Hip-hop fusion act FreeSol entertained a enthusiastic, tightly packed crowd of over 1,000 people when they played a set at New York’s Irving Plaza last Thursday night (Sept. 1). While the crowd swayed and sang along to tunes from the group’s forthcoming debut album, “No Rules,” the loudest squeals were reserved for their keyboardist, a fedora-clad Justin Timberlake, who performed a string of his hits midway through the set.
Since signing to Timberlake’s Tennman Records imprint in 2006, the Memphis-based quintet has become used to the pop superstar drawing attention their way: last week’s Irving Plaza showcase, and a surprise performance by the group and Timberlake at New York’s Southern Hospitality the previous night, marked their highest-profile performances yet, partly because Timberlake performed at each event. However, the group doesn’t mind letting Timberlake help them pack their shows.
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“Who wouldn’t want to be where we are right now? What act trying to get in the game wouldn’t want Justin opening up a show in front of a thousand people?” says Free, the group’s frontman. “Would it become a shadow that we would want to get out of eventually? Ask us in a few years. Right now, we’re flattered.”
After forming in 2003 and spending time on the road, FreeSol met Timberlake through a mutual friend in 2005 and played a showcase for him. According to Free, the group was about to take a label deal one year later, but Timberlake swooped in and signed the group to his Interscope-affiliated Tennman label.
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“Justin wanted to have a hands-on project — he saw something commercial, something the public would see in us,” says Free. Timberlake signed on to executive-produce the band’s first album, but the singer’s schedule prevented FreeSol from quickly producing a debut. The group spent five years honing their sound and amassing a large collection of tracks, but Free says that, when they were done their “journey,” Timberlake was full on board.
“He was a coach. He didn’t really get involved until we presented songs we liked,” says the MC. Guitarist Elliott Ives adds, “We had 118 songs. He listened to 56 of them, and he graded them A, B or C. At the end of it, we had 17 A’s, and we just went for two weeks and [recorded].”
Timberlake has already co-directed a music video for “Hoodies On, Hats Low,” the first single from the group’s debut. Before FreeSol releases “No Rules” on Tennman Records this fall, the group says they’re happy working with Timberlake in a role that the pop star and former *NSYNC member has never held.
“For him, it’s a new experience to be a band member, and with the exception of a couple songs, almost a utility guy,” says Ives. “It’s crazy — I have to remind myself. I look around and it’s freaking JT right there playing keys!”