Since we just jacked Nah Right (take a nap, dude) for this new leak from Free at Last, we figured it was a good time to share our conversation with Freeway about Philly, faith and his return to the limelight with the new album straight from the pages of FADER 49.
Freeway f. 50 Cent, "Take it to the Top"
INTERVIEW Will Dukes PHOTOGRAPHY Gabriele Stabile
For a city with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country—420 murders this year at press time and climbing—Philadelphia’s moniker as the City of Brotherly of Love is a paradox at best. Twenty eight years ago, Freeway (born Leslie Pridgen) was born into the economically repressed North Side and the open conflict between hope and fury seems to have stayed with him ever since. Freeway first made his mark on the collective conscience in 2003 with his teeming, baroque soul debut Philadelphia Freeway, which was released under the then-unstoppable Roc-A-Fella imprint. In recording the album, the Muslim rapper openly called upon his demons, recalling harrowing childhood experiences and run-ins with the law—including a brief stint on house arrest—which he says was his sole inspiration for making music his livelihood. In the four years since his debut, he witnessed the split of the Roc empire and completed a pilgrimage to Mecca, two events which threatened to end his career. But Freeway has chosen sides and deferred the holy life in order to pursue what he believes will finally save him. This October sees the release of his highly anticipated second album, Free At Last a clarion call from the streets that rings with the all the anger, desire and anticipation that its title would suggest.
You recently said you stopped recording because of a “spiritual battle?”
Something like that. Being Muslim—there’s something called the Five Pillars of Islam, five things that you’re obligated to do as a Muslim. One of them is visiting Mecca and making the pilgrimage—if you can afford to do it in your lifetime. So that’s one of the things that I always wanted to do when I got enough money. I went over there [in 2005] and it really touched me. And I been Muslim damn near all my life, but the whole time that I was Muslim, nobody never told me that music was haraam—that’s the Arabic word for “unlawful” in Islam. I never knew that until I finally got on and started making money off of music. So when I went overseas, they was really on me, like, “You know you not supposed to be doing that. And if you go back [to doing] the same thing, then you didn’t get nothing out of your trip.” It really touched me, and it really had me going through it for a minute like, Am I’m gonna do this? But I do it so good, and that’s how I feed my family. So there we go.
Some might argue that in making music and more or less getting off the streets is in itself a positive thing.
Yeah, but [according to Islamic law] doing music…it harms two people. It harms me and it harms the people that listen to my music. The time that I take to make the music and to write, I could be studying, I could be praying, doing stuff that I need to do to build my spirituality up. And for the fans, the time that they take to listen to my music, they could be studying, reading or doing something beneficial to them. And when you’re a Muslim, when you die, you’re judged by your deeds. And the whole point of it is for your good deeds to outweigh your bad deeds—the things that you leave on Earth could determine more good deeds or bad deeds. Say I bought a bunch of books and I gave ’em to the kids and they was readin’ ‘em while I was dead and they was gettin’ knowledge from ‘em; I would still be getting good deeds while in the grave. But me being a musician and having music out there while I’m dead, people still playing my music—you know how you still listen to BIG and Tupac and all that—I’ma still be getting sins for that while I’m dead. So it affects me too, as far as the Day of Judgment.
Given that you were raised Muslim, you also obviously spent some time in the streets, too. What was the turning point, like a pivotal moment when you felt like you had to get out of that?
When I got locked up. I had caught a case—possession with attempted delivery—that’s when I was still in the streets heavy. One day I was in the hood, on the block with my man, and a lady had got robbed. And I had just came from the studio—I had my new tape—I was in the car with my man like, “Let me hear the tape.” So the cops pulled up on the car, and my man was like, “I’ma just cut the car off and we gonna go in the house.” So we cut the car off and started going in the house, and the cops was like, “Yo, come here!” So I ran. I ran through my aunt’s house, went through the backyard—they caught me. When they ran my name they like, “Well, that’s why you ran; you had warrants.” So I had to sit for like a week, until I got the retainer lifted. And then I went to court; we took care of the shit. I had to do a little bit of time on house arrest. Then after that, I was like, Man, when I come home, I’m gonna do this music shit. And I was fucking with Beans; when I was on house arrest, Beans was calling me, like, “Yo, I’m in Miami, nigga; this shit crazy! Watch, when you get off house arrest, I got you. I’m here; I’m in Atlanta and shit’s crazy!” So, when I got off house arrest, he had me with him, and we started going up to NY; they was recording The Dynasty. I did that “1-900-Hustler” shit, and it was a wrap. I remember I bagged. I made that nigga Jay run out the room, like, “Yo this nigga’s crazy!” Him and Dame [Dash], them niggas was going crazy. Then when I came home a little while later, I got locked.
