This week sees the release of Diamond In The Ruff – the fourth studio album from Philadephia veteran Freeway. It’s been almost a decade since he popped-up in the Roc-A-Fella catalog and subsequently cemented his status as a heavyweight contender and mythical figure of hip-hop lore.
Years later, Freeway’s place in the collective rap consciousness has been like a supporting character on a long-running TV series. He might not be as involved in major plot developments as co-stars like Jay Z and Kanye, but when he pops-up for a Halloween special, the charm and nostalgia factor kicks in and you can’t help but smile and think of those Roc days of yore.
Freeway has carved-out a market for himself among those most ardent defenders of 'real' hip hop, and like any good politician, Free knows better than to neglect his base. For Diamonds In The Ruff, he’s getting assists from a loaded roster of veterans, including production from Jake One, Needlz, BINK! and his first record with Just Blaze since the mid-2000s.
In anticipation of this latest release, I sat down with Freeway to talk about reunions, faith, Philadelphia, spirit animals and universal truths.
So, the new album is out. Are you nervous at all? Do you feel like it’s a departure from your earlier work, or does it stay pretty true to your sound?
I'm excited now that I'm starting to get some reviews and people are saying they like it. I'm always nervous, ‘cause it's just like, you never know how the world’s gonna take what you do. I don't want people to be like 'oh, what is he doing.'
One of the first singles off the album was the track “Early” with Just Blaze. Can you explain 'Team Early' for me?
Well, Team Early is my movement that I started like, I would walk around and always say 'early,' you know, and me being Muslim, I'm up early every morning. The first period of the day is called Fajr. It's about sending out a positive message every morning for the people you know. Just give them a little bit of awareness.
You love Instagram.
I love Instagram. I was at this restaurant the other day and my phone was on the charger. I was looking over there like…I need my phone! I don’t use Instagram filters. I build my own – It’s part of what I do.
You've already worked with so many important and crazy influential people, is there anyone you're still waiting to work with?
Dre, Eminem, Nas. That’s it.
Any collaborations on the new album that you felt really excited about or that went really well?
I was excited about the collaboration that I did with Musiq [Soulchild]. Me and Musiq we got a history together. We went to high school together. This was the first time. When I got this record, I reached out to him like, 'I got this record I need you on, it's gonna be crazy.' And he was like, 'I got you' and we made it happen.
To what extent is Philadelphia still a big influence on what you do?
Philly is everything to me because, as you know, I named my first album Philadelphia Freeway. It's a huge part of me. I love repping where I'm from. I think if I wasn't from Philadelphia my music probably would be different. You know, cause I rap about what I've seen, and things I’ve seen growing up, and street life and things like that. So you know, it's a heavy influence on my career.
Do you think because it's a smaller community there's stronger ties between artists there?
I think we're trying to get together now, but there was a point in time where there wasn't a strong sense of people getting together and getting along and everything. Like, I envy people in places like Atlanta cause you've got, like, T.I. and Jeezy and all these artists that's real successful and they coexist together in the same city. There was a point when it wasn't like that, everybody didn't get along, but now everybody's trying to get along in Philly.
Like, I got a lot of love for Meek [Mill]. I seen him come up, you know, and I knew he was gonna do his thing. He's been good. He's been good since he was young, so it was just a matter of time. As long as he's got his head on straight. My kids are 12 and 13, and they love rap. They love Meek Mill. He's like the biggest thing ever to them. My son had a birthday party and I got Meek Mill to come and he was like the happiest kid ever after that.
I’m going to be in the neighborhood next weekend, do you have any recommendations of places to check out?
You seen the liberty bell? Definitely go see the liberty bell. You have to.
I think I saw it on an 8th grade field trip, but I’m not sure I got the full impact. Would you say you have a spirit animal?
Like, an animal that you really identify with.
What animal am I? Hmmm… I like reindeer. You know why I like reindeer? ‘Cause my middle name is Rudolph.
Damn, did you ever get teased about it as a kid?
Oh, did I. Well, my first name is Leslie, and my middle name is Rudolph. When I was growing up – you know how like in the beginning of the year when they call people first they call the girls and then they call the boys – they used to always call me with the girls and it was so embarrassing. They'd be like 'Leslieeeee,' and I'm like: 'I'm a boy.' They'd get it right, finally, after a couple days of that. I always knew at the beginning of the year I was gonna have to go through that shit.