Freeway Speaks On His Legendary Debut Album, 'Philadelphia Freeway'
The MC reminisces on his 2003 project on the 15th anniversary of its release.
North Philly is a crime ridden section of the Pennsylvania city where only the strong survive—and few make it out to tell the tale. For the big bearded, fast rappin’ artist by the name of Freeway, his corner in the City of Brotherly Love was all he knew until he joined the ranks of Roc-A-Fella Records in 2002. After blowing minds with a show stealing verse on “1-900-Hustler," a Roc posse cut featured on JAY-Z’s 2000 album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, his high-pitched street savvy rhymes flooded mixtapes from coast to coast.
However, Free was one of the last members of State Property to sign a solo deal with the house that Hov, Biggs, and Dame Dash built. An early arrest put a damper on his mobility, but the hungry lyricist hit the ground running with co-hort Beanie Sigel once the wretched Philadelphia court system deemed him safe for travel. After shutting down HOT97 with FunkFlex and the Roc squad during a now infamous freestyle session, it was time for the man with a flow that is still unmatched today to concoct his debut album.
Released in 2003, Philadelphia Freeway became an instant classic in his hometown and the Tri-State area. Led by the singles “What We Do” and “Flipside,” Philadelphia Freeway was certified Gold and pushed the rapper up the Roc-A-Fella food chain. To celebrate the 15-year anniversary of Free’s debut album, Urban Legends courted the proud Muslim rapper to discuss the album’s impact on rap, his early struggles, and the pressure that Roc-A-Fella stacked against him.
Take us through your initial mindset when Roc-A-Fella first gave you the green light to start recording Philadelphia Freeway.
I just wanted to do the best that I could do. Coming up in Philly as a rapper, being unique and your own-self is very important, so I just wanted to give the world the best version of me. The Roc really let me steer the creative direction of the project.
Did you feel like the project was your one shot at rap stardom?
Definitely, they say you take your whole life to make your first album, and I brought everything into Philadelphia Freeway. I remember a week before the album came out, I was super nervous like, "Are people going to like this shit… what if they don’t?" I definitely felt a lot of pressure on me and I was dealing with something behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t know about. A few people at the label were saying stuff like, "We don’t know if he can make a full album because of his voice." They were saying, "His voice might be too irritating for people." A couple were really doubting me, not really believing if I could do it or not. So I really wanted to prove them wrong, too.
Wow, were people at the label saying these things to your face?
Nah, I was hearing it from behind the scenes, people would come tell me. Nobody was saying it to my face… but then I started thinking, "There’s so many people that want this position that I have I, so I’m here for a reason!"
At that time, I can imagine that even the thought of you having a full time rap career was new.
Yeah, it definitely was, but rap was always something I wanted to do. I started seeing people like Major Figgas, Beanie Sigel, and Eve doing their thing, people that I could actually touch. It made my dream more believable. It made it a reality and I never hated on nobody. I just thought I could do this, too. I knew I had the talent.
Without the rap checks coming in, it must have been a constant stuggle for you to take care of your family and pay bills before your debut dropped.
I was still in the streets… for a minute. You see, I was one of the last ones to get signed. I still had to do whatever to take care of myself. I just had a son and a daughter at the time. I knew it was “now or never.” Right before we recorded “1-900-Hustler,” I had gotten locked up and put on house arrest. Beans would be like, "I got you, as soon you off house arrest, you going to be right here with me." And he’s hitting me from like L.A. and Miami, just telling me that I’m going to be good. When I did get off house arrest, I started going back and forth to New York with Beanie, and they were recording the Dynasty album at the time. I landed the verse on the record, and never looked back ever since.
“1-900-Hustler” really put you on the map, so to say. Then you were on a JAY-Z album that was being distributed worldwide. Did you feel like you were starting to become famous?
Nah, because people didn’t know what I looked like. [Laughs.] There was no Instagram or anything around back then. Of course, around my hood and Philly, it was poppin’ but the moment I really knew things things were heating up was when I hit up this old club in Philly called Pegasus. I think it was like on 38th and Chestnut. My man Cousin E (Beanie Sigel’s cousin) grabbed the mic after Beans’ show, and was like, "Cmon, Free, do your verse from '1-900-Hustler!’" I was honestly like, "Man, they ain’t going to know that shit." But I went to the front and the beat dropped the whole club knew my verse. That’s when I knew things were starting to get really real for me.
Amazing. I think one of the magical things about Philadelphia Freeway is the fact that Just Blaze produced the majority of the project. Was that the original plan?
It just happened. Just Blaze was coming with the hot shit for me. We had built a little rapport from doing “Roc The Mic” in Miami. I would just be around Baseline studios like, "What you got for me, Just?" He went ahead and cooked up joints specifically for me like “Free” and “What We Do.” I just poured my passion into them joints.
To this day, those records remain as two of your all time classics.
I remember when we did “What We Do” at Baseline, Jay was in the pool room, just chillin’. I originally just wanted him to come in and record the “Keep going Free” ad-lib for me. He would usually add little ad-libs on my songs just to make them better. He came in and just listened to the joints for like 10 minutes and was like, "I got you!" He went in there and started spittin’—“Hov never slackin mayne…” I knew it was going to be crazy, but he had to leave right after. Then Mack comes strolling in and I let him hear it. He jumped on the song right there on the spot. A fuckin' classic to this day.
That really shows the organic chemistry you guys had. As I’m reading down the tracklist, it just gets crazier. You had Nate Dogg on “All My LIfe.” Are you the first Philly rapper to get a feature from the late legend?
[Laughs.] I think so, it was a blessing to work with him. Shout out to Bink! who produced the song. I was in Los Angeles working with him and Nate just comes walking in. Next thing I know, Nate is just leaning on the piano and started humming the melody for the hook. I knew it was going to be crazy. Rest in peace Nate Dogg, it was such a blessing. I got inspired by the beat to write just like him.
How long after the album came out did you feel like it was really a success? Were you measuring it based on sales?
I mean it sold like 150,000 copies in the first week and everyone was saying that was good, so I was happy about that. And we were on the road, touching people from everywhere, so I got to feel the love first hand and it was genuine.
Did the more heartfelt songs on the album come later during the recording process?
I would spend weeks at a time at Baseline, and I was just cooking. A lot of times it would be just Kyambo (Hip-Hop) and Guru in there with me. I think it took about five or six months to get the whole album done. I remember flying out to LA to record with Faith and she killed “Don’t Cross The Line.” I also remember how Nelly bodied “On My Own” for me, too. We used go fuck with Nelly when we was in St. Louis, he always kept it real with me and Beans, so we already had good relationship. Good person.
Even with all the names we just mentioned, for a upcoming Philly rapper to have Snoop Dogg, JAY-Z and Mariah Carey on his debut album is legendary.
I didn’t even think about it like that. I was so worried about the quality of music, I didn’t even think too much about who was on the album. It took a minute for it all to really sink in.
Lastly, were Jay, Dame and BIggs constantly popping into the studio to check on you during the recording process?
Yeah, they were all around at the time. Biggs and Dame would be in there more I would say. And you had Dipset, Bleek and his crew, and the rest of State Property around the studio too, it was star studded. Steel sharpen steel, so being around all those great artists was a blessing in disguise.