Freeway Explains How One Cypher Changed His Career With Roc-A-Fella

On a scorching summer afternoon, Freeway is lounging in a cool recording studio in the Northern Liberties section in the City of Brotherly Love. The smoky lab is in the same high-rise building as accounting firms, law offices, and working folks pausing for a late afternoon snack in the ground level cafeteria. However, Free’ sits with a team of producers and engineers in a dark room, going over some material. He is due in another studio a few blocks away soon, but he is focused on ironing out some important details. Eighteen years after the boisterous MC made his debut on JAY-Z’s “1-900-HUSTLER,” Freezer’s phone is still ringing—figuratively and literally every three minutes. He just released Think Free, a joint venture with Roc Nation that formally reunites the State Property MC with his mentor.

Fifteen years ago, Free’ made magic with Roc-A-Fella Records. Beanie Sigel built a bridge between the label and Philly, and Free’ paved an expressway, thanks to standout work on the gold-certified Philadelphia Freeway, along with two lauded State Prop’ albums. In an era of spectacle, this MC was all-business. His mic persona was both menacing and soulful, with a demeanor to match. Freeway was a different kind of rapper, a callback to the early ’90s attitude, character, and sincerity. He dressed, spoke, and even looked different than anyone else in the space. On a label that had bigger than life personalities like Cam’ron, Kanye West, Beans’, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (as well as Jay and Dame Dash), Freeway stood apart in a way that represented so many.

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As a teen, Freezer divided his time between North and West Philly. He supported himself through hustling, which became the basis for anthems like “What We Do.” Driven by his faith, and feeling the pull of his moral compass, Free’ wanted a better way: Rap. “At one time, it felt like impossible to get on from here,” he says. “Of course we had people like Will Smith, Steady B, Cool C, and EST do their thing in their era, their wave, but as far my era—I’m talking about until people like [Beanie Sigel] and Eve and—even Major Figgas on the level that they was doin’ it—I always felt like I could do it, but when I saw people like them who I could actually touch do it, I really knew.”

In addition to respect in the streets, the artist whose name was a nod to the real-life Ricky Ross made a name for himself serving Rap opponents. “We had different [basketball] leagues. One would be 52nd & Parkside, 16th & Susquehanna—different little spots in the city [especially in South Philadelphia]. When the ballers would be there playin’ in the leagues, there’d be artists there too. Like, it might be me, some ni**as from North [Philadelphia], some ni**as from West, we’d be there battling there at the same time and connecting with other artists,” remembers Free’. “I battled Cormega at one of them joints. That’s my man and everything,” he tells Ambrosia For Heads, quoting ‘Mega’s “Montana Diary” verse, “but I got over on him that day.”

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With that attitude, Freeway used impromptu bars as a calling card for his skill and grit. In 2001, JAY-Z orchestrated a “Roc-A-Fella Takeover” on Funkmaster Flex’s HOT 97 show in promotion of The Blueprint. Freeway joined his new team at a time when the roster was swollen with hungry artists vying for Jay, Dame, and Kareem Biggs’ attention. The MC with the distinct voice used the radio moment to his advantage. “I just think that whole blitz that I did was [one of my best freestyles]. When I went there, I just had the mind-frame of ‘whenever ni**as stop rappin’, I’m gonna rap [next].’ That’s why I was monstering that joint like that.” The cypher went for more than an hour, and likely changed Freeway’s place on the Roc depth chart. “I think really made a difference in my career, when I went up there and killed that joint.”

Despite success over the next three years, when the Roc broke, Freeway’s momentum appeared to suffer. Although 50 Cent was rumored to have tried to bring him to G-Unit, Free’ stayed loyal to the label whose chain he faithfully wore, even through turmoil. Independent after 2007’s Free At Last, the MC diversified as a DIY artist. With his custom touring van, Freezer did spot dates across the South and Midwest, building a following not unlike the regional Rap stars of the time. Once a feature act on Rap’s biggest label, Free’ became a ground-floor collaborator with Kendrick Lamar and DJ Khaled. Free’ cultivated audiences in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and The Bay—thanks, in part, to a close bond with The Jacka. He aggressively released content to the blogs, including “a month of madness” song series. The MC previously associated with the “chipmunk soul” era of ‘Ye, Just Blaze, and B!nk, released an acclaimed joint album on Rhymesayers with Seattle, Washington’s Jake One.

