Zack Freeman got tired of being in a band, so he started wearing a sampler.
He was in a few Colorado a cappella groups that wouldn't bend to his creative whims. "A cappella's kind of snooty," Freeman says. "It's not really jam-based or spontaneously collaborative. I wanted to be more free with my music and the way that I made the sounds."
Freeman moved to Albuquerque in 2000, and two years later he started tinkering with a four-track tape recorder. He wanted to be able to record himself live. "I had seen a guy do it with, like, a bunch of indigenous instruments," Freeman recalls. "That stuck in my head and I was like, Well, time to go figure out how to do that."
He found a sampler that could help him become a one-man band and set to work. He sharpened his beatboxing skills and learned how to use his voice to craft the rhythm, melody and harmonies of every song. "It's all vocals," Freeman says. "There's no guitar, no drums, no nothing."
If you had to pick one genre in which to pigeonhole Freeman, it would probably be hip-hop; he beatboxes on almost every track and occasionally spits a rhyme. But he struggles to describe himself. "We don't know what kind of music I do," Freeman admits. "It's a hip-hop, folk, a cappella, electronica kind of thing ... sort of."
When he plays live, Freeman takes about a minute to create each part of his songs and loop them together. Each set is different because Freeman tries to guess what will tickle his audience's fancy. "I'll start off with something that sounds vaguely drum and bass or Latin-y," Freeman says. "Then I look at the crowd and think, What are they going to be into? In that five seconds, I have to decide what kind of melody I'm going to throw on."
Lyrically, Freeman rails against politicians who betray the public's trust while encouraging individuals to take on the onus for creating change. "You can't escape your responsibilities," Freeman explains. "If there's something you're supposed to be doing, you have to take care of it."
Freeman grew up singing every day. His parents taught him how to use his pipes at an early age, and they made him practice constantly. That environment helped Freeman understand the power of his voice. "When you have a good message, good melody and good phrasing, it seems to hit human beings closer to the heart," Freeman says. "It's a nicer, calmer way of telling people what's up."
Freeman says he spends a lot of time at home experimenting with sounds, a sampler slung over his neck. It all pays off when someone at his show raises a fist. "They just heard you say something and they got the message," Freeman says. "That means that you've been a conduit for basically God to touch somebody's soul for a second. Job well done."
Freeman's anomalous skills landed him a spot on NBC's "America's Got Talent" in August 2006. He made it all the way to the final showdown of the episode but lost to a guy who played guitar with an eggbeater. Freeman says he has no hard feelings about being denied the win. "I didn't really care, man," Freeman asserts. "We all had a good time. TV is the farthest thing from reality."
On his latest record, Freeman teamed up with TuMan Productions, also known as Albuquerque duo Mic J and The Tractition. The album, TuMan Presents Zack Freeman,is his second solo release. TuMan provided background instrumentation, such as guitar, snare drum and harmonica, and Freeman did the rest. He credits Mic J and The Tractition for helping him fashion his most meticulous effort yet. "We would all really work on honing the sound to make sure that it sounded like me," Freeman says. "We'd do it over and over and over again. That was the fun part, because it helped me develop a vocal style, as opposed to just singing really loud and kind of half-yelling."