A Drum Machine and Some Freedom: An Interview With Mannie Fresh
Mannie Fresh–producer, rapper and DJ–is a true legend of hip-hop. The architect of the Cash Money sound, Fresh spent years perfecting bounce within New Orleans, before spearheading the label’s mainstream crossover, bringing southern hip-hop to the top of the charts, and permanently reshaping the landscape of rap. He’s added words to the Oxford English Dictionary, launched the careers of superstars like Lil Wayne and Juvenile, and danced in some gloriously goofy videos. Afropop’s Sam Backer was honored to get the chance to speak with him.
Sam Backer: Do you think you could start by introducing yourself?
Mannie Fresh: I’m Mannie Fresh, AKA Elvis Freshley, AKA Mannie Glover, AKA Mannie Davis Jr… so many AKAs the list could go on forever! But most people know me as Mannie Fresh!
Could you tell me how you first started playing hip-hop ?
My dad was a DJ. So my introduction to this was watching my dad deejay. My dad was a street DJ and my Christmas gifts were turntables and stuff like that. I’m a second generation DJ. My dad played old-school r&b. By the time I came around it was the birth of hip-hop, and that was my favorite music, so naturally I took to hip-hop.
You helped produce and release one of the first New Orleans style hip-hop tracks, “Buck Jump Time.”
I used to always be in the studio working, doing odd jobs and whatever else. I was working for some guys in California and I did some scratching on their record. And after, they asked if I knew any local rappers around here that want some studio time. I wound up doing the scratching thing for some studio time, and I was like, “I do know someone local who can rap.” I called about three people and the only person who picked up the phone was Gregory D. So I was like “Dude—you wanna come down and make a record right quick? Come down to the studio.” And it was Allen Toussaint’s studio, which is an iconic place in New Orleans, and at the time we didn’t even know who Allen Toussaint was, we just knew that I was swapping studio time for doing stuff around the studio.
Greg comes to the studio, and we decided if we were gonna do something, we wanna make it sound like New Orleans. We couldn’t get a jazz band but we could kind of duplicate the beat, that upbeat jazz beat or whatever. There was one little horn sample that I did—I got it off a second line record or a jazz record from New Orleans. We were just really trying to duplicate something that was iconically New Orleans—the whole way it was programmed and the words that we were using. And it turned out to be five or six years in a row, one of the hottest songs in New Orleans.
You said it was kind of New Orleans the way you were programming it, can you tell me a little more about that? What about the programming of drum patterns and the beat made it New Orleans?
The drum patterns are kind of like New Orleans rhythms. Like jazz rhythms. They’re upbeat, double-timed. We didn’t have real drums, but I was kind of nice on the 808 back then—that was my drum machine of choice. So I was like—“Hey. I get it. We can use the 808 drum machine, and we’re going to duplicate what a jazz drummer would do in New Orleans.” So that’s where the drums came from—second line-style music in New Orleans. You got all types of jazz but you know, we like that uptempo, feel good… our type of jazz! You got all kinds of jazz but we call second line our type of jazz. So it was an 808 song that was a spin on a jazz second line song.
After you released that record—it did really well in New Orleans. And then you released another version on a national label, right?
We got a deal with Yo Records and that had national distribution through Universal. So when we did it—it grew some legs and went outside of New Orleans and went over to Baton Rouge and a couple places. So then they wanted to do it on a national level. So yeah, we did our little national spin on it but in all honesty I kind of wish that we left it alone. It was just one of those songs that was meant for New Orleans. It had to stay New Orleans.
The record you did with Gregory D was right before bounce really got started, right?
Yeah. Me and Greg’s style was more Miami bass. That’s what was popping at the time, when I was doing songs with Greg. Miami bass is what the south, what hip-hop sounded like to us in that era. In the ’80s, everyone from New Orleans, from Atlanta and whatever, were all over Miami bass. So a lot of me and Greg’s songs were Miami bass driven.
So when bounce came out, how did you have to adjust your style of production, your style of drum programming?
