September 15, 2010

This article is from our October 2010 issue. The full issue is available for download.

In the pop music world, the fine lines between novelty and originality can get blurry, and imitation can easily stifle an up-and-comer. Some artists, however, embrace their likeness to established acts. This approach seems to be working for Pittsburgh drug viagra native Harvey “Freestyle” Daniels. Backed by justifiable comparisons to rap titan Jay-Z—not to mention a dizzying studio output rate—the rising emcee has enjoyed increasing respect and popularity locally and beyond. Among a number of promising projects in the works, his forthcoming mixtape, set for release on October 1, aims to simultaneously pay tribute and solidify his uniqueness. On a sunny afternoon in downtown Pittsburgh, The Cut sat down with Freestyle and chatted with him about emulating Jay-Z, rapping versus acting, and the Pittsburgh rap scene.

The Cut: Let’s start pretty basic, Freestyle. What are some of your pseudonyms?

Freestyle: There’s a lot. It’s Freestyle, Free, and Frzy. There’s also King of Pittsburgh, King Frzy, FR, and FR Double.

The Cut: I ask you that because you’re really hard to find on search engines.

F: It’s crazy because I’m on there, but “freestyle” is such a common word, so I’m on the second or third page. It’s so hard having a common name like that. That’s one of the reasons I picked that name, because I’ll know that I reached that quote-unquote stardom that I wanted when you Google “Freestyle” and I’m the first thing that comes up.

The Cut: How did you get into rapping? Take us back to the beginning.

F: I always say that it was accidentally on purpose. I was graduating high school, and The Boys and Girls Club of America was putting out a mixtape. I was focused on basketball at the time. My friends entered me in this contest, and the winner got to be on this nationally sold mixtape. At that time I had no rap name. Everyone who was going out for the contest had a guitar, they had their songs written, and all the rappers had their verses memorized. Then they get to me and they’re like, “Harvey, what’s your rap name?” and I was like, “I don’t have a rap name.” They’re like, “Where’s your beat?  Do you have a beat?” and I’m like, “No, I don’t have a beat, or anything.” I’m standing in front of these five judges. I just called my boy and I was like, “Yo, give me a beat.” He started banging on the table and I just freestyled about every single one of the judges, from what they were wearing to the color of their hair. They were so amazed. The vote was unanimous.

The Cut: You’ve said in interviews that you want to be mentioned with the greats. Who is on your “greats” list? Of course Jay-Z is on there.

F: Yeah. The first hip-hop album I ever bought was Get Rich Or Die Trying, because 50 [Cent] is on my greats list as well. But when I got to Jay-Z, the first Jay song I ever heard was “A Dream,” where he’s speaking about a dream he had about Biggie in the first person. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. That really transitioned me. I started paying attention to him. Because I was trained as an athlete growing up—watching film, you know—that’s how I am with Jay-Z. Every single thing Jay-Z comes out with—videos, interviews, concerts—I have all of it at my house, and I study him. When he can command a stage by himself in front of thousands of people, why would I not watch that? Watching him conduct his business and how he carries himself as a man and as an artist, I see him as two separate individuals. That’s exciting. He’s influenced me like crazy. Like Jay, I’m always trying to do something that no one else has done.

The Cut: Lil Wayne has said on mixtapes that he’s a competitor. Would you consider yourself a competitor? How much is the rap game really a game?

F: It’s completely a game. I remember 50 Cent said that it’s the art of competition. That’s what this is. I’m trying to prove to you that I’m better than the person you were previously listening to. That’s why you hear people talking about their cars and jewelry so much. Every track you listen to is giving you a lyrical résumé, and I’m trying to prove to you my lyrical prowess. It is competitive, regardless of how much I support someone. I look up to Jay like crazy, but he is my enemy now. He’s my competition. As much as people are like, “Oh, you’re just like Jay,” eventually I want to share a stage with him. If I get to the point where I can release an album the same day as Jay, and there’s a conversation, I don’t even have to win. It’s just about the conversation existing.

The Cut: Even among rap fans, the word “freestyle” has different meanings. What does the word mean to you?

F: For me, the meaning is very important to my name. A lot of people hear my name and they’re automatically like, “Oh, you can freestyle.”  I got the name because I could freestyle so well that people couldn’t tell if it was a freestyle or if it was written. But also, I’m very versatile. I do whatever fits a track. I’m free with my styles—any style you may want. That’s what it means to me. Doing interviews in radio stations, I already know it’s coming to the end when they’re like, “So, since your name’s Freestyle, you gotta kick a freestyle for us.”

The Cut: I’m not going to do that to you.

F: I appreciate that. Not that I mind, but what pisses me off the most is that the word is used so openly. It’s like, “Yo, I’m about to kick a freestyle”—but this is a verse you’ve already got on a song!  Or you’re just saying it a cappella. That’s not really a freestyle. You’re just saying whatever you want to. It’s like, what are you doing? You’re cheating everybody. It’s a bad situation.

The Cut: Your name clearly says a lot about you. In the studio, do you write down your lines? What’s your writing process like?

F: It depends on the mood I’m in. A lot of times, somebody can play a beat and I’ll write the song in my head. I’ll store the whole verse in my head, and I know exactly how the rhythm will go. A lot of times I’ll only have to hear the song once or twice, and then I’m like, “Let’s go into the booth and do it right now.” Especially if someone’s telling me the subject of the song—let’s say the subject is Zach—as soon as I hear the beat I’m going to try to think of something that someone hasn’t already thought of. So I’ll be like, “Zach likes to interview rappers, not singers/ When I say Zach, I don’t mean the Black Ranger.” My process is very quick. But I love to write, because it allows me to sit down and go somewhere else. When I don’t write I’m the world’s best, but when I do write I’m on the moon. It’s a whole different place for me.

