The Gift of Mannie Fresh: Still fly, 40 years and counting

If he isn’t having fun with it, Mannie Fresh doesn’t want to do it. He’s serious about his work, and he stays competitive, but what he’s not doing is wasting his time.

“When stuff is not fun for me, it’s time to unplug the drum machine and move on,” he says matter-of-factly.

That sense of fun, his warmth and his authenticity are big reasons why Mannie Fresh has had such a long, acclaimed career, from pioneering work in New Orleans hip-hop and bounce to building the sound of Cash Money Records — and influencing hip-hop around the world. Now 54 years old, he’s spent the majority of his life behind turntables and drum machines, and he continues to build on a legacy that’s already placed him as one of hip-hop’s greatest DJs and producers.

“He has an unconditional love for music, especially hip-hop,” says rapper Mia X, who grew up in the 7th Ward with Mannie and joined him, DJ Wop and Denny D in New York, Incorporated, one of New Orleans’ first hip-hop crews.

“I think every time he touches the turntables or turns on the board to create a beat, it’s magical simply because when you put love into anything, it’s just going to flourish,” Mia X adds. “I’ve been seeing Mannie put love into records and music for — March 2024 will be 40 years.”


Mannie Fresh at The Maison, where he throws an annual Lundi Gras party

As the 50th anniversary of hip-hop approached this summer, Gambit spoke with Mannie Fresh, about his early years spent learning from his DJ father, Otto “Sabu” Thomas, cutting his teeth with New York, Incorporated, and his work in the late-’80s with emcee Gregory D. But that was only the beginning of Mannie Fresh’s career.

In the four decades he’s been a working musician, he’s produced for countless New Orleans artists, from UNLV, Magnolia Shorty and Pimp Daddy to the Hot Boys and Big Freedia. He’s collaborated with T.I., Yasiin Bey, Young Jeezy and T-Pain. He’s earned Grammy nominations as part of Big Tymers, his duo with Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Baby” Williams. And he’s produced more than a dozen platinum- and gold-selling albums by Juvenile, B.G., Turk, Lil Wayne and Big Tymers.

“Mannie is an avid fan of rap and hip-hop and a lot of those old-school influences that helped him create his own original sound. And still, a lot of new music that comes out of New Orleans has that DNA from early Mannie Fresh and the whole Cash Money run — his sound, the way he programmed his snares, even the type of synthesizer sounds he would use,” says DJ and producer Raj Smoove. “All of us are kind of like branches off the Mannie Fresh tree.”

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Gambit met up with Mannie Fresh in October to talk more about his love for DJing, the early years of Cash Money Records, his friendship with DJ Wop and how he reflects New Orleans in his music.

Byron Thomas, better known as Mannie Fresh, grew up in the 7th Ward watching his father DJ block parties and venues around New Orleans. As he started to gravitate toward music, Mannie’s parents encouraged him and would buy him equipment for Christmas and birthdays. Mannie began collecting records and learning how to work a turntable as well as programming drum machines.

As he became a teenager, Mannie began DJing in public, first at school dances and house parties and then clubs around the city. When he was 15, he joined up with his friend DJ Wop and Wop’s cousin, Denny D, to form New York, Incorporated, and asked Mia X to be their emcee. It was the early-’80s and the early years of hip-hop’s growing popularity in New Orleans, and New York, Incorporated, were innovators, scratching records, creating remixes and adding a light show.

“His room was always set up like a studio as a kid,” says Mia X. “He had bunk beds. The top bunk was filled with the turntable, the mixing board, and then on the side of the bottom bunk, his dad had bought him — I don’t know what kind of keyboard it was and a drum machine. But we would go and make tapes. We would sit on the bottom bunk, holding the microphone, while Mannie or DJ Wop were on the ladder, scratching while we were spitting rhymes.”


In his more than 40 years as a performer, Mannie Fresh was a pioneer in New Orleans hip-hop and bounce and helped put the city on the map with Cash Money Records.

Gambit: Did you always want to be a musician?

Mannie Fresh: No. None of this was really what I wanted to do. My dad always bought instruments and stuff like that for Christmas gifts and birthday gifts, and I just gravitated to it and started doing it. And once I figured out that I was good at it, I was stuck with it.

Gambit: Tell us about your father’s influence.

