Freeway, the man who describes himself as “the best bearded MC” and whose voice sounds like a muscle car’s engine turning over, will release his new album Free Will this Friday on Babygrande Records. Once one of the most thrilling members of Roc-A-Fella Records roster during its early 2000s heydey and a member of Philadelphia’s State Property crew, Freeway has consistently kept working since that era. In some of those intervening years his material felt adrift, but more recently he seems to have found his focus again, working on collaborative projects with unexpected partners like Girl Talk and The Jacka. Free Will keeps his new streak going.
The album, however, was recorded before he received a diagnosis of serious kidney disease in September of last year. While the illness definitely affects his life—he even has to keep his phone on at all times in case he receives a call about an available transplant—it has not stopped him from continuing to work on music and hitting the lecture circuit. Here Freeway talks about returning to his soulful sound and what he does during his four hours of dialysis.
Several of your last releases have been collaborations with other artists, while on Free Will is just you. How do you approach these two types of projects differently?
It’s just really about getting in the zone. When I did the project with Girl Talk, he reached out to me, he wanted to work, and it just made sense. When I was in the process of making Free Will, I knew it was going to be just me, so I just took a different approach to it. I got all of the production by myself, put it together, and made it right. I started a new company called the New Rothschilds, and my two partners, S. Frank and Scholito, they’re a production team. They actually produced eight songs on the album.
How did you link up with them?
I was introduced to them a few years back by a mutual friend that we have in the city. We started with one record, it came out crazy, then we kept working, kept playing joints, and we just got a great chemistry. The sound, I was letting somebody hear it and one of the bloggers called it trap soul.
I know that you were recently diagnosed with a serious illness, but Free Will was recorded before that happen. Listening to it now, does it sound like a different person?
Most definitely. In September of 2015 I was diagnosed with End Stage Renal Failure. That definitely gave me a whole new perspective on my life. I feel like I got a second chance. I’m just trying to be a better person, trying to motivate people to be positive and try to be successful and make the most out of life. That’s where I’m at with it. I’m taking advantage of every opportunity, I’m not letting nothing slip through of my fingers. It’s working out for me; I feel better that ever, in regards to everything.
How has this diagnosis affected your daily life?
I have to do dialysis three times a week, four hours a day, so of course that’s a huge lifestyle change. I have to schedule shows differently. I had to switch my diet, there are a lot of things that I can’t eat.
What do you do during those four hours of dialysis?
I’ll be writing raps sometimes, I’ll be reading, I’ll be on Netflix. You know, stuff like that.
How did your diet change?
There’s a lot of things I can’t eat because they got phosphorous in them. There’s phosphorous in a lot of food and it’s not really good for people with kidney failure. It’s things like french fries, ketchup, tomato, I can’t eat a lot of tomato paste, pizza, bananas, oranges, peanuts, potato chips—I love potato chips, but I can’t eat potato chips no more. It’s just about making a healthier choices and watching the portions that I eat.
It sounds like some of the things that you have to stay away from even are generally healthy, so it’s not just about making healthy choices, it’s about a very prescribed diet.
Certain things affect the kidneys and affect your body differently, so there are a lot of things I’ve got to stay away from.
Did you already have health insurance when you were diagnosed?
Yup, most definitely. Thank god. I’m actually active on a transplant list and just the work up for that is like $200,000. The insurance took care of the bulk of that, so it’s definitely a blessing.
Since this happened, have you been talking to people about making sure they have health insurance?
I’ve been doing a lot different work with kidney foundations out here. The National Kidney Foundation gave me the Patient Advocate Award for all the work I’ve been doing with them. I’ve been doing walks and a few lectures. I’ve been doing some work with Bernie Sanders. I did a rally for him at Lincoln University last Thursday, and I was just with him last Saturday in Baltimore at a town hall meeting. I really rock out with Bernie because he addresses a lot of issues that affect me and my community, like health care, education, and racial justice. I’ve been trying to raise awareness for that and I’ve been talking to people,
What do you tell people during these lectures?
I tell them my story, I tell who I am, I tell them what I’m going through, I tell them the importance of taking care of themselves, the importance of having health care, the importance of education, the importance of staying positive and keeping pushing, not letting anything get you down. I’m still moving around to motivate the people and let them know that just because I got kidney failure, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.
It’s a hard decision for a lot of people about whether they can afford health insurance. It can be tough to plan and protect yourself for the future if money is tight right now. Do you get resistance from people when you stress its importance?
People never give me resistance, because they know it’s important, but how many people go out and get health insurance after that, I don’t know. That’s another reason why I’m backing Bernie Sanders. He’s trying to make sure each and every American has health care, just like they do in Canada, just like they do in other countries. We’re the most richest country in the world and we can’t even provide our people with health care. I’ve seen a lot of people saying, “People just want something for free.” It’s not about having something for free, it’s about the right that a human being has. If they do that in Canada, why can’t we do that here in United States? I work extremely hard, but I would love to be able to have free health care. Who wouldn’t?