Written by Devon Acuna and Matt Gwozd
The Free Agents are a four-man rap group based in so-called Edmonton. Devon and Matt sat down with two members of the group, Ethan and Austin (A.Jay), to talk about the Free Agents’ inception, their mixed bag of influences, fun experiences playing shows, and how the pandemic has changed the way that they work.
Photo courtesy of A.D.
Devon: So, first thing, everybody knows that the Free Agents are a rap group, but is there a vision behind it? What made you guys want to rap together and how did you get started as a group?
A.Jay: I think there’s definitely more than a vision of just being rappers. I think as much as we’re musicians, we’re artists. Along with rapping, I’m an actor, and we talk a lot about making movies, writing movies, cartoons, tv shows, a lot of things like that, so we definitely want to branch out. We also really believe in ourselves as community people. We really love our community and where we’re from - Edmonton. We rep that! But we really want to be able to take this on a broader scale one day, and to be able to hopefully help the children bro, help some people who want to do this. Help some other people create art. I know we went really wild and big right there off the beginning, but i think that in the end, the Free Agents are something that just wants to help other people.
Devon: Fuck yeah, respect it. So, I know that some of you also do graphic design and video editing and shit, so that’s part of it? It’s more of an art thing than a rap group?
Ethan: I think it became that. Like Austin was saying, we kinda came together through those common thread ideas, like cartoons, movies, that shit. We started recording and shit, and me and Austin made this one song called The Moonhigh and we were like “fuck, this needs a video” and then that turned into the first video. Then from there, I kind of fell in love with the visual aspect behind the group and what that could do for the group. I just kind of made a whole little universe in my head about it.
Matt: Would you say your role in the group is predominantly the visual aspect of the collective?
Ethan: I kind of do a little bit of everything I would say. When we first met, the reason everyone was coming to my place was ‘cause I was engineering and shit like that. I was learning from a buddy of mine named Kenny, I was just kind of picking up whatever I could. Then I met these guys and I wanted to help them record, and I was kind of getting into recording myself more. So, a lot of arranging shit and recording shit.
A.Jay: When we started, I was a young guy coming in that wanted to rap and wanted to make music but I really did not know where to start, like I could sit down and I could write to a beat, and maybe at the start I could really not even do that. I saw that there was other people that we knew that were doing this and I was just hungry so I was like “k, I wanna do this”. Then, you know, I feel like Ethan was the first person that let me in, and then it wasn’t just me but it was the same with Marion, and the same with AD. I feel like through Ethan’s former experience in other music, like playing in rock bands and punk bands and stuff, [he] really helped to orchestrate and helped us get that groove going and help us understand like “ok, this how we actually hit a beat and this is how we’re gonna do this”. Then it became a group and then we started to understand “okay, live performance”, and then it just evolved into all that. It definitely started from basic shit, back in the day.
Matt: When did it start? When do you think you got the ball rolling and then when would you say that the Free Agents kinda coalesced and came together?
Ethan: I feel like it was summer of 2017 when we kind of met, and then I think the Free Agents, as far as this current group, came together probably like spring/summer 2019 maybe.
A.Jay: Yeah, so we’ve been collaborating for that long, so I feel like the idea of us as the Free Agents is definitely a lot newer than it feels, just because I feel like we’ve known each other for so long and we’ve been doing this for so long.
Matt: I’m wondering why it took so long to form a project. Is that because you needed to learn how to be comfortable with each other, learn how to collaborate together well? Or is it just that things happen and it took awhile for the idea to sprout or whatever?
Ethan: I feel like it was a bit of everything. It was a bit of getting to know each other, a bit of everybody had things going on in their lives. I feel like we all eventually just got to a point that this four person unit was solidified. There were other people coming on, but these four people were the group. I don’t know where the name came from, I can’t remember, but that was kind of the last piece. We had the backwards C logo, and it was just that name we needed, because that name before went through so many iterations, man. It was trash before sometimes. Like, you know what it is.
Devon: In my experience, people who take a long time to get a cohesive project together and think about it really hard before they do shit reflects that they take it really seriously. A lot of people will just record a song and be like “alright let’s just put this shit out”, you know?
Ethan: You know man, I think we envy a bit of that, to a degree. I think it hindered us too with putting out music.
