I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard freestyle music. It’s not like reggaeton, where I have a vivid memory of being put on to the genre by a homegirl who played some burned CDs for me in my bedroom as a tween. No, freestyle feels like it has always been around: in the basement apartment I lived in as a baby in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, en "la casa green y yellow" we moved to atop the mountains of Moca, Puerto Rico, and especially as a kid and teen growing up in East Orlando. This music played from my father’s car radio, was spun by DJs at the skating rink, and blasted from Flori Bori house parties. Freestyle, a genre that was birthed before me and allegedly died before I could even get into a club, still felt like it was mine — and it did for a lot of Latina girls growing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
For many of us, these songs allowed us to feel seen and heard for the first time. Created by Puerto Rican and Black American youth in the Bronx in 1984, freestyle sonically merges early hip-hop with synth-pop, electro dance, and Latin beats and instrumentation. But unlike previous Latine music genres, it was largely women-dominated.
Sure, there were male heavy-hitters, but they were always outnumbered and, let’s be real, outshined by the ladies. These young Boricua, Cuban, and Black American women broke into the scene stunting as their full selves — various skin tones, diverse body sizes, and Spanish-accented English. And each of them sang unabashedly and unapologetically about love, heartbreak, and sex, all at a time when these topics were considered taboo to some and frivolous to others.
But for young Latina listeners – of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and the 2000s — these cross-generational hits provided us with a soundtrack to explore our feelings and our bodies. As youthful listeners, we heard these performers using music to demand respect, negotiate sex on their own terms, and refuse to settle for partners who offered less than what they deserved, including in the bedroom. With stunning looks, energetic sounds, and bold lyrics that disrupted respectable gender norms and mirrored our experiences as second-generation Latinas, freestyle icons like Lisa Lisa, Judy Torres, Cynthia, The Cover Girls, and Nayobe validated our feelings of desire and angst. And this inspired and empowered us.
In season 2 of La Brega, a podcast from WNYC and Futuro Studios about the Puerto Rican experience, I talk about my relationship with freestyle and use the song “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam to explore themes of bodily autonomy, sexual agency, Latina girlhood, and cross-generational relationships. To accompany that story, I wanted to highlight a few of the Latina freestyle artists and songs that provided the score to Latina self-exploration, dating, and sex for those who experienced the music in real time and those who, like me, enjoyed it just the same years later.
Born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to Puerto Rican parents, Lisa Lisa is the most recognizable name of the genre. She rose to fame in the mid-1980s as part of the band Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Alex "Spanador" Moseley and Mike Hughes. Together, the group, formed and produced by Full Force, dropped the first freestyle music video in 1985 with their smash hit "I Wonder If I Take You Home." At the time, the genre was called Latin Hip-Hop, and today Lisa Lisa is still recognized as the First Lady of Latin Hip-Hop, though she and Cult Jam dabbled in several other genres. While many freestyle acts claimed one or two bops, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam went platinum with their debut album and had two Billboard chart-topping hits with "Head to Toe" and "Lost in Emotion."
Listen to This Song: “I Wonder If I Take You Home”
Caption This Line: “I want it just as much as you do, but will you still keep in touch?”
Known as the "Queen of Freestyle," the Bronx-born Puerto Rican songstress Judy Torres delivered freestyle hit after hit throughout the '80s. Songs like "Please Stay Tonight," "Come into My Arms," "Love Story," "I Love You, Will You Love Me," and "No Reason to Cry" blasted from clubs throughout New York and later New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Miami. Unarguably the most skillful voice in the game, Torres went on to record ballads, like Journey's “Faithfully,” and salsa. In 2018, she sold out her one-woman off Broadway show No Reason to Cry three nights in a row. In addition to singing, Torres is a famous radio personality in New York.
Listen to This Song: “Come Into My Arms”
Caption This Line: “I've always been too much for you, it burns inside.”
Nuyorican songstress Cynthia is called the “Princess of Freestyle.” The Florida-based singer arrived onto the freestyle scene in the late '80s, but she came in strong. With her first single "Change on Me" reaching No. 37 on the dance charts and her 1990 grand slam "Dreamboy / Dreamgirl" with Johnny O making it to No. 53 on the top Billboard Hot 100, Cynthia made music young women could dance to and relate to.
