NEW YORK It was business as usual in Lower Manhattan's Bassline Studios, recording home of Roc-A-Fella Records. Singer Rell was in the front lounge area playing billiards; producer Just Blaze and engineer Young Guru were screening tracks in the main studio. Jay-Z was on the way, as was crooner Carl Thomas. Memphis Bleek and Freeway were listening to their just-finished rancorous duet, a selection scheduled to end up on Bleek's upcoming solo project.
Although he was elated with the outcome of his latest recording endeavor with "M-Easy," Free was a little listless. He was just itching to preview material from his album. He doesn't know what his first official single is going to be, he doesn't know what the title of the LP is going to be, but the only thing he cares about at the moment is if cats are going to feel as strongly about his project as he does when it hits June 25.
"It was cool," the MC and father of two said a few breaths above a whisper in his high-pitched voice. Planted in a seat in the main studio, he rehashed stories of piecing his project together. "It was hard work, but that's what I'm here for. It was crazy because I get two or three shows a week. When I ain't in the studio, I'm on the road. I don't get to see my kids as much, but it's gonna pay off, hopefully."
Time was of the essence with the album. Besides laying vocals for the Roc-A-Fella Dream Team album, he only had a little over a month from the February 25 start time to record his LP.
Everyone's heard the first selection, "Line Em Up" a current mixshow favorite about 100 times, but the speakers breathe new life into the track. Free's long beard hangs down a little lower as he smiles at the necks bobbing in approval to his urban cowboy street anthem, where Just Blaze mixes his head-butting bassline with rodeo guitars.
"We was at the Soul Train awards and we was walking down the hall and Nelly was walking down the hall," Free started to explain about how the next track came about, the remix to "Roc the Mic," which features Nelly and Murphy Lee. "He was like, 'What's up with the remix?' We was like, 'Say no more.' "
As the song plays, it's evident Nelly did have more than a mouthful to say. During his verses he sends a couple of barbs the way of KRS-One, who recently recorded an alleged Nelly dis track (see "KRS-One Attacks Pop Rap On Underground Compilation"). These are no indirect disses the St. Louis MC spells out KRS' name, says the legend would do anything to have "one more hit" and claims the Blastmaster is the first rapper in need of a pension plan.
"That's their beef," Free said of the conflict between the two rappers. "We didn't work in the studio together. I ain't got nothing to do with that. I didn't know they was beefing until I heard that. I [like] KRS-One because he is one of the originators of rap."
"Free," a girl's voice repeatedly sings in a doo-wop style on another ditty with a funky soul beat, which comes courtesy of Just Blaze.
"The beats say 'Free,' the rapper explained. "I'm giving you different examples of 'Free,' but I'm telling a story at the same time. It's real music, straight from the heart."
"Victim of the Ghetto," which centers around hustling, also reflects reality, as does "Life," where Freeway writes an open letter to a childhood friend who's serving life in prison.
"If you listen to the story," he said of the track's origins, "my man's locked up. We grew up in the same neighborhood, same age and everything. Now I'm making moves doing this music thing and he's locked up. We used to communicate, now I write him and he doesn't write me back. I guess he's salty because he's not out. So at the end of the verses I'm like, 'My man Book ain't writing me back so I figure trying to reach him with rhymes.' Hopefully he'll hear that."
Freeway can relate to being jailed while he watches his friends soak up the limelight. Two years ago, he was incarcerated for dealing drugs while Beanie Sigel and the rest of State Property shot their self-titled movie.
"I think about it a lot sometimes, when I'm by myself," he reflected while in a back lounge area where Carl Thomas and up-and-coming singer DJ Rogers had just arrived (C.T. would later lay his vocals to "Nightshift," a track which guest stars Bleek). "I be like, 'Damn. Look where I was at, look where I'm at now.' I feed my family now. I pay my mom's bills. My kids are cool. It feels good. I just was 'Mr. Ain't Gonna Be Sh--.' It's just a blessing, dog."