The rapper Freddy Will’s solid body of musical work came to our attention while searching for cutting-edge melodic raps and hip-hop crossovers. We found that this rather unknown artist also collaborated with a few Juno and Grammy award winners along the way. Over the last decade, he outpaced many imitators who analyzed his style to falsify their own. When critics dismissed the Toronto-based rapper, he silenced them by creating a brand-new flow. By 2016, the now Berlin-based rapper was a published author who delivered an excellent bibliography.
Last year, a Rolling Stone columnist described rap as “a genre built on resilience.” How do these rappers find “new ways to balance the joy and pain that dominate the pendulum of emotions in a pandemic era?” Freddy Will’s 2020 “African Black: The Unreleased Anthems & Ballads” is a prime example. Many rappers cannot produce music. They grew up in the same hood or lived in the same country throughout their life. That’s the norm. Freddy Will is an anomaly in that respect. He belongs to many countries, bringing more to the culture than just the bars he spits.
His indie career started in Toronto is an urban legend, a path unlike many. He’s the guy who traveled to Canada from the States to record his debut album and ended up becoming one of the most noteworthy artists who has launched a global network. Freddy’s 2006 “Stay True” mixtape is a staunch body of work that set the stage for the rap star to show and prove his range of musical mastery, including songwriting, music production, and rapping. He shocked music fans with unpretentious war stories that inspired many to tell their tale from the very beginning.
His 2008 debut studio album, “While I’m Still Young: The Talking Drums,” saw the former New Jersey phlebotomist’s iconic “City Boy” become his first international crossover. There he spat melodic rhymes over his first calypso and hip-hop crossover beat. No one was doing that at that time. We wanted to know what made Freddy Will bold enough to consider merging hip hop with rock, calypso, or reggae when the safe bet was to stick with boom-bap and r&b hooks. That is the subject of this interview. We wanted to hear every detail from the horse’s mouth.
His 2009 redo, “While I’m Still Young: The Talking Drums 1.2v,” saw him enhancing an already iconic album with a gospel crossover fan favorite featuring Carvin Winans. Freddy Will flexed his musical abilities in this revamped version and stayed true to his style. He was the best Freddy Will he could be at that time. The indie rap star had finally appreciated his uniqueness, as we can hear now in his later music offerings from 2017 and 2020. It’s exciting that he also raps in Krio, the native language of Sierra Leone, his beloved country of birth in West Africa.
Indeed, Rolling Stone is correct; 2022 is a year of introspection for many rappers who have “realized there is a lot at stake.” In 2010, Freddy Will marked his transformation from rapping about a life of crime into rhyming about self-improvement, discipline, and political awareness. He created crossovers and melodic rhymes before Drill, and before the culture was “woke,” he was into social and political awareness. The rapper wrote the 2014 book “Hip Hop Kruzade,” which details his perspective of hip-hop at the time. Here’s how our interview went down.
Q: When people think about you, do they consider you a Toronto rapper?
FW: I hope so. I’m a proud Canadian. Toronto is my home. But I get why you asked that. A lot of Canadians are dual citizens. Canadian Jamaican, Canadian British, Canadian Indian. That’s common in Canada, except, of course, if you happen to be Freddy Will, then some people may pretend to forget that. Yes. Among everything else in my life, I’m a proud Canadian rapper.
Q: You represent more than one country?
FW: You could say that. Based on the story of my life, I’ve ended up representing more than one country. Know what I mean? I’m also a Grenadian, but that’s a whole other story.
Q: There’s a lot to unpack. Let’s move on. Tell your fans how you decided to travel to Toronto from the US to record your debut album there. How did that come about?
FW: I reconnected with an old friend who lived there. We got to talking about music. He’d transitioned from rapping to music production. We decided to record my album. All I had to do was meet him in Toronto. So that’s what I did. I went to meet him in Canada.
Q: Had you been to Canada before? If not, what was your first impression?
FW: I hadn’t been to Canada before. When I walked out of Union Station, I was like, wow! Everything was so clean. I saw Canada as the cleaner version of the United States. The food is fantastic. The neighborhoods are well built, and the women are gorgeous. As time went on, I fell in love with the city. My first impression was wow! Everywhere looked so stunning.
Q: That is remarkable. Now you’re a diplomat in the EU with a home in Belgium and Germany?
FW: None of it was planned or expected. I’d situated myself to do one thing, and then something else came up. I just ran with what happened because it felt like an opportunity.
