It’s been almost 16 years since Freeway picked up line 5 on “1-900-Hustler” and began his first major guest appearance on a Jay Z record with: “First things first, watch what you say out your mouth / When you talkin on the phone to hustlers...” Since then, Freeway’s high-pitched voice and eccentric flow has served as notable component for East Coast rap.
Freeway is a quiet storm of a personality and it’s a first impression that lasts. While BET’s cameras try out different backgrounds during a photoshoot, he politely obliges while his latest album Free Will, out on April 29th, blares through his phone’s speakers.
The release of Free Will is a cap on what was quite a year for the rapper. It started off with the death of his dear friend and collaborator, The Jacka, and ended with a health crisis that involved kidney failure and emergency dialysis, a process for removing waste and excess water from the blood. When he invited BET into his home days after the life-changing revelation, he was in extremely good spirits and with the help of family, taking a proactive approach that would ensure his conquering the difficult time.
His determination and overall spirit is undaunted. Since last September, he’s taken part in various causes that include the National Kidney Foundation, World Kidney Day and the American Kidney Fund.
While Free’s determination in looking forward is palpable in this latest tracks like “Hot As Ice” and “Legendary,” during our time he does touch on his Roc-A-Fella past and how his professional relationships then resemble his professional relationships now. With tons propelling him forward he briefly reveals something major that he’s working on aside from the release of Free Will.
BET: When we last spoke to you, it couldn't have been more than two weeks after you had gotten out of the hospital. You jumped into advocacy right away.
Freeway: Most definitely. I felt it was important for me to stand in front of it.
Did it help you during the adjustment?
It definitely helped me, as far as myself, as far as something inside of me; it definitely helped me to stand in front of it. It's definitely a huge lifestyle change. For the people that don't know, in September 2015, I was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. That's when your kidneys aren't working properly. My kidneys were cleaning the fluids out of my body but it wasn't cleaning the toxins. Once the toxins build up in your body, it has you feeling awkward and sluggish. It can affect you so many different ways.
You were on the move a lot right before you got the news.
I was performing a lot. I thought that might have been one of the issues why I was feeling so groggy. I was performing a lot. I just knew something wasn't right. I would get tired just walking to the car, just doing normal things I would do in my life. I knew something wasn't right.
Soon after you linked up with the National Kidney Foundation. How did the relationship come about?
They either reached out to my management or my management reached out to them. There was a walk, a National Kidney Foundation Walk in Philadelphia probably about a month after I got sick. They asked me to be involved in it. I headlined the walk and did a little performance for the people. I actually cut the ribbon for the walk, and then I participated in the walk. It was a good experience. We helped raise money for the National Kidney Foundation. It was great. A month after that, we did the walk in New York also.
Since you came on in 2001 you've gone through various transformations. I know that you went through one right after Philadelphia Freeway came out, where you were trying to marry Islam with your career.
Yeah. Most definitely. I forgot the exact year. It might've been like 2004 or something. For the people that don't know, I'm Muslim. Sunni Muslim. I took my first pilgrimage to Mecca. That was something that I said I was always going to do once I could make some legal money. One of the main things they were telling me when I was over there, "if you go back to the United States doing the same things you were doing before you left to come here, you didn't get anything out of the experience." I was basically trying to get myself together and be as positive as I can coming back. There were some things I was dealing with personally, on a personal level.
It seemed like everything really happened last year between Jacka passing away and your illness.
[I] lost a great friend. Great collaborator. I've been working with Jacka since like 2003 or 2004. I was on a tour with Jay, we were in the Bay Area. They knew I was out there and they reached out to me to do a verse so I went to their studio and did a verse with them. Jack was Muslim too. We vibed off of that, off of the strength of us both being Muslim, from Islam faith. We just clicked. He was a very dope artist. Musically, he was probably one of my favorite artists. We just linked together and started doing work from there. We did a lot of collaborations, we toured together, we went to Africa together, Sweden. We went to Amsterdam together, Denmark. We did a lot of stuff together. He was a good brother.
At what point did you feel you had a good handle on everything even though what you're going through is a major lifestyle change.