Mannie Fresh: My dad saw this vision way before me. My birthday gifts and Christmas gifts was always something that had to do with music. Somebody else was getting a bike, I was getting a turntable. Somebody else was getting whatever, and I was getting a speaker. So my dad kind of seen it way before that. I started falling in love with music and what makes music and how the sound comes out. I’d start toying with things, and I was like “OK, this is where I’m supposed to be.” And my mom put up with all of it. So that’s incredible that my mom would just let me make noise forever and ever and ever and ever, you know what I’m saying [laughs].

Gambit: Your dad was DJing block parties. He was a pretty important DJ around New Orleans, right?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah, and after seeing my dad DJing and [seeing] what a DJ does, I was like, “OK, that’s what I want to do.” To me, the definition of what a DJ really do is he takes you away from your everyday problems and everything that’s going on with you, and you have fun for whatever moment that is in time.

If it’s a good DJ, he can make you escape from life, and while you’re escaping, you can actually reset and say, “OK, I see clearly now after this good time that I had.” I was like “Oh, that’s what a good DJ does.” I wanted to do that because I saw my dad do it for so many people, saying like, “Oh, wow, this was crummy, when it first started. By the end of it, it’s joy, it’s peace, it’s happiness.”

Gambit: Slick Leo (Coakley, pioneering hip-hop DJ) once said something about your dad having instruments in his set-up?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah! My dad had this whole thing that he did, this whole production that he did, where he would go from the drum machine to the trumpet to the keyboard during his set. So he had the whole New Orleans vibe going, doing the DJ thing. It was kind of taught in that manner of, you’ve gotta do something above just what the regulars are doing. It was always that. And I always was like, “OK, you got to do something better than what the regular DJ is doing.”

In the 1970s, Slick Leo Coakley stood in a singular position in New Orleans.

Gambit: Whenever you started making your own beats, producing, did you want to include certain sounds because of what you saw him doing?

Mannie Fresh: Definitely. Me being a producer started with remixes. I would remix other people’s songs, and the club kind of determined that you were good at it. So it was like “Oh, dude, you’ve got some dope remixes.” Then I start doing my own stuff. But for the longest, I’d always mix somebody else’s song, do a remix to it and didn’t even know that was producing. I just figured like, “OK, this is what I do,” and somebody’s like “Well, no, you could actually do your own original beats.” Then I started doing my own original beats, and it kind of took off from there.

But the first thing was mimicking other people’s stuff, like Dr. Dre or Mantronix or something, going like, “Oh I like this. Let me dabble in this and see how I can change it my way and make it New Orleans.” And that’s the birth of bounce music. Bounce music is based off of us making something — like, if it was (a song by) somebody else outside of our region, how do we make our region understand it? We put our beat behind it and put their vocals on top of it. So it started that way. And then I was like, “Well, what if I put some music to it, like some original music?” Somebody’s like, “You know you’re a producer right?” It was like, “Oh wow, really? That’s what a producer does?” All of it is kind of like mishaps, the way it all came together.

Gambit: You include a lot of horns into your production. Did you have a relationship with brass bands or second lines growing up?

Mannie Fresh: Just grew up that way in my neighborhood. There was always a brass band around. There was always a second line. Even the junior high school was big on band. I never played in band, but I knew the importance of the band in New Orleans. If you went to a school that had a good band, that meant everything. The early ‘80s and ‘90s, it was all about the bands. It wasn’t about the sports; it was about bands. So, going to Joseph S. Clark (High School), when I was at Clark, that’s when Rebirth was forming Rebirth, Kermit (Ruffins) was coming out. So our band at Clark was always second line bands. It wasn’t really like a marching band. It was more a bunch of dudes that were trying to form groups and trying to figure out who they were. Rebirth, all of those dudes came out of my high school.


Rapper Gregory D and DJ Mannie Fresh joined forces in the mid-’80s and released some of the first homegrown hip-hop to take off in New Orleans.

In the mid- and late-’80s, Mannie Fresh began interning at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint studio. He also began working with rapper Gregory D, who had been in the rival Ninja Crew. As Gregory D and Mannie Fresh, the duo released some of the first homegrown hip-hop to catch wide local attention, especially their song “Buck Jump Time,” popular for its call-and-response shoutouts to New Orleans’ projects and neighborhoods.