Q: When did you start making music?
FW: I started writing rhymes in 1994/1995 and made my first song in 2005.
Q: Where did you live when you wrote your first rhyme?
FW: I lived in Freetown.
Q: Sierra Leone? Who were Freddy Will’s favorite hip-hop artists then?
FW: Oh man, for me, it was Lords of the Underground, Onyx, Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, Scarface, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. I really can’t name every artist on a shortlist.
Q: No Tupac, Nas, or Biggie? Who were your favorite rappers in 2006, if I may ask? Was it the “Stay True” mixtape that you went to record with your friend in Canada?
FW: Yep. I meant for Stay True to be my debut album. In 94, Tupac was famous for Keep Ya Head Up, and Biggie and Nas were new artists on the scene. I got into Jay Z, Mobb Deep, and the Fugees in 96. Back then, I was still hooked on the rappers from 89 to 93. In 05, it was all about Jay Z, Nas, 50 Cent, DMX, Busta Rhymes, Jeezy, Akon, Game, and TI for me.
Q: Did you have a favorite song on the mixtape?
FW: Yeah. No Protection, That’s How It Is, and Animal.
Q: What happened after you released the mixtape?
FW: A lot of people said I used too many profanities. Back then, if a rapper used many cuss words in Toronto, they wouldn’t play the song. It sounded like I was a tough guy, promoting a life of crime. But I was just an inexperienced artist looking for fans to support my new project.
Q: So, you could return to the States?
FW: Going into that situation, I planned to record a debut album and return to America. Then the project became a mixtape; I started performing the songs and doing interviews around the city. I met someone, and we started dating. She introduced me to a producer who’s also a jazz pianist. I learned that jazz musicians have experience with different genres, so I decided to revive my original plan and re-record with this new producer. Looking back now, I should have done a brand-new album, but I wanted to redo the mixtape. I needed to fix it.
Q: That’s how you got the “While I’m Still Young” album?
FW: Yeah. Before my girlfriend introduced me to the new producer, I’d been recording and re-recording the songs with different producers and featured artists. We’d be in the studio all night, but the pieces were never fully completed. It got tiresome because no one seemed to deliver what I was looking for, and looking back now; I think I put them off with all the cuss words I was spitting. When I met the last producer, I re-recorded some of my favorites from the mixtape and wrote a few new songs. “While I’m Still Young” became a remake of Stay True.
Q: Why did you give it that title?
FW: Back then, the industry people considered an artist too old if he hadn’t signed a major record deal by a certain age. I was pushing 28 years old. That’s why I named the album, While I’m Still Young: The Talking Drums. I’d dreamed of doing that since the mid-90s when I was still in Africa. Now I had finally recorded it when I was still young. And… I didn’t believe I was using too many profanities; that was just how we described situations in New Jersey. The album was like the talking drums of Liberia, communicating my message through sound.
Q: What are your favorite songs on that album?
FW: We tried recording crossovers on the Stay True joint, but this is where I locked that in. City Boy is calypso, Strangers is reggae, the title track, While I’m Still Young is rock, Destiny and So Close are jazz, and Waiting for Your Love is jazz. That was my focus.
Q: Wow! And your producer friend was okay with you switching studios and producers?
FW: He didn’t say. As a friend, I talked to him about it first, tho. I thought he was overwhelmed being a family man and his independent record label’s CEO and music producer. We needed outside help; I figured if we recorded with others, we’d get more work done faster. As a friend, I wanted to be more than just an artist on any label, and I also hoped for a managerial position.
Q: Was “While I’m Still Young” better than “Stay True”?
FW: I love the music production on Stay True. It would’ve been complete if we’d fixed the parts where I stumbled while rapping or mixed and masted the whole project. While I’m Still Young, I had the chance to cook up some better-sounding hooks and sound less like a tough guy. I think Stay True is dope, but it wasn’t complete, in my opinion. I did straight raps on Stay True with Still Young; I did melody. Then I had it mixed and mastered until it sounded complete.
Q: A year later, you re-released “While I’m Still Young” in Toronto?
FW: Yeah. I met Ken Cowle, the Soul Asylum Poetry & Publishing Inc CEO. He invited me to do an interview. After the interview, we talked about my life story and agreed to publish a book. The album was buzzing, so we decided that if I wrote a couple of new songs, he would publish my first book with the revamped version of the debut album as accompanying music. I’d redone Stay True, released the redo as my album, and then edited and re-released that.
Q: What were the new songs?
