Turns out the king wears no bling. The honor I felt getting a private audience with beatmaker and DJ Mannie Fresh was far more outsized than Fresh’s style of dress: a fresh but simple maroon Polo shirt and jeans. Embarassingly, I forgot to check out his shoes, but I doubt they were solid gold. He looks like a guy who’d make fun of rappers with silly diamond teeth, when in fact he played a huge part in building many of those rappers’ careers.
’80s DJ gigs at local clubs and house parties led to Fresh producing the album Throwdown with MC Gregory D in 1987. From 1993 to 2005 he helmed the console for Cash Money Records, making iconic beats that featured bright keyboards and hi-hats whipping like weedwhackers. Some cars sound like giant rolling bass drums but a Mannie Fresh beat might make your ride sound like a giant tambourine. He perfected his style producing the legendary Hot Boys (Juvenile, Lil Wayne, B.G. and Turk) as well as much of the members’ solo work. Fresh recorded five albums with Bryan “Baby/Birdman” Williams as Big Tymers and, since 2004, two solo albums for Def Jam South. In 2007 his sister was murdered in New Orleans and Fresh went on hiatus. Now the king is back.
ANTIGRAVITY sat down to talk to Mannie Fresh about his early jobs producing country and house music, his seemingly aborted new album with Mystikal, his more definite work with young rapper Dee-1 and his extremely supportive DJ father. And though we hope it doesn’t come off as technical blabber, we talked a lot about drum machines and making beats. Because that’s how Mannie became king.
ANTIGRAVITY: Where’d you grow up?
Mannie Fresh: 7th Ward. Downtown.
Because drum machines didn’t used to be as prevalent in people’s houses as guitars or whatever, how did you get a hold of your first drum machine?
Dad, dad, dad, all day long. He bought me a Boss DR55, black. It had two buttons on it: arrest and whatever you put the sound on. You had to know how to step record and without a grid. You’d be sitting there pressin the button, counting one-two-three-four and then you stop and put your bass drum on the five, then count six-seven-eight-nine then another bass drum. Then you had to turn this big old knob to get to the snare drum and you had to go through this process again with the snare. People say my programming is crazy but it’s because I learned on the craziest machine in the beginning.
Your dad was a DJ. What kind of music did he play?
Oh, anything man, anything. He did everything. Had crazy gigs too. In the early ‘70s, the late, great Bobby Marchan – he’s a legend in N.O. because he had this drag queen show, but he also went on to manage the first generation of New Orleans rappers. And my dad had all these posters where he was DJing, opening for Bobby Marchan’s shows. That’s how far my dad go back.
Did he have all the New Orleans music in his collection?
He had everything. Music played in my house all day, every day. We would sit and play records together all day long. Before rap music came along I was vibin with my dad; we was playin Marvin Gaye and we might sit there and analyze the album, both of us: ‘What you think?’ ‘What you think?’
So if this was before rap, what gave your dad the idea to buy you a drum machine?
Some of Marvin Gaye’s songs was 808 songs, and my dad’s goin, ‘You know that’s a drum machine, right?’ I loved that 808 sound. So he just bought me a machine. My dad actually caught on to rap music before I did. RUN DMC came along, Sugarhill Gang, whatever. And my dad was like, ‘This is a movement.’ And I was like, ‘It’s cool, but…’ Then when ‘Planet Rock’ came along–I was like, this is our generation. That dirty, gritty drum machine… When my dad first gave me my drum machine I just looked at it like something from outer space. My dad never pushed nothing on me but had so much gear it would just pile up, and next thing I know I got some turntables. I played with them for five minutes and pushed em aside. The first thing that really got me interested finally was I got a Moog synthesizer back in the G. My dad was playing with it, twisting all the knobs and making all these crazy noises with it, and I was ‘Aw yeah, I like that.’ I realized I could change all the filters. That just sparked my interest mad crazy like, ‘Damn, I can making all these different sounds and different waves!’ And you could make bass-lines and I’m like, ‘How do you compliment em?’ Go back to the drum machine! So that’s what I was doing at like 12 or 13.