Gambit: Could you tell me about getting in at Sea-Saint Studios? Did you work with Reggie Toussaint a lot?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah, Reggie recorded a couple of our songs.

It was more of an intern situation. I was just interning, trying to learn more about music and studios, and I just took a liking to everything that was going on. I was cutting a record on somebody from L.A., some guys from L.A. who kind of didn’t know their way around the studio. Somebody didn’t show up, and they was like, “Well, can you call a rapper?” I call maybe two or three people and nobody picked up, but Gregory D picked up, and I was like, “Hey, you want to record a song? We got free studio tonight because somebody didn’t show up.” And we recorded “Buck Jump Time.” Reggie recorded that song, and from there, it was like “OK, now I kind of know my way around the studio.” Reggie and them kind of gave me a little bit of run of the place to be like “Hey, you can fool around in here if you want.” So there’s a lot of stuff I did at Sea-Saint.

Gambit: Was that your introduction to working in a studio?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah. Everything with me is kind of crazy. It was me cleaning up the studio, watching some people do it, and somebody going like, “Hey, do you know how to program a drum machine?” I’m like, “I do.” And it graduated to me knowing how to do plugs in the board or whatever. I know how to do all of that. So before you know it, it went from that to me working a studio or working behind a board, learning how the board works and all of that. All the earlier Cash Money stuff, I mixed it, I recorded it, because of Sea-Saint. I learned how to record in Sea-Saint.

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In recent years, Mannie Fresh has been more selective in his production work for other artists — although, he’ll show up for New Orleans artists like Big Freedia and Flagboy Giz — but he continues to pursue his first love: DJing. Mannie Fresh can be seen frequently at venues like The Maison and Dragon’s Den on Frenchmen Street and at special events around New Orleans.

There’s a common statement that good DJs need to be able to read the room, but that requires psychic ability, says Melissa Weber, the popular DJ Soul Sister. Rather, “I love DJs who are able to control the room,” she says, “because they have such great music taste, mixing skill, blending skill, and also just take chances and love music. [Mannie Fresh] is one of those for me.”

Live, Mannie’s sets tend to lean toward hip-hop and bounce mixes — a great NPR video shows Mannie making bounce remixes of everything from Michael Jackson to Hall & Oates and Kenny Chesney on the fly. Weber and Mannie have performed together on several occasions in the past, and Weber invited Mannie to DJ her annual birthday jam at Tipitina’s in 2019. Those sets dove into ’70s and ’80s funk, soul and R&B rarities — the rare grooves that are DJ Soul Sister’s forte and the kind of records that are at the very roots of hip-hop and which Mannie Fresh grew up hearing his father, DJ Sabu, spin around the city.

Mannie Fresh “is very loved in this city. He keeps roots with the community and with people,” Weber says. “People respect that, and they feel it. Sometimes you can feel that coming off of a performance. When you’re genuine and authentic, people feel that.”

Gambit: You’ve been doing a Lundi Gras party at The Maison for more than a decade. Do you still find it fresh?

Mannie Fresh: Hell, yeah. This city is still one of the hardest crowds, because they really love music, and if you’re not doing a good job, they’re gonna tell you.

Gambit: Even when it comes to you?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah! I don’t get no favors around here [laughs]. They expect me to give it my all. They know when you’re off. They’ll tell you, go home and reset.

Gambit: What’s the worst show that you’ve had in New Orleans?

Mannie Fresh: I haven’t had a worst show in New Orleans, thank God. But I’ve seen some people have shows that were like, “Oof, man, rethink it.”

Mannie Fresh spins for people waiting in line outside Sneaker Politics in the French Quarter in 2022.

As our interview with Mannie Fresh rolls on, we walk down Frenchmen Street from The Maison to the Dragon’s Den, where there’s a mural of DJ Wop, who died in 2022. While we wait to be let into the bar’s patio space, a man walks past, does a double take, and backtracks to shake Mannie’s hand.

“I’m born and raised in this city, and this man is a legend,” he says to me. “A hundred years from now, they’ll be talking about him.”

“All good, bro! I appreciate that!” Mannie says before the man dips back the way he came.