FW: Look at Me Now, While I’m Still Young 2, Ghetto Breed, Franklin, and Providence. I also remixed some tracks from the original album, City Boy, Animal, Strangers, How Would I Know, Destiny, and So Close. The revamped version is less explicit; I edited out most of the profanities and polished the mix even more, so it slaps even more complex than the debut album.
Q: Now you had three versions of “Stay True.”
FW: Stay True was a prototype at that point. While I’m Still Young was the debut album, and While I’m Still Young 1.2v was the revamped version that came with the book. Sounds silly, but it was vital for me to be satisfied with the final product. I’d waited too long to do that.
Q: What happened after you re-released the album and published your first book?
FW: It was three years later. I’d recorded the album, released, promoted, and distributed it all over Canada. I had a book out. It was time to launch my imprint, Freddy Will Industries Inc. Many people were intrigued by my life story, so I started speaking at the universities. I thought it was time to big Sierra Leone up by recording a hip-hop album in Krio.
Q: Is that “Dark Horse from Romarong”?
FW: Yes. That was less dramatic. We recorded the whole album in two weeks and then another eight months to complete the accompanying book. By then, I had my indie record label and publishing company. It was easier to repeat the promotion and distribution process.
Q: What were your favorite songs on this Krio hip-hop album?
FW: On this project, I went with Endurance, International, Jos Kam, Dark Horse from Romarong, Senior Man, Common Beyen Me Now, Intellectual Thug, Angel, and Save, the only English song on the album. Honestly, I like every song on that record. It’s one of a kind.
Q: It’s 2010; you have a mixtape and three albums released plus two books. Are you also transitioning from rapping about street life to political consciousness?
FW: I thought if I dropped an album in Krio, I’d draw Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, and Senegal, to join my fans in the US and Canada. I had a map. For the next two years, I’d promote the Dark Horse from Romarong with its accompanying book. The album is about the unlikely conqueror. The book is about the history of the Sierra Leone people. With Stay True, the complaint was that I used profanities. While I was Still Young, it was how I’d forgotten my African roots. The Krio album was my way of showing that I hadn’t forgotten anything.
Q: You are still in Canada?
FW: Yep, six years zipped by. I’m living in Toronto full-time. If I was going to leave, that was the time. But for some reason, even though the Canadian music industry is smaller than the one in the United States, I chose to stay there and be an indie artist. Once Ken published my second book, I saw a future as a Canadian American or possibly retiring from music to be an author.
Q: You thought about retiring when your musical career had just started?
FW: I did. It’s crazy cause there was always something negative. First, it was the profanities. Once I edited them out, it was too many features. Did the Krio album with only one featured artist? The next thing I heard was how I couldn’t afford it. I showed them that money wasn’t the problem; it became where is all this money coming from? Then it was, oh, but, you’re not a Canadian. It was one complaint after another. Looking back, those critics helped me grow. That criticism made me innovative, leading me to naturalize and become a Canadian.
Think about it. I’d left Sierra Leone with a battery in my back. I’d had a long-forgotten stint in The Gambia and Senegal. I wanted to go back to phlebotomy or to become a paramedic. After I dropped the mixtape in Toronto, I thought I’d accomplished the goal. Three album releases and two books later? It’s crazy; in my mind, I thought I could still have a writing career and embark on other business ventures to try my hand with more prospects besides music. I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way, and I also had other opportunities in the States that I wanted to pursue.
Q: Then you released your “City of Kings Reloaded” EP.
FW: Right. I’d recorded Dark Horse from Romarong as a double CD album. One disc in Krio and the other in English. At the last minute, I pulled the English record and released the Krio one on October 10th, 2010, or 10-10-10. A year later, I launched my postage stamps on November 11th, 2011, or 11-11-11. So, in 2012 I decided to release the English half of the Krio album as an EP on December 12th, 2012, or 12-12-12. To hold the fans over while I write my next book.
Q: Did you have any songs that stood out on your EP?
FW: I received feedback from people who said they like Answer Is No, Mandingo Love, Crash ‘N Ontario, and Last Thing. Once again, there were no features, just myself and the producer.
Q: Stay True, While I’m Still Young, Dark Horse from Romarong and City of Kings Reloaded.
FW: I was on a roll. 2013, I contemplated retiring from music once again. But my manager encouraged me to keep pushing. I was no longer spitting street rhymes, and I’d been working on crossover music heavily for the last few years. I wanted to make an old-school hip-hop album with influences from the 80s and 90s. At the same time, I was pivoting from the artist who writes books to the author who makes music. It was about connecting to my hip-hop roots from Liberia to the United States to make one album where I showcased my ability to rap.