I didn’t have to, because I was one of the first people to take “Triggerman” and flip it over to the instrumental before T Tucker was even doing it. He was just one of the guys who was first to record it. Bounce was around before T Tucker, street DJs were doing it. I was one of the guys who said, “Oh, put ‘Brown Beat’ with ‘Triggerman’.” It was more of a call and response—we were doing it at local clubs and local block parties. T Tucker was one of the first people to record it and give a voice to it, but it was already around. I just knew this: New Orleans was in love with 808 breaks. So I used to always try to find the coolest 808 songs that had little instrumental pieces and backspin them as a DJ and let MCs rap over them.
The song “Showboys” put out the “Triggerman” song, which is so iconic to bounce. What really made bounce take off is that we flipped it over to the instrumental side and started playing the instrumental of it and started running this one little break that was in the song. The early DJs took a liking to it because it had so many cool breaks in it. So it’s like, what you could do as a DJ to manipulate this record. And before you knew it, there were kids rapping over it and that’s the thing that gets the party started. Next thing you know, T Tucker comes out with this song. That particular beat that was already popular before T Tucker did it. The DJs made it poppin’.
After that, how did you go from working with Gregory to working with Cash Money?
I was a local DJ in the city and pretty much anywhere anything was poppin’, that’s where I would DJ at. Uptown, downtown, projects, anywhere something was going on I was deejaying. I met everybody from Cash Money at a club I used to deejay at called Rumors. One of the MCs named was Heavy, he was signed to Cash Money at the time so he was like, “Let me introduce you guys to Mannie Fresh.” The first thing we did was this song with Lil Slim called, “Bounce Slide Right” and that song took off so quick, from there it was just instant. The relationship started out with them just buying beats from me. And it went from them buying beats to being like—“Hey dude, we want you as in-house producer, because we think you really know what you’re doing when it comes to this bounce stuff.” Cash Money’s first generation was just a bounce label. Bounce was the only thing coming out on it.
The early stuff you did with Cash Money is very bounce but it still has an eye on what’s going on in hip-hop. A lot of it is more lyrical.
What I done that was different from everybody—this is me, that’s what I think—is that I put bass lines on top of bounce. That’s what kind of gave mine the element that was a little bit different than everybody else. I was like, “O.K., how do you get the masses to like this? Everybody in New Orleans gets it but how do we get it outside New Orleans?” So what I started doing, I would take an old ’80s song, like Tears For Fears or something, and mix it on top of a bounce beat and loop it. People would be like, “I heard that song somewhere but I don’t know where.” It was always something cool but I got a Kraftwerk song and took the bass line from it and put it on a bounce beat, maybe slow it down or whatever. It was familiar to people, they just didn’t know where it was from. My thing was I always wanted to merge something different—just, oh, how I could bring something to the next level. But the beginning of it was just 808 beats and a raw MC.
That’s one of the things that’s really amazing about the stuff you were doing with Cash Money. We were talking to a bunch of people like Mystikal and Mobo Joe, and they were talking about how a lot of people had to choose hip-hop or they had to choose bounce. I feel like Cash Money realized that they could do both.
Yeah, definitely. Because, I didn’t just do bounce. One of the beats, the one with the handclaps [Cheeky Blakk’s “Bitch Get Off Me”], I did that beat. That’s probably one of the most used bounce beats ever, even to this day. It’s still running. When that took off, I said “O.K., before this goes crazy and I get labeled as just a bounce producer, I better get into some other stuff.” I was the one who was kind of molding everyone in Cash Money. When Wayne and B.G. first came on, they were doing bounce records, and I was like “Dude, ya’ll so much more.” Not that anything’s wrong with bounce, but when you listen to somebody and they’re telling a story, and the story has depth to it, I was like, “I don’t know if we can put that to a bounce beat.” You have to put that to something that mirrors what you’re saying.
I actually wanted to talk about that “Cheeky Blakk” beat. I got to interview Cheeky when I was in New Orleans and she said it was you and DJ Duck in the studio. Can you tell me about that beat? It’s just such a perfect mix of “Triggerman” and “Brown” beat”—how did you construct it?
DJ Duck was one of the guys who would deejay with me in club Rumors. What was so good about Duck was that he just had this knowledge of sounds. Bounce in the early stages was built on crate digging. Duck would be like, “Bro, I found this incredible hit,” and the hit that’s in that song came from him. It was something that he gave me. Like Cheeky probably told you, it just came together. There wasn’t a whole bunch of talk about that. I was a club DJ, I knew how to make people dance. When I did that, she killed that song instantly and I was like that’s it. I knew we had to go no further. What was so iconic about the song was that, once again, everybody in New Orleans flipped it over to the instrumental. The Cheeky Blakk song ran for a little while and everybody was jamming that, but then that beat became the blueprint to bounce. Everybody started flipping that song over.