Your first album was in 2003, what took you so long to put out Free At Last?
I used to hustle, you know; I got money on the streets. But that was my first time really having legal money. Between that time and ’05, I been doing shows the whole time. I think I probably had a year where I was just chilling—then there was a lot of shit going on with the label [Roc A Fella]. I went on three or four tours with Jay so people was always calling me to do shows, and that was cool. Then I had the whole Ice City crew—working on that. But the whole time I was really working on putting shit together [for another album, it] just never came together for me. And then with that whole breakup [between Jay and Dame], that shit took a year or two for niggas to really find out what the hell was going on ’cause they didn’t tell us nothing for a whole minute. When Cam and them signed and Cam was the president [of the label] while Jay was gone, and then Dame came back—I think that was when that shit first started.
After that, motherfuckers wasn’t really telling the people what was going on. I knew shit wasn’t right, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I remember I was on the R Kelly tour with Jay, and he pulled me and the Young Gunz to the side, like, “Yo, I got y’all whatever happens, you know what I’m sayin’? Gonna make sure y’all good—we gonna have this next run.” So that’s when I was like, Oh, alright. Looking like shit might be crazy.
After the split, did you have a preference for Jay or for Dame?
You know I fuck with Jay; I fuck with Damon, I got love for both of them. But as far as the music, what rapper wouldn’t want to fuck with Jay-Z? Dame and Biggs—I ain’t gonna fake it—they brought a lot to the table; they was always there. Dame would come to the studio and sit with you, fuck with you; Biggs would be in the studio and fuck with you. It was like a family. Jay was always busy, but he still had love for niggas. When I came back from Mecca, the people around me knew what vibe I was on, but Dame didn’t really know. That shit got back to Dame, and we had a meeting—me, Dame and Biggs—and they was like, “You gon’ stop rapping?!” I’m like, “Who the fuck told y’all that shit?” ‘Cause that was something I was going through myself. That shit was kinda crazy—they was really on some shit, like they was gonna drop me and everything! After that, when Jay came to me and told me, “I got you,” I was like, this shit seems stable, so I’m gonna run with that.
At a certain point, 50 Cent kinda stepped in, too. Describe how that went down.
I been fucking with Fif—you know, our first albums came out around the same time, so we did a lot of running around together. Fif always ain’t have nothing but love for me. So he reached out, like, “I’m in a position right now—I could help you with your project. Whatever I can do for you, let’s do it.” We was just fucking around for a minute and then we came up with the [songs for my first album], and he was an executive producer, along with Jay.
You seem extra hungry on Free At Last.
My nigga Young Chris got an album coming out; it’s called Now Or Never, and that’s basically the mind state that I had going into the album. If I don’t do it now, then what the hell? Ain’t no turning back! I made my mind up that this is what I’m gonna do. I went against my religion and everything, so it’s like, I really gotta make this count.
What do you see yourself doing once you’re comfortable in the industry?
It’s one of the goals to get myself together and live how a Muslim is supposed to live. But the beautiful thing about religion, period, and God, period, is that we’re all sinners. In the Qu’ran it says, If mankind was perfect, I would destroy y’all and make a whole new generation. But the best of us are those that repent. At prayer, ask God for forgiveness. With that in mind, when I pray I tell God, I know what I’m doing is wrong right now, but I’m sure, Allah, if you give me time….I have enough time, if I live enough to do what I’m supposed to do, that’s what I’m gonna do. And that’s my intention. It’s about being honest about what’s in your heart.
That makes you different from a lot of rappers today who are afraid to show emotions.
I speak how I feel—I’m a reality rapper. I don’t give a fuck. Dude, I’m doing me. If they don’t feel it, then fuck ‘em.
Freeway f. Lil Wayne, "Step Back"
Freeway f. Rick Ross, "Criminal Opera"
Freeway f. Jay-Z & Beanie Sigel, "What We Do"
Freeway f. Peedi Crakk, "Flipside"
Buy Philadelphia Freeway