Mannie Fresh - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Mannie Fresh is the most influential rap producer of the last two decades. His reliance on synthesizers, particularly the Roland Fantom-X, virtually defined first the Dirty South sound and subsequently, the majority of rap productions of the 2000s.
Mannie Fresh was born Byron Thomas on March 20, 1969, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father was a DJ and Thomas followed in his footsteps, DJing house parties around the 7th ward as a teen. In 1984, Thomas’s cousin, DJ Wop, joined Mia X and New Yorker Denny D in New Orleans’ first rap crew, New York Incorporated. Thomas auditioned to join the group at D’s house. Inspired by Kurtis Mantronik and using his father’s Roland 808 and Juno as well as a Moog, Thomas (as Mannie Fresh) continued electro’s shift of hip-hop production away from strict reliance on DJing records and joined the group. They were soon in demand around the city at parties and frequently performing shows at the Superdome. The group was put on hold when Denny D returned to New York and Mia X and DJ Wop shifted their focus to their high school educations. Fresh was tapped by Gregory Duvernay Jr, a local rapper and member of Ninja Crew, the first New Orleans rap act to release a recording.
As Gregory D and D.J. Mannie Fresh, the duo released one of the first Freddy Krueger-themed rap song, “Freddie’s Back,” on D&D Enterprises. Throw Down (1987-D&D Enterprises) followed, and was heavily indebted to Florida’s bass scene and east coast hardcore. Whilst with the fly by night label, Fresh also provided the scratches on singles by Royal T. and Bytten MC’s. In 1988, Fresh and D appeared on a single by Girls Talkin Shit and then jumped ship.
“D” Rules the Nation (1989) was the first release by Dallas-based Yo! Records. In addition to Texas and New Orleans, the album was partly recorded in Chicago and was mixed by Chicago house pioneer, Steve “Silk” Hurley. The album only contained a couple of Miami Bass style tracks, instead developing a style more uniquely and recognizably New Orleans, especially on the second line influenced, project and ward shout, “Buck Jump Time.” Two singles, “Clap to This” and “Call Somebody Else” followed and the duo collaborated on Lil’ Mac’s debut before they signed with RCA Records.
At RCA, Fresh was primarily employed behind the boards on house productions with Hurley and on albums by other artists, including SWV’s debut. When “Crack Slangas” was released in 1992, it was credited solely to Gregory D. A little-seen video was shot to promote the song but follow-up single, “Make the Beat Funky,” and The Real Deal (1992-RCA) received almost no support from the label. Fresh quickly became dissatisfied and parted ways with the label and Gregory D, although the two remain friends. Gregory D continued recording as a solo artist with limited success. Fresh returned to New Orleans where he resumed DJing weekends to help make ends meet.
Cash Money Records had just started up and thus far released one record, the Ro and Goldfingers-produced The Sleepwalker by the label’s sole artist, then fifteen-year-old Kilo-G. It hadn’t sold especially well but their fortunes quickly improved when the label’s hype man, Ziggler the Wiggler, introduced the label’s owners to Fresh. Fresh’s first production with the label was PxMxWx’s Legalize “Pass tha Weed” (1993-Cash Money) on which Fresh shared production credit with DJ Indo and DJ Crack-Out, although they and Fresh were one and the same. Despite being his first production with the label, the album’s release was preceded by his second Cash Money effort, U.N.L.V.’s seminal 6th & Barrone (1993-Cash Money). Soon the label’s roster expanded to include Lil Slim, B-32, Mr. Ivan, Kilo-G, M$. Tee, Tec-9, The B.G.z, Pimp Daddy and Magnolia Shorty, most of whom rapped in a hybrid of bounce and gangsta rap.
In 1994, Fresh returned to outside production with Cheeky Blakk’s Let Me Get That Outcha at Tombstone Records. While Cash Money’s in-house producer who provided the music for every Cash Money Release, Fresh continued to work with non-Cash Money artists, including L.O.G., X-Mob, 2 Blakk, Big Heavy, EMC, 211, Charlie Hanseen and Fila Phil.
In 1996, Fresh shifted away from bounce toward a bold, updated electro and bass-influenced sound for albums with B.G., U.N.L.V. and Juvenile. They were all enormously popular in the south and attracted the attention of Universal, who signed a deal estimated at $30 million in 1998. Rather than share the wealth, the label parted ways with their entire roster except for The Hot Boys and their golden goose, Mannie Fresh. Cash Money ultimately went on to sell over 23 million of his Mannie Fresh’s productions. Following the success of hits like B.G.’s “Bling Bling” and Juvenile’s “Back that Azz Up,” legions of hits followed with similar production although rarely approaching the complexity and ingenuity of Fresh’s, which allowed his songs to stand on their own. Cash Money recognized this and released Cash Money Millionaires Presents Platinum Instrumentals (2001-Cash Money) which, although net credited to Fresh, was essentially his solo debut.
Meanwhile Baby, who’d previously released a rap album under the name “B-32,” joined Mannie Fresh in the duo The Big Tymers, which showcased Fresh’s decidedly old school flow and goofy persona. The two went on to release four records together. First and second were two volumes of How You Luv That. These were followed by I Got That Work (2000), which produced the hits, “#1 Stunna” and “Get Your Roll On.” Hood Rich (2002) produced two more hits, “Oh Yeah!” and the massive, self-deprecating “Still Fly.” Cash Money were riding high when they experienced another mass defection. First B.G. left in 2000. He was soon followed by Turk and Juvenile. After Turk left, the album he and Fresh had recorded, Untamed Guerilla, was shelved. When the dust settled, the only remaining acts were The Big Tymers and Lil Wayne.
Mannie Fresh released his official solo debut, The Mind of Mannie Fresh (Cash Money) in 2004. Though it contained several gems and showcased Fresh’s diversity, he was reportedly frustrated with Baby’s not allowing him complete creative control, insisting that it not go completely against the label’s cultivated gangsta image. Fresh began work on Lil Wayne’s The Carter II before he quit the label in frustration in 2005. His work on the album was scrapped (although widely available on the internet) and replaced with the generic ringtone-oriented sounds that helped Wayne become a massively famous crossover star.
Although Fresh insisted his departure was a business decision and that he had no ill-will toward the label he made a success, Baby, in an interview with XXL, retorted, referring to Fresh as “a bitch ass nigga.” Fresh’s departure allowed him to reconnect with B.G. and he was said with whom he collaborated on “Move Around” and Juvenile, on “Animal.” Fresh next joined Def Jam Records where he was appointed by Jay-Z to oversee Def Jam South. Now absolutely free to produce whomever he pleases, Fresh has worked with YoungBloodZ, Toni Braxton, Rich Boy, Young Jeezy, UGK, Slim Thug, Rick Ross, Webbie, Plies, Westside Connection, TI, Lil’ Flip, Tum Tum, Frankie J., Suga Free, Chingy, Trick Daddy, Tyrese, Bun B, Chamillionaire, Young Jeezy, Smitty, The Show, Dem Franchise Boyz. He also opened a car shop in Humble, Texas, Fresh Rydes.
Although Fresh’s post-Cash Money productions seemed often to play it safe, when he released “Imma Get Mine” (featuring The Show and Lil Wayne) in the summer of 2008, Fresh proved that he still had it. However, Def Jam/Universal album, initially scheduled for late 2008 release, has yet to materialize. He did, however, return with Return of the Ballin’ (2009-Chubby Boy Records) which largely serves as a showcase for Russell Lee and The Show although tracks like “Go Girl” and “Already” feature his signature electro ‘n’ bass-indebted production that, whilst originally just the sound of the south, has since become the sound of music.