I honestly had some arguments with some people because if you know Jubilee’s “Get Ready, Ready,” that’s the same beat. What he did, was that he just rapped off of the instrumental of the Cheeky Blakk song, he didn’t change nothin’. It’s actually the same song. So I was like, “Dude, you basically jacked me out of my beat and you didn’t say anything, no thank, you no none of that.” But the crazy thing after that, I started noticing this pattern… everybody was using that beat. So I realized that this was one of the beats that you just have to give away to hip-hop.
So you were producing not just for Cash Money because that was on Tombstone, right?
Yeah, I was on Tombstone and the guy from Tombstone, Elton, he was my neighbor and we were super cool. But, dude, I was producing for everybody, even the people that were beefing. At the time, Cheeky Blakk and Ms. Tee were beefing and I was doing both of their albums. Anything that was bounce that was coming out of New Orleans, I was doing it. It didn’t matter who was fighting, it was like, “Oh shit, he’s the bounce producer around here. He’s the dude to go to.”
You recorded a lot of greats, one being Magnolia Shorty. I just wanted to know your thoughts on her.
Shorty was a star from day one. I remember doing her song—she showed up in the studio with a bunch of little girls and I was like “O.K.” What happened was, Baby saw her at a block party and I had never heard the song but he said “Dude, there’s this little girl out here and she’s wrecking block parties, she’s killing it.” I had no idea what the song was about, never heard it. I’m in the studio one day and her and 12 girls show up and they do the song “Monkey on Tha Dick.” I’m telling you, it took her all of five minutes to do that song and when they left they were so hyped, her and her friends. It was like somebody who was innocent. To her, that was her idea of success. She was just like, “I made it—I made a song, Mannie Fresh did the beat.” And instantly, as soon as that song was out, it was all over the place. It was one of those songs that you couldn’t not play. You had to play that song.
She was a star in her own right because she really promoted that song. She went all over. They were trying to convince her that she could get paid, that they could book her at some place, but she was not tripping on that. She was doing it anywhere she could do it. Even at the library, she was singing that song. We were like, “We need you to stop! You’re all over the place!” But part of what she did broke the song too. Every other day you’d be like, “Oh, Shorty at a block party, or oh, she’s in the courtyard, or oh, she’s performing at school.” This was her idea of success. She was just a star to me. I haven’t seen many artists who were that hungry and promoted it that much.
One of the things you were saying earlier was that you were always thinking of how you could reach the masses. It seems like that was present in your music from the early days and it’s definitely clear on things like “Back That Azz Up” by Juvenile. What made you want to reach that huge audience? What made you see that you could take this music and bring it nationwide?
I’ve always been striving for something bigger—and I guess it was the way that it was received too. In the early stages of bounce, we couldn’t leave out of New Orleans with that. We would go one place over to Baton Rouge or some place like that and they would not get it. So I was like, “Wow, it would be so cool if they got this!” So I was going “How do we make them understand it?” The beats were jammin’ so I knew we had to give them something on top of it. Once I started doing that, then it started taking off different places. It was like “O.K., wow, now it’s got some music to it.” I get New Orleans but I wanted more than New Orleans. I was really striving from day one because I thought the whole planet was going to like this one day.
How did you first start working with Juvenile? He was one of the first people who brought that vision nationwide.
Honestly, I been knowing Juvie, but I first got to work with him when he got signed to Cash Money. The crazy thing is that when my dad was deejaying, Juvie used to go to some of my dad’s gigs and my dad would play a song, like an instrumental 808 and let Juvie rock. Let him do his thing or whatever. New Orleans is a small city, like a small culture and everybody knows everybody. What happened that really made me interested in Juvie was—-one day we saw Juvie when we was leaving the Cash Money office and he was on his way to work. Baby was like—“dude, rap about…” and he started making up subjects and Juvie would start rapping about… I don’t know, cars passing. And then Baby tells him another crazy subject like, “O.K. dude, rap about black and white TVs,” so he started rapping about that. Baby gave him maybe four or five subjects and he killed it. And I’m like—“this dude gets it.” But what really made me interested in Juvie was it wasn’t just bounce, he had structure to it. Like his story made sense—he could tell you something. And I was like, “Wow, dude that’s pretty dope!” He had three verses, three 16s, you’ve got a hook, and everything. So he had structure when lot of early bounce artists didn’t have structure. That’s what really made it cool.
