In the late ’90s, with a young, criminally underrated crew hell-bent on partying its way out of the projects, unheralded Uptown label Cash Money Records had the hip-hop charts in its sights, a real big chip on its shoulder and the hottest producer in the Dirty South in its pocket: Mannie Fresh, the maestro whose booty-dropping bass lines paved the way for Juvenile, Lil Wayne, B.G., the Hot Boyz and the Big Tymers’ multi-platinum hits. More than a decade removed from ringing in the age of “Bling, Bling,” Mannie Fresh’s cuts still shine even though, these days, the made man maintains a low-key profile and keeps his collaborations to a close-knit few. With mainstream hip-hop largely devoid of substance and the underground scene awash in mixtapes, a hungry, new generation of rappers now turns to Fresh for its beats. But for the 43-year-old New Orleans veteran who will take the Best of the Beat stage alongside hometown prospect Dee-1 on January 18, it isn’t the game that’s changed; it’s just been a while since someone raised the stakes.
What are you looking forward to the most at this year’s Best of the Beat Awards?
I love performing in New Orleans. The city has been with me my whole career and it’s just made me love whenever I perform here. Any time I perform at home or do anything that has to do with the heritage of the city, I get a warm welcome, especially from the new generation.
So what exactly will you performing with Dee-1?
You know, I never know. I kind of just feel it out. That’s why I guess it goes well for me. I just feel the crowd out and wherever they are, that’s where I go. That’s what separates me from a lot of people. I never say, “Hey, I got a showcase and that’s what I wanna do.” I’m more of a people-reader. When I get there, I’ll know what I’ll do.
Well, what’s the marquee song that gets the crowd the most hyped?
“Still Fly.” Definitely. “Still Fly” and “Get Your Roll On,” too. But “Still Fly,” when that comes on even bartenders and everyone there go wild. I can turn the volume down and just let the crowd sing the song word for word. It’s incredible.
What’s the most memorable performance you’ve ever had?
I’d probably say the time I was DJing and I got into and they went crazy. This was in Baton Rouge somewhere. They were feeling everything I was dropping so much that I just ended up getting on stage and rocking with the crowd the whole night. It was so energetic and crazy and I was like, “Yeah, this is one I’ll never forget.”
What’s the secret to a great performance?
Have fun. When you stop having fun, maybe it’s time to put the gloves up. You’ve got to connect with the people. You’ve got to feel them, not just yourself. You need to figure out what it is they love about you and what it is you love about them. Music doesn’t have a face to it. You can get purple, black, blue, green under one roof and they will jam and party and it’s your job to figure out how to make them do that. And if you can do that, it’s touchdown. Game over.
What was the best performance you’ve ever seen?
I’ve seen so many great performances I haven’t really thought about it. Wow. I’ve seen Parliament when they had their spaceship thing going on and my dad took me. I’ve just been blown away so many times that I just try to absorb that like, “Damn, I need to take some of that and figure it out.” I will say this: Most of the best performances I’ve seen have been from older artists. They take time to perfect their craft. You ever seen the Temptations? The moves they do and the way the show flows, everything is on time and it’s crazy.
This year you’ll be performing with Dee-1. What brought you guys together?
I’ve been knowing Dee-1 for a while. The first time he handed his tape to me, I listened to it and was like, “You’re cool, but you got a long way to go.” He kind of took it as, “Damn, dude, you dissed me.” I was like, “No, dude, I’m just being critical… That’s what I think.”
Then later on, somebody I know had his music and passed it on to me. So he didn’t give me his next project; someone passed it to me. I listened to it and I was just overwhelmed with his improvement. I just called him out of the blue and said, “I just listened to your music and you’re on the right path right now.” I was really surprised, like, he really shocked me. And he said, “I thought about what you said, and when I first met you I thought you were going to put me on because I thought I was the greatest rapper in the world. You pretty much put me in my place.”
I said to him that I wasn’t trying to put him in his place, but I was telling my opinion. I thought he was really onto something and you got a long ways to go, but keep doing it. By the third time I met him I was so impressed by how convinced he was on everything he believed.
In what way?
