When I spoke with Valerie Day and John Smith of the group Nu Shooz by phone last week, it was 39 years to the day since their first live appearance, a gig at Colonel Summers Park in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. Coming from Portland and making dance music at that time was a long shot. There were plenty of other bands in town, but no one else playing around with the beat-making potential of the new Roland synthesizers the way that Smith was or adding Latin percussion to the mix as Day did. “Portland didn’t have a lot of funk at that point,” said Day, but the duo stuck with it, and each other, eventually getting married and issuing the first Nu Shooz LP in 1982. Through the support of Portland’s top radio deejay, Gary Bryan of KKRZ “Z100,” the group scored a regional hit with a catchy dance number called “I Can’t Wait.”
Things might have ended there if not for the intense demand in nightclubs from New York to Miami, Los Angeles, and beyond for dance music that appealed across a cultural spectrum that included both hip-hop and Latin. A “Dutch mix” of their song made its way from Amsterdam to New York, and the next thing they knew, Nu Shooz had an international hit, a full band, and a recording contract and were dancing and singing “I Can’t Wait” on the syndicated television program Solid Gold.
That distinctive sound, with its slinky synth bass lines, perky pop vocals, and irresistible conga clavé rhythms came to be known as “freestyle,” a catchall term for dance tracks that follow a similar sonic pattern and fit comfortably in the 125-132 beats-per-minute (BPM) range. On Saturday, July 7, when the artists on the Freestyle Explosion tour hit the stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl, the audience will be up and dancing from the opening notes until the last synthesized snares and skittering drum samples have faded away.
For Taylor Dayne, the recording artist, actor, and reality TV star, being on the Freestyle Explosion tour represents another stop on a 30-year journey that includes everything from a top-10 smash with “Tell It to My Heart” in 1987 to “Born to Sing,” a powerful TED talk examining her intimacy issues in 2016. “It’s no yellow brick road,” Dayne said of the route she took to creative success, “but through my voice, I have connected with other people, and by adapting over the years, I’ve been able to continue to feel more and more connected.” Fans of this versatile woman should keep their eyes out for a memoir in fall 2018.
Every one of Dayne’s hits has either the word “heart” or the word “love” in the title, and that’s a good indicator not only of her feelings but of the whole emotional vibe of the freestyle scene. These songs, with their searching, minor-key melodies and thundering bass lines, revel in the kind of lovelorn adolescent energy that fills dance floors and teen hearts with equal consistency. Anyone who has seen such classic ’80s hip-hop films as Beat Street that feature B-boy battles by dance groups like the Rock Steady Crew will recognize the sound and appreciate the way that it moved all kinds of people to take chances and do things with their bodies that they had never done before.
In addition to Taylor Dayne and Nu Shooz, Saturday’s bill includes Stevie B, The Jets, Lisa Lisa, Exposé, and Debbie Deb. In the words of Debbie Deb’s 1987 track, “Lookout Weekend.”
Freestyle Explosion takes place Saturday, July 7, 7 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). For tickets and information, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.