“You doubted me? You thought it was over?” asks Freeway near the end of “Wasted,” the second track from his January 2016 mixtape Fear of a Free Planet. The veteran Philadelphia MC then made the sort of remark you don’t expect to hear from a rapper. “Oh by the way I’m on the list/ That kidney on the way/ Philly we in here!”
Even devoted fans of the bearded rapper, whose animated rhymes made him a Roc-A-Fella roster standout during the early 2000s, may be surprised to learn that he was diagnosed with kidney failure last September. Since then, the 37-year-old rapper — who’s survived a lifetime of real situations in the Philly streets and has taken on countless MCs, both known and unknown — is now facing the biggest battle of his life: chronic kidney disease. He takes four-hour dialysis treatments three times a week, has flipped his diet and never turns his phone off in case a call from a doctor for a kidney transplant comes through.
Quiet as kept, chronic kidney disease affects one in 10 people worldwide with a disproportionate impact on black people. More than 1 in 3 kidney failure patients living in the United States is African-American. A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, who passed away last month at the age of 46, was just one of many going through a similar battle.
As Freeway prepares to release his new album, Free Will, which drops worldwide April 29 on Babygrande Records, he’s got more than music on his mind. He’s also detailing his health struggles in a forthcoming documentary, directed by Todd Reed (2012’s The-N-Word). “Freeway is an amazing artist and an equally amazing person,” says Babygrande founder Chuck Wilson. “The strength and discipline he displays daily to maintain his health, career and his new role as spokesman for kidney disease awareness is remarkable. It’s an honor to work with him.”
Perhaps even more impressive—to diehard fans away—is the co-sign Freeway received from his namesake, L.A. street legend Freeway Ricky Ross, who also appeared on Free’s 2016 mixtape Fear of a Free Planet. The former drug kingpin who took Miami rapper Rick Ross to court for using his name has no problem with Freeway paying him homage. “We just have a different type of respect for each other,” says the real-life Rick Ross. “These guys on the radio, they getting guys to write their music for them. But they didn’t live our stories and they don’t know our pain. It comes down to that phrase — real recognize real.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — the deadly serious situations he’s been facing of late, Freeway’s music sounds more urgent than ever. Like all artists signed to Roc-A-Fella, Free has labored in the long shadow of a living legend but his verses on tracks like “What We Do” featuring Jay Z made clear that the chubby dude with the long beard deserves a place on the short list of greatest East Coast MCs. As he says on the buzz track “Hot as Ice,” he’s been “waiting all my life.”
During a recent sit-down at a midtown NYC hotel, Freeway opened up about everything: from getting caught up in the streets just as he was trying to get down with Roc-A-Fella to making classics with Just Blaze and picking up the pieces after State Property got dropped. He reflects on Islam and hip hop, and shares what he learned in his two pilgrimages to Mecca. He also talks about holding down his friend Beanie Sigel after he was shot, shared his thoughts on ghostwriting and the Meek Mill versus Drake battle. Free even shared his thoughts on the upcoming election, specifically why he’s rocking with Bernie Sanders and why Donald Trump’s candidacy shows that there’s “something wrong with America.”
What was on your mind when you came up with the title and cover art for your album Free Will?
As human beings, we’re the only ones in God’s creation that actually has free will. We’ve got the ability to do right or do wrong, move forward or stay stagnant. All other God’s creations follow God’s rules and do what they’re supposed to do. Like the birds fly South for the winter and chirp and do what they supposed to do. The clouds do what they supposed to do. The earth rotates how it’s supposed to rotate. Human beings are the only ones that have free will so that’s where I was at when I got the title.
You’ve been in a very deep, reflective place it seems. It’s a little bit of a different mind space from previous projects.
As I grow, I’m a little older now and a lot more mature so I have a lot more to give. Basically “Hot as Ice” was a record to prove I still got it. From the hook to the verses, I’m just letting people know what’s going on. “I’ve been in and out of state/ I’m getting money can y’all n—as relate?” Just giving them the truth, the raw facts. You know, how I do it. How nobody else can do it.
It’s always been amazing to me how you broke in the rap game. Every overnight success does not happen overnight. There’s a long grind that leads up to it but you kind of burst into people’s awareness at the top of the pecking order.
Yeah it was definitely a blessing to come in how I came in. Co-sign from Jay? On his album? “1-900-Hustler.” It gets no better than that.