Gambit: Does that happen a lot?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah! You know, New Orleans people are friendly people. There’s no other city like this. One of the things you gotta get used to sometimes is — New Orleans people will say, “Hey, we love your music,” and they’ll keep it moving. But other places, people hang around and fake like they’re singing and do things to try to get your attention or whatever. And it’s just like, coming from here, you’re just not used to that. You’re more used to people saying hello and they’ll keep moving. I love New Orleans. I love being here because I can still walk the streets here and still, just be a normal person.


Mannie Fresh and DJ Wop had close friendship and challenged each other as performers. Wop passed in 2022.

After a few minutes, we walk through to the patio space at the Dragon’s Den, and Mannie Fresh starts to tells us about his longtime friend DJ Wop, Earl Anthony Register Jr.

Gambit: You and DJ Wop were close friends. How did y’all meet?

Mannie Fresh: Just DJing, from the same neighborhood. New York, Incorporated, Denny is Wop’s cousin. So we went to the same high school together and all of that, and all of us was DJing at the time. It started out kind of like a competition, and we just was like, “You know what, we’re from around the corner from each other, we probably should merge together.” We’d been good ever since.

Gambit: Did y’all keep a close working relationship, even after you started working with Cash Money?

Mannie Fresh: Oh yeah. Most people will tell you any gigs that I had in New Orleans or whatever, regional, Wop always opened up for me.

Gambit: What made him so great?

Mannie Fresh: His knowledge of music. I kind of was super Southern at one time. All I wanted to hear was Southern hip-hop. But Wop was just, everything. He was like “Man, you gotta check out Wu-Tang. You gotta check out these West Coast songs. You got to check out the East Coast artists.”

His knowledge and his timing of when to play a song. He always thought three records ahead, and I think, in a sense, that too makes a good DJ. All of us are from the school of Wop: Raj Smoove, Mannie Fresh. I think that’s what makes us good DJs: the timing to know when to play a record and to know how to look at a crowd, not to just play the current hits. There’s so much good music, it’s OK to drop a Bob Marley song in the middle of the hype. As long as it’s the right Bob Marley song, it ain’t gonna kill the vibe at all.

That was a lesson we all learned from him, that “Hey, there’s so much good music. Don’t think that you got to keep the party going this way ’cause these are the hit records.” You don’t have to play all the hit records or the current records. Just play good music.


Cash Money Records taking over for the ’99 and the 2000. Mannie Fresh with, left to right, B.G., Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Turk and Bryan ‘Baby’ Williams in 1999.

It was through DJ Wop that Raj Smoove, an up-and-coming DJ at the time, met Mannie Fresh in the mid-‘90s at Cafe Istanbul when it was on Frenchmen Street. Raj and Mannie got to know one another, and a few years later, a quick question from Mannie landed Raj a spot DJing on the Cash Money Records and Ruff Ryders Entertainment tour.

“Mannie as long as I’ve known him, he’s always been a very outgoing personality, very warm and accepting, inviting people, inclusive,” Raj Smoove says. “Even him, inviting me to go on the Cash Money-Ruff Ryders tour — what could very well have been like an off-the-cuff statement, ‘Raj, what’s up? You comin’ on tour with us?’ changed my whole life.”

That tour put Raj Smoove on a national platform, and he went on to produce for Lil Wayne and Sqad Up in the years following. Raj later appeared in a skit on Mannie Fresh’s 2004 solo debut, “The Mind of Mannie Fresh,” and went on tour with him.

“That whole, initial Cash Money run, Mannie was producing every song on every album,” Raj says. “It’s a worth ethic. They’d be in the studio all the time, coming up with ideas and trying stuff out. And that’s a huge catalogue of material to be producing, and then for it to have the type of success that it had — I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”


In the early ’90s, Mannie Fresh moved to the West Coast and took an internship with RCA Records — initially hiding his move from his parents, who thought he was still in school at Southern University New Orleans. The internship led to the release of “The Real Deal,” the last Gregory D and Mannie Fresh album.

After a brief stay in Chicago, where he worked with influential house DJ and producer Steve “Silk” Hurley, Mannie returned to New Orleans and dove back into DJing and packing clubs. In 1991, MC T Tucker and DJ Irv recorded what’s recognized as the first released bounce track, “Where Dey At,” but a number of DJs were busy developing bounce at local clubs and block parties. Again, Mannie’s bounce work proved to be groundbreaking. He blended Cameron Paul’s “Brown Beats” and The Showboys’ “Drag Rap” (aka “Triggerman”), the two backbone beats for bounce, and produced tracks for influential bounce artists UNLV, Ms. Tee, Pimp Daddy and Cheeky Blakk.

