"I was there because I wanted to see my friend, and I wanted people to know that me and Jay are still cool," Freeway says.
On May 14, Jay-Z held a press conference on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to announce a new two-day music festival, Budweiser Made in America, to be held Labor Day weekend (Sept. 1-2) at Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway in Fairmount Park. To make the announcement, Jay-Z-who is headlining the event and curating the bill (presented by Budweiser, with proceeds benefiting the United Way)-was joined by Philly Mayor Michael Nutter, the United Way of Southern Pennsylvania president/CEO Jill Michal and Anheuser-Busch chief marketing officer Paul Chibe. Also present, at stage left, was an unexpected sight for many longtime Jay-Z fans: Philadelphia native and former Roc-a-Fella Records artist Freeway.
"I was there because I wanted to see my friend, and I wanted people to know that me and Jay are still cool," says the rapper, born Leslie Edward Pridgen, who stood silently onstage during the announcement. "If you follow me or you're familiar with what I do on the Internet, whenever anyone comes to town in Philly that I'm OK with, I usually come and support them."
Still, Freeway's presence at the press conference caught many by surprise. A street-tough rapper with an unmistakable bristly voice, he signed with Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella Records shortly after his appearance on the song "1-900-Hustler," which was included on Jay's chart-topping 2000 LP "The Dynasty: Roc La Familia." His Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam debut, "Philadelphia Freeway," followed in 2003, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 526,000 sold to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
However, a follow-up was slow to arrive, and after Jay-Z announced his retirement in 2003 (and with the future of Roc-a-Fella uncertain as a result), the devout Muslim made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Sophomore effort "Free at Last" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam) finally arrived in 2007, the same year that Jay-Z left his tenure as Def Jam president. But with 115,000 sold and a No. 42 peak on the Billboard 200, it made little noise. By 2009, Roc-a-Fella and Def Jam had released Freeway.
Freeway's attendance at the press conference didn't come without controversy. The rapper wasn't included in a group photo op at the event, prompting media to assume that his presence wasn't actually welcome and sparking a flurry of chatter online that found Freeway the butt of many jokes. Still, he remains unfazed.
"All press is good press, and I've definitely been doing a lot of press," says Freeway, who took to Twitter (@PhillyFreezer, 88,000 followers) during the press conference to post a picture of himself with Jay-Z at the event with the note: "Stop that shit, Jay my N***a!!" "I'm happy for the press, because the truth is, Jay knew that I was there and it was all love. There's nothing negative about that. People just turned it into what they wanted to. I actually thought it was kind of funny."
Since breaking with Roc-a-Fella, Freeway has been releasing music independently, including 2009's Philadelphia Freeway 2 (14,000 sold) on Real Talk Entertainment and The Stimulus Package (32,000), which arrived on Rhymesayers Entertainment in 2010. Currently, the free agent is working with e-commerce site Karmaloop and clothing company Rocksmith to release his new mixtape Freedom of Speech, which features production from AK47, B. Jones, Mike Jerz and Just Blaze.
Set to arrive next month, Freedom precedes upcoming album "Diamond in the Rough," which Freeway hopes to deliver by the end of the year or the top of 2013. The 34-year-old is still unsigned, but with "60%" of "Diamond in the Rough" completed, he's hoping to secure a worthwhile deal to release the LP through a major label or on his own. Additionally, he's in talks to record separate full-length albums with Just Blaze and Bink!, who produced two tracks on Free at Last.
As for Made in America, Freeway is all for it. "I think it's huge for Philly," he says. "Everybody's already talking about it." The festival's full lineup will be announced May 21, with tickets going on sale May 23.