Published Nov 01, 2013Something decidedly un-screwface has happened in Toronto.
Six individual solo artists have put egos aside and let ideas take centre stage for the better of the whole, establishing a super collective of sword-sharp wordsmiths. The Freedom Writers' beats are thick, their concepts are varied and their standards are high.
Now is more than solid, intricate rap record; it's a statement about community and talent and ideas. "When we formed this, we could've picked anybody from the whole city. I don't think anybody would've said no," says producer Big Sproxx, who provides a varied palette for five MCs (plus guests) to spill their thoughts and stories and punch lines.
Theo 3, Tona, Adam Bomb, Frankie Payne and Progress — all regarded solo rappers, each with their own strengths — sit in an empty room on the ground floor of a west side apartment building and discuss their collaboration, taking a break from rehearsing their new songs. They talk about process and late-night eating and, most importantly, truth. Which is what they're searching for with open ears.
As Frankie says, "The truth can come from an activist or an asshole."
With so many different voices and opinions, how did you make the LP sound so cohesive?
Progress: Because everyone gives their raw opinion, what makes it cohesive is the honesty. Politically speaking, people don't think wildly different on this team. There are differences in opinion, but we're close enough that if everyone's just honest, it'll sound cohesive. We didn't have to put energy into making the album conceptually cohesive; it just happened.
Do you write solo or together?
Theo 3: At least four of five songs were written right on the spot.
Tona: We're all in different sections of the city. It's rare that when we had sessions, certain individuals didn't show up. When we were all together, we made sure we used that time to create music.
Adam Bomb: If somebody has [a concept] going, it's easy for the rest of the team to bounce off what's already there. We don't take a record and say, "OK, everybody go home and write about this." Whoever's on the spot, if you have something, cool. If you don't have something, we'll just stick with what we got.
Tona: And if somebody couldn't make it that day? You weren't on the record.
Big Sproxx: I'd say half the songs, it was just me and Tona. The first song we did, no one else was there. He had a hook already done for his solo thing, but then he thought it would better suit what we were doing. So he was the first to lay [down his vocals], then other guys would come in sporadically on different days and fill theirs in. So some songs did get built in a staggered way, but it still has the cohesiveness you're talking about.
Frankie Payne: We all have a silent agreement to keep things as natural as possible. It all comes down to timing and circumstances. Even with "Soldier," I had an idea for a hook, and then man after man came and jumped on it and started adding their ideas. There is no forced creativity; it's all organic.
Adam Bomb: That's the best thing about the team. There's no script, there's no demand; it's just six ideas in a room, and we come up with whatever we come up with.
Theo: No one takes offence to their idea being shot down. Before you came, we were rehearsing for the show. If someone said, "Lets try this…," [another might say] "No. Shut the fuck up. That's horrible." And that's OK. He'll fall back.
Frankie Payne: There is no filter.
Adam Bomb: There are a lot of records on there where it's like, "Who's going to do this song the most justice? Let's let them do their thing." To be able to add to a record is cool, but it's also good to back off a record.
Did anyone have to go rewrite a verse after they heard what the other guys laid down?
All: Oh, yeah.
Big Sproxx: Tona and Progress laid down something months ago for the Soon EP, and Adam was a last-minute addition, so he had an advantage.
Tona: When he says "last minute," I'm talking two years after. Adam jumped on it, and he destroyed us.
Adam Bomb: On "Separation," I didn't rewrite my verse but I wish I had the chance to. I already had my verse planned, but after Theo spit his verse, I wish I had an extra week and a half… it would be so much better. Sometimes you gotta take what you have. With a group like this, I never have to go into a room wondering if everyone's got their lyrics on point. That's a blessing.
Progress: If you have a group this talented, everyone has situations where they wish they could've re-recorded their verses, everybody has records they wished they could've been on. For me, the moment I heard "Arizona Bay" I was very angry I wasn't there that day.
Frankie Payne: I would've loved to be on "Separation."
Theo: By and large, the records fit people's personalities and styles. The album has 17 songs — it'll take you on a journey through all types of styles.
Progress: Every solo artist in this group is an architect for a different record. One guy would create a concept based on the pattern or the theme of his first verse. The one verse would get sent to everyone in the group, and it would become the foundation. So Tona, for "Better Ones," he laid down a pattern of "There's too much this / And not enough this" — and that was the theme everyone rolled with. For "Music," I wrote the first verse, and it was "I make this, this, and this type of music" — describing my brand of music — and everyone followed suit. So often the records come from one architect.