“He changed the sound of bounce when he produced Cheeky Blakk,” says Mia X. “Because ‘Bitch Get Off Me,’ that’s a Mannie Fresh beat. Those drums became the official drums of bounce. Those drums are still used in 2023.”

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Gambit: How did you and Wop challenge each other?

Mannie Fresh: Wop and I was always in competition. Friendly competition, that’s what made it — there was times where he opened, but he kind of made it, “God, I’ve gotta go behind this after he just went hard.” That was my friendly competition right there, and I think that carried over to the Hot Boys. That carried over to the way I created and treated things at Cash Money. We created that friendly competition that made the verses better, that made every song better. Like Wayne would tell you today if he felt like Juvie was better than him on a verse, he went and rewrite his verse, ‘cause he’d be like, “Nah, man, he killed me on it.” But that’s always good because it keeps everybody sharp.

Gambit: Speaking of Cash Money, how did you and Baby and Slim (Ronald Williams) connect?

Mannie Fresh: Through a mutual friend when I was DJing, me and KLC at Club Rumors. This was probably early ’90s. We was DJing at Club Rumors. That was the big club in New Orleans at the time. But me and KLC DJ’d there, and the emcee was this this dude Heavy. I had already met Baby before, but I didn’t have an introduction to him as “OK, I’m trying to do records.” So Heavy was like, “Hey man, I’ve got these guys, and they’re very serious. They trying to start a record company.”

And one of my things was, I was like “Hey, if they drug dealers, I don’t want to meet ’em.” Because I was already DJing for a lot of drug dealers and, it was like, that’s fast money. It comes and it goes. They’re not going to be here — these dudes come and go. So I was like, I go from Uptown to downtown almost every day, and it’s like one week, this guy’s here, he’s alive. The next week, he’s dead or he’s in jail. So I was just like, if it was drug dealers, I don’t want to do it.

Now, at the time, they were doing their street stuff. So I gave them an alternative. I was like, if you want me to do it, revisit me again when y’all are serious. So the first song I did for them was Lil Slim, “Bounce Slide Ride,” but they was like, “Dude, we’re gonna try it your way. We’re gonna try not to do nothing in the streets,” and I was like “OK.” And that song kind of took off, and that started the, “OK, we trust you to do it.” I’m like, “You can’t do both of them, it’s not going to work out.”

From my knowledge, that was the day everything kind of changed. We started a legit business. Cash Money first generation was all bounce artists — Magnolia Shorty, UNLV, Lil Slim, PxMxWx, just a couple of other things. The BG’z — which the real Bee Gees were like, “Shut it down. Y’all can’t use that.” So that’s how it got trickled to just B.G..

The BG’z was (rappers) B.G. and Lil Wayne at the time, but we got a letter from the Bee Gees. But the cool thing about it was if we got contacted by the Bee Gees, I’m like, we’re doing something right. We’re local, and if it’s making that kind of noise, getting that kind of attention, then we’re doing something right.

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Bryan ‘Baby’ Williams and Mannie Fresh made up the Grammy-nominated duo Big Tymers.

Gambit: What was the atmosphere like at Cash Money whenever y’all started?

Mannie Fresh: It was fun, but the way I even approach this business is fun. If I’m not having fun with it, I don’t want to do it. When stuff is not fun for me, it’s time to unplug the drum machine or whatever and move on. So I think what made it good was that competitive fun, the creativeness of it all. I wish we would have did business more, but none of us really knew how to do business because we were all young and just starting this thing.

I always thought big. I always knew it was going to be successful. Some people are like, “Well, how do you look that forward?” I write down stuff. I’ll write down what my goals are and what I’m trying to do, and I was already writing that down that I was gonna have gold and platinum records. I was already looking at that on my refrigerator every day. I already felt that kind of energy. So even though it was fun for me, I still had the vision of this could take over the world.

Gambit: Actually, what was your first platinum record?

Mannie Fresh: Oh, man … that’s a good question …

Gambit: The fact you have to think about it …

Mannie Fresh: Yeah! [Laughs] Believe it or not, the Big Tymers was platinum before Juvenile. The Big Tymers was what got us the deal. A lot of people was like, “Well, how did y’all land the deal with Universal?” It was the Big Tymers album that we had dropped. That did like 400,000 regional, and then when we got to Universal, that was the first album they dropped. With the combined sales, that ended up a platinum [record].