What did your dad think about the music you eventually became famous for?
He to this day says, ‘I knew this was gonna happen cause I seen it in you from young.’ But he was never that dad who would push stuff on me.
Initially you were college bound, though.
Yeah and I left college to go do this internship at RCA. I took my second student aid check and flew to California. I knew what I wanted to do and I didn’t want to invest four years in something I didn’t want to do– and then I got to pay em back for that shit?! My dad knew I left school, but my mom didn’t and I remember my dad telling me, ‘You go do what you think you need to do to follow through, but when your mom finds out, I didn’t know shit about it.’
So it was like a music internship in California?
It was at RCA but I was just kinda cleaning up or whatever. And these dudes was in the studio making country music and the drummer didn’t show up. So they asked me can I program some country drums. And I’m like, ‘What is country drums?’ So they played me this one-on-the-floor beat (beatboxes a shuffle beat) and I’m like ‘That’s what you want me to do?’ and he was like ‘You think you can do that?’ I was like ‘Yeah, all day long!’ [laughs ] He was like ‘How long are we gonna be here,’ and I was like, ‘Shit, you gonna be here like 10 seconds. We’re done.’ I did the beat for him real quick. He said he needed some tom rolls and played me another song and I did it on the fly, holding the tap repeat button and they were like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ He tossed me $100 and asked me to show up tomorrow.
So this somehow led to you working in Chicago on house music tracks with Steve Hurley?
Yes, someone at the record company mentioned to Steve Hurley that there’s this kid from Louisiana and he can program drum machines like nobody else. At the time Steve Hurley was signed to Atlantic. He invited me to Chicago to try some things. And I was like, ‘What is it that you do?’ and he said, ‘House music,’ and I had no idea what the hell house music was. So he plays me some of his songs and I ain’t gonna lie: I thought it was the dumbest shit I ever heard. I’m like, ‘You just played me five songs and every one of em was (beatboxes cheesy four-on-the-floor techno beat). ‘This is what you want me to program?’ He says, ‘Yes.’ ‘Well shit, cool.’ I get to Chicago and he puts me in his studio and this was my introduction to the 909. He said he wanted something different, so I made these house beats, but I put snare rolls in em and I raised the hi-hat up on em. Back then everybody programmed at 1/16, and I’ve always programmed at 1/32. And he was like, ‘That’s the edge that I been waiting for!’
I have always thought your bright synthesizer sounds reminded me of house and techno.
Yeah, my techno side definitely comes from house. House was really experimental back when Steve Hurley was doing that; you could use Moogs; you could use, I don’t know, organ. It would just be two chords [mimics house music keyboards] and it’d be a huge house hit. You’d use some synthesizers with arpeggiators that just went crazy and everybody loved it. So I learned that from Steve Hurley and was like, ‘I’m gonna incorporate this into rap.’ And it pretty much worked.
So how would you describe your sound–not in adjectives but in terms of the buttons you have to push to make it?
New Orleans music is all about energy, and that’s what the hi-hat does. So I am all about the hi-hats.
The hi-hat moves all the way through the song, even if it’s triplets. You think you’re not paying attention to the hi-hat when really it’s the driving force to a lot of songs. You’re hearing it whether it’s syncopated or 16th notes or 32s. New Orleans music to me is energy and that’s why I cranked the hi-hat up to 1/32. You can have a crappy track and if you give it a good hi-hat, it’ll still make you move.
How much did traditional New Orleans music play into your programming?
Well, everything that I do has got a little part of New Orleans in it. Growing up here is going to make everything I do a tad bit different.
Music writers always draw lines from like Mardi Gras Indian music to bounce rap but has that ever crossed your mind consciously like, ‘I am going to make an electronic version of Mardi Gras Indian music’?
