When pressed to explain the secret behind his Midas touch in the studio, 35-year-old Mannie Fresh still seems about as humble as a young-blood making his first purchase at a mom 'n' pop record store. “Dude, I really don't have secrets,” he says with a warm chuckle, a prominent New Orleans drawl thickening his natural baritone. “I mean, when it comes right down to it, I guess I'm just old-fashioned. People might walk in on one of my sessions and be like, ‘Gawdamn, dude, you still working with that?’ Somebody might say this or that unit is the ‘in’ thing to have, so that's what everybody uses. For me, I might have an old-ass keyboard, and my drum machine might have two or three knobs missing, but if it works, I'm good with that.”
He's so good, in fact, that ever since joining the Cash Money crew (founded a little more than 10 years ago by brothers Bryan “Baby” and Ronald “Slim” Williams), Fresh has been churning out tracks at an impressive clip, stacking up more than a dozen Gold- and Platinum-selling albums and producing all of the label's marquee acts — among them Juvenile; B.G.; Lil Wayne; Mack 10; and Fresh's own duo with Baby, known as Big Tymers, whose fourth studio joint, Hood Rich (Cash Money/Universal, 2002), debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. He's also lent his beat-crafting skills to projects for everyone from the late Biggie Smalls to David Banner, Capone-N-Noreaga and Toni Braxton. And more recently, rap luminaries such as Ludacris and Scarface have been lining up to get a taste of his signature “N'awlins bounce” sound: a distinctly Southern club stroke that has almost single-handedly kept the “bling-bling” in hip-hop music.
THE DJ YEARS
But it wasn't always this lucrative for Fresh. He was born Byron Thomas in downtown New Orleans' rough-and-tumble 7th Ward, and his father struggled to eke out a living as a local DJ, cultivating a love of '70s soul that gradually rubbed off on the youngster. Before he was a teenager, little Fresh received a pair of turntables as a birthday gift, and a fateful listen to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (a Sugar Hill 12-inch released in 1981) got him on the road to making music.
“Flash just made me want to DJ,“ Fresh confides. “When I heard that record, I was like, ‘Oh, my good-ness.’ And I didn't start on no 1200s — the first turntables I had were some Toshiba belt-drives with this big old club mixer the size of a computer screen. [Laughs.] I learned to do some magical things with a belt-drive, though. I didn't have pitch control or none of that, but I could lock my songs up tight.”
Fresh also picked up some of his early moves from another DJ, named Denny D, who had recently relocated from New York and brought with him all the equipment and skills (such as transforming and battle mixing) that were essential to a budding turntablist. Together, the duo formed a group called New York Incorporated, opening for just about any mainstream rap act that came through the Big Easy until eventually Fresh felt confident enough to break out on his own. Soon, he was mixing beats for New Orleans MC Gregory D, who signed with RCA and released The Real Deal (1992), one of Fresh's earliest major-label production credits. It was only a matter of time (and a good deal of street hustling) before he hooked up with the Williams brothers and Cash Money.
Not just a solo project, The Mind of Mannie Fresh (Cash Money/Universal, 2004) is a full-fledged hip-hop concept album with interludes, skits and special guests (including Baby, Lil Wayne and David Banner) galore. But whereas back in the day, the concept might have been as heady as De La Soul's “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” vibes, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) or NWA's Compton streets, Fresh is going for a straight-up party on wax. This is real hip-hop, Cash Money — style.
MORE BOUNCE TO THE OUNCE
While the brash, adrenaline-fueled chants of crunk have been blowing up nationwide thanks to Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz and their brethren from the Dirty South, Fresh has been tapping a similar nerve with what's called “bounce” music. “When hip-hop started, it was just two records and an MC doing his thing,” he explains. “Bounce is like the essence of hip-hop — it's just something that we brung it back to. Basically, a DJ will take two break records, probably 808 breaks or whatever, and spin them back-to-back and let you do what you can to get the crowd hyped. If you don't, then we booing you, but if you do, then you've got a future. [Laughs.] It's just gettin'-the-party-started music.”