On that “1-900-Hustler” verse, you were on fire, rapping, “First thing’s first/ watch what you say out your mouth.” Were those some lyrics that you had for a long time?
No, I actually cooked it up for that. I got the beat, I took it home. I knew it was serious and I really had to go in. I took my time with it and came back. Jay [Z] was like, “This is your introduction to the world, so you gotta make sure it’s right.” He put the elevator music before my verse. [Sings melody] Then I came in: “First thing’s first, watch what you say out your mouth, when you talking on the phone to hustlers.” It was epic.
It really was. How did you get that shot? Beanie Sigel was just getting his foot in the door.
I was on the run when I went to rap for Jay. He was already feeling me. I had an open case—possession [of drugs] with attempt to deliver. I went to court then I ain’t go back because they was talking craziness so I’m like, “Alright, I’m gonna get a record contract. I’m gonna be famous. I’m gonna get a good lawyer.” That was my mind state. When I first went [to court], I didn’t have a lawyer.I was basically trying to keep it on the low from everybody. I didn’t really want nobody to know that I got locked up. I was trying to handle everything myself and it didn’t really work out for me. You definitely need a good lawyer when you’re going to court for drugs. I wound up getting a lawyer after I got locked up, when I came back from rapping for Jay. I had to do a few months in jail then I wound up going to a drug program, then I got house arrest and probation.
I would be talkin’ to Beans and he’d be like, “Yo, I’m in L.A. Watch, when you get off house arrest, I got you. You gonna be right here with me in Miami.” So when I got off house arrest, I was right with him. He was in the studio working on [[his second album] The Reason and working on [Jay Z’s fifth album] Dynasty. I was just always around. He was recording records and I was giving my input on stuff, just basically holding my man down. An opportunity presented itself for me to get on “1-900-Hustler.” They knew I was young, hungry. They knew I had a lot of bars, so Jay was like, “Let him do it.”
How did you deal with Beans’ shooting as his close friend?
It was definitely scary. I was there with him through the whole time. I would go up to the hospital all the time and sit with him. Bring him, like, Islamic stuff ‘cause you know Beans is Muslim too. I would just try to get him in the right space spiritually. I was just by his side. It’s definitely a blessing for him to still be here ‘cause the doctors were saying that we’d have to say our goodbyes.
Really? After he was already in the hospital?
Yeah, the first night or two it wasn’t looking good for him but he pulled through.
What was it with Jay and Philly? It seems like he gravitated to Philly MCs.
I know Jay loved lyricists. He loved people that bring something different to the table and that’s what we were doing.
The State Property wave represented a high point for street hip-hop with sophistication.
Yessir. I thought it would never end. [Laughs]
When did you feel something changing?
It was tension in the air before the breakup. Of course I didn’t know everything that was going on but I would hear little stuff but I basically mind my business. It was a point where I knew that it was over. And then one day, we was all in Philly and they called us to the studio. [Roc Nation exec] Lenny S. had called and gave us the news, like, “State Property getting dropped.” So I was like, “Man! What am I gonna do now?”
It took me a minute to actually get myself together. But once I got myself together, I went back to what I did to get to Roc-A-Fella — grind and work hard. Before I got on and before I got with Beans, I had a name in the street already for being one of them boys, you know? Everything that I was talking about in the music matched up. Everything was authentic.
Well, Freeway is a very big name in the streets. Was going back to L.A. the inspiration?
Freeway — that’s my man. The original Rick Ross? That’s my brother. He was actually on my mixtape that I just dropped. I dropped a mixtape in January called Fear of a Free Planet. He was on that joint. We had a little phone conversation before one of the records.
Why didn’t he have a problem with you using his name? He had a problem with Rozay.
When he was locked up, I reached out and let him know the situation. “I’m paying homage to you. It’s not disrespect or whatever. When you come home, if you need anything, I got you.” We just had that relationship. He came home, reached out to me. It was all love. He never needed anything but we always stayed in contact. I’d go out to L.A and he’d always come through, hold me down. He’d come to Philly, I’d hold him down. Last time he was in Philly I was riding him around the hood listening to my new album. It was surreal. I’m riding through North Philly with the original Freeway. Like… I actually took him to meet Beans. When Beans see it, Beans was like, “Yo, you pulled up with Freeway? You killed that!”
Philly continues to be very well represented. Have you been following Meek Mill’s career?
I been knew Meek from back in the day. I got a lot of love for him.
How did you feel watching him go through the situation with Drake?
Everybody got their own challenges and their own things that they gotta go through. Only the strong survive. The strong pull out of any situation. I feel as though he’s strong. He’s definitely not slacking. He’s getting his money up. He’s talented. Once he gets through the house arrest stuff, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna make a comeback.
Philly is known for battle rap. There were a lot of critics who wanted Meek to go in.
Me too. Definitely. I don’t really know what he was going through or none of that. I talk to him, we communicate, but we don’t talk every day. He could’ve went a little harder, but who knows? He’s still got a lot of talent. Like I said, he got his money up. He’s from Philly. So I feel as though he gon’ definitely make a comeback.
There’s a longstanding conversation in hip-hop about ghostwriting. As a lyricist, how do you feel about the idea of ghostwriters?
I know it definitely exists. If that’s what people want to do to get to the point of making a good record, then that’s up to them. I’m not into that, but obviously it’s working for people. It is what it is. It’s a different time. When we came up, it was none of that. You couldn’t go for a n—- with another n—-’s shit. But now, it’s a different time.
Another one of my favorites is your track “What We Do.” Was that a record that you wrote and then asked Jay Z to get on it?
Picture Baseline Studios. It might be me and Beans in one room. It might be Cam’ron and Juelz in another room. Might be [producer Just Blaze] in one room making a beat. Might be Kanye [West] in a room making a beat. Hip-Hop on the couch. [Young] Guru engineering. Jay in the studio. So when we did “What We Do,” I was in the “A room” with Guru. I laid the verses and everything. Jay was in the front room where the TVs was at, playing pool. I originally called him in just to do the “Keep goings.” Like in between [my lines, he’d say] “Keep goin’ Free.” I played the record for him and he was f—in’ with it. He sat down on the table, for like 10 minutes just like… I knew what he was doing, he was over there, mumbling to himself. Then he was like “Got you, Free.” And he went in the booth, laid the verse, and I was like, “Aw it’s about to go down!” I gave him a lot of bars on that joint. He actually wasn’t finished. He was like, “I’ma come back. I got some stuff to take care of, but I’m gonna come back and finish it tomorrow or somethin’.” And I was like, “Alright, bet.” Later on, Beans came to the studio and I was like, “I just did a joint with Jay. it’s crazy!” Beans’ like “Let me hear it.” I let him hear it and he was like, “Jay ain’t finishing this. I’m finishin’ this.” He went in the booth, put his verse on there, and the rest is history.
They actually didn’t want to make it a single because it didn’t have the normal structure of a song. It didn’t have verse, hook, verse, hook, verse, hook but it was so good, it wound up being a single anyway.
When you’ve made this many classics and reached a certain status, does that affect your approach to making a new album?
Being part of the [Roc-A-Fella] dynasty, we set a standard so I know the next thing I put out gotta be better than the last thing that I put out so I approach everything with that mindframe. When I’m workin’ on an album, I like to get in zones and just keep going. And that’s how it is with Free Will. I got with my producer, S. Frank. and my business partner, rap artist, producer Scholito and we just got into a zone. I actually had the majority of Free Will finished but I got with them like two years ago and we started just goin’ in and came up with a whole bunch of new records. We actually got eight records together on the album that they produced. They produced “Hot As Ice” too. It’s like a brand new sound that nobody’s familiar with. You know how when we came with the Dynasty [album] and everything, it was a new sound that you could feel and that nobody had. That’s what we’re trying to recreate.
What should fans be looking forward to?
In 2014, I dropped a project with a producer named Girl Talk. We did a project called Broken Ankles that was very successful for me. We toured the whole festival circuit — we did Coachella, Made In America, Firefly, Boston Calling. Any festival that was poppin’ that year, we did it. So that was definitely a blessing for me, rocking like 80,000 [people] a night. He has three records on the album. I got a record produced by the legendary L.E.S that worked with Nas. We got a joint on there. I got a few new producers like my man Tryfe from Seattle, Washington. He actually did a song featuring Young Buck from G-Unit, which is a street, club banger.
I’m just basically telling my story [on the album]. You’re gonna love it, trust me. If you loved the single, you’re gonna love the rest of the album. I feel as though nobody’s gonna skip a song. It’s that type of album.
Fans have been following some of the things going on in your personal life concerning your health. How are you feeling and how is your life different now?
For those that don’t know, in September of 2015 I was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. That’s basically when your kidneys fail so right now, I’m on dialysis three times a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The treatment is four hours. Dialysis is the process that cleans your blood. Your kidneys clean the toxin and the fluids out of your body. My kidneys was cleaning the fluid but they weren’t cleaning the toxins.
How did you learn that this was happening to you? What was it like when you found out?
Probably a few months before that it was building up. I was feeling groggy, I was feeling tired, very fatigued and I didn’t know what it was. I went to the doctors and they was thinking it was different things like something wrong with my stomach. I did a colonoscopy. I did an upper gastric test and all that. I never thought it was my kidneys.
I had two other major risk factors. In 2012, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes. A lot of Afro-Americans tend to have those problems. I was taking the medicine but I was still running around eating whatever I wanted and doing stuff I shouldn’t have been doing. And I remember [performing at] Made in America last year. I actually performed at Made In America three years out of the four years that it existed. That’s a blessings in itself.
I went to the masjid, prayed, asked God to help get me through the situation then I went to the hospital and that’s when I got the diagnosis. The next day, I was on dialysis, and I’ve been doin’ it ever since then.
Did they do surgery on your arm that first day?
Actually [the doctors] cut my chest open and put a catheter in my chest. It was like two plastic tubes stickin’ out my chest and they would access the blood that way. It was almost close to my heart. That’s why I couldn’t keep it in too long ‘cause it would get infected. I actually had to change it one time because it wasn’t working properly. They have to work you up to get this [points to arm] ‘cause this is your actual vein. Probably a few months after that, I went and got the operation for them to move the vein up here then I had to let it mature. It probably took six to eight weeks for it to mature.
What are the doctors telling you concerning your long-term prospects?
Well right now all my numbers is good. I’m feeling good after my treatments and I’m actually active on the kidney transplant list. I can’t turn my phone off ‘cause they can call me anytime. Like in the middle of the night, right now—anytime and I would have a certain amount of time to get to the hospital so they can give me the operation if they find a kidney that matches me, and I agree to that kidney.
What’s the most important thing you would stress for fans who may not be taking care of themselves health-wise?
The most important thing is to keep up with your routine physicals. If you feel like something is wrong, go to the doctor. As men, a lot of us feel like we can get over anything and we’re invincible. I felt like that at one time. I did it all. I been on world tours with Jay. I traveled. I been all over the world—Japan, Africa, everywhere. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Just like I tell people, if I can work hard and be successful, anybody can do that too.
You’d be surprised how many people reach out to me on the daily, like DMing me about certain little situations they have. I just try to encourage people to stay strong and just try your best to keep moving forward. That’s why I go so hard, and people will still see me. Like I’ll post an Instagram video of me sitting in a dialysis chair, then eight hours later, you’ll see me rocking a crowd of 2000 people. I want people to know just because I had renal failure doesn’t mean it’s a death sentence. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. If you believe in yourself, push hard and make the right choices and do the right things, you can get through anything.
Is any of this reflected in the new album? Do you touch on any of these topics?
Well actually the album was done before I got sick. But I dropped a mixtape in January called Fear of a Free Planet and I touch basis on that a lot ‘cause that was like fresh, right after the whole situation.
Let’s talk about health care. Most rappers don’t have health insurance from their job. How did you handle the medical bills? Did you have Obamacare?
No, I’m actually on my wife’s health insurance. She’s got Federal health insurance. It’s a blessing because before that, I was paying out of pocket for everything. I was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure in 2012 and I was paying for the medicine out of my pocket. It would be like 500 to 600 dollars a month just for the regular prescriptions I had to take.
Have you been following the election?
A little bit. You know I definitely keep up with what’s going on. I watch the world news and all that.
The democratic primaries are starting to look like a real street fight. How do you see it right now?
I mean if I was gonna go with anybody, I think I would rock out with Bernie because he cares about people, from what I see. I like Hillary too. I definitely don’t f— with Trump. He’s just too outrageous, man. It’s like a circus to me.
It’s kind of amazing that Trump’s made it this far.
It lets you know that there’s something wrong in this country. Just because [Trump’s] got all this money, he can run for president? His morals is not even right. What he said about the Muslims. You know, like how he want to get ‘em all out of here. That don’t even make no sense. How you gonna judge a whole group of people just because a few people are extremists? That’s not right. That’s not how you’re supposed to treat human beings.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.