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Akron hip-hop duo Free Black! explores socioeconomic themes on 'Black Tuesday!'

Holbrook Riles III and Floco Torres
Josh Land
LSquared Photography
Holbrook Riles III and Floco Torres began collaborating on their Free Black! project in 2017. The Akron-based duo blends sampling and original beats with lyrics inspired by historical and societal themes.

Free Black!, the hip-hop collective developed by Floco Torres and Holbrook Riles III (HR3), released its third album, “Black Tuesday!” in October.

The album explores themes around the economy and working-class, and it includes an assortment of features from local musicians.

Torres has been a writer and solo performer for years and linked up with Riles after relocating from Macon, Ga., to Akron in 2017.

Riles is a prolific local producer and cratedigger recognized both for his creative sampling work and drumming skills.

The pair would exchange rap verses and beats at each other’s shows on occasion.

They released the first, self-titled "Free Black!" album in 2018.

Torres said the group’s name represents the freedom of being a multi-dimensional Black artist, and it serves as a mantra for listeners to express themselves.

“When we look out from the stage, there's a lot of different types of people at our shows,” Torres said. “So for you, you take the ‘Free’ part, and that's for the audience.”

Torres has released multiple albums as a solo rap artist, notably 2018’s “Nobody Cares News,” which features the Akron-centric song, “Bounce Back Like Rubber.”

Riles has performed and released music with Steve Miller, Big Pop, Bluelight and other artists, and he’s put out several albums under his producer moniker, HR3.

Coming together as Free Black! has empowered both musicians to have conversations around historical, artistic, literary and societal themes.

They’ve woven these topics into their songs in ways intended to educate the listener.

Since 2018, the artists have become more “intentional” with their work, and they’ve developed a particular sound and style that’s instantly recognizable as a Free Black! original.

“Now we've been able to brand it to where people know the difference between my solo stuff and the Free Black! stuff, which is cool,” Torres said.

Referencing historical events for new releases

“Black Tuesday!” was released Oct. 19, and the single “Don’t Make Me” dropped the month before.

Floco Torres
Free Black!'s 2021 album "Black Tuesday!" was released Oct. 19. The tracks explore the parallels between the economy and working people in the 1920s and present day.

The song features Wesley Bright, the Wesley Bright and the Honeytones frontman and Akron Honey Company founder.

The track set the tone for the soulful and retro vibe of “Black Tuesday!” and gave a taste of the rich collaborations with other local artists featured on the album.

“The most recent album has just been the most ambitious in terms of the track structure and also the features that we have,” Riles said.

Riles said Free Black!’s debut album could be classified as “dark hip-hop,” and the second release, “Freedom Summer!” was a bit brighter.

“Black Tuesday!” strikes a balance between experimentation and intention, as well as the different styles coming together from featured artists throughout Northeast Ohio.

Musicians included on the album are Bright, Jul Big Green, Peachcurls, Dave Rich, Jeri Sapronetti, Jean P The MC, Theron Brown, Phil Anderson and Bluelight.

Last July, Free Black! released the album “Freedom Summer,” inspired by the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, a pivotal time during the Civil Rights Movement.

The album came out at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. It was mixed and mastered by Nate Bucher at Akron Recording Company.

"COVID-19 blows, so we did it all remotely. Luckily, Nate is a wizard over there, and he did my album and all the Free Black! releases to date, so it's always an easy process working with them,” Torres said.

The album was a collection of songs they’d been playing live over the past year, plus unreleased songs they wanted to play on tour.

Touring was canceled on account of the pandemic, so they decided to record and release the new music as an album.

The Elizabeth Keckley Award!” was the first single.

“Holbrook named it ‘Ms. Lincoln,’ and I freestyled that chorus at his house last summer [in 2019]. As we continued to build the song, I was running with the Lincoln theme until recent events and some more personal research on Lincoln. I personally didn't feel comfortable highlighting any political white people when the whole world is talking about police brutality, and Holbrook went with me on it,” Torres said.

Torres researched slaves during the Abraham Lincoln presidential era and learned about Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became a civil activist and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

The pair planned to finish the record at the onset of the pandemic, and themes revolving around the whole world watching history unfold began to direct the lyrical content.

“And then I think for me, Ahmaud Arbery was the first one that happened and then George Floyd happened. But somewhere in between the two, again reading, listening, doing something, the theme of Freedom Summer came up in something,” Torres said.

Torres and Riles continued their exploration into the nation’s history and themes that continue today with “Black Tuesday!”