Oh hell yeah. I am influenced by Mardi Gras Indians and tambourines–but then also from my favorite TV shows. My concept, though, has been to make something out of nothing. If all you have is pots and pans, then you gotta figure out a way to make pots and pans sound good. The crazy thing is I’ve never really had a concept. It’s just second nature to me. If I’m on a plane, I bring a drum machine and turn it on even if I don’t feel like making music and soon I will have something I like. I don’t approach it by a concept of what I want to do.
So you still work with the rapper The Show, from New Orleans?
Yes. The Show actually has a new album out on iTunes called D.O.B. 3. Downman Street neighborhood is where he from, so D.O.B. means Downman on Back, like he own everything from Downman Street where the East Bank start, all the way on back.
You also gave a “co-sign” to the young rapper Dee-1. “Co-sign” is really just a fancy hip-hop word for when a famous artist publicly admits to liking a young artist’s work. But now you have a song on the radio with Dee-1, “The One That Got Away.”
I’m actually gonna do an album with him. I been knowing this kid for forever. What really impressed me about him: I seen him like 7 years ago in Auto Zone and he comes over and he’s all, ‘My name is Dee-1 and I rap and you should put me on cause I’m the greatest!’ I was like, ‘It don’t work like that.’ He says, ‘Well I’m gonna give you my CD and when you hear it you are going to think it’s the greatest shit ever!’ And I was like, ‘It does not work like that.’ But because he was consistent, I gave him a call and said, ‘Hey dude, I like your music but I think you need to keep on pushin and doin what you doin.’ So he came out with another mixtape that was a whole lot better than the previous one, and in it he talked about how I smashed him at Auto Zone, but how it made him a better person. He wrote it in one of his raps, so I was like, ‘All right, all right.’ He humbled himself about it in that rhyme. So I called him again and said, ‘I really like it, keep pushin.’ Time goes by and he’s still out there doin his thing. Then I see his song “Jay, 50 and Weezy,” on MTV and I’m like, ‘All right!’ even though I really didn’t agree with what he was saying in the song. But as an artist I had to respect him… So I reached out to him and say, ‘OK dude, I’ma put you on, come get this beat–free of charge–and see what you can come up with.’ Next day he shows up–I’m so used to working with rappers who need to get in they mode, do what they gotta do–but Dee wanted to record his right then and there. He said, ‘I actually wrote ten songs catered to any possible beat you could give me.’ So I’m testin him out, ‘Let me try this one,’ then ‘Let me hear you say something over that one.’ And when we got to the beat that was “The One That Got Away,” and he did that song I was like, ‘That’s the one right there!”
The word ‘bounce’ is dropped in every description of you but I must admit I don’t really hear it in your beats.
From me early DJing, bounce was my thing. I don’t use bounce beats myself, but one of the significant beats of bounce, the little beat that’s on Jubilee’s song “Get Ready Get Ready,” even Freedia has used it, that beat with the handclaps and the little hits – that’s my beat. And that beat has carried bounce. [laughs] But I see it as an honor and a privilege. It’s a beat off a Cheeky Blakk instrumental that everyone in bounce has used in some way.
Will the Dee-1 album be out on Chubby Boy Records?
Chubby Boy is more of a production thing, but you will see that stamp on it. Right now we don’t even have a label, just Internet, so I don’t even see the importance of having a label. I can get my music to my fans myself. No one cares what label it came out on. That day is gone.
And now that you’re between musical projects you DJ a lot?
Every weekend I am somewhere. If it’s cool people, cool places, I’m going. I DJ everything: house music, rock, whatever people want. I just got back from Spain and I played electro-pop. A lot of that New Orleans shit doesn’t really work outside of here.
But haven’t you found more people wanting you to play bounce music since Katrina?
