The crowds at Rockie Fresh's shows haven't changed all that much since rapper Rick Ross signed the 21-year-old Homewood-Flossmoor High School alum to his Maybach Music Group record label in July. And Fresh (real name: Donald Pullen) still lives in the Chicago area when he isn't touring, as he has his whole life. But with Fresh about to jump in the studio to record his debut album, it appears that could all change soon.
“The (record label deal) has given me options once I get off tour,” Fresh said about his living arrangements during a recent tour stop in Seattle. “I'm not sure what I'll do, but I definitely want to be somewhere I can work freely on the album without any extra drama. And unfortunately, being in Chicago might open the door for that kind of stuff.”
Fresh will perform what he feels is his biggest show to date Saturday at Metro. Sure, he's performed in front of bigger crowds, but this will be his first time headlining in Chicago since signing with Maybach. He promises surprises and the debut of his “Back to the Future”-themed stage set now that he has a budget (his mixtape was called “Driving 88,” because the DeLorean in “Back to the Future” needed to reach 88 miles per hour to time-travel).
While others might be tempted to blow money on expensive cars and flashy jewelry after signing a record deal, Fresh said he hasn't made any big purchases other than paying his parents' mortgage. Fresh was raised in a religious household. His mother works in a church and his father worked at the Board of Trade. Fresh worked at an Aldo shoe store and Argo Tea. Asked if his past bosses would consider him a good employee, he responded, “I didn't get along with people, so probably not.”
He called his high school diverse and credits his peers for introducing him to rock music he wouldn't otherwise have listened to, including Paramore, Coldplay, Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy. Not long after high school, Fresh was collaborating with Good Charlotte's Joel and Benji Madden on the song “Take Me Back to Teenage Crime” and then opening for Fall Out Boy lead singer Patrick Stump on his solo tour in 2011.
“It was a risk,” Fresh said of touring with Stump. “The crowd received (my music) way better than expected. It could be due to the fact that my flow pattern is more chill and less abrasive than typical rap.”
Fresh's sound, with its alt-rock influences, caught Ross's ear and earned Fresh a flight out to Los Angeles to meet with him. Other than the night Fresh recalls randomly hanging out with a “drunk” John Mayer at a bar in New York, the 36-year-old Ross was the biggest celebrity he had encountered at that point. Still, he insisted he wasn't nervous about meeting the heavy-set “Hustlin'” rapper.
“Even though there is an age difference and a city difference and difference in style of music, we were able to relate,” said Fresh, explaining why he signed with Ross over other suitors, including Sean “Diddy” Combs. “I let (Ross) know the first time we met that I had other options on the table. He was patient. He didn't try to rush me or down-talk anybody else. I respected how he handled it.”
In June, controversial Chicago rapper Chief Keef, best known for his song “I Don't Like,” signed with Interscope Records. Because they're both young (Keef is 17), from the same city (Fresh was born in Chicago before moving to Homewood) and hitting the scene around the same time, Fresh believes it's inevitable that the media and public will compare the two.
“That's something I'm not really phased by,” Fresh said. “Chief Keef is doing his thing. Him and I rep two different things. We need both perspectives. I support him. Hopefully nobody tries to turn us against each other.”
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