Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Marcus Dowling
“I’m doing an event down in New Orleans with (influential 80s rap and R & B producer, Kurtis) Mantronik and (DC go-go progenitors) Trouble Funk with Red Bull [Music Academy]…is it going to be taped…of course it’s going to be taped.” It’s certainly wonderful to see near 30-year veteran rap producer Mannie Fresh in the wonderful mood that a sold-out room saw him in during Tuesday evening’s taping of NPR Hip Hop’s Mic Check program with Frannie Kelley and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. In the 26 years since his first known release, the grandfather of bounce, trap and Southern rap music overall has piloted the boards on 23 Billboard Hot 100 singles and “can’t remember” how many albums he’s produced from beginning to end.
It’s amazing to see him in such great spirits because if it were likely any one of us and we were faced with making music for a rap industry that Fresh himself described as being “tired,” as he has to “[keep] hearing the same song over and over again,” having the drive to create “two or three beats a day,” because you “love the music” would likely be difficult.
When Mannie Fresh’s career began in 1988, rap was filled with diverse cadres of artists including Public Enemy, Slick Rick, and NWA. Between those three artists you have the production styles of Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad’s aural blitzkrieg, Jam Master Jay’s jiggy cross-borough club stylings and of course Dr. Dre’s insistence on evolving rap music into three-minute symphonies of soul. Somewhere between those three – in the “bounce” style familiar to so many New Orleans rap hits – is where Fresh (and Cash Money Records) were able to make their mark.
“Bounce music to me is the beginning if hip hop, with the call and response. Basically, you want people to get people to get up and have a good time.” “Bounce music” you ask? Well, if unaware of what the sound is, it’s entirely possible you’ve danced to a bounce anthem (or ten) in the past three decades. From Juvenile’s 1999 hit “Back Dat Ass Up” (from Juvenile’s 1999 album 400 Degreez, aka Fresh’s favorite album he’s ever produced) to Lil Wayne’s 2004 hit “Go D.J.” to 2007’s “Big Shit Poppin'” for T.I.,” they all featured the same 808-laden bassline smoothed out with a swinging, dance-ready melody. When discussing being the producer behind those hits, Fresh smiled with a twinkle in his eye, and began every story with the idea that he assured everyone in the room wondering if he had another hit in his creative juices that “[he] got this.” For Juvenile, he “added some classical music,” because “what can cross over like classical music?” As far as Wayne’s 2004 hit, “[it] was an old song that (classic New Orleans rap group) UNLV used to play, and Wayne told me, ‘I don’t know what you have to change in it to make it mine, but I want that.'”
The ever-present intrigue of the nearly three-hour evening (of which one will be boiled down into an episode of Mic Check) was noting the seeming bemused interest with which Mannie Fresh took the idea that he was playing his music for a room filled with fans and journalists at NPR. He’s won awards, toured the world and set a global standard by which mainstream pop is judged, but, he looked so positively over-the-moon to be sharing a few hours with us and inviting a room into his creative process.
His honesty was refreshing. From talking about “not feeling challenged” by any of the up and comers in rap right now (or more that none of them “could afford a Mannie Fresh track”), to the idea that many current rappers are “wannabes,” to his critically-acclaimed 2004 album The Mind of Mannie Fresh being recorded “in a week” and being about “drama with his baby’s mother and whatever was on his mind that week,” it was enlightening.
Enlightening too were all of the unreleased tracks that were played. Yes, there’s “Let’s Go,” from the collaborative album he’s working on with Mos Def, who he described as “confident” and “needing to talk for two or three hours about conspiracy theories” before he recorded. That track in particular is a bona-fide hit in the making. Featuring less bounce and more boom bap, it somehow still swings AND the drum patters change up every eight bars. Blending modern desires with all of the things that hip-hop nerds who love Mos Def adore, it shows that both Mannie and Mos still have “it.” And yeah, he played bounce remixes of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” the theme to 90s program Showtime At the Apollo, 2Pac’s “California Love,” and Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” that well, given his level of access in the industry, could be sample-cleared hits for your favorite emcee or pop diva. However, like his belief that technology is “making [music] too complicated these days,” those remixes are far more for his DJ sets because well, “if [he] wants you to understand something, he’ll remix it.” As far as that Junkyard Band go-go song that he cranked out a bounce remix for on the spot on the MPC he has on his iPad? Well, after seeing that, nothing else is really the same.
According to Mannie Fresh, music “needs more producers and less beat makers.” As well, in life, we need “more doctors and lawyers and fewer rappers and producers.” And as far as creativity, “only me and God get [my creativity].” When you break down everything that simply, and have such an incredible run of success, then a night listening to a legendary producer becomes one of the most inspirational and feel-good moments of the year to-date.