alone.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

La India, the Princess of Salsa: “My first love is rock and roll”

The Princess of Salsa, La India (Photo/Uriel Santana)

The Princess of Salsa, La India (Photo/Uriel Santana)

Linda Caballero, better known as La India, has been giving a powerful voice to women in genres traditionally dominated by men — first with freestyle, then salsa — since she was 14. Three decades later, she’s still singing and  joining reggaeton star Ivy Queen on a one-night-only concert in Chicago this Saturday.

She’s also in the midst of recording a new album, which is written and produced by Mexican singer-composer superstar Juan Gabriel.

“He’s a dear friend,” says Caballero in a deep, slightly raspy speaking voice. “He’s always been someone I wanted to work with. Two years ago, I did a romantic mariachi ballad with Juan Gabriel. It was amazing working with him…He loves music so much.”

She also loves music — as much as the air she breathes, it seems. She goes back in time in an instant, remembering how it all started in the Bronx, NY, and where music producer “Little Louie” Vega discovered her through a friend.

“He gave me a microphone while he spun his music, and I would improvise — he saw talent in me,” says Caballero. “I was 14, and I was having a great time. I loved the 80’s…rock, dance music…We were just happy with having fun and aspiring towards where we wanted to go.”

Under the guidance of Vega, she released her first single, “Dancing on Fire,” and later “Lover that Rocks,” which made it to the Top 5 singles spot under the dance genre. This led to her first freestyle album in 1989, “Breaking Night.”

“I wasn’t shy,” she says. “That’s what they loved about me — I wasn’t afraid, and my ability to improvise.”

In her 20′s, Caballero says she started feeling like the industry was viewing her as the “Latin Madonna” and urged her to “be more white.”

“Everything was sounding the same…not growing,” says Caballero, reminiscing about her freestyle peers Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Lisette Menendez. “It started going under in pace and quality, and I decided to walk away. I told Louie we need to do more current stuff.”

She ended up marrying Vega, the man who discovered her, although they divorced years ago.

“He trusted my vision, and we decided to walk away,” says Caballero, who started collaborating with Tito Puente. “It was the beginning of where I was going with Latin music.”

Composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri, however, gave her the strongest nudge into the Latin music arena with the opportunity to record her first album in Spanish, “Llegó La India vía Eddie Palmieri”/”Here Comes La India via Eddie Palmieri.”

“My first love [though] is rock and roll,” Caballero makes sure to add. “Not a lot of people know about it, except my boyfriend…Janis Joplin was my idol…She shelves it out. I’m like Joplin — when I’m live, I have a lot of range in my voice, and I have the heart and I have the grit — the rock and roll feeling…”

But even though Caballero thoroughly enjoys listening to everything from hip hop to country music, she is not one to forget her Latina roots. She even returned to live in her native Puerto Rico for the past 13 years. She used to live in New Jersey, where she was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park.

Celia Cruz, she was my girl!” says Caballero, who did many collaborations with the Queen of Salsa before her death. “She would say say, ‘If you keep it up, you’re going to make it — be true to yourself.’ She would always hold my hand before a concert.”

She says everything Celia did, she did with a lot of love.

“She taught me not to be afraid to love,” says Caballero. “She would say, ‘Let’s love each other and have a great time, there’s no time for hate.’ At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”

That’s also what she appreciates so much about the late Pop King, Michael Jackson.

“Michael Jackson was putting out the message of love, and people used to say he was crazy, but I would say no,” says Caballero.

Last year, she was one of a few Latino musicians chosen by music producer Tony Succar to be a part of his upcoming album and documentary, entitled “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson” – expected to be completed in June, in time for the anniversary of the pop star’s death.

“This is when all Latinos come together for the love he’s given throughout the years,” says Caballero about the Jackson tribute arranged by Succar. “It was really magical…”

Succar calls La India “the most important woman salsa singer icon after Celia Cruz” — one of the reasons he chose her to participate in his project, besides the fact that she understands Michael Jackson. She grew up listening to him.

“The way La India can connect with songs, her artistic feel and passion for music — this is what allows her to give you goose bumps as soon as she sings one word,” he says. “She actually lives the lyrics, she lives what she’s saying…”

Caballero says after all these years, she still believes in her music, as well as herself.

“That’s how you make it happen,” she says is what she tells her fans. “I feel that I made my dream come true — that’s what I feel when I sing salsa.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.