As far as health wise, I buckled down immediately. As soon as they told me what I can do, what I can't do, what I need to do, I did it. [I] had to switch my diet. A lot of things that I can't eat, like ketchup, tomatoes, french fries. I love french fries but I can't eat french fries. Spinach. Oranges. There's a lot of things that are not good for me as far as my diet so I had to switch that up. I had to work out a little bit more. Portion control, as far as what I eat. I definitely have to watch my portions of what I take in.
How did all of this change help you make Free Will? Are the collection of songs stuff you started working on before?
The majority of Free Will was done. I was probably just wrapping Free Will up right before I started feeling bad. In January of 2016, I dropped a mixtape called Forever Free Planet, and I touched base a lot on what I'm going through now as far as the health issues and a lot of political issues going on in the world. I touched base on a lot of that. That was more fresh than Free Will is. Free Will was the actual album, body of work that I was working on before that.
Where does this new project fall among your previous work? I know that with Diamond in the Rough, you said that it should have been the follow up to Philadelphia Freeway. How does Free Will stack up?
I actually think Free Will is probably the best since I've been doing it. Where I was at with it, I was just in a great space creatively. Physically, I felt good. On the road, doing a lot of different things, seeing a lot more. A lot of growth in the music.
The majority of it was done, then I started working with new producers, S. Frank and Scolito. Scolito is actually an artist too. He's featured on one of the songs on the album called "Work." We just went into a crazy zone. We made eight records for Free Will together. It's just a new fresh sound. Like when I came in the game, there was nothing like it, that's how it is right now again. We dropped the first single, “Hot as Ice.” Getting a great response. Everything we thought it was going to be, it's going to be.
Speaking of...you mentioned Roc-A-Fella in “Hot as Ice,” but it's not confrontational. It's like you’re looking back to reminisce.
Yeah. Most definitely. I don't have anything bad to say about what happened with me and Roc-A-Fella. I love Jay. He changed my life. Not only me, but my family. Not only my family, but people that's close to my family also. We didn't have to do what we were doing before this, which was in the streets. It was definitely a blessing. I'm extremely proud of everything that happened with Roc-A-Fella and me.
The way you describe your relationship with your new producers seems to be the same kind of relationship you had with Just Blaze and Kanye.
Definitely a family type structure. We zone out. We not only have Free Will done, we also have a project for Scolito. His first album is called Free Dell. His brother is in prison doing life. He's a juvenile lifer. The album Free Dell is dedicated to his brother. We have another couple projects that we got in the works that we're cooking up too.
It seems to be like something new is happening. Like with Stimulus Package and Jack One, Write my Wrongs with The Jacka, the Broken Ankles EP with Girl Talk – once you have something that works you explore it fully.
Me and Girl Talk, we had a great relationship. We dropped Broken English last year and we toured the festival circuit with it. I did all the festivals that year. I did Firefly, Coachella, Boston Calling. I did Made in America again. I actually did Made in America three out of the four years. I'm proud of that. Girl Talk's got three records on the new project too. Looking forward to that.
How is your touring being affected by your dialysis?
I do dialysis three days a week for four hours a day. That's Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We're scheduling a tour now. Once we schedule the tour, I'm going to route my dialysis through the cities that I'm going to tour in. In each city, they have the same dialysis units that I work with and they're helping me schedule it. Say I'm in Florida for a couple days, I'll just do dialysis there. If I'm in L.A., I could just do it there. Where there's a will, there's a way.
The only thing that's going to be a little hard for me to adjust to is letting different people do it. In my dialysis unit, I'm used to the certain nurses that do it there. It's cool. I'm ready for it though.
Who do you feel you're going to be working with next from the new batch of producers on Free Will?
We got something in the works. It's going to be very exciting towards the end of the year. Working on a situation. Hopefully everything works out. It's going to be exciting, not only for me, but also for my fans. I think it's going to be something my fans will be really excited about. I don't want to get ahead of the horse but we just want to drop this Free Will and make sure that's a successful project, make sure the people love it, then we got something new.
Are you setting up a label?
Working on it.
(Photos from top to bottom: Kirsta Schlueter for BET)