by Bao Le-Huu
(TKA still looks good, but not quite this good.)
No story of Florida music is complete without a chapter on freestyle. Although undersung by all but the devout, the Latin-dominated dance-pop genre is an essential link in the chain of Florida dance music. And back in the ‘80s, it was huge.
Florida and New York enjoy many deep cultural and ethnic ties. (Why else do you think Orlando has decent pizza?) Courtesy of the Latin connection, freestyle was one of the most direct and exclusive musical links between us. And it's the first partly native music style that captured me when I first moved to Orlando. I was but a boy then so my initial exposure to freestyle was mostly on the nighttime DJ-mixed shows on the radio and the kiddie house parties of my first Orlando friends. But I did get to see the scene up close at ground zero. While visiting Miami with my parents back then, my father's college mate, who somehow had lots of scene juice, got me into a huge South Beach club (the same one that Prince would later own in the mid ‘90s). The place was butts-to-nuts and freestyle was fueling it all. And for a kid who shouldn’t have even been allowed in, it was a massive experience.
So you betcher ass I wasn’t going to pass up the Freestyle Fest (May 30, House of Blues). However, a couple earnest but thin performances early on by Johnny O. and Cynthia had me resigned to a basic, low-production showcase of vocalists in what was essentially an assisted karaoke setup. But then the sharper, edgier Safire stepped up and finally came correct by at least living the shiny pop-star illusion with conviction, style and the glitter of some choreographed dancers.
As it turned out, however, her aplomb proved far better than even her presentation. Between songs, a handler came out onstage to affix her with a cape. She could’ve left it at that and no one would’ve thought anything amiss, but she promptly explained that it's because she split her damn pants in performance, at which point one of her dancers turns around, bends over and shows everyone that he did the exact same thing himself. Things got real and she handled it all with extraordinary humanity and humor. Now that’s the coolest shit ever.
Safire finally gave the night liftoff, but headliner TKA really took it into the stratosphere with a full song-and-dance production. TKA is a divided group (Google it if you’re curious) and this was the K7-led version. I don’t know how the other guys look now but, with shockingly little age and rust, K7 looked as remarkably fresh as the presumably younger cats flanking him. Sorry to sound so surprised, but I am as hell, and it's to their maximum credit. Together, they dazzled with big showmanship, tight hip-hop moves and boy-band synchronization. And it was a performance that could stand tall even without the crutch of nostalgia.
So, in terms of old-school romanticism, you guys can have your '90s R&B. I'll stick to my freestyle.
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