The Cut: You have a mixtape coming out that’s sort of a tribute to Jay-Z. Tell us about that.

F: It’s called Reincarnation:  The Rebirth of Jay-Z. DJ Wigs mixed it. With the Jay-Z comparisons, I wanted to—I mean, I’m not even close to Jay’s level right now, but just to be mentioned in the same breath as him is an honor. What I wanted to do was to show it off. I always call it “the dunk from the foul line.” You see LeBron James, or Kobe [Bryant], or Vince [Carter]—they all dunked from the foul line. And it wasn’t to say that they were better than Michael Jordan, but it was to say, “The greatest of all time can do this. Look what I can do.” You hear a lot of artists rap over Jay-Z’s beats over and over again, and they might say some sick verses. I wanted to do something different. Not only do I give you lyrical prowess on these tracks, but I follow [Jay-Z’s] cadence to a T. Literally, if you play his track and my track together, you hear the same breaths, but the words are different. No one’s ever done that before. I did it on 41 tracks. We recorded them in two days.

The Cut: Would you say Jay-Z’s story is starkly different from yours?

F: It is different. He was a hustler and he came from the projects. I didn’t live in the projects.

The Cut: What aspects of your story are you trying to communicate with this tape?

F: Talent, calling, and destiny—and history, really. You look at Jay as The Best Rapper Alive, which he is. But look at what age Jay is and he’s doing this, and I can do exactly what he’s doing at my age. Imagine what I could do at his age. I want to show people that there are a lot of kingdoms, but only a few kings.

The Cut: You just filmed a horror movie, Sella Turcica, with Toe Tag, Inc. How did you get the acting gig?

F: Toe Tag is based out of Pittsburgh. [Cofounders] Fred and Shelby Vogel are really good friends of mine. I did an audition for a movie of theirs a while ago called Murder Collection, which was a new take on horror films. I got cast, and we did a scene called “Ransom.” It was one of the biggest scenes in the movie. When they were doing [Sella Turcica], they met up with me and we spoke about it. The character they designed for me—his name is Gavin and he’s a DJ—was perfect. Once I got the script, I was like, “There’s no way I can not do this movie.” That film is going to be big for my career.

The Cut: How would you compare acting to rapping?

F: It’s different. When I go over scripts, my musicality helps me out because I’m already trained to memorize words and phrases. But [acting] is definitely a little more thorough. With a song, I know it’s a pattern. It’s a rhythm. I know how it goes. But with a movie, I’m cueing from other people. There are no hooks and no breaks. When I’m rapping a song in the studio, I’m not worried about how my face looks or how my hands are moving. It’s just about how my voice sounds. But when you’re acting, you’re on camera. You have to respond. It’s a totally different process. I definitely have a whole new respect for actors.

The Cut: Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs has a line on his most recent mixtape that goes, “Rap ain’t nothin’ but talking shit/ I’m just the best at it.”  Is there truth to that?  Is rap more about what you say or how you say it?

F: It’s a little bit of how you say it, and a little bit of truth too. If you want to be a juggernaut in this game, you’ve got to have truth behind the words that are coming out of your mouth. The more popular you get, the more people are going to want to know about you, and the more people are going to want to pull you down. At the same time, it is talking shit. You have other rappers who, lyrically, say nothing, but because of how they say it, people flock to that. I always make sure that everything I do is lyrical.

The Cut: So the content is just as important as the delivery?

F: Exactly. I’ll never dumb down my lyrics. That’s disrespectful to the brains of the listeners.

The Cut: What do you look for in an instrumental?

F: It just has to have that bounce. When you hear a track, you just know. Like Jay-Z said, “Put the right artist with the right track, crack the door, and let God in.” That’s what I do. You send me something and as soon as I hear it, I’ll know. One thing about me that producers love is that I can make a song out of any beat you give me. But there’s a difference between songs and hits.

The Cut: Are you shooting for hits every time?

F: Hits, all the time. I tell my management and label that I want the album to be all singles, but for all of them to go together. That’s something that a lot of people don’t do. These artists just release two or three singles, and the album is garbage. I want the label to be like, “I don’t know which one to pick. Let’s just close our eyes.” You always want that pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey selection. That’s what I’m going for on an album.

The Cut: What do you think of the Pittsburgh rap scene? How do you fit in?

F: I feel like the city has some amazing talent. I don’t think some have as much ambition as they should. Pittsburgh right now is musically farsighted. They can’t see what’s right in front of them. They need someone to tell them where to go. You’ll see that a lot of artists in the city are very [cliquish]. I get along with all of them, but I do my own thing. When you see people do a little research on me, when I’m doing something big, they’re like “Oh, he’s on TV?  Billboards? I didn’t know all this!” It’s because they didn’t do their homework. They didn’t pay attention. I feel like the city respects me and what I’m doing. I just wish that they would pay attention a lot more.

The Cut: You’ve got a lot going on right now. What keeps you motivated?

F: Success and history, really. I feel like people are going to laugh; they don’t know how nerdy I am. One of my favorite movies is Troy with Brad Pitt. Achilles wanted to be known. He wanted his name to be remembered. At the end they told him, “You can go to this war. You’re going to die if you go, but your name will be remembered for all time. If you stay, eventually your name will disappear.” He chose to go die. That’s where I’m at. I sacrifice everything in order for the world to hear my voice, because I won’t be here forever.

The Cut: So you would die for the good of hip-hop?

F: Yes. I feel like Superman in a sense. I’ll go hard for this. I love it that much. Jay said, “You should love it so much that you’d do it for free.” It just so happens that that’s my name.

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