Once upon a time, there was a musical subgenre called freestyle, and it was a heck of a lot of fun, especially if you liked to dance. Arguably, freestyle hasn’t gone anywhere — it’s just been absorbed and digested, like so many other subgenres, by pop and club music, and you can dust for its fingerprints at the disco. Nevertheless, freestyle had its heyday and moment of focus in the mid-to-late-’80s, when it was inevitable that hip-hop, electropop and Latin music would collide. Most of the notable practitioners of the style came from Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in New York City, and there were many Floridians involved, too. But the main impresario of the freestyle movement was Sal Abbatiello, an Italian-American clubowner and label chief who was one of the linchpins of live hip-hop in ’80s New York. Fever Records — an outfit he named after his Bronx nightclub — put out many of the best first- and second-wave freestyle records, and helped launch the career of The Cover Girls.
The Cover Girls won’t be at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Saturday night, but many of the other acts associated with Fever Records will. The Freestyle and Old School Extravaganza Tenth Anniversary Tour is a celebration of Abbatiello’s label and a moment when New York City was particularly receptive to musical innovation. Lisa Lisa, the artist who probably did more to bring freestyle to mainstream attention than any other, will perform, as will Lisette Melendez, the New York singer who scored in 1991 with “Together Forever.” But the bill contains a collection of other entertainers who, unless you’re a freestyle fanatic, you probably haven’t thought about in 20 years, including the swaggering TKA, Coro (who actually appeared on “Miami Vice” a few times) and Noel Pagan (whose club hit “Silent Morning” still sounds like Depeche Mode wandering lost in East Harlem). None of these guys are great singers, but they’re all good enough to put a melody across an irresistible beat, and under the club lights, that’s really all that matters.
And since this is an Old School extravaganza as well as a Freestyle jam, there’s also an ace in the hole: Black Sheep, the hip-hop duo that proudly represented the seamy side of the Native Tongues family, is also along for the ride. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, the act’s 1991 album, begins with the only good gangsta rap parody ever waxed and concludes (before the extra tracks) with an obscene benediction. In between, Dres and Mista Lawnge crack wise, tell filthy jokes, turn the middle finger into a compliment, and ruminate on the transience of notoriety. They didn’t expect to last, and weren’t really built to, but “The Choice Is Yours” remains one of the most recognizable hip-hop singles of the early ’90s.
I’ve already written plenty about The Porchistas, who will host a Hudson County release party for their excellent, ambitious new set Shoot It at the Sun at Lucky 7 in Jersey City on Friday night. So let’s talk instead about the local combos who’ll be supporting them. The One And Nines are a versatile jazz-pop and Motown-soul revival band that has been putting on terrific concerts all over Jersey City since the late ’00s. They’ve got a punchy horn section, a rhythm section that grooves effortlessly, and a singer who would have been drafted into the Ronettes if she hadn’t been born 20 years too late. By some amazing trick of Tetris they manage to squeeze all the brass and woodwinds and leave room on the floor for dancing. Also on the bill: Adam and the Plants, the latest project from Adam Copeland, the irascible but big-hearted punk rocker behind Black Water. The Plants recently masqueraded as Big Star at Lucky 7 and did so extremely convincingly (Copeland even dressed the part). Here’s hoping we get a few Alex Chilton songs on Friday night.
Another accomplished but undersung Jersey voice is in action this week, too. Synth player and singer Tom Brislin takes to the stage at Roxy And Dukes in his hometown of Dunellen in support of the Adrian Belew Power Trio. He’ll fit right in: guitarist Belew, who did some of his best work for King Crimson and Talking Heads, is a virtuoso with a sense of humor, and so is Brislin. At the turn of the millennium, when everybody else was heading to the garage and cranking up the distortion, Brislin chose instead to chase the symphonic sound of Duke-era Genesis. Spiraling, his ’00s outfit, made several albums that split the difference between neo-prog and power pop, and if you’re a fan of either style, they’re worth hunting down. But the best thing he’s ever cut is his most recent: the awkwardly titled Hurry Up and Smell the Roses, a solo disc that applies his considerable knowledge of the expressive power of synthesizers to a wonderfully moody collection of songs. He’s always been a deft soloist; Hurry Up demonstrates that he’s become a master of texture, too. Plus, there’s “Industry in the Distance,” a great song about (among other things) getting homesick for New Jersey. That’s something he knows plenty about — he’s recently been touring with the prog-rock outfit Renaissance. This show ought to be a happy homecoming.