Tona: There would be a lot of alcohol involved in each session, and afterward we'd go to this spot called the Grille on Queensway — a 24-hour joint. We'd go eat there after each session. Sometimes a concept can be that simple: a spot where we meet and conceptualize what we'll do next. Because it became such a staple for us, we had to formulate a song around it.
Adam Bomb: Just like the Grille was a place where we found our commonality, we had to find that place within every record. With every record, it's "Where do six guys find the middle?" If you can relate to one guy, you can relate to the entire record.
They give you discounts?
Tona: They should. We have a table in there by the back corner. They know that's our shit.
Theo: And there's a 70-year-old waitress that hits on Bomb all the time.
"Off the Pigs" is the album's longest song, it sits right in the middle and it tackles police harassment. It feels like the album's anchor in some ways. Where did the idea come from?
Big Sproxx: Bomb called me drunk from a party one night.
Adam Bomb: A wedding.
Big Sproxx: He said, "This Kanye West song ['All Falls Down']. You gotta sample it." And he's playing it to me over the phone.
Adam Bomb: "Fuck the police, that's how I treat 'em/ Buy our way outta jail, but we can't buy freedom."
Big Sproxx: That was recorded all on different days. That production was influenced from the Bomb Squad. After it was done, I went in and said, "Let me make the beat keep switching and add different elements." So I went in and added all sorts of pieces, and added skits before every guy's verse to create a new mood. That was an ongoing process. It took me months to make that song because I kept going in and tweaking it.
Adam Bomb: We agree and disagree about a lot of things, but one thing we all have the same stance on is, we've all had issues with the way things have been with police. Our opinions blend nicely on the record. It's placed in the middle because it's the nucleus of what Freedom Writers are — not necessarily an anger towards police but a mentality that we don't agree with whoever is in control.
Frankie Payne: It's a need to speak the truth about authority.
Big Sproxx: And it's perfect timing with what's going on, with Trayvon Martin to the young brother Sammy [Yatim] here in Toronto. That's why we titled the album Now — all this has to be said.
Those types of records, speaking out against police or government, used to be commonplace.
FP: The focus is material now. A lot of people listen to hip-hop with their eyes now instead of their ears.
Who came up with the name Freedom Writers?
Big Sproxx: We were working on something originally with Frankie, Adam, Tona and Theo, and we were playing with their initials: FATT. Later on, I could tell Progress would be a fit, because I was working with him on a side project. I showed the music to him, and he said, "Yeah, I got something." I introduced him to the guys, and they bonded. So I knew we had to change that name right away. We tossed around ideas, and that was agreed upon.
Theo: We're all free to do whatever we want, and we all have different styles — punch lines, speaking on issues, girl tracks, whatever. There's no age bracket we target. We're free to do whatever. Putting the message in the track is important, but we don't want to get so tied to that that we can't just rhyme. If you listen to the Soon EP, there's some ignorant shit on there.
Tona: You don't want people to hear the word "Freedom" and think it's all politically conscious. There are different sides to each individual. Everyone brings their own personality and influences to the group.
How will this group experience shape your solo work now?
Frankie Payne: I take a little bit of every perspective that I experience, anything I take part in and try to absorb it and make it mine. We believe the truth can come from anyone. The truth can come from an activist or an asshole. It can come from a drunk or a gangster, and that's the only thing that's universal — the truth.
Why are there so few hip-hop groups these days?
Tona: That's true for R&B as well.
Adam Bomb: It's all about a dollar. Artists will say, "If I can make X amount of dollars from a show or a CD sale, I want it all to go to me." It's the same reason a lot of people do their own production. It's not always about being in control of their music; they want to reap all of the profit. When you're in the industry just to make good music, you don't care if it's split two ways or ten ways, as long as the final product is a good product. Nobody was worried about how we were going to split this up financially; it was just an opportunity to work with some of the best in the country. We couldn't turn it down. People worldwide can come up with great music by putting minds together if they don't care about their points on a record or residual return.
Big Sproxx: The key is compromise, too. There were times I wanted to use a beat they didn't like — that's the way it goes. If they don't like it, they're not going to write to it. Not everything was peaches and cream in the recording process either. There were times of creative conflict — arguing over which hook is better. The verses are up to par. Mathematik was on one more song, but I had to shorten it because the song was getting too long, so his verse came off of it. I think it was the "Pigs" record.