Gambit: What did that feel like? What goes through your head when you get a platinum record?

Mannie Fresh: That was definitely like, “OK! Mark that off the list.” But I mean, the first time even doing the song “Buck Jump Time” to me was equivalent to platinum because that was like “OK, I’ve made a record,” and then to hear it on the radio station. All of that, that’s incredible. I get how some artists are like “I want platinum,” but just the thought of “I know how to make a record” to me — that was enough for me to say: “I achieved something incredible.”

Gambit: How did you see the ’90s kind of change New Orleans hip-hop?

Mannie Fresh: You could relax in the ’90s. The early ’80s, you know, it was the murder capital, it was crazy around here. So it wasn’t just music, it was really dangerous. In the ’90s, it became like, OK, we could relax a little bit, we can hang out. In the ’80s, you didn’t go Uptown if you wasn’t from Uptown. Uptown didn’t come downtown. It was that real. You stayed in your area because it was just nuts on the streets.

So in the ’90s, everything became cool. Hip-hop and fashion made everything cool. When somebody’s like, “Oh, we really just trying to be clean right now. We really trying to just relax,” I think that was like one of the things that’s cool about hip-hop. Hip-hop can change fashion, people’s thoughts and everything. When hip-hop started having a face to it, you started seeing artists and you started seeing what they was wearing and their demeanor. It made everybody relax.

The ’90s became just a chill time. It’s about your gear and carrying yourself, just being clean all the time.

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Gambit: With the other artists working at that time, did you feel like it stayed friendly competition or did things get a little more cutthroat?

Mannie Fresh: Definitely friendly competition, ’cause everybody came from that. If you was on No Limit or Cash Money in the ’90s, we all knew each other. We all did music together. We all worked at the same clubs. Unfortunately, later on you had to pick a side, you know what I’m saying? But all of us grew up in the same clubs, in the same environment.

Gambit: I was just thinking of like (UNLV’s) “Drag ‘Em N Tha River,” which goes pretty hard.

Mannie Fresh: But nobody got hurt, you know what I’m saying? There was no retaliation. Mystikal would throw a shot at UNLV on his songs, and nobody really never got into a confrontation. If they saw each other, they spoke and that’s what it was.

Gambit: You had a big hand at Cash Money outside of the production, too, right?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah, just on this is how you distribute the record, this is how you register the record, this is how you do this or that, just from experience from doing it in places.

Gambit: How did you develop your sound at Cash Money?

Mannie Fresh: Most of my sound came from just DJing here. DJing in the club and just seeing what made people move. I would even describe my production as energy. It comes from a DJ perspective. It’s like, hey, this is what moves the crowd, so this is what I want the beat to sound like, something that moves the crowd.

“Now, as a DJ, I feel like the Cash Money catalogue that Mannie produced has had a lot longer of a shelf life compared to a whole bunch of other stuff [released at the time],” says Raj Smoove. “‘Back that Azz Up’ after 25 years is still one of those songs that you absolutely have to play at a party. And that’s the tip of the iceberg when you think about a New Orleans party.”

Mannie’s catalogue has stood the test of time, he says. “Mannie reinvented his sound on multiple occasions,” Raj adds. “Every time he did that, it would breathe new life into Cash Money’s run. The early albums, it has a specific sound and then you can hear it developing into the B.G., ‘Chopper City,’ Juvie, ‘Solja Rag’ records. Then when you get to the deal with Universal and you get ‘400 Degreez,’ Mannie’s sound really matured, and they were doing platinum record after platinum record.”

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In 2004, Mannie Fresh released his first solo album, “The Mind of Mannie Fresh,” on Cash Money Records, but by the following year, his relationship with the label was becoming tense over monetary disputes and restrictions on who he could collaborate with. After Jay-Z reached out to him, Mannie left Cash Money to sign with Def Jam South.

Post-Cash Money, Mannie made big songs with T.I. (including the Grammy-nominated “Big Things Poppin’”), Young Jeezy, Pimp C and Rick Ross. Mannie’s second solo album, “Return of the Ballin’,” was released in 2009, and he started his own label, Chubby Boy Records.