Hell yeah. It used to be I had my five or six little bounce songs and they went off, but people know it now. I play Big Freedia; I am not afraid to play anything. I chop Big Freedia songs up into national songs–“one to three o’clock four o’clock rock”–to get New Orleans across. Otherwise, anywhere I go someone ask me about Magnolia Slim, either the story behind it or the music.
They want to know about Jubilee, Magnolia Shorty, all the early bounce, DJ Jimi or whatever. Kids today are information hounds, so they wanna know where it started from. The easiest way I have found to sell bounce music is to put anything over a bounce beat. I have this one record now that’s the Charlie Brown theme over this bounce beat. It starts off with the piano.
Folks went ballistic when that YouTube video came out of Mystikal freestyling to your beats in your car [incidentally, one of the beats from that video later became, “The One That Got Away”]. Are you two still working on his album?
We did that cypher together and we were working on a record or whatever. But I heard from the Internet or whatever that he’s supposed to be signing with Cash Money now. And if he is, more power to him. I’ma keep moving; it’s not a big deal, no hurt feelings, none of that. But with all this that’s going on I’m learning that I am knocking down doors right now. Everything that I do, major people are interested in.
Along with a little spike in popularity for bounce music, what else has changed about New Orleans since the flood?
Oh man, the whole culture in New Orleans has changed since Katrina. It’s been a gift and a curse. The whole culture of hip-hop and rap just left since Katrina. I think it’s building back, but… Now there’s another movement but it’s starting from scratch. Before we had some organized people, some organized companies that was on their way up and Katrina came and moved that out of the way. Even bounce is not what it used to be. It’s still popular but it’s like starting from scratch. My generation, when we used to go out to clubs we used to watch out for each other. When Katrina happened, that turned everybody to look out for yourself. You don’t feel that brotherly love anymore. Crime is crazier than ever. And to leave New Orleans, a lot of people left their essence and everything they were brought up on, so even if they came back they are a different person.
You know, many people think the hip-hop scene has experienced a renaissance since the flood, with monthly open-mic type nights by Truth Universal, Impulss, Slangston Hughes and Lyrikill, who does the Soundclash Beat Battle.
It was always going on, especially [around Frenchmen Street], but before the flood it was open to everybody. Now we put titles on stuff, and ‘They over there doing that, and we over here doing this.’ When hip-hop was going on here on Frenchmen, the bounce community was welcome, but now it’s like, you’re either bounce or you’re rap. They are considered two different things. And we need to merge so that we can all make it.
Tell me how you got involved in that performance at Swoon’s Music Box house on Piety Street last month with Hamid Drake, Jim White (Dirty Three), Quintron and other weird music stars.
Jeff [“Jeff B” Bromberger, who books all the big hip-hop shows at Maison] called me about it and from his description it sounded funny and amazing at the same time. At first, the concept didn’t make sense to me. Jeff was like, ‘Dude, the house makes music.’ I’m like, ‘So what am I gonna scratch the walls?’ He told me to just wait till I get there. But I was game. So I get there and this guy had this whole wall of [looper] pedals. I had to sample my own sounds, with my mouth or whatever. So I sampled a kick, snare, a couple other samples and I was good. It was kind of crazy. They had this one dude had made these drums; he took some Reynolds Wrap and wrapped it over some frames and it sounded really good! I was like, ‘Damn!’
So while you are openly credited for helping popularize the word ‘bling,’ you also claim to be the origin of the New Orleans word, “whoadie.” How many New Orleans colloquialisms come directly from you?
[laughs] Yeah, if I say something around here in New Orleans enough, people will start saying it. We say ‘round’ now instead of ‘whoadie.’ Means the same thing but we got tired of ‘whoadie’ so we say, “That’s my round,’ ‘What’s happening round?’ I have this habit of calling people ‘that boy,’ like I’d say, ‘Man, that boy car was clean.’ And then somebody else come around me saying, ‘Yeah that boy was…’ [laughs] ‘Y’heard me,’ too. ‘Y’heard me,’ is me all day.