Your breakout record nationwide was “400 Degreez.” Could you talk about recording that album? What you thought about when you were making it?
Believe it or not, to me there’s no such thing as a hit record. And let me make sense of that so people get me. I’m not saying other people don’t think that way. When I was doing that record, I was just doing music, the normal thing that I do. I wasn’t saying that this was gonna be important. Every song I ever did I did approach it like—this is what I love to do. I love doing music. So when we were doing “400 Degreez,” what made it good with all the other elements was that it was just a good environment. There were a bunch of people who chipped in who made those records good. We had a studio full of people but everybody’s on one page. So it’s because of the whole way we recorded it— the environment and Juvie being hungry and a lot of other people trying to prove themselves. That’s what made it a good record.
You recorded most of it live, didn’t you?
Yeah. You hear some of the songs the way they end and some of the ways that others would begin, it was kind of like some of those old Motown sessions. Like, “1, 2, ready, play!” Mostly all of that we played down. We would let it run for like four minutes and we would just play it. I think that’s what made it connect with a lot of people. It wasn’t just sequenced. It’s real bass players, it’s real keyboard players, you could hear the changes in the music and it made it feel better.
That record was the second record we had on major deal so we all had been cooked. That wasn’t our first record. Believe it or not, 400 Degreez wasn’t the album that got us there. The Big Tymers album actually got us the deal because the numbers was crazy. We put out the Big Tymers album and Universal were like, “How is it possible that these dudes are just talking mad shit on record, selling these many records.” So when we did the deal, we did another volume of the Big Tymers. And by then we had already done 500,000. We had already gone gold on it before we even got to Universal. So we were already in work mode, and by the time we got to Juvenile’s album, we already had a taste of it, like, oh, this is going to be the good life. Everybody was excited like, if we did this once, we can could do it again.
Do you think you could talk about “Ha” a little bit? How you structured the beat? What made that song special to you?
What made “Ha” different was that it was one of those songs that nobody dared to do. The way it was programmed, the way he was rapping. It was me just finding my production style. To this day, I don’t think there are many songs that like that. It was me going “This is what Mannie Fresh do. Give him a drum machine, some freedom and watch what happens.” It was purely me. If I had to define my style, that’s what it would be. Juvie was sitting around, and he was clowning and playing around and said, “What if I just said ‘ha’ after every line?” And I was just like, “Dude, you should actually do that!” When he wrote it, with the beat, it was like a marriage. The crazy thing is that it was one of those songs that came together in like five minutes. And we knew, like, this right here feels good.
You’ve talked about how songs could stem from a line that a rapper would perform in a club or a beat that you played in between tracks, and a rapper wanted to hop on. Could you talk a little about the relationship between live performances and your deejaying and production work?
Well, I’m a DJ before anything. A lot of my songs are based on the DJ experience. I’m always reading the crowd. If I drop something, and the crowd responds to it, I’m going, “How I can make that a record?” My production style is based on me being a DJ first. I’ve always paid attention to what people like in a song. You could have a song, and there could be one line in the song and when it comes around people sing it. I start thinking about taking those lines and making hooks out of them. That’s what a lot of the Cash Money thing was. The next song would always be from the previous song. If we had one line in the song, and we were live and on tour, and by the time we got back we noticed everywhere we went that people would say one line, I would tell them we needed to make that into a hook. It was already embedded in their brains! So when the song came out it was easy to digest, because they had already heard it 1500 times prior to it coming out.
I feel like that focus on call and response and audience reaction is very much in the DNA of New Orleans music.
I would say that bounce, for the most part, is original hip-hop. The way hip-hop started. There’s call and response, there’s raw beats, there’s an MC just going for it, wondering “how can I run the crowd.” That’s the whole purpose of it. You need the energy and if you’re wack at it, the crowd’s gonna let you know. If you good at it, you’re gonna control the crowd, but the whole purpose of it is response and call. It’s the way hip-hop started—there’s a MC, a DJ, and the mic. Good luck.