Listen to This Song: “Change on Me”
Caption This Line: “Why did you have to change on me?”
The Cover Girls
Formed in New York in 1986, The Cover Girls was one of several all-women freestyle groups of the 1980s and '90s. And with bangers like "Show Me," where they demand receipts from their partners, and "Because of You," a bop about falling in love, they were one of the most listened to and celebrated. Originally composed of Puerto Rican and Black American singers, the band has had many replacements throughout the years. As of 2022, original member Angel Mercado has been touring as The "Original" Cover Girls.
Listen to This Song: “Show Me”
Caption This Line: “Cause it's easy to tell me you love me, easy to say you’re thinking of me. Words are so easy to say…”
Born in East Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, Lisette Melendez is a beloved act of the freestyle explosion. For many, the singer helped renew the genre in the early 1990s when freestyle started its wane. Her 1990 megahit "Together Forever" reached No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Listen to This Song: “Together Forever”
Caption This Line: “Facing what we feel inside. Ready to stand the test of time.”
Another freestyle act who helped revitalize the genre in the early '90s: Corina. Born Corina Katt Ayala in East Harlem, this South Bronx-raised Boricua dropped her debut self-titled album in 1991. It was filled with hits like "Now That You're Gone," "Whisper," and, of course, "Temptation," which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The singer toured with acts like Ice Cube, Boyz II Men, and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Also a beauty queen (she was runner-up for Miss Puerto Rico in her teens) and an actor, she has appeared in All My Children, New York Undercover, and Cradle Will Rock, among other projects.
Listen to This Song: “Temptation”
Caption This Line: “Baby, there’s something I think you should know: I don't think I'll be needing you anymore.”
While many of the ladies of freestyle were teens when they started their careers, few were as young as Lil Suzy. The Brooklyn-born, Puerto Rican-Italian singer was just 12 years old when she dropped the massive hit “Take Me In Your Arms'' in 1991, which peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, Billboard magazine called the then-13-year-old the Best New Dance Artist of the year, making her the youngest to receive the title.
Listen to This Song: “Take Me In Your Arms”
Caption This Line: “We’ll find a paradise for two, a place for me and you.”
Sa-Fire is without a doubt one of the greatest freestyle acts. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and raised in East Harlem, Sa-Fire arrived on the scene with her 1988 single "Don't Break My Heart." She followed it up with several chart-making hits in the genre and beyond. Those classics, like "Let Me Be the One" and "Boy, I've Been Told," helped her become the first Latina to grace the cover of Spin magazine. In 2021, Paper magazine listed Sa-Fire, born Wilma Cosmé, as one of three iconic names of freestyle.
Listen to This Song: “Let Me Be The One”
Caption This Line: “Love me, baby, and touch me all over.”
Nayobe is a Brooklyn-born Cuban vocal powerhouse. In early 1985, she dropped the first-ever Latin freestyle song, "Please Don't Go," produced by Boricua Andy Panda. Other club bangers include: “Guess I Fell In Love," "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait," "Second Chance for Love," and "Promise Me." In 1988, she appeared in the classic hip-hop film "Krush Groove."
Listen to This Song: “Please Don’t Go”
Caption This Line: “Don't throw my love aside because of your foolish pride.”
After freestyle exploded in New York, the music made its way down the Atlantic, all the way to Miami where acts like Exposé produced their own South Florida style of the genre. This mixed-race band included the Mexican-American singer Jeanette Jurado. In the late ‘80s, the three women — Jurado, Ann Curless, and Gioia Bruno — delivered freestyle hits like "Point of No Return" as well as other pop songs like "Seasons Change" and "What You Don't Know."
Listen to This Song: “Point of No Return”
Caption This Line: “You're taking me to the point of no return.”
Another pivotal freestyle trio: Sweet Sensation. The Bronx-formed band originally included Puerto Rican singers Betty LeBron, Margie Fernandez, and Mari Fernandez (Mari was later replaced by Sheila Vega). Formed in 1986, the group dropped several club and radio hits, including their biggest record, "If Wishes Came True," which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in 1990. Other bangers include: "Hooked on You," "Sincerely Yours," "Never Let You Go," and "Love Child."
Listen to This Song: “Hooked on You”
Caption This Line: I'm so turned on, I don't know what to do. It seems a touch can make my temperature rise.”