A.Jay: Yeah, there’s definitely been a lot of that for us. You’ve definitely got to find the balance between the two, I think. We definitely have had moments where you sit on something for too long and we’re like “okay, actually we maybe shoulda dropped this”, like we actually maybe missed our mark, maybe we missed our hype or our rollout or some of that. There’s definitely been moments of that so we’re definitely trying to find a balance.
Devon: So, you guys were talking about liking cartoons and shit, like people doing cartoons with rap and stuff, ‘cause the next question we’re gonna ask is about influences. I’m assuming at least Quasimoto and Doom are up there?
Ethan: That’s definitely a fair assumption. I feel like you can say that, for sure. There’s a lot of influences, though.
A.Jay: I think that’s what happens when you get the four of us. Like, we’re such a cluster of these influences. Marion will make some stuff that I’m like “what the hell, like why” and then he’s inspired by some, like, weird anime, and then he makes some weird drums with some crazy synths. Then Ethan will make the same thing, but influenced by a punk song, you know? Then we do have some things that I feel like we all love, like Joey Badass, hopefully we can all say that, and I feel like Kendrick Lamar is a cliche one to say but I’m still gonna say it -
Devon: You gotta say it.
A.Jay: You got to, right? So there’s the similar strings between us but then there’s the weird outliers that we’ve all got, I think, and definitely DOOM for some of us, ‘cause rest in peace.
Matt: What I’m hearing is that it’s not just one - or a couple - artists that are really specific. It’s like everyone kinda brings their own flavour to it.
A.Jay: Yeah, I think so and I feel like I’m also influenced by their influences now at this point, which is interesting, you know? Like, these guys have shown me music and influenced my music more than I ever would have thought before I met them. We’re starting to all now get that really similar jive. We really like some really raw shit, like underground. For a while we wanted a certain visceral, in your face kinda feeling.
Devon: Would you guys say you take any influence from punk? I feel like I hear a little bit of punk influence.
Ethan: So much punk. I feel like, uh, bands like Minor Threat, man, like that’s just one of my favourite bands ever, and that’s just what Free Agents reminds me of, like when we’re playing and shit.
Devon: Word, I definitely see that in your live show. I think the first time I saw you guys play was, uh, that show at Sad House, cause it’s mostly like [heavier] shows and you guys just fuckin’ brought the energy right away.
Ethan: That shit was fun man, that was one of our most fun shows, honestly.
A.Jay: That was, bro. It was a moment, and I love the pictures from that show. I think we’ve definitely got the Punk, and we’ve definitely got Boombap. I hate to say it, but it’s just so in us, like with a lot of the punk. We try to bring the Hip-Hop, but also that edgy Punk feeling.
Ethan: I also think that there’s a bit of just coming out of high school around 2016, 2017. There’s a lot of the newer shit that I really can appreciate just because it hit me at a certain point in my life. They try so many new things and I think we take a bit from that as well. So it’s a bit of that three, in a soup.
A.Jay: In a soup, yeah, that three in a soup. Stirrin’ it up. Love it.
Matt: I would love to keep talking about influences but we should keep going here. The next question is: how has Covid impacted you guys and your process? What have you been up to this year? Obviously not playing live shows, or probably not many, but what have you been doing to keep busy and to keep moving forward?
Ethan: Aw man, it killed our momentum. Like, seriously, we had shows booked. It was looking like stuff was gonna get rollin’. We were in NAIT studio recording our full length album. Like, we hadn’t even dropped our tape yet but we were planning our album heavily, and we were all ready to drop it. Then Covid hit and now it was impossible to be together and record music.
A.Jay: It was hard man, it was hard. It felt really lined up, because it felt like we had worked really hard over the year, like we had thrown a show, then we got a show, then more shows, and then we had our album. We were planning our project and rollouts around these shows and then Covid just came and killed it. I feel like I haven’t even recorded music the same. It just really hit it all in a really sad way.
Devon: So have you guys been doing the bedroom recording now? ‘Cause you’ve been recording new shit, right?
Ethan: Yeah, it’s just gone back to what it used to be for me at least. I can identify with what Austin said about it feeling a little different. Like am I supposed to be doing this right now? Like, the world has gone to complete shit, am I supposed to be doing this right now?
Devon: I definitely feel that, especially with the BLM stuff happening at the same time, like I had collabs that I’d done with people and they were just like “we’re not dropping this for like six months, like we just can’t put out fuckin’ music.”
