It’s been roughly a decade since the world recognized Roc-A-Fella Records as the strong hip-hop unit it once was in the late ’90s and early aughts. The estrangement of the two figureheads — Dame Dash and Jay Z — produced a trickle-down effect that left some of the most skilled artists finding new homes for their work.
However, in the midst of the chaos, Philadelphia rapper and Roc alum Freeway has always maintained peace with everyone involved. That has proven to provide great returns, as Freeway just announced his joint venture deal with Roc Nation and his own imprint Newrothchilds.
Freeway will once again be making and releasing music with the man who put him on almost a decade and a half ago. However, he has managed to sustain a fruitful career as an independent artist and spokesperson for a number of causes. Here, he talks to Billboard exclusively about his return to the Roc and how his longevity in the game is fueled by his hustle and devotion to Islam.
How did the situation with Jay Z come up in signing with Roc Nation?
We’ve always maintained a good relationship with Jay and everybody over there. We did the B-Sides concert with him — I think that was probably like two years ago. When I was there with him, I gave him some music, just continuing the grind and everything. He was f–king with the music, and everything was all good. So then when I saw him again backstage at the Beyonce concert in Philly, I was like, “Man listen, Jay. I need this. I’m ready! I need this.” He was like, “It’s nothing. Let’s get it done!” And that’s it!
Really? Just like that?
Yeah, he was just like, “Let’s get it done.” Of course, there was a process getting it done afterwards, just like it is with everything. But you know, we got it done. It’s such a blessing.
Did you have any thought in your mind that you would probably come back and work together again at some point?
I mean, of course it’s something that I always wanted to do. I just was doing my own thing and trying to work as hard as I can on my own. If the opportunity presented itself for me to make it happen, I always knew that I would try.
It didn’t seem like you had to try very hard. It seems like Jay was really down for that.
Yeah! Like I said, it was a couple times that I had seen him. The first time I had seen him at the B-Sides [show], I expressed interest, gave him some music. Then I had another situation. I had an independent deal and an independent album that I was putting out, so I knew I couldn’t do it right then so I just gave him the music and let him know what I was working on and keeping him abreast of everything that was going on. I couldn’t sign anything because I was locked into an independent situation. When that was over, I had to wait three months before I could do anything. It was all perfect timing. By the grace of God, it happened one after the other. As soon as my thing was up, I ran into Jay, told him I was ready and he was like, “Let’s get it done!”
Now about two years ago when you were doing the Tidal B-Sides concert, there were rumors that Jay Z was going to reunite the Roc, especially after getting you on stage with Beanie. Was there any talk at that point like, “We need to do something together,” or was it just like ,“This is beautiful, this is revisiting that magic” and kind of putting it back down?
I mean it was definitely more, “This is beautiful.” We’re always happy just to be there and be a part of it, you know? They reached out to me, just like they reached out to everybody else. We were just happy to be a part of it. Of course, when we were backstage, we were all talking amongst each other like, “Yeah, we need to make something happen!” but nothing ever really materialized out of it. But you know, it was definitely a good time. It was great to rap with everybody and just have everybody together.
In what order were you signed to Roc-A-Fella when State Property joined the roster?
I was actually signed last out of everybody from State Property. I had known Beans and everything, but I got locked up for possession with attempt to deliver. I was on house arrest and everything so when all that was going on, that’s when everybody else like Chris and Neef [Young Gunz] and everybody got signed. I think [Peedi] Crakk got signed after me, but out of me, Chris and Neef, O and Sparks and all them, I was the last one to get signed.
But arguably, you rose to become one of the most prominent members of State Property and just even as a signee of the Roc.
Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs]
The cool part about you and your relationship with everyone involved is that you’ve managed to be a very peaceful figure within the Roc family.
Yeah, I’m good with everybody, and I think that has a lot to do with me being Muslim and Islam. I treat people how I want to be treated and I respect everybody. It’s all love.
You’ve been doing some things outside of music that are really important. You’ve been involved in politics, you’re a spokesperson for kidney disease awareness. Can you talk about a few of the causes you’re supporting?
In September of 2015, I was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. Since then, instead of me hiding what I was going through, we chose to stand in front of it, so I’ve been doing a lot of speaking engagements and going to different schools and community centers and just reaching out to the people and talking about the importance of taking care of yourself, the importance of health care.