Mathematik appears on four songs. Why isn't he in the group?
Theo: He was around during the inception, but we have to get things done quickly sometimes and he lives very far away. He's established and has his own stuff. It's blessed to have his injection as well as T.R.A.C.K.S., Ayah, everybody.
Tona: After doing this, we became fam. I'd hit up Theo or Sproxx randomly just to find out how their projects were going; I wasn't doing that before [we started Freedom Writers]. We bonded, and you don't see too much of that happening, in Toronto especially. There's never been a collective like this; there've been attempts. But personally, I don't think there's been anybody as prominent as us — all established artists coming together.
The Circle, back in the day.
Tona: But they never came together for an album like this.
Frankie Payne: Toronto is a place where everybody seems like they want to be king. What we're doing right now makes a huge statement: five great MCs with so much talent and strong opinions that are able to come together as a group.
Adam Bomb: A lot of people could combine talents and write their best rhymes — and they should do it — but it's rare you see people collaborate on the same mentality or find the middle ground. The concepts on this album makes Freedom Writers different than any other collective I've ever seen. This is something I'm really proud to be a part of. It's music to my ears even though I'm part of it.
Theo: People are comfortable to do just eight bars, do a chorus, do backups on another guy's song at a show, fall back, step forward. It's very versatile.
Each of you, what's your personal favourite track on the album?
Big Sproxx: I wish there were more sessions like "For the Change," where it's not one guy, then the next guy, then the next guy. But the guys sat down and wrote together, and they're rhyming in and out, bar for bar. I'd like more in-and-out type records. That's the best session for having fun. It's intricate.
Frankie Payne: My favourite track is "Separation." The pattern, the flow, the lyrics — everything is so well rounded.
Tona: Lyrically, I don't think that track will be touched ever in Canada. Bar for bar, no one's going to reach that plateau.
Adam Bomb: "Soldier" is the first song I ever heard that I was involved with that I said, "This song needs to be on my iPod because I'll wake up and listen to this." Everything else I've been part of, I know the secrets behind. "Soldier" is music that belongs in kids' houses, old seniors' houses and everybody in-between's houses. It's soul music, and that's what I love.
Tona: This album is just a lap around the track. It's us getting acclimated to one another. The next few songs might not sound anything like this.
Big Sproxx: I don't think we scrapped more than two songs. Anything we did just had this chemistry that we were more than happy to have it make the album.
Progress: I don't think there's one we didn't use, because the other songs made the EP.
Theo: I like "I'll Be Waiting." It's very powerful. You hear Progress's verse and Kamau's singing and his verse, it takes you on a ride. Progress bridges the gap. We don't think of that underground concept. We're trying to dispel the separations within rap. If I go to HMV, I don't want to see grunge rap, alternative rap, mainstream rap… I'll make my own determination of what it is.
Progress: It's a toss-up between "Where Can I Go" and "Off the Pig." I'm an eclectic music lover, and what T.R.A.C.K.S. does on "Where Can I Go" harmonically, melodically, it gets to a certain frequency that no other records do. His voice touches you. And "Off the Pig" is a very grand production, epic with the skits and beat juggles.
Tona: "Good Life" — that's my shit. My verse, I'm talking about my mom immigrating to this country and working nonstop for 30 years straight. She's trying to provide opportunities for herself and her children as well: "Moms in her corporate job / Bet she wishin' she ain't have to work this hard." Think of all the immigrants in this city, especially from the West Indies — they came without much opportunities. It's much different from where they migrated from, so they had to start over. It was a situation where it was just her taking care of five children, and we didn't have a fuckin' washing machine. People say it's cliché for rappers to talk about the struggle, but I think that's what makes us great: that we can face that adversity.
Adam Bomb: What's beautiful about that is you just asked six guys their opinion, and six guys all gave different responses without scripting their answers. If the people involved in the record can pick six different angles, then the listeners should be able to find different points to latch onto — and that's without us saying, "Let's do a club record, a girl record." We just did music we all agreed on. That's how different we are.
So, is it safe to say there will be a second album?
Progress: I don't think it's smart to make promises, but based on how things are shaping up and how everyone's energy feels, I would put my money on it.