Although Mannie Fresh’s production pace for other artists over the last decade hasn’t matched the intense churn of the 1990s and early 2000s, he has collaborated a number of times with special artists and friends like Big Freedia, Lil Wayne and Juvenile. He’s also given unique bumps to artists like New Orleans’ Dee-1, Allie Baby and Flagboy Giz — earlier this year, Mannie joined Giz on stage at the Congo Square Rhythms Festival for the song “Uptown.”

“A random person can’t go to Mannie and be like, ‘Can you give me a free beat?’” Raj Smoove says with a laugh. “But he’s been supportive of younger artists that have been out here actively trying to do their thing.”

Gambit: Last time we spoke, you said after Hurricane Katrina dispersed a lot of artists, when they came back to New Orleans, they brought back these phrases.

Mannie Fresh: The different habits. Yeah! So if you went to Atlanta, you picked up Atlanta habits, you came back talking like you was from Atlanta. New Orleans is unique; our habits are New Orleans. By people going different places, some of ’em just kind of lost that New Orleans twang. We had to start rebuilding our music, our sound, our vocabulary, everything. One of the things that the world loves about New Orleans is we got our own vocabulary. We got our own way of communicating and all that. By people moving different places, they picked up some of those other [vocabularies] and tried to enforce them here. And it was “oh, noooo.” Kids came back saying “son” and we were like, that belongs to the East Coast. That’s not what we say. “Hey, what up, son?” That’s not our thing. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but what made us super, super unique and special was our own language and our own way of communicating.

Gambit: Do you think that’s bounced back over the last 15 years or so?

Mannie Fresh: Slowly, but surely.

Gambit: For young artists today, social media has put everything at their fingertips. Do you feel there are just a lot more influences now?

Mannie Fresh: Definitely. I get what social media is, but to me, it’s a tool so you can know what’s going on with me. A lot of people, social media is raising them. It’s turning them into something that is just like, that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing as an artist. Stop copying what that person doing. Figure out what your thing is. I think that’s why we don’t have longevity in music right now, because it’s so accessible and it’s cool right now to sound like somebody else. In our era, you couldn’t do that. It was forbidden. We would run you outta there if you sound like Biggie — man, there can only be one Biggie. Now, it’s acceptable — everybody wants to sound like Drake or another popular artist and it’s cool. There’s just like so much in your face that you can train yourself to do it.


Turk, Lil Wayne and Juvenile of the Hot Boys reunite with DJ Mannie Fresh during Lil WeezyAna Festival 2015.

Mannie Fresh is a crowd rocker, says Mia X. He knows what to say and when he works with other artists, he knows what to give them. But his longevity comes from his passion for the culture he’s been a part of for more than 40 years.

“As long as you love it and have a passion for doing it, you will continue to create,” says Mia X. “And Mannie has been through a lot of stuff, but he’s always the same person. He loves this culture, and for that he is blessed with the ability to continue to give us new things.”

“I just want to thank Mannie for being my brother,” she adds. “My brother from the 7th Ward. My brother in hip-hop. And you can always look at his laptop, you’ll see the words ‘DJ Wop’ lighting up on the back of his laptop.”

Gambit: What do you feel has been the secret to longevity? Is it making sure you’re having fun with it?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah, and it resonates with people. If you’re having fun, they don’t see it as just you came here, you got my money and now you’re gone. The engagement, all of that. If I’m going to a concert, I wanna see you engaged from the stage, where it’s something I feel like you actually really love what you’re doing. It comes across that way. Your energy says that. You know, everybody been somewhere where somebody was like, “Who got my money? Start the song.”

People can tell. And it’s like I said, one of the hardest places in the world is New Orleans. We hard on you. If you give us a horrible show, we gonna let you know. So growing up here, every time you do something, you gotta win, because if you don’t, it’s gonna resonate wherever you go. There’s been so many artists that felt like “I was on top of my game ’til I got to New Orleans” — and they was just looking at me sideways. It was one of those things where they’re waiting for you to sing that one hit song and then you get a rise, and it’s just like, nah, you got to figure out how to make those other songs resonate to them before you get to that one hit song.

Gambit: I’ve heard from other artists that they didn’t get New Orleans’ support until maybe they went somewhere else and did it.

