Lil Wayne and Cash Money Records released “Go DJ” as the second single off Wayne’s fourth studio album, Tha Carter, on October 5, 2004. Thirteen years later, in a 2017 column for Noisey, now former journalist Kyle Kramer hailed the song’s production, crafted by New Orleans DJ and hip-hop super-producer Mannie Fresh, as, “The pinnacle of American keyboard music (Aaron Copland retire bitch) and digitized sound, a triumphant march of dry synth chirps and hollow, lunar beeps.”
Thirteen years is a long time in the music business. Only the pop stars survive the industry’s revolving door long enough to receive proper recognition for enriching the sound and the art of making music. From a business perspective, the actual music industry is a game of musical chairs, and every musician who enters the industry, in some way, is participating. Every time someone new sits down, someone old gets up. Although they continue to play in the merry-go-round of relevancy, they may never return to their seat.
Relevancy is why Mannie Fresh, born Byron Otto Thomas, has an Instagram account, and why he’s been hosting live DJ sets on that account during the current COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m always trying to be one step ahead of the game. For me to be relevant, I know I got to bring it to you sometimes,” Mannie says over the phone.
When asked if becoming active on social media was natural for him, the veteran DJ and admired music producer responded immediately. “Oh, no! I’m kind of anti-social media, but I know it’s necessary,” he says.
Mannie, 51, continues: “I’m from the old school of kissing babies and shaking hands and selling it out the trunk, but that doesn’t work no more. You gotta go to Instagram, and Facebook, you gotta go to social media.”
My conversation with Mannie Fresh took place a few days after his live beat battle against multi-Platinum, super-producer Scott Storch. Orchestrated by Verzuz, a business started by fellow producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, the musical chess match between Mannie and Storch pulled in over 200,000 spectators.
In a recent interview with Vibe, Timbaland cited Storch playing Dr. Dre’s “Still Dre” in his final round against Mannie as a “Goodnight, close the curtains,” moment, but is “Still Dre” a better record than Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up?” How do you accurately compare the two? What constitutes one song as better than another?
During our phone call, Mannie never once intimated, directly or indirectly, that he won or lost his battle with Storch, nor did he express dissatisfaction over his participation and performance. “I been doing battles forever,” he says, citing the 2014 and 2015 Beat Summit battles hosted by BMI & Flight School that paired Fresh against hip-hop super-producers DJ Toomp and Just Blaze.
The competitive battles Mannie Fresh is most familiar with have always been producer catalog against producer catalog. Your creation versus my creation, let the best scientist win. But his match with Scott Storch was different. Storch was an opponent who is a great producer, as well as a great collaborator. This begs the question: Should co-production count in a beat battle?
“I like to explain it like this,” Mannie begins. “They’re moments and they’re movements. A moment is when a song came out and it was hot for a summer and everybody liked it. It was a hot song that summer. A movement is when a song is around 20 years and people are still playing. When hip-hop sounds like you. Right now, music sounds like what I’ve done 20 years ago.”
Mannie doesn’t want to discredit Scott Storch as just a “moment producer,” but it’s worth pointing out the difficulty in quantifying songs that have inescapable longevity. Longevity is possible not because of what’s on the radio or because of individual accolades, but because these songs remain a part of people’s lives.
Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ” are but two examples of Mannie Fresh productions living on in clubs and at concerts, weddings and reunions, birthdays and anniversaries, years and years after their release. Big Tymers “Get Your Roll On,” Young Jeezy’s “And Then What,” Trina’s “Don't Trip,” The Hot Boy’s “I Need A Hot Girl,” B.G.’s “Bling Bling” and the list goes on.
We can consider a producer a movement when their music moves through history as the world changes. They reappear in samples and interpolations, never far from influencing the current sound. In his 2018 guest editorial on DJBooth, “Why Mannie Fresh is a GOAT Producer Candidate,” DJ Wally Sparks explained why Mannie Fresh is a movement:
“What producer could take a record they produced in 1995 and use the exact beat with little to no changes made six years later for a totally different artist and have it chart in the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100? Mannie Fresh did that.” –DJ Wally Sparks
Although Mannie Fresh has the creativity, credits, accolades, and longevity to be considered one of hip-hop’s most celebrated producers, still, he feels like we never mention his name in the conversations.
“I don’t know if it has something to do with being from down south,” Mannie confesses. “I don’t think the recognition ever gets said.” That’s a challenge for all creatives: living long enough to become timeless but also remaining within the current of right now. In the merry-go-round of relevancy, you are only as funky as your last cut.
As one of the forefathers of Southern bounce, it’s not arrogant for Mannie Fresh to see himself as a movement. The world continues to change, but never once have the people grown tired of twerking to his classic. We could’ve easily left his best works in the past with the other great songs that didn’t travel through time. But to Mannie’s credit, his sound never became stale or dated. The reason is simple. Mannie has never made music that is considered “current.” As such, you hear pieces of him sampled in Beyonce’s Homecoming version of “Before I Let Go” and Drake’s “Nice For What” and those are just the most popular examples.
“I think my generation appreciates and loves me, but this generation right now, you know, ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’ if you don’t stay in their face. They’re moving on to the next thing if you don’t remind them,” Mannie says, understanding that classics don’t matter when you're fighting to be seen, heard, and respected for what you’re doing now.
Friends, consider this interview as that reminder. A hip-hop producer can become a timeless movement, one who can shape the sound of a region and the songs of our lifetime. In the great words of DJ Wally Sparks, “Cut it out with the disrespect and give Mannie Fresh his flowers.”