Interview by: DJ Jones
It was a cold December Monday in Northwest Portland. Shops were in full Christmas time effect. Lights and spray painted snowflakes on every block I walked past. The area I was going to meet producer Free Tillman could have come straight out of a Christmas movie. The more I got to know Free during our conversation, it made sense why he selected the location he did.
When I arrived at the coffee shop where we were to have our meeting of minds, I saw Free with a shot of espresso and what I, for some reason unbeknownst to me, thought was a shot of clear liquor. Turns out it was a shot of water. I apologized and revealed to Free I wasn’t an experienced coffee drinker.
Free is a complex guy, in the best of ways. He’s dynamic, meaning he has a unique way of putting a story together in his work. I spoke with Free about how his upcoming project “My Way Home” is his favorite project he’s worked on thus far and his journey to being a Northwest homeowner. He even had time to make fun of my favorite rapper.
DJ: Would you say music is your first love? Or would you say music is more so something you express yourself with?
Free Tillman: I’ve done a lot of different things throughout my life, and music has always been the constant. It’s like it’s just always something I go back to.
What were you listening to growing up?
Well I’m an old head. At the end of this year, I’m gonna be 38.
Wow really? You don’t look 38. It [Black] don’t crack.
Yeah so December 30th is my birthday and I’ll be 38 so when I was growing up, it was 90’s Hip Hop. Like the stuff that people are saying we need to go back to? That’s what I grew up on.
That’s why I asked you that question because I can hear that in your work.
I think the one that put me in that time we were talking about talking about is – I think it’s “Radio Signal”. It made me go, “okay, this is what I can listen to when I’m studying or trying to vibe out. It made me think about, like we’re saying, that 90’s feel.
Just like the definition of Boom Bap.
Like what that [feeling] is… is what I grew up on.
When did you start making music?
Well Back in the early 2000’s I wanted to be a rapper.
Did you have a rap name?
My rap name was Calogero Dean. Calogero was from “A Bronx Tale”. That was [Robert] De Niro’s first directing…
That was a gangster movie too?
Yeah yeah. So the kid in the movie name was Calogero and Dean, I don’t know. Maybe I was listening to Cee Lo Green at the time and it just rhymed. I don’t know but yeah, I didn’t have a producer to work with so I just made my own beats and eventually it just didn’t work out. But like I said, I always came back to music and I started making my own beats. Like I just started to put music out this year… this will be my fourth project when it comes out in January but the very first thing I did, I made this mashup of J Dilla, it’s funny you mention J Dilla, but it was J Dilla drum beats with Fiona Apple piano.
So it’s like this mashup of that. The album is called “Red Dillicious”. That was like the very first thing I put out. It’s like an EP. It’s maybe like five songs. Then I put out this hour long- pretty much a beat tape called “Primo”. Everything I make -I just don’t make beats and put them on the internet, I make albums. That’s what I like doing. Everything is meant to be listened to from beginning to end. That’s why I make albums. So I put stuff up where you’re supposed to listen to it from track one to whatever the last track is.
It kind of sounds apparent in your newest project.
Yeah it’s most explicit in this one because it’s a story.
Yeah exactly. So would you consider it like a concept album of sorts?
Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
Because you have a main character, and you have kind of an invisible antagonist.
The antagonist is both, the people back home but it’s also himself trying to figure out what’s going on. So him holding himself back.
Now is this coming from personal experience?
I was expecting to get that question. Not really though. Because, I’m originally from Tyler, Texas.
That’s where I’m from.
Did you get your entire upbringing in Tyler or did you end up moving?
I moved around a lot. As an adult, I moved around a lot but as a kid. My dad was in the military so we moved around a bit. I was born in Texas, but right after it we moved to Germany because my Dad was in the military like I said. He got out when I was about two or three years old, so then we moved back to the states.
We moved to Virginia and then when I was nine, moved back to Texas. As an adult, I left when I was about 21. Moved to Florida, from Florida to California. I did an internship in New Jersey for three months. And now I lived in California for 15 years. Now I’m here.
So California is considered more “Home” for you?
Yeah. I mean, if you ask me where I’m from, Texas but I consider myself a Californian just because my adult life is in California. But to get back to your [personal experience] question It’s not autobiographical at all just because – when I left, I left. I didn’t miss it. I didn’t leave to go to the “Big city” or anything. That was never my dream or any idea. I moved to L.A. just because. I’ve done so many different things. I was a recording engineer, that’s how I ended up in L.A.
Is that how you thought, “man, I could see myself doing this”?
Yeah. That was when I kinda started making my own music when I was working at the studio because they would give me time. I learned on a SSL board.
How long did it take you to learn all of that?
Well I went to school for it. That’s what I was doing in Florida. I was there for a year trying to learn how to be a recording engineer and then I got an internship out in L.A. and that’s how I moved.
Sounds like you were juggling medicine at the same time.
Actually no that whole time, all I was trying to do was music but then the music thing didn’t work out so I was like, “I need to go back to school” and I got my Masters in experimental psychology. I got a job and became a researcher. In addition to being an engineer, I have shot my own music videos, like I said I put out my own albums, I was rapping at the time. I’ve done stand up comedy for a few years. I’ve written books. I’ve self published three. Two of them are worth reading.
What about the one you keep in the closet?
It’s a book of poetry from when I was in my 20’s or whatever. I put that together myself but I just published a book last year called How to Fail at Everything: A Practical Guide for Coasting Through Life. So every chapter is like a different thing that I failed at whether it was relationships, whether it was money, whether it was being a recording engineer, music, traveling, anything. Every chapter is a different thing.
You have such an extensive body of work that is transcending music. How do you keep it all… compartmentalized?
Music is something I always come back to. Everything else is just something- I wouldn’t say I did it for fun or it was a hobby or anything. I mean, no one writes a book for fun. You’re a writer, you know. I don’t know, it’s just something that- I just wanna create.
As corny as that sounds, you just wanna make something. You have an idea and you just go with it. But like I said, the thing I always come back to is music and I feel like the production aspect is really always what I was meant to be doing. It just feels more comfortable. It just really feels comfortable.
Were there people along the way that you would say helped you or gave you that one comment to keep you going?
You know what? I wish I could say that there was someone. Even though I have been making some type of art between 15 to 20 years, something like that- nothing I’ve ever done has been big. I haven’t sold like a million copies of my book or anything. I’m not huge or anything. To be honest, this album I’m putting out now feels like the first thing that’s really catching on to people. Like the one they’re interested in. So I wish I could say that someone pushed me along but no one ever really did.
So what made you do it? Was it just moreso the feeling of wanting to create?
Yeah it was just- sometime like earlier this year really. It just kinda hit me. I was working and it’s cool and you make money, but I always needed some type of outlet. I’ve always needed to create something. I talked with my wife and told her I wanted to get some equipment and start working on this and she was like “yeah, go ahead”. Like I said it’s always something I needed to go back to and that’s what I did this year.
Just this year alone, I’ve put out three albums and this next one I feel like it’s going to be big. I wanna press up vinyl for it, I wanna have like an album release party for it and everything. I wanna do it big. I really want this to be something. I really think this is something interesting. I feel like people will enjoy it. If I can find the right people, people will enjoy it.
Are there any strings connecting these projects together?
While I’m making it, I’m not really thinking about it but when it’s out- once it’s finished or I’m somewhere in the middle, that’s when I find a theme. I realized almost everything that I have kinda has a theme to it. Like right after I put out the album “Primo”, I put out something called “
“Slouch.Submit.” is a double album. “Slouch.” is kinda like the laid back, more ethereal, maybe smoke one and lay back type chill. “Submit.” is more aggressive and more hard hitting. So I decided to put out this album. “Slouch. Submit.” is actually a line from the TV show “Glow” and that’s why she’s on the cover. So that’s how that all ties together.
While I was making it, I wasn’t really thinking that. But when I was making stuff, a lot of stuff was like either really laid back, like really cool and some stuff was really hard. So then the double album just came out about a month ago. People seem to dig that. Me personally, I like “Slouch” maybe a little bit more than “Submit.” but ya know, they’re both my babies.
Out of all of your projects, which one is your favorite so far?
I feel like every album gets a little better. I would say, of those three, “Slouch. Submit.” Like I said, “Slouch.” is my favorite out of everything I’ve put out so far. I think this next album is probably even better. Because as you do it more, obviously you get better at it. I feel like this album “My Way Home” is probably the best thing I’ve done so far. When I was making it, I just felt like the samples I was using or the vocals that I might’ve taken, they kept talking about home. They kept talking about “I need to leave” and it just felt like it was somebody saying “ I need to get outta here” or “ I need to go back”. That’s why I came up with the concept.
Do you feel like this current album you’re about to release has a bit to do with your current situation in terms of finding a new home?
Possibly. I feel like it all – I did literally just move. The majority of this album was done in Portland. Besides three to four songs, but the majority of the album was done in Portland and I was away from a place I would consider home so that probably had something to do with the concept.
If in 2,000 years from now you had to leave one of your projects in a time capsule, which project would it be?
It would be “My Way Home”. Just because I feel like, it’s the only thing that I have so far that literally tells a story. I can’t say that it’s timeless. I mean it is what it is. Nas didn’t know he was creating a classic when he made “Illmatic”, he just made an album. Now we can call it classic but at the time, he was just doing what he did. So if I was to make a time capsule, it would be this album that’s coming out now.
“My way Home” will hit streaming platforms January 12, 2018. Don’t miss it!