Words by Benjamin Meadows-Ingram
Images by Brady Fontenot
Born and raised in New Orleans, Byron O. “Mannie Fresh” Thomas, 42, grew up the son of a popular local DJ, surrounded by music. To hear Fresh tell it, while other kids were getting bikes for Christmas, he would get a trumpet. Li’l man down the street would get a skateboard; Fresh would get a turntable. And so it went.
But by the mid to late ’90s, Fresh’s musical background began to pay off—handsomely. As the in-house producer for Cash Money Records from 1993 to 2005, Fresh cooked up his own signature sound by tossing all of his hometown’s musical styles and influences— jazz, bass, bounce, Caribbean rhythms,plus a heavy helping of 808—into a pot and serving up something, well, fresh. Time and time and time again,the recipe proved to be a success. Fresh’s work with Cash Money set the stage for an empire, established the stars of B.G., Juvenile and Lil Wayne, and, with just one song (“Bling, Bling”), added an indelible phrase to the world’s vocabulary.
Those were the good old days. Despite its dominance, the early Cash Money roster began to flame out in the early aughts. Juvenile left the label, then B.G. fled, both citing funny money at their longtime home. Fresh wasn’t far behind, and in early 2007, he signed on to help Def Jam oversee the development of the label’s roster of Southern talent—a deal he credits to Jay-Z, who was serving as Def Jam President/CEO at the time. Then, in November of that same year, his older sister was shot and killed in New Orleans during an apparent home invasion.
Jay-Z stepped down at Def Jam in late 2007, and Fresh has been relatively quiet in the years since. But that has begun to change. First came a well-received, high-profile appearance DJing alongside Drake and A-Trak at the 2010 Fool’s Gold Holiday Party in New York. Then came a flurry of attention surrounding Drake’s “Practice,” which reworks Juvenile’s 1999 Mannie Fresh–produced smash “Back That Azz Up.” (For the record: Fresh has said he’s happy about the song and respects Drake for making sure that all the business was legit.) Most recently, Fresh has been making news with appearances at the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid, working with Juvenile and Mystikal, heading to London with Kanye West and the G.O.O.D. Music crew to work on the upcoming G.O.O.D. Music compilation, and getting in the studio with Dr. Dre. RESPECT. caught up with Fresh in New Orleans just a few weeks before Mardi Gras to see how the former Big Tymer feels as he gets back in the mix.
RESPECT.: You were just in London.
MANNIE FRESH: Yeah, I was in London recording some music or whatever with Kanye, but he’s got certain stipulations with his projects, so I can’t really say. But I can let you know that we’ve been doing songs.
How was it being out there?
Ah, dude, beautiful. It was an experience because it was like a no- stress workplace. To go somewhere like London and have them be like, “Yo, use whatever y’all want”—that’s what made it interesting. It was a bunch of people with creative ideas just going for it. When you get a bunch of good minds together working on one record, it can’t be nothing but good.
In the past, you’ve talked about really enjoying the collaborative atmosphere of those early Cash Money sessions. Did the G.O.O.D. sessions appeal to you in the same way?
Yeah, because I like ideas. Nothing is a one-man show. It’s always interesting to hear what other people say and put out on a record, and what they hear. It could be as simple as a janitor walking in the room and saying, “You should do this,” and before you know it, that part could be the best part of the song. Music is about people. The best albums have always been made by a bunch of people, not by one person getting the credit.
Everyone wants to know about you and G.O.O.D., and what that relationship looks like moving forward. How do you feel about everyone talking about it?
Well, I’ve always had a good relationship with the dude, but I’m not in a rush to sign with nobody, because I’ve been down that road. I don’t think Kanye is a bad person, not at all. Not a bad businessperson, none of that. But I have to make sure I do what I have to do to benefit myself in the long run. Because after Cash Money, I did a deal with Def Jam, and unfortunately Jay-Z left and I was there. I kind of felt like Def Jam was mad at me because he left, so they never really gave me a shot to do nothing, and they put my career on hold over foolishness. Now I’m back fighting, getting to where I need to be. So before I do something like that, I’m going to make sure I look at all my options.
So what kicked off all of this?
I saw him and Jay-Z at the Watch The Throne thing. I went out to the concert, and the dude gave me this motivational speech without even knowing it. He was like, “Where you at, dude? What you doing? C’mon, man, we’re waiting on you.” Next thing I know, Kanye was like, “Come to the crib. Play me some beats.” And I’m over there, and I’m playing the beats, and he’s like, “Damn, dude, c’mon, what’s wrong with you?” I’m like, “Dude, it just took me some time to shake back. Even me bumping into you was a blessing.” To me, this is not about G.O.O.D. Music. I feel like he was that dude— him and Jay—that pumped blood in me, like, Hey, dude, what’s going on with you? And I’m human. I’ve had my moments when I didn’t even feel like doing this because of things that happened to me. Sometimes people put celebrities, rappers, DJs on a pedestal, and they don’t think that they’re human, and they don’t think that everyday things affect them. I had something that was taken from me that affected me greatly, to the point that I didn’t feel like doing this. But you know, by the grace of God, I’ve met cool people and they’ve restored that in me. I really feel like—and this is not a diss or anything like that—but I feel like I’ve never even done anything for Cash Money, because I’m a new artist. I’m starting all over again.
That’s real. It’s good to have you back. Which stop did you guys link up at?