The party jumps off forcefully enough with the funkafied “Intro,” melding Isaac Hayes — inflected horn blasts played on what sounds like a Roland Juno synth and live bass and guitar over a swinging low-end beat — all of it rendered complete with piped-in audience applause (which, of course, no party record should ever be without). Acting as his own MC, Fresh works the mic with the requisite aplomb, smoothly changing up the mood with the next track, “Conversation,” which finds him trading verses with female MC Tateeze (who has appeared on numerous Big Tymers cuts) while an underwater synth line percolates in the background. Funk influences ranging from Bootsy Collins to Earth, Wind & Fire rear up here and elsewhere — and throughout the album, the ubiquitous Roland TR-808 bumps with a groovacious intensity. After all, you can't have bounce without the bass.
“The 808 is what I started out with when I was DJing,” Fresh says. “That's where the real bounce comes from, and it's really what Southern hip-hop is all about, because that's what we grew up on. And what's going on right now is, we done just went back to that 808 sound, as opposed to two or three years ago, when the kick was hard and the snare was loud, with maybe a little percussion flavor added in. The 808 is how we like it now in a club or how we like to hear it in the trunk. No matter what, it's gotta have that 808 boom in it.”
DIRTY VERSUS DIGITAL
Vintage gear is, in fact, an integral part of Fresh's sound, and he'll sometimes go to what might seem like absurd lengths to preserve it. “For one thing, I've been using the [Ensoniq] EPS since day one — that's pretty much what I sequence on,” he says. “I mean, I might buy new keyboards and sample the sounds out of them and then throw them to the side because I really don't like the way they sequence. It sounds too digital, so I load them into the EPS just so I can get that gritty, dirty sound.”
He also relies heavily on the hip-hop producer's longtime weapon of choice: E-mu's legendary SP-1200, used by everyone from Large Professor to Pete Rock (and edgier electronic artists such as Roni Size, Daft Punk and Todd Terry). “I've got different drum machines that I use for different things, but I think the older ones are always the best when it comes down to getting that 808 bass,” Fresh says. “That's why you've gotta have a 1200 or something like it — you can't do it with nothing new because it's gonna sound too digital. When I know it's like a bass song, I gotta go with my SP-1200.”
Fresh's loyalty to his rhythm composers runs deep; he'll rarely change the sound of a beat once he's committed to it. “When I'm making my drum kits, I'll EQ it how I want it in the drum machine, so when it gets down to mixing it, you ain't really got to do too much,” he continues. “All you gotta do is adjust the [volume] levels [of each part of the drum kit]. I don't really like special effects. If I can keep it sounding as close to the way it was when I wrote the song, then I'm happy.”
Veterans of the SP-1200 will also remember the unit's Multipitch feature, which spreads a sound sample over all eight of the touch pads, pitched from low to high, with the sliders capable of acting as fine-tuners for each of the eight new sounds. Fresh takes full advantage of this so that he can play his bass lines and other parts directly from the 1200.
“I'll just take little bits and pieces of sounds and tweak them into notes,” he explains. “You can set up a 1200 into notes, like you can get from [middle] C to C on it, so once I make the bass line, I might just keep on with that. Every time I find a new instrument, I'll just sample from a middle C and go from there, so everything can be in key — you feel what I'm sayin'? It turns out that a lot of my songs are in the same key because that's what works for me with my drum machine and the way it's set up. I just look at it like, as long as it sounds different, then it's cool.”
IT'S SOOOO FRESH
For every true topflight producer with a sustainable career, the riskiest tightrope to walk can be the one that suspends between the uniquely innovative and that ever-elusive sense of the familiar that makes a song a hit with the masses. For Fresh, this duality is almost second nature: He's constantly adapting as a producer and, in the process, absorbing as much knowledge as he can along the way.