A.Jay: Yeah, like, we can’t right now, exactly. It just really was a lot of questions like where are we as an artist? What are we doing? Definitely a lot of those conversations, and a lot of thinking. Really going back to inner self, in some real times like this and I guess listening to that sometimes, you know?
Ethan: And trusting that.
Devon: Word. Do you guys think that there’s gonna be any changes happening during the pandemic that you’re gonna keep with you in your process, after the fact?
Ethan: For sure. This is a life changing event. This is very life altering and my whole process has changed. Like, there’s such an urgency now, like, I just feel like we need to do it now, now, now. And I feel that’s always gonna stay with me.
Matt: Speaking of the future, I mean, Covid has impacted that, but where do you see yourselves going, either with Covid, or post-Covid. What are you building towards, and what are some of the end goals you have in mind?
Ethan: I think that the industry is broken down so heavily right now that I feel like if you wanna break into any facet of the industry right now, you need to just go like a hundred and forty percent. Who knows, some shit might actually take place because everyone’s kind of on the same level right now. Like, you see major artists dropping and they’re barely fucking selling what they were pre-pandemic. I think this is the moment. This is the moment to strike and just make our presence known.
Matthew: Is the album the goal, at least right now? Or do you have something else in mind now that things have changed?
Ethan: We’ve got kind of two albums I guess. One’s, like, we’re playing around with right now, the Howard Can’t Fly thing. Austin dropped a song for it the other day, so that is kind of an album. We wanted to be able to put it out separately but it doesn’t let you do that on Spotify for whatever the fuck reason which I’ve always hated, so we’re just gonna do a playlist for this one. So, we’re just gonna see where that goes, and then the album for sure. Definitely the big goal, like 2021.
A.Jay: [The album’s called] Upper North.
Ethan: If it was a concept album, the concept would be Edmonton.
Devon: Fuck yeah! I love when people rap about Edmonton. So, the shit for the playlist you recorded during the pandemic?
A.Jay: No, honestly, I think that’s something that’s a little interesting about our music. So much of it is recorded so long before it drops. The song that we just dropped, I recorded at NAIT studios before the pandemic and then, we just like mastered it and brought it together. That’s a little bit of a struggle right now because obviously half our album is done through NAIT studio, and we want to find a way that we can work in some of the bedroom recording. But yeah, I think everything we’ve released so far has been made pre-pandemic. We definitely have got some stuff cooking and we’ve got some collabs going with some artists that we’ve been fucking with.
Matt: Do you have a timeline for any of that stuff? Do you have an idea of when it could come out?
A.Jay: It’s kind of constantly been evolving throughout Covid with the recording situation. Like, I wanted to drop it on New Year’s Eve but it’s just gonna take a month or two just to sit with it and finish it so I want to say before March but at the same time, shit could change again.
Back Cover, Upper North by The Free Agents
Devon: So, I feel like we covered most of our questions without trying to. What’s your favourite experience performing?
Ethan: Mosh pit at Billiard’s! Fuck, that was tight! We got paid in free beer and fuckin’ buddy comes up to us after the show and goes “yo, that was the first and only fuckin’ moshpit at this club, bro”. Like, that’s what the owner told me and I was like “fuck that’s cool”. I remember stopping mid-performance and just being like “Are they actually doing this right now? This is crazy.”
A.Jay: I think mosh pits are actually my favourite thing as a group that we’ve started. That’s just a proud moment to say that you’ve started a mosh pit. And that energy in the room, you’re just like holy fuck this is actually happening.
Ethan: I feel like a lot of the time moshing comes from live drums, you know? I feel like when you can create that without live drums, it’s just fucking dope. I love that. It’s just a beat playing on the fucking PA and people are just fucking bumping into each other. Everything was going wrong before that set too! Like, the DJ went home, he packed his shit up and went home. He forgot something, I don’t know. We were supposed to perform at a time but it was like an hour later than that time. It was weird because someone performed then we got up and got ready to perform and they were like “you guys can’t perform now” and so we waited like an hour.
Devon: That makes it way more impressive that you guys got the mosh pit then, after everyone sitting around for an hour.
Matt: I don’t wanna gas you up too much but I think the fact that there was an hour before the performance and then there was a moshpit does say something haha!