For example, he had this song out about Jay, 50 and Wayne [“Jay, 50, and Weezy”] and I was like, “You don’t really know if that’s how they feel,” and he said, “That’s how I feel. I don’t feel like they’re doing their parts for the community.” And he was so headstrong in his beliefs it was impressive to me. Because I kind of know how it is from doing this and I was coming from that perspective like, you can’t save the world. He was headstrong, like the three of them could have done way more than what they were doing. And we went to blows over this and I said to him that I like the fact you’re not going to stand down. And we just started working together and I’d give him ideas on how to make songs work and a lot of my ideas weren’t working with his beliefs, like, we’re two different people. And I respect that. If you’re that ballsy to go that hard for what you believe in, then it’s worth a try. And the rest is pretty much history.
You’ve mentioned the new generation of New Orleans acts looking up to you and holding you in high regard. Who else are you looking at here?
Curren$y, definitely, He’s always impressed me. There’s this other guy named Show I’ve been working with. Raj Smoove, he’s a DJ out here. He’s still like, “Dude, I play your songs and it’s impossible to do a set without playing your music.” And for me, that’s good music. If it’s timeless and it can last for years, it’s good music to me.
One thing from back in the day that has stood the test of time has been the crazy album covers you guys at Cash Money and the artists at No Limit used to make. What were you all trying to accomplish with those?
We were just thinking whatever we do, it’s gotta be in your face. We didn’t think it would catch on like that, but we wanted it to be in your face. But the crazy thing is thinking about how it takes off with marketing. Think about being in the store and seeing that cover. You’re going to pick it up and now we have your interest. We were just different from everything else. It was crazy, then all of a sudden everyone was making those album covers.
That’s interesting because back in the day, everyone wanted to mimic the New York style. I know you guys were even in a group called New York Incorporated back then. And now you see guys like A$AP Rocky and others from New York trying to carry on the southern sound. What do you think about that change?
Even with that, though, New York Incorporated was invented by some guys from New York. It wasn’t like we were taking anything from the original members. When we came along, it was like a second-generation thing. So why change something that already works? But that was the only thing that was popping off at the time. I’ve always said that down south we had all the New York records. So we bought their records and tried to rap like them and everything. What was crazy is us trying to sound like them wasn’t accepted. But now you have all these rappers from up top that sound like they were born and raised in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and New Orleans. I’ve DJ’d in New York, and the whole night it’s all southern songs.
Do you think it’s a double standard then, since it wasn’t okay to sound like up north but now it’s okay to sound like you’re from the south?
To these kids, like A$AP Rocky, you’re young and you’re doing what music sounds like. And this is what you grew up listening to. So I wouldn’t say it’s mimicking, but it’s just the music he grew up listening to. In all honesty, I would love to get back to our areas of music. I’d love to hear East Coast music, West Coast music, Down South music, not just all Down South music. It’s killing hip-hop because that’s the only thing you hear now. When was the last time you heard East Coast music and knew it was East Coast music? They were still jamming songs, but now it’s all about 808s, snare drums and hi-hats. I used to do all of that and now it’s getting to be overkill. Go out and do something else, don’t just use an 808 kit.
Moving forward, I know you and Mos Def have linked up. How did that happen?
Well, that’s pretty much in a nutshell what I was saying a second ago. We’re looking for a project that appeals to everybody. We don’t want to have one sound. When you think of Mannie Fresh you think of 808s and [drum noises] but that’s not all. Me and him both agree that we want to make East Coast songs that sound like East Coast songs. And we want Down South songs that sound like Down South songs. We just want to recapture what hip-hop is.
Mos Def is one of those enigmatic figures in hip-hop. What is it like working with him?
He really is that mysterious person. He disappears, but what impresses me is his knowledge. He knows exactly what he wants to do. He knows what sort of songs he wants to make. And—on a humorous side—he’s an arrogant MC. And you have to be like that. He feels like there’s no one on the planet as good as him and I miss that. Just the whole “doing this.” That’s how you have to feel about yourself.
Finally, you’ve done everything, platinum hits as a producer and a rapper, pretty much all you set out to do. What keeps you motivated?
Just to be embraced by this generation. Sometimes I have my moments where I feel like it’s fun, sometimes I feel like it’s not. When I meet artists who know my whole catalog it’s like wow—someone really is checking, somebody took the time to do their homework and that gives me hope.