“It's my job to put a whole album together, so I really can't have one style,” he explains. “I kind of fit the times, and I think that's where my longevity comes from. And I listen to everything. If there's a certain thing going on, then I adjust to that. You've got so many producers that'll just do a single, and that's them. For me, I gotta open my ears to different things, or I'm nowhere.”
And this is where The Mind of Mannie Fresh really casts a wide net — from the low-riding G-Funk rhythms of “Beautiful Bi**h” to the hilarious juxtaposition of a dreamy acoustic guitar with Petey Pablo's children's-story voice in the two-part skit “Great Moments in the Ghetto.” Psychedelic funk and rock vibes rule in “Nothing Compares to Love,” but the gears switch radically in the raunchy humor of “Not Tonight,” with backing tracks that recall the mellow balladry of the '70s soul band Switch. “The D.J.” confirms that Fresh hasn't let his skills slide as a turntablist whereas “Mayor Song” shows he can mine a political streak if he wants to, but always with a healthy sense of irreverence. And then there are the buck-wild mic spits from Lil Wayne on “Wayne's Takeover [1 and 2]” — some of the freakiest freestyle moments on the album.
“That's the whole bottom line,” Fresh insists. “My album is just something to take you to different places and to make you smile. If you're having a bad day or if you just want to get away from reality, it's something you can listen to from beginning to end and then feel like, ‘All right, this just brightened up my day.’”
It's a hopeful attitude, and one that hip-hop — and the world in general — could really use a lot more of in trying times. “Right now, the South got the ball,” Fresh says. “And if we stick together, we can have it for a long time. The beautiful thing is, we've kind of figured that out for ourselves. We're not into beefing, and we're not into conflict. We just want to stay family, and that's basically what most people are all about. It used to be everybody was like, ‘You gotta be hard,’ but you also gotta think about what that means. It's a whole planet full of people out there, and being hard is not everybody's thing. Most people just want to have a good time.”
DOIN' IT AFTER DARK
Housed in the opulent but low-profile Cash Money offices in the suburbs of New Orleans, the Cash Money Studio provides the perfectly laid-back environment for Mannie Fresh to get busy with his beats through all hours of the night. “It's just your basic small studio with Pro Tools, nothing too fancy,” he says. “Believe it or not, the mic is in the middle of the floor. We don't have a booth or none of that. [Laughs.] It's at the company house, so everybody can feel comfortable working there.”
A sizable slice of The Mind of Mannie Fresh was tracked and mixed at several high-end studios in Miami and Atlanta, but Cash Money was the home base for virtually all of the musical ideas. “It's mostly a tracking room, so we put all the songs down there and then mix them elsewhere,” explains engineer Fabian Marasciullo. “A typical day might be from 2 or 3 in the afternoon until 7 the next morning, because Mannie's a real workaholic. He'll jam out for a few hours or so, get a bunch of beats down and then start writing. We pretty much have it down to a science — and the best part is, we have a lot of fun doing it.”
Marasciullo also stresses the importance of having access to a proper sound system, which is why Cash Money is outfitted with its own P.A. “At the end of the day, we do music for the clubs, so we'll mix a song and then listen to it on a P.A. system because we know that's where it's gonna end up,” he says. “Basically, you're listening for the bottom end, like an 808 — that's where Mannie's heart is, and you can hear that in the album.”
FRESH'S CASH MONEY MANOR
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G5/1.8GHz computer
Digidesign Control|24 console, Pro Tools|HD 3 system
Prism ADA-8 A/D converters
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ensoniq EPS synth/sampler
Moog Minimoog, Prodigy synths
Roland Juno-106 synth
Waves Renaissance plug-ins
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AKG C 12 mic
AMS Neve 1073 preamp/EQ
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp
Neumann U 87 mic
Summit Audio DCL-200 dual compressor-limiter
Telefunken Elam 251 mic
Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC1000, MPC2000XL sampling workstations
E-mu SP-1200 sampler
Pioneer CDJ-1000 DJ CD players (2)
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Technics SL-1200 turntables (2)
Vestax PMC-007 DJ mixer
Custom-designed P.A. system
Dynaudio Acoustics monitors