“The most recent album has just been the most ambitious in terms of the track structure and also the features that we have."
Holbrook Riles III

Experimenting with themes of economic depression

After reading a recent article about the Great Depression, Torres spent time researching the topic at the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

He was interested in the ways in which history has repeated itself in the United States.

The album’s themes focus on economic depression, and Torres said he was interested in the impact it has on real people.

“I was in the library a lot upstairs on the third floor going through the encyclopedias, just like reading, looking for themes,” Torres said. “We all know what the Great Depression is but that's kind of it. Like everything crashed and boom, boom. And I was like, I don't really know much about this, and I went and just did a Google search. I was like, 'What is Black Tuesday?' 'What was a Black Thursday?'"

Torres realized from his research on credit and the stock market that patterns have emerged, and many factors impacting the working class have stayed the same in the last 100 years.

“I was like, 'Oh, we're doing the same things again.' And if it happens again, it'll be 10 times as worse. And then that's when I got the idea of like, 'I think we should call this Black Tuesday,' put this idea out of, you know, this is happening,” Torres said.

He said many of the historical themes he pulled were translated into lyrics on “Black Tuesday!” Torres said the song “Mischievous II” was inspired by Dwight Powell.

“When they were talking about economic recovery, he was basically saying this will help the people be stronger if we let them weather this storm. That's why we were like, 'We have to have a word with you outside Dwight, because it's like, no, bro, that ain't that, ain't it,’” Torres said.

The album’s title was inspired by Oct. 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed. This was a pivotal factor that led to the Great Depression.

"I think we should call this Black Tuesday, put this idea out of, you know, this is happening,"
Floco Torres

Torres and Riles mixed in experimental elements, such as music from the 1920s and a vocal section that sounds like an old-time radio commercial.

“When you think about the ‘20s, when you think about the Great Depression, like that was the beginning of advertising,” Torres said.

Riles said Torres would mention a particular theme or topic he was thinking about, and Riles would start listening to records to pull out certain samples that fit the theme.

Most times, Riles said, he’d send Torres beats for him to write over.

“With like a lot of the beats that I picked, it's just to grab your attention and just like also make it sound like it's a storytelling groundwork,” Riles said. “You know what I mean? Say, for instance, like [the track] ‘100 Percent!’—that's Curtis Mayfield's ‘Keep on Keeping on’ from ‘Roots.’ It's just like, great for grabbing somebody's attention.”

Riles and Torres planned to host a few listening parties for the album for a select group of audience members.

They workshopped the album at Dirty River Bicycle Works in Akron Sept. 24 by performing all songs they had written for it.

The workshop was an opportunity to talk through the album’s themes with the crowd, give them a preview of what was to come and cut material as needed.

“Even if it's just five people, those five, we were going to love this album when it comes out, regardless of how it sounds, because they got that experience,” Torres said. “So that was kind of the mindset behind the workshop. And one of the things actually made the album that wasn't finished because I freestyled at the workshop.”

They continued to fine-tune the album in the subsequent weeks. It was mixed and mastered by Akron Recording Company.

Torres added graphics and visual elements with the album’s release to connect the dots between the inspiration of events from the 1920s and how they translated into the songs released in 2021.

“The thing we're doing now is it's like the album cover, and I made these graphics that look like a projector screen. And all of those, all those clips are from the ‘20s, but I'm chopping the clips up to go with the themes of our songs because it's like the feeling is already there,” Torres said.

By Jeff France_Film_6-29-20.jpg
Jeff France
Floco Torres and Holbrook Riles III released the second Free Black! album, "Freedom Summer!" during the pandemic in 2020. The duo hopes to package the album with 2021's "Black Tuesday!" to serve as an educational tool for young people.

Continuing to educate listeners through music

Torres said plans for the next Free Black! project involve packaging the themes presented in “Freedom Summer!” and “Black Tuesday!” and presenting them differently.

Maybe we end up talking to schools. Maybe we end up talking to colleges. Just finding different elevated ways to present what this group offers. That's the next step,” Torres said

For now, he said he wants people to listen to “Black Tuesday!” and feel different things, then share those experiences with Torres and Riles to continue the conversation.

He said the next phase of the group will be moving in a more purposeful direction.

Torres said when people attend a Free Black! show, it’s hard to ignore what’s happening on stage.

He wants the upcoming Free Black! albums to grab the listener’s attention, in the same way, to deliver the message effectively.

“So how can we tie in art, music education, sampling, history, all of that into every time we do a project? We can slip these concepts out and help everybody learn, specifically younger folks,” Torres said.

Free Black! Is working to devise more elevated ways to share its offerings with the public. The duo hopes to perform another show in Akron by the end of 2021.

Stay Connected
Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.