IN THE HIGH STAKES WORLD OF ALBUM SALES, a gimmick can quickly turn an artist into a brand name. So anything one can do to separate himself from the pack is a good idea. Hammer had his low-slung diaper pants. Marilyn Manson has his contacts. And Ms. Dolly was outfitted with those monster hogans. Success proved inevitable.
Freeway’s choice, at first seems equally outlandish. But in fact, the beard he wears is essential to the North Philadelphia rapper’s religious beliefs.
And though this facial hair has become the twenty-four-year-old’s trademark, Freeway born Leslie Pridgen, swears it was never the plan. “People might say it’s a fashion statement, call it a ‘Freeway beard,’ but it’s not like that at all,” he says, while running a comb through the downy tuft. “I was raised a Sunni Muslim. We let our beards grow to please God. It’s just the way I was brought up.”
A glance inside his hotel bathroom suggests otherwise. Sure a simple array of hair-care products, including a purple squeeze tube of Frizz-Ease, isn’t much to get worked up about but seeing as Freeway is bald underneath his ski hat one can only assume the entire lot of beauty aids is for the Honest Abe thatch. But contradiction is integral to this rapper’s success.
Though a devout Muslim, Freeway writes about the streets where he once sold drugs and the guns he now carries to protect himself. “Islam has nothing to do with rap music,” he says when asked about the incongruity. “You can’t mix the two. But it’s like if a Muslim worked in a supermarket that sells pork – you’re not supposed to sell pork, but you’ve got to be able to provide for your family. That’s the struggle that I go through inside myself.”
A young Freeway honed his rhymes in the lunchroom at Kensington High School in North Philadelphia. He began showcasing those skills at Club Dances, a grimy nightclub known for its underground MC battles and hip-hop scene. There he teamed up with another unknown, Beanie Sigel – the night they met, the two made a pact: Whoever was signed first would pave the way for the other. When hip-hop artist-mogul Jay-Z brought Sigel to Roc-A-Fella Records Sigel true to his word, brought the young Freeway along. (Jay-Z was so impressed with the MC, he told listeners of Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show in New York that he’d match money with anyone willing to make a wager on Freeway’s rapping skills should they be foolish enough to want to battle him. Of course, nobody was.)
An onslaught of guest appearances solidified his place among Sigel’s State Property clique, Then Freeway became a hip-hop cliché. He was arrested for drug trafficking (possession with intent to deliver) and had two new-born babies to support. But during his six-month stint in the joint Freeway rebounded. And with the support of Roc-A-Fella, he got his shit wired tight. And quickly. “This is my shot,” he says, “I’m not ever going to go out like that again. ‘Cause you never know what’s around the corner. Sitting in a jail cell, I never dreamed Rolling Stone would be calling one day.”
And in a show of gratitude, Freeway’s crew looks out over the bouncing crowd at a club in Charleston, North Carolina, and asks Rolling Stone which of the large-rumped lovelies it would like to keep company with for the evening. Suddenly, the voice of Freeway onstage brings everyone to a respectful hush. His speaking voice, a soft rasp, comes out barely at whisper levels, giving the impression of a shy young man buying condoms. But when it’s time to go to work, he transforms it into half-horse, half-dog-bark, shouting slogans such as “Holler at your boy” and “1-900 Hustler.” “I never really thought nothing of my voice,” he says, “not until I was trying to get signed, and people started saying I couldn’t do it – because my voice is fucked up. But the same thing people be hating on, people be loving on, too.” His debut record, Philadelphia Freeway, the latest victory to come from Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella stable, is all the proof Freeway needs. And after the show, rock-hard thugs grin from ear to ear, blushing as they ask for Freeway’s autograph – before scurrying off like little girls. Tonight, the haters are nowhere to be seen.