Set Free Richardson really got it out the mud. The 50-year-old DJ turned creative director’s first project was making a hyper-real environment for his Star Wars action figures that mimicked the jungles of Endor from Return of the Jedi. He wanted to replicate the dirt and greenery of those scenes from the George Lucas franchise, so he went outside, scooped up some sludge from the ground, and brought it into his parents’ home. When he wanted to replicate Empire Strike Back’s frigid Planet Hoth indoors, he grabbed Mom’s good flour and created white snowy hills for his Tauntauns to roam.
Free’s whimsical dream state is constant, and as you walk into The Compound—the Brooklyn quarters where rappers, ballers, editors, directors, and a multitude of creative beings come to sharpen their God-given talent—you’re immediately inspired. The aesthetic is equal parts elegance and Hypebeast. On a low coffee table in his office sits a cotton plant in a vase. It’s intended to remind guests of the creative space that we have indeed come far, but the days of enslaved Black people harvesting that plant in the fields aren’t too far removed.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens and Philly, Free’s movements are grounded in history. He studies the past and uses that to inform his future. It fuels his superpower, which, if you ask him, is his authenticity. His And1 VHS mixtapes resonated because Free had been studying and living both basketball and hip-hop since the ‘80s—back when he used to debate his father on Run-DMC being superior to the Four Tops. It’s why he’s able to create marketing gems such as his DraftKings-sponsored roundtable show, Starting Five. Calling it a show is a disservice as the talks are free-flowing, natural, and deliver a fly-on-the-wall experience to its audience (“[Jadakiss and I] just want to be able to not have a cap session, just have a great conversation,” he says).
On a warm spring day in which the New York skies resemble Mars, Free invited LEVEL to his creative space to talk shop. The result: our spanking-new series Thought Starters, in which we introduce statements for our featured guest and let them finish however they see fit. Watch this connector of dots fill in the blanks. —As told to Jermaine Hall
I patterned myself… after Boba Fett in the advertising and marketing agency world. He was a bounty hunter that worked for Darth Vader, Jabba the Hutt, and the Jedi. When I seen that, I was like, "Why shouldn't somebody be able to work for multiple brands and not be in conflict." If you're called to execute a job, as long you do your job, people should not care what other companies you work for.
The first pair of shoes… that I bought were the [Nike] Cortez, the blue-and-white ones with the suede and the line on the blue bottom. I don't know if I got them from the Coliseum in Queens or the Jock Shop on Second Street in Philly, but I remember buying them. I still got my baby shoes to this day. One of those baby shoes was a Nike Cortez. I always had this little shoe on my dresser, on my turntables. I always wanted to get that shoe again. It's just an iconic, classic Nike shoe.
I want to apologize… to myself for not doing a lot of things that I knew was right in my life. I didn’t go with it or didn't listen to myself. [At] the end of the day, you should always listen to yourself.
the way I enjoy myself, the way that I respect myself, the way that I communicate with myself [is special].
Friendships don’t last when… you're not a friend to yourself. What I mean by that is the way that I'm a friend to myself, the way I enjoy myself, the way that I respect myself, the way that I communicate with myself [is special]. If you can't be like that with yourself, you're definitely not going to be like that with anybody else.
Don't ever ask me… to drop you off somewhere. I have a problem with driving people places.
Here's one thing people don’t know about the And1 mixtapes… It was actually 10 VHS tapes that we went through and then that came together to make one 20-minute tape. It was footage from Gauchos Gym, Rucker Park, Riverside, a bunch of games in New York City that were majority Skip [to My Lou]. Those 10 tapes came together to make that one first tape.
If a kid grows up on LeBron and he’s never seen Michael Jordan play, I can't even have an argument with him.
My favorite piece of art… that I own is three issues of the [Marvel] Black Panther comic book where he fought the KKK. There's three different issues that were issued in 1975—a celebration of legacy to be able to see Marvel took a real risk to create a comic to address what was going on in the Black community in the 1970s. It's not expensive, not the most sought after pieces of art out there, but to see that in the superhero world one of our favorite superheroes was fighting racism is amazing.
The goat hip-hop brand is… Def Jam. Def Jam is the bible of hip-hop for a lot of reasons: music, entrepreneurship, showing pillars that come from that hip-hop legacy of Def Comedy Jam, Def Poetry Jam, Def Jam Vendetta, Phat Farm, Rush Management. Everybody has benefited—from Jay to Puff, to myself—looking at that tree that Def Jam created, the business structure of the music industry and beyond.
The Jordan-LeBron debate lacks… sense. It's like comparing George Washington to Obama. There's time frames, there's rule changes, there's so many [factors]. For me, it's Jordan. That's what I grew up on. If a kid grows up on LeBron and he’s never seen Michael Jordan play, I can't even have an argument with him. But the time frame, it just doesn't make sense. I think these are questions that are trained and positioned by the media to have a squabbling bicker of nonsense [laughs].
After you lose your parents, you don't look at anybody else the same way.
I don't have… regrets. Growing up in the hood, we lose people a lot. We learn about death at a young age. And you're never going to get the time you want [with people]. Even if you left a person yesterday and they died, the first thing you're going to say is, "I wish I spent more time with them." But the reality I came up with is that the time I spend, I want to say the right things to them, leave that person saying, "They knew how I felt." I [make] sure [I say], “I love you,” “I miss you,” “you make me happy.” After you lose your parents, you don't look at anybody else the same way. I got to tell my parents everything I ever wanted to tell them. Both of them. The last days I seen them, the conversation was real—great conversations that I could hold for the rest of my life.
I will never… stop loving God.