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Although his demeanor never showed it, Freeway adapting. “I’ve been struggling my whole life, and I’m still struggling. [There is] always a different obstacle to overcome,” He tells AFH. “But I feel like it makes me a stronger person, a stronger individual. When you go through certain things, you have no choice but to learn from them and grow, and elevate.” During the last decade, Freeway did for self at a time when many of his former label-mates languished, unwilling to accept changing times. Free’ also did so with a level of class. Like the professional athlete that never asked to be traded away, Freeway wore his Roc chain. When JAY-Z launched Roc Nation, Freezer often donned the family crest on his cap. The gesture was one of support and unity, not hanging on. “[Loyalty] first and foremost comes from my religion, me being Muslim. You’re supposed to be loyal to your brothers. You’re supposed to treat people how you want to be treated. You get what you put out there [with] karma,” Free says, adding that his parents and days adhering to the G-Code reinforced this character.

When JAY-Z launched his annual Made In America Festival plans for Philadelphia, he called upon Freeway to stand beside him on the iconic steps on the art museum. Jigga seemed to root for the artist who shared his trajectory, from the streets, to the battles, to the store shelves. DJ Green Lantern told Freezer about the time that Jay requested a CD version of the 2008 freestyle that he, Beans, and Styles P spit. Upon receiving the disc, Hov’ reportedly had one word for Green: “Freeway.”

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That relationship is the basis for the reunion. While Jay does not appear on Think Free, he does not need to. It is the energy and infrastructure that the MC wanted. “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else. To be able to be back with the family and do it on this high level at this stage in my career is everything to me,” Freeway stresses. It’s a blessing. They welcomed me with open arms.” New family members like Fat Joe and Jadakiss are features on the LP, which is a venture between New Rothchilds and R.N.

One of the first things Freeway did upon his label announcement and album rollout was freestyle for Funk Flex. He brought along another Roc-A-Fella alum, interlude personality Pain In Da Ass. It was symbolic return to form, and rebirth.

On Think Free, the solo songs may speak the loudest on the 13-track LP. “All Falls Down” examines Freeway’s 2015 kidney disease diagnosis, hospitalization, and its implications in his circle. “As soon as I got out of the hospital, I was writing,” he says, with a machine attached to his arm, sticking out of his couture t-shirt. “It’s just real. I talk about what I went through and how people just appeared from my life that was there every day when I got sick. It’s real heartfelt and I feel as though people are gonna love it. I feel like it might get a Grammy, just that one record. That’s how powerful it is.”

As the Grammy committee’s opinion will be determined, Freeway is focused on his cause. He regularly speaks to community members, students, and anybody that will listen. As an artist who is fighting for his life, Freeway urges people to take action. “I’m spreading the word to give people a fighting chance, ’cause knowledge is power. I know I got this platform and people look up to me and people listen to me. It’s a conversation that’s really not being had in our demographic. People are not talking about health and talking about kidney failure, and having risk factors. But a lot of us have high blood pressure and diabetes, and both of those are risk factors for kidney failure.” A year after Freeway’s diagnosis, Phife Dawg died from the organ failure.

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With life in mind, Think Free amplifies Freeway’s message at an important time in his career. “Legacy is everything to me. What you leave behind and how the people feel about you, and what they say about you is very important, especially in this business, and especially for me, because I’ve been trying to build a good reputation throughout the years in the music business as being a man of my word and being a stand-up guy and all that.” In a city where “trust the process” is more than just a hashtag, Freeway and his symbolic pilgrimage mean something. “I definitely want to leave something powerful behind. I think I’ve been doing that with the music. Now, with this next chapter in my life that I’m goin’ through with the health [issues] and just spreading awareness, I’ve been able to touch so many different people on a level that’s way [bigger] than music. It’s a good feeling.”