Shit, I went from New Orleans to Houston to L.A., because by the time we connected, they were just like, “C’mon, homie, come along.” It was motivational. I hadn’t spoken to Jay-Z since he split from Def Jam. We hadn’t even talked. I had magazines trying to get me to say something negative about the dude or whatever, and I was like, “He didn’t do nothing,” because at the time it was a perfect setup. It was right after Hurricane Katrina. I needed that money. I had just left Cash Money, and Jay-Z put me in a good position. He made sure I got a check and all that, so with what happened at Def Jam, I would never blame it on him. It had nothing to do with him, and he made a smart business move, because look where he’s at right now.
You’ve also been doing some work with Dr. Dre. How did that come about?
Word got around that I was in L.A [for Watch The Throne]. Dre’s homeboy came and found me, and was like, “Dre wants to work with you.” I said, “I don’t know you, dude. I’m not getting in no car with you” [laughs]. We finally got it straight, I went to Dre’s crib, played him some beats, and he was like, “What the hell is going on with you? Where you been?” Dre is a hero; that’s one of my moments. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in Dr. Dre’s crib. I wanted to be a fan. I wanted to take a picture and send it to my boys back home and be like, “Dude, I’m with Dre right now.” To me, he’s one of the dudes that I imitated. I would be lying if I said otherwise. I really thought Dr. Dre was a god on the drum machine. To have an in-depth music conversation with him, and for him to be like, “Wow. You’re Mannie Fresh, I know you.” To me, that was a home run.
But you and Dre didn’t just kick it, right? You guys worked, too?
Yeah, I played some beats for him, he picked some stuff, and the next week we were in Atlanta [working]. Last week I was booked, [but] I was supposed to be in Miami with them recording. I learned a lot about him. There are a lot of people who are wondering why Detox is taking so long. The man is a perfectionist. He is a super, super perfectionist. To meet somebody and to know they are that in depth is crazy, ’cause Mannie Fresh’s recipe is completely different from his. I’m more of a “whatever I’m feeling right then and there, that’s what I do” [guy].
When people ask you where you’ve been lately, what do you say?
Healing, man. I don’t really candy coat nothing. Sometimes life takes you for a loop and you gotta slow down. I just had something happen to me that reminded me that I was human. You’re not indestructible. It can happen to you just like anybody else. I keep it real with people, the people who pay attention to me and know what’s going on. I know there are a lot of people who don’t know, because I meet a lot of people who think I’m still with Cash Money. It’s no big deal. It don’t offend me or nothing. I just correct them in a nice way, that’s all.
And obviously you’ve gone through more lately than just the Cash Money deal.
Yeah, exactly. Everything that happened with my sister—I’ve just been in a crazy place. I wasn’t ready to hear music right then and there. I’m cool. Part of it is—I haven’t said this that much—but it’s like having a talk with somebody, not in the physical but in spirit. I deeply know that me not doing music is not what my sister would have wanted me to do.
Still, I’m sure you needed to take the time. My family is a music-oriented family, long story short. Even growing up, most of the stuff I was introduced to, my sister would bring me to it. My first dances, my first parties, all that. That was part of my whole love affair with hip-hop.
She played a key role in that.
As you’re getting back into it, it feels like the whole community is excited that you’re ready to get back to work, and excited to hear the records. It must help with the transition.
That’s part of the beauty of it. I’m overwhelmed. From a younger generation [to] the generation that I grew up in, it’s overwhelming to me. Put it like this: For me to meet Big Sean and a couple other young cats who are in this, and for them to be like, “Dude, I love you, I love all your music and everything about you,” that’s a blessing. [Big Sean] is the next generation. He goes hard. For him to acknowledge and to know me, to me that’s like saying, “You still in here, dude.”
When you look at your career so far, what are you most proud of?
Man, wow. Honestly, I don’t think I have done what I am supposed to do yet. I can’t really say that. I haven’t accomplished what I’m supposed to accomplish yet. I don’t even think I’ve done my biggest song. Some people will go back and say, “That’s your classic.” I don’t think I’ve done my classic yet. I don’t think I’ve achieved what I came here to achieve.
What do you regret?
The only thing I could say is homeboy business. I consider that a big failure. I really hate to say it. You want to put your trust in people, but ultimately you have to do your business right. It’s crazy that you can’t really feel like, You know what? You are a friend and we can do business. The evils of money can tear all that up. You always have to say, “The best thing for me to do is do my business right, and we can be friends after that.” When money comes, everybody is not cut the same.
When you look into the next year or two, what are you looking forward to?
Me, myself, mainly. Moving forward, 2012 is starting off great for me, and I wanna keep it moving. I’m looking for greatness. I’m looking to be able to tell you in the next two years that I’ve done that great song that I consider to be the One. I’m looking to do some things that I haven’t achieved yet, to be like, Wow. Bigger than it’s ever been done.
You’ve already had monster hits. What would that song look like to you?
That monster world hit. That song that the world is like, “Wow, that’s the song. This dude has been everywhere. He’s been to Egypt, Africa, Tokyo, Mexico.” You know what I’m saying? It’s one of them songs that the world is just like, “Wow.” One of them.
Do you feel that you’re getting close to that?
Yeah, I really do. Because, like I said, I’m striving for greatness. I’m not going to just do something that’s “okay.” I’m really striving for something incredible.
Are you following the dance movement right now? It’s obviously huge.
Yeah, some of the gigs I do are those gigs. I DJ everything. I don’t do just urban. I do everything.
So even something like that could be possible?
Exactly, even that.
Have you talked to Baby at all?
Do you see the two of you ever talking again?
I mean, it’s possible. I’m nobody who holds grudges. I still consider them my brothers; it’s just unfortunate that some things happen. I’m not somebody who’s going to keep talking about it. That’s just another chapter of my life. Cash Money is what it is, just a chapter of my life. I mean, I have nothing bad to say about them. Nothing whatsoever.
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