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Scene & Heard

The DJs, clubs, and shops that brought a hot ’80s sound to town

Lisa Lisa (with Cult Jam).CBS Inc.

On May 2, Agganis Arena will host Super Freestyle Explosion, where performers such as Stevie B and Exposé will play tracks that were part of dance music’s wild ’80s tapestry — the seductive “Party Your Body,” the slinkily pleading “Let Me Be the One.”

The night will also serve as an homage of sorts to a club that used to be just up the street: Narcissus, formerly located in Kenmore Square’s Kenmore Club, and at one time Boston’s hotbed for freestyle.

With its driving beats and yearning vocals, freestyle was a strain of electropop that was also utterly human; singers such as Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb had an airiness about their vocals that only added to the pathos of the lyrics they delivered. It was wistful, yet also completely danceable.

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“The best freestyle songs plumbed the hysteria of adolescent love, transforming the singers into more powerful versions of themselves; it’s as if the beats acted like B-12 shots,” said Alfred Soto, a Miami-based critic and instructor. “When Stevie B sang ‘Spring Love’ or Company B did ‘Fascinated,’ there was no one who lusted like they did.”

“I was a big fan of the record ‘Planet Rock,’” said house DJ Armand Van Helden, referring to Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 electro breakthrough. Van Helden was a regular at Narcissus’s freestyle nights in the late 1980s. “And I always say [freestyle] is ‘Planet Rock’ with someone singing on top,” he explained.

Freestyle was particularly popular in New York and Miami, both of which had sizable Latino populations, during the ’80s. But one DJ’s move from the Sunshine State helped bring the style’s lovelorn vocals and driving beats to Massachusetts.

“I was working down in Miami as a DJ, and I picked up the local music,” said Gary Cannavo of Revere, who spun then, and continues to play records now, as DJ Gary C. “When I came back to Boston — back in 1984, ’85 —I knew what Narcissus wanted: energy. And the music coming out of Miami was amazing. I was playing Exposé when they were called Exposed.” In fact, Cannavo was spinning that trio’s 1987 Top 10 hit “Point of No Return” before it hit the radio for keeps.

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“I brought all these records with me from Miami,” Cannavo said. “And when I started playing those, they lost control: ‘This is what we’ve been looking for!’ ”

Cannavo, who continues to run the DJ promo association Masspool, credits former Kenmore Club owner Jimmy Olson with giving him leeway to take a chance on these records — a gambit that eventually paid off in the form of packed houses and live appearances by singers.

“The club started taking off — I would start DJing at 8, and the club would be jam-packed by 9:30,” Cannavo recalled. “It was jam-packed Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and all they wanted was freestyle, freestyle, freestyle.”

“I was blown away by Narcissus in the summer of 1988,” said Van Helden. “It was a strange room; the floor was slightly elevated, and up a few steps were floor-to-ceiling mirrors, so you could dance if you wanted to with somebody, or you could dance and look in the mirror. In Europe I didn’t get to experience that style of music in a real setting like that, and I became a regular instantly, going there two or three nights a week when I could.”

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Stevie B was the headliner at a New Year's Eve party at the Strega Waterfront restaurant.Jay Connor

In the pre-Shazam era, finding out who was performing some of the songs heard at Narcissus was helped along by the DJs, who made mixes of their favorite tracks and distributed them to dancers.

“People couldn’t get enough of it,” said Steve Spinelli, a DJ who still spins as DJ Spinelli. “They would go to the clubs, hear the music, say ‘oh my God, that song’s unbelievable! I have to get that!’ DJs would make mixtapes and hand them out to people, and people would take them to the record store and say, ‘I want this song — what is it?’ Hopefully the record shop owner could identify it. The records, they couldn’t keep up with them.”

One of the sources for new 12-inch singles was the East Boston record store Dance Music Plus. Cannavo, who worked there, turned what he called the “little, teeny, tiny record store” into a hotbed for DJs looking for cutting-edge tracks.

“We would actually stand outside of Dance Music Plus, me and maybe 10 or 15 other people, every week,” Spinelli recalled. “The guy would start taking the boxes of records in, and Jerry, the owner, would take out his [price gun] and we’d grab [the records] right out of his hand while he was putting the price on. We were DJs working in clubs, and we wanted the hottest music at that moment. And we could take those records to the club that night and play them before anybody knew what they were.

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“We would sell out of 20 copies in a day,” recalled Cannavo. “The owner didn’t know what hit him.”

Eventually, freestyle artists became known more widely. In 1990, Stevie B topped the Billboard Hot 100 with the relatively spare ballad “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).” A year later, both he and the Cover Girls were on the bill for KISS-108’s spring bash, at what was then called Great Woods. (Both will play the Agganis Arena show.)

Narcissus closed in 1993, but freestyle lives on through nostalgia and tours like the Super Freestyle Explosion. A few years back, Stevie B re-
recorded his 1988 track “Spring Love” with another artist intractably associated with Miami, the dapper MC Pitbull. And earlier this year, Van Helden, in conjunction with the British nightclub Ministry of Sound, released a freestyle mix that incorporates Debbie Deb’s punchy “Lookout Weekend” and Lisa Lisa’s conflicted “I Wonder If I Take You Home.”

“It’s a really unique form of music,” Van Helden said. “It’s street music, it’s urban — it’s almost like uptempo R&B. Freestyle was mostly vocals, and a few [more instrumental] tracks. For me, when I look at songs that stand in years, songs with vocals stand out because you can sing along. It goes back to that primal thing. But freestyle is a pretty unique form; it’s this whole genre that happened and most of Europe doesn’t know it existed.”

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“It just grew feet, it just grew legs,” Cannavo said. “It just went crazy. I had [so much] fun working at the Kenmore Club — I would always go not knowing what I was going to do at all, but I would always go and have a good night.”

Super Freestyle Explosion

Featuring Stevie B, Exposé, The Original Cover Girls, Lisa Lisa, Debbie Deb, Trinere, Connie, Stacey Q, Nu Shooz, and JJ Fad

At: Agganis Arena, Saturday,

7:30 p.m. Tickets: $39.50-$69.50. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com


Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.