Q: And this is “Laboramus Exspectantes Vol. 1”? Why title it as volume one if you planned to retire from music? You also wrote an accompanying book for this album.
FW: 2012 and 2013 went to writing Hip Hop Kruzade: Path of a Legend, a book about the culture and essence of Hip Hop. Laboramus Exspectantes is the motto at Methodist Boys High School, which I attended in Freetown. It means “labor and expect.” Even though I was thinking about retiring from music, I thought I’d released a few more albums before that. Now, I kept contemplating if I should do another record or focus my complete attention on writing books.
Q: What were your favorite songs on that album?
FW: This is where you have 2 Passports, Laboramus, Hallucinations, Livin N Toronto, Inspired Ur Dream, Happie, Best of My Day, Those Days Are Gone, and Pickin.
Q: What happened after that?
FW: I went to paramedic school. While I was there, an opportunity came to move to Europe as a diplomat. I’d been blogging since 2008. I’d promoted my latest book and album as my third consecutive book plus album release. Then I’d turned to my blog. Met a Grenadian soca singer who is also a music producer. We started making hip hop and soca crossovers. The blog did so well, I decided to re-publish it as a book series called The Sandmann’s Journal.
Q: That’s interesting; one cannot talk about your music without including your books. Sticking with the music, your next musical release was “Views from the 7” in 2017?
FW: Yep. I was in Belgium now. Loved Drake’s Views album. I’d connected with a DJ in Freetown who was helping to promote my music out there. We conducted several radio interviews where he suggested visiting Sierra Leone and working with some famous artists there. Realizing that many of the music fans in Sierra Leone do not have access to the Internet, I put a Greatest Hits album together for an exclusive release out there. Like before, I recorded new songs and threw the hip hop and soca crossovers on the album to sweeten the pot.
Q: Tell us about some of your favorite tunes on this one.
FW: Views from the 7 is my Greatest Hits album inspired by Drake’s Views album title. Though it’s a Greatest Hits record, I also have new songs like Life or Carnival. One is reggae and hip-hop crossover; the other is a soca and hip-hop crossover. I worked with a Sierra Leonean group called Fresh Life Unit on a track called Poh, and then there’s a classical or opera and hip-hop crossover called Girl from Happy Hill. My way of staying connected to Canada.
Q: Wow! Is that how you envisioned your catalog with Laboramus Exspectantes Vol. 1, Views from the 7, and African Black: The Unreleased Anthems & Ballads?
FW: No. My catalog would have been entirely different if I had the opportunity to sign a record deal. That’s not how my story evolved. I became an indie artist who fell in love with Toronto and became a Canadian. After that, I became a diplomat and moved to Europe. Publishing The Sandmann’s Journals took priority in Europe. The African Black project was my way of shutting up the new criticism I received about not playing crossovers in any African genre.
Q: Interesting. What are your favorite songs on that album? First, the critics said you cuss a lot, then they said you’d forgotten your roots, and then you’re not playing African genres?
FW: Yeah, I finally realized that the critics would never stop. So, I hit reset. As an indie artist, my music is supposed to be authentic to my imagination, not some critic who maintains a bitter emotion. I’d proven them wrong repeatedly. Honestly, my life is not even in my hands. I have about 20% control over what happens, and the rest goes to whatever divine power that has driven me to this point. I decided to fall back and watch what the tides next would bring my way.
Q: Those are the words of a very confident young man. Anything else you like to say?
FW: I want to thank everyone who rocked with me. The fans, the music producers, the featured artists, the studio engineers, graphic designers, the DJs, promoters, you name it. I learned a lot about positive behavior and healthy living back there. I became aware of my actions, made some of the best friends you could ask for, and gained a large family. Know what I mean? Toronto is a great place to start my indie music career. Still, in general, Canada is a great environment to take the time and regain all the experiences I missed growing up.
Q: And by that you mean?
FW: Spent my teen years in war and refugee situations. There are a lot of lessons I didn’t have the opportunity to learn. That gave me a rough personality. In Canada, I was able to learn those lessons and group up. Simple courtesies, table manners, proper dress code, speaking politely, public speaking, reading and writing, personal development. It’s still a working process but I think I’m a lot better now than how I was before. That is what I meant by that. *