Freeway oozes Philly. From his appearance alone—usually with a hat pulled down, dark glasses covering his eyes and that omnipresent beard—rap fans across the country immediately associate Freeway with Philadelphia in a way that the Roots, Cassidy or even Meek Mill can’t duplicate.
People from every corner associate the long beard with Philly in the same way that box haircuts were back in the ‘80s. In New York, it’s even referred to as a “Philly beard.” While the city has produced many rappers on the national scene, Freeway’s the only one sporting that long facial hair. Aside from that, his unique vocal pitch showcases his Philly accent, making it unmistakable where this artist calls home. No other rapper sounds anything like him. His high-pitched voice is gritty at the same time, like a mid-range growl.
“When I rap, it’s just my passion that makes that sound come out,” says Freeway, whose speaking voice is a little deeper and a lot smoother than in his rhyming. “I really want people to feel what I’m saying, so it’s just the emotion that makes me sound like that on a record.” His one-of-a-kind cadence and style give him a sound that no one can duplicate. “I always try to say a lot of stuff, so when I first got in the studio, people would tell me to just take some words out of my rhymes, but I wanna say what I wanna say. So, I found a way to squeeze the words in there when I need to and leave them out when I don’t. It’s just a gift from God that I am able to do that.”
After years of battling rappers around the city and in high school, Free met South Philly’s Beanie Sigel while they were both performing at a show. Later, when Sigel got signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, he told Jay about Free. Jay had him rhyme on “1-900-HUSTLER,” a single from Jay’s fifth album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. After that, he signed him, and Free finally released his debut album, the gold-selling Philadelphia Freeway, in 2003, which featured hits like “Flipside” and “What We Do.” After hooking up with Roc-A-Fella, Sigel and Freeway collaborated with fellow Philly rappers Peedi Peedi, Oschino Omillio Sparks, the Young Gunz (Young Chris and Neef Buck) and female R&B singer Casha to form State Property, which released two group albums.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Sigel is now serving his second jail term since Freeway’s debut, putting the future of State Property in doubt. “That’s my brother,” Freeway says of Beans. “We got a good relationship, and I’m sorry to see him have to go back to do time again, but we are definitely doing another State Property project as soon as he gets out. We might even start on it before that. What we really want to do is a Roc reunion tour.”
Meanwhile, Freeway’s fourth studio album, Diamond In The Ruff, drops next Tuesday. Still representing Philly, Diamond features guest appearances from several Philadelphia artists like Vivian Green, Musiq SoulChild and by-way-of-London Marsha Ambrosius. This LP has a bit more mature sound than Free’s past efforts, but at 34 years old, that’s to be expected. “Greatness,” a cut with a raw drumbeat underneath a staccato keyboard, is softened up by Green’s honeyed vocals on the hook. The song even starts off with a recording of Muhammad Ali saying, “I’m better now than I was when you saw that 22-year-old, undeveloped kid. I’m experienced now. Jaw’s been broke ... knocked down a couple times.”
When Freeway talks about this new LP, he sounds a lot like Ali. “I definitely see the growth in my album. As a man, I’m not in the same position that I was 10 years ago. I’m a reality rapper, so I rap about things that I go through, things that I see,” he says over a breakfast of eggs and salmon cakes at a Northern Liberties restaurant around the corner from Studio 4, where he records much of his music. The morning’s echoing chatter is of President Obama’s re-election victory the night before, yet, despite his social awareness, Freeway didn’t vote. What?!
“Muslims aren’t necessarily supposed to vote because it’s haraam,” he says, referring to the Arabic term that means any deed that could be considered sinful by a Muslim. “There are differences of opinion on whether [voting] is haraam or not,” he continues. “Some of the scholars say it’s haraam, and some say it’s OK. If anything might be haraam, it’s best to stay away from it.”
Philadelphia has one of the largest black American Muslim populations in the country. No matter what religion you are, if you live in Philly, at some point, you’ve come in contact with black Muslims, if nowhere else than downtown, when you see young men with long beards or pants cut short enough so they don’t touch the ground.
“Just like a lot of the youth in Philadelphia, I was heavily influenced by Islam, says Freeway. “When I was coming up, a lot of people were Muslim ... and as I got older and started to study religion and learn for myself, I realized that it was the religion for me.”
At some point, he also realized that rap was the profession for him. Luckily for us, hip-hop’s not haraam.