Mannie Fresh: I feel like I’m the complete opposite. I don’t feel that way. I don’t think I could have went anywhere else without New Orleans’ support — and I still feel that way. Because what I do is New Orleans. The way I come across is New Orleans. Like even that Tiny Desk — that was pure New Orleans.

The only thing we could do is what we do.


Mannie Fresh at the Dragon’s Den in October 2023

Gambit: Whenever you were younger, what did success mean to you? What did you feel like you needed to be successful?

Mannie Fresh: I think me DJing — when I started DJing my first junior high school dance, that was success to me. I’m actually DJing a party, and I had already made up my mind like this was gonna be the only job that I’m gonna have. This is going to be my job right here, and to make it into a business, to say, “OK, I’m gonna go around to every school and see if I could get a job doing this gig.” Then it starts falling in line, and I’m just like, “OK, this is what I’m supposed to do.” So even right there, that was success to me.

Gambit: What about today? What does success mean to you now?

Mannie Fresh: Oh, the fact that people still check for me. And it’s not just one genre, it’s everything. Success to me is when the curtain opens up, it’s Black, white, gay, straight, everything, and it’s all unity. One nation under a groove. That’s success to me when you can bring people together like that.

Gambit: How do you feel like you keep your edge?

Mannie Fresh: Stay competitive. I’m still competitive. One of the coolest things in the world is when somebody tells me what I can’t do, because it’s fuel. Even for me, during the pandemic, when I was DJing [online], that was a new way to introduce me, but we had beat battles, me and Scott Storch, and I felt like it went the wrong way. Scott Storch won, so I was like, “Well, you won the battle. I’m gonna win the war.” It was something that made me feel like, “You know what? I’m about to go crazy right now until I feel satisfied.”

Gambit: What are your thoughts about New Orleans rap today? Anybody in the new generation you’re excited about or any concerns out there?

Mannie Fresh: The crazy thing is so many kids came from — B.G.’s son, Juvie’s son, all of these kids are rapping now. And the only thing I’m challenging them to is know your history. A lot of times, when they play things for me and say, “Well what do you think about this, Unc?” I’m just like, “Well, what you’re doing is cool, but you forgetting the New Orleans vibe.”

So a lot of them, I even hear influences from East Coast or West Coast, and that’s cool, but you have so many ingredients right here. The gumbo is right here. Pull from right here and learn some of the stuff from the older artists. Go listen to The Meters. Check out Chocolate Milk. Go listen to Allen Toussaint and all of that. That should put you in a whole other frame of mind.

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Mannie Fresh in 2006

Celebrations around the country this year marked Aug. 11 as the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, and Mannie Fresh was busy traveling to Atlanta and New York to perform at major events. He also has been spending a lot of time this year performing sold out shows with Juvenile in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Juvie’s “400 Degreez,” which he produced and featured on.

The duo rocked NPR’s Tiny Desk this summer in a truly epic performance that included Jon Batiste, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, a backing band, string players from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and an unprecedented encore.

Gambit: You’ve been pretty busy this summer.

Mannie Fresh: Yeah. It’s been crazy, man. It’s a blessing that folks are still checking for Mannie. I don’t even know, I’m maybe 35-40 years into this and to be at this level in my career and it’s only getting better — that’s beautiful man.

Gambit: How do you think all of the 50th anniversary stuff went?

Mannie Fresh: It was beautiful. I think it should not just be the 50th anniversary. It should keep on going, and one of the most wonderful things that came out of it, it introduced the younger generation to a lot of old-school hip-hop. They can appreciate it a little bit more. A lot of the old-school artists are selling out concerts. A lot of old-school artists are giving a better show, a high-quality show, it’s teaching a lot of younger artists showmanship and the importance of knowing how to do interviews and all of that. My generation, we grew up on all of that — you had to have that kind of training, and that went away from music. I think right now that put some of these older artists on a platform, showing their abilities of what they can do. They can give a good show, and they can also do a good interview after that.

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New Orleans rapper Juvenile, seated, at his NPR Music ‘Tiny Desk Concert Series’ taping at NPR’s Washington DC offices on June 14, 2023. Other participants included Jon Batiste (in green shirt), Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews (leaning over Batiste’s left shoulder) and Mannie Fresh, front right.

Gambit: Do you feel like this is going to carry on a little bit more?

Mannie Fresh: I hope so. I really, really hope so. Because it’s a lot of artists right now