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(Cover Story) The Evolution of the Philly Freezer.

March 10, 2011

Text and images by G.W. Miller III.

Freeway has just returned from Sweden. And Denmark.

Actually, as soon as he came back to Philly from two weeks in Scandinavia, he bounced to North Carolina – and then South Carolina – where he performed a few shows over the weekend. And a few hours after returning from North Carolina, he hopped a flight to Las Vegas where he did more shows.

Regardless, the rapper who grew up in West Philly and was educated on the streets of North Philly, is home, for a while at least.

“That’s a whole lot of stuff I did and seen,” says Freeway. “So that’s a whole lot of stuff for me to rap about.”

He’s on his way to shoot a video in North Philly, not far from his old stomping grounds – around 7th and Montgomery, 8th and Oxford.

“I’m from West but I did a lot of my dirt and stuff in North Philly,” Freeway says with a smile.

On one hand, Freeway, whose given name is Leslie Pridgen, is the same hustler he’s always been – the hard working, hard rhymer who’s constantly on the go but is always conscious of his friends and family.

On the other hand, the 2011 Freeway, now 31, is completely different from the artist who smashed into the hip hop scene a decade ago, rolling alongside Beanie Sigel and cranking out hits with Jay-Z.  He’s  more innovative, business savvy and rhythmically creative.

“As you get older and more mature, you evolve,” he says. “I feel like I’m way better now than I was then. I definitely feel like I got more flows, more styles. I don’t write. I just create. It’s easier for me to do it now. The material is different because I been more places, seen more things.”

•••

In preparation for the video shoot, Freeway pulls a small black case out of his backpack. He unzips the case and pulls out a few items that are carefully-wrapped in white cloth – an inch-wide, diamond-encrusted ring and matching two-inch wide bracelet, as well as a long gold chain with a medallion with the initials “SP” – for State Property, the Philly rap collective.

“I always liked to rap since I was little, you know?” Free says. “I was in the street so I rapped about street shit, what was going on. It’s funny cause I used to fabricate a lot. I used to talk about my chain and my watch and I really didn’t have that yet. Now I got it, you know?”

He deliberately twists the ring on his right middle finger, drapes the bracelet over his wrist and hangs the chain around his neck. He instantly goes from preppy to flashy.

When Free was a teen during the late 90s, things were happening in Philly rap. Ram Squad was blowing up. Task Force signed with Elektra Records.

Freeway was just hanging with his friends, like Peedi Crakk (now known as Peedi Peedi) and Indy 500, working on their skills and occasionally going down to South Philly to mess with Beanie Sigel.

“I always had the determination,” Freeway says. “I always felt as though I was going to do it.”

They started hanging out with RuggedNess and the rest of the crew at Platinum Bound, the core of which went on to become BatCave Studios.

“We was getting it in,” Freeway says. “We was just grinding in there all the time and going up to New York. “

In January 1999, Freeway got a big break – he was flown to Las Vegas where Jay-Z was watching the Mike Tyson vs. Francois Botha fight.

“I spit for Jay,” Freeway remembers. “He was fucking with me but nothing much really came out of that.”

•••

Two years later, Beanie Sigel, who is six-years older than Freeway, was working with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella.

“They took us up to spit for Jay,” Freeway recalls. “When I went up there, Jay went crazy. He was loving it.”

It seemed like it was finally falling into place.

“Around that time, I was still street heavy,” Free says.

He’d been busted for drugs with intent to deliver but he failed to go to court. So a warrant was issued for his arrest. One day, he was picked up by the police – he fit the description of someone accused of a nearby robbery.

“When they ran me through, they found out I had warrants against me and I got locked up,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Damn, shit’s about to take off.’ I got locked up. Had to do a little bit of time. I was in the county for like two weeks. My old head bailed me out and got me a lawyer. They had this drug program I had to go to for 90 days and I did that. Then I did house arrest for six months.”

Sigel called him all the time while he was on house arrest.

“Yo, I’m here,” he’d say. “This shit’s crazy. When you get out, you going to be right here with me.”

As soon as his time was up, Freeway went to New York while Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Beanie were recording 1-900-HUSTLER. Jay invited Freeway to spit on the record.

“They gave me the beat for that,” he says. “I went home, wrote the verse, came back and that was crazy.”

On a song full of stars, Freeway’s high-pitched voice, brash lyrics and mad delivery stood out. He wasn’t even signed to the label. Yet.

“After that, it was full-steam ahead,” he says.

•••

His 2003 debut album, Philadelphia Freeway, sold 132,000 copies during the first week. He made a movie, performed at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, dropped a few more albums, traveled the world, collaborated with some of the industry’s biggest names and he was getting paid.

Then Beanie went to jail on weapons charges. Roc-A-Fella’s Jay-Z and Dame Dash had a massive falling out, disrupting the hip hop world (Free followed Jay to Def Jam). iTunes changed the recording industry and Freeway found himself at the height of his career with no one helping him out.

“I had a choice of either putting out another album on Def Jam or I could take my career into my own hands and go indie,” Freeway says. “So that’s what I did.”

In 2009, he dropped Philadelphia Freeway 2 on an independent label. Then he collaborated with Jake One at Rhymesayers Entertainment, an indie label based in Minneapolis, on The Stimulus Package.

Last year, Statik Selektah pitched Freeway the idea of making an album in one day. Two days later, they were in the studio.

“I had never heard none of the beats before,” Free says. “He put the beats on and I created songs for them. We did it live on the Internet and let the world see the process, what it takes for me to make an album. We made an EP – seven songs in seven hours. And the music was still good.”

It’s just part of the business plan, the way to keep Freeway in the minds and ears of his fans.

“The people are so hungry for the material, the music, you got to keep feeding them,” he says. “You got to do mixtapes and drop songs in between. Or else you lose relevancy.”

His next mixtape, Diamond in the Rough, has been in the works for months – they’ve been leaking singles since September.

“I called it Diamond in the Rough because a diamond has to go through a lot before it shines,” Free says. “First of all, they got to dig it out the mines. Then it’s in stone and it has to go through a whole process before it shines. With the whole Roc-A-Fella break-up and the climate of the music right now, and with me not changing – me doing me – I feel as though my career is symbolic of a diamond in the rough. Throughout all that stuff, you still shine.”

It’s likely to drop any day now, he says. The next full-length album will follow shortly, as will a collaboration with a West Coast artist named Jacker.

“I’m just cooking up, man,” Free says. “Going to flood the streets with heat.”

•••

Freeway 2011 is a philosopher.

“You have to go through everything you go through in order to be a man,” he pontificates. “I had to go through what I had to go through to know what I know now.”

His transformation seems to be rooted in his first Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims, that he took in 2004.  It had a huge impact on his personality and his music.

“I feel as though whatever you get, God could snatch it from you in a second,” he says. “I don’t cherish the material things. I cherish the friends, I cherish life, period. You’re not guaranteed the next breath.”

In December, Freeway performed in Djibouti, a largely Muslim country.

“We went out there to do a regular show,” he says. “But me being Muslim, talking to the people and giving them my heart, at the show, they was like, ‘Wow, you got to stay and perform for the prime minister.’”

So he did. And he struck up a few business deals – a few ventures he’s not ready to reveal just yet.

“Getting to go to Africa because of my music? Being able to touch the people?” Free ponders. “I could have just went there and performed and come home. But I touched the people so much that they wanted me to stay and perform for the prime minister of the country. All from a talent that God gave me.”

Freeway lowers his head and scratches his beard. He seems humbled.

“I don’t ever really be on no superstar shit with nobody,” he offers. “I’m the same dude – I keep it 100 percent with everybody.”

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