I had the pleasure of being one of the surrogates for Hillary Clinton during her campaign for presidency, and I just was going around different cities telling my story and telling people the importance of health care and having affordable health care. You’d be surprised when I came out with my story how many people in inner cities and in the hood are affected by the same thing that I’m affected by … or other ailments, and they can’t even get proper healthcare.
I don’t think people realize how frequently you visit doctors and just how important that health care is for you.
I have to do dialysis three times a week, four hours a day. I’m on a list waiting for a transplant. So until I get a transplant, that’s a part of my life. Health care is definitely very important.
When you’re touring, how does that affect the schedule?
Say I’m on a tour and it’s a couple weeks or maybe like a month, I just have to set up dialysis in the different cities that I go to.
Wow, that’s a lot of prep work.
Yeah, but you know, it’s just another notch added to my grind. It’s another obstacle that I have to overcome. But you know, we with it! It’s all good. In Islam, there’s a saying that God’s not going to put anything on you that you can’t handle, so I’m a firm believer in that.
Now in terms of making the music, what’s to come? What are the next steps? Is there an album, is there a mixtape, a single?
Yeah, I’m working on finishing the album now. I’ve got so much music because I’ve been recording, and we’ve been in talks of having the situation done. So I’ve been getting the music ready. I’ve got a bunch of incredible music. I’m looking forward to dropping this first project.
The situation I’ve got at Roc Nation is we’ve got a joint venture with my company, New Roth Childs. Me and my man Scholito started this company together like two, two-and-a-half years ago. We’ve just been doing our thing on the independent tip. We dropped a mixtape together called The FreeMix, I think the summer before last. Then I dropped another mixtape called Fear of a Free Planet, and we’ve just been going hard.
So you had all the music and were ready to activate, and then went to Jay like, “I got this and I’m ready,” instead of using your family ties, signing a deal and then putting yourself in the studio.
Yep. I mean it’s a couple little things that we got to pull together, like a couple features and everything, just to add to what we have, but we ready to go. I mean in the music business, we should always think a year ahead anyway. So, I’m always trying to be prepared and make sure that I got that Tupac catalog ready. [Laughs]
Can you talk of any features or producers on the project, and the ones you’re trying to get?
Well, this first project that we’re putting out, I got my in-house producer, S. Frank, that I’ve been working with. Scholito is actually a producer too, so they produced, I think, three records on the first project together. I don’t really have too many big producers on the first project that we’re going to put out but the music is incredible. I got some crazy features on my first project. I got [Lil] Wayne on there, I got Lil Uzi [Vert] on there, and it’s a couple other features that I’m trying to pull together. Hopefully they come through, and it’s looking good. This first project should be exciting for the fans.
Are we going to be getting that Jay feature?
I mean, you know, it’s only right that if we’ve been working together that we give them something. I’m looking forward to it.
Starting with the Roc and coming back to the Roc, what do you think is the biggest blessing about this homecoming for you?
Just to be able to do it on a major platform. Since the split of Roc-A-Fella, I’ve been grinding. I’ve been able to maintain a pretty successful independent career, but you always want to take it to the next level. To be able to be successful in the way that I want to be, you definitely need the machine behind you. I feel as though it’s good for music. Period. For me to be back working with Jay again, it’s good for hip-hop, it’s good for Philly, it’s good for New York. It’s good for everybody.
You had a big career as an independent artist. What’s the key to doing that?
You just gotta be able to grind. What I did was when Roc-A-Fella broke up and we split, it took me a little minute to snap out of the daze, but once I did that, I told myself I’m going to go back to what it took to get me here, and that’s work hard. So instead of me getting car services, cars pulling up to my house and my flights booked already, I might have to f–king get a rental and drive to North Carolina, book my own flights and take care of stuff on my own a little bit. It is what it is.
You just gotta be up for the grind, man. You gotta be willing to put that work in because it’s not easy and nobody’s going to give nothing to you. With the climate of music today, the attention span of the people are so short because there’s so much material out there that you gotta feed them and you gotta give them that quality.
Outside of music, what do you have coming up?
Besides the music, I’m the official ambassador for the National Kidney Foundation. The Kidney Walk is April 30 in Baltimore, Maryland, so I’m going to be leading the Kidney Walk and performing. I shot a documentary with this brother named Todd Reed, the executive producer for Al Jazeera America. We shot a documentary together called Free Will, and it’s basically the story of my fight with kidney failure. We’re going to premiere that on that day, and then give a performance. I invite everybody to come walk with us. It’s going to be an exciting day, and we need all the support that we could get. We’re walking for a good cause.