A.Jay: Bro, thank you.
Matt: Despite all the technical issues, do you think that was your best show?
Ethan: This is so funny, because every time we’re talking about the Free Agents, we always mention our first show as our worst show, because we got heckled. But, I honestly think that our first show was the experience that we definitely needed. I don’t know if it was our best show but we definitely needed that. It was so fucking bad. There was some weird tension in the venue. It was at Bohemia. It was like high school bro. There was people saying shit and you can hear them over the fucking PA and I was like “oh, this is hell, I just want this to be over. “
A.Jay: It was sad because - I’ll never forget - that was our first show and our first performance and I thought we were really gonna kill it and I thought a lot of people were gonna come.
Ethan: I do love that venue though. We’ve had some of our best shows there. That definitely wasn’t our best show but that one just comes to mind the most, man. I think the rest of them you just kind of blank out, like we’re just screaming our heads off. The ----- show, that was fucking fun. Actually, would you say that’s our best show?
A.Jay: That might be our best show. I feel like if you’re gonna ask us this question, it’s going to change everyday. But truly, ----- was probably. It was just that moment of like, yo we had to leave early and we still made it work, it all worked out. It was a sick performance and we just did a sick set, like that was the only time we’ve done some of those songs live.
Ethan: On some real shit too, before the show - someone asked us this before, they said we don’t seem like we get in that many group internal fights, and before that show specifically we had probably the craziest group fight you could have without, like, physically hurting each other. Then we just go inside the venue and play a show and we’re like “oh, that’s our best show ever”. Got kicked out by the bouncer, he’s like “dude, if you give me a ten dollar bill right now, I’ll let you come back in the venue”
Devon: Damn. Well, I remember there was some trouble with you guys getting in, like Sperniee had to fight for you guys to stay.
Ethan: Yeah, honestly Sperniee did us a fuckin’ solid, cause my ID was expired and he didn’t need to let us in the venue. I was telling buddy I didn’t have a problem leaving after, but he escorts me out and then is like “slip me a ten buddy and I’ll fuckin’ forget about it”.
Matt: One of the questions we have here is local influences. Anyone you wanna shout out, anyone you enjoyed working with, anyone you want to work with?
Ethan: Yeah, all three of those things. An influence: Chi Pig, SNFU, rest in peace. Someone we have worked with? Etebom, like Rai, one of the hardest working people in the city as far as I’m concerned. He’s at every show I’ve ever been at, he’s always there, always networking, always recording. He’s popped up at the studio-
A.Jay: A million times, yeah, a lot of late nights with that guy, he’s dope. Shout out my homie Jackson. I’ve got an EP with him, Orpheus, go peep that. Jesk, he makes some fun music. He doesn’t do it a lot but when he does I like it, shout out him. We’ve got some good stuff with him, I think. Who else? Moe.
Ethan: Moe, for sure.
A.Jay: Shout out to Moe. Moe is a big influence, someone we love working with. Love Moe. Big shout out to Moe. Sinners Club is also ill, Devious Trip, Nomad, all of them. They’re dope, they’re a really good group.
Ethan: Who else? Mac Demarco, no. No.
A.Jay: I don’t know anyone else, really. There’s obviously a lot of really dope artists out there but those are the ones that are really within our circle and our reach right now. We really like organic relationships, you know? We really like to work with the right people at the right time. And, we are open to working with people a lot, and open to collabs. It’s a small city in many ways too, like you mention one name and then one person will lead to another, and that’s what I like about this city.
Devon: Yeah it is a small city, like, you go to a rock show or a punk show and you see like the same fifteen people you see at a rap show and shit, right? Like the scene is just so close-knit.
A.Jay: Yeah, I love that. We gotta work together more, though. I wish there was more support.
Devon: Word, it’s also mad clique-y, but I feel like that’s every scene.
A.Jay: That’s every scene. That’s life I guess, right?
Devon: Yeah, not every scene, that’s just everywhere! Shit, that’s it. That was a solid interview. Thank you guys so much for doing this, we’re stoked that you get to be the first ones that we interview.
A.Jay: Yeah, we really appreciate it!
Ethan: Thank you so much for doing this bro.
A.Jay: Good interview, good talking to you guys.
The Absurd Collective is a collective of young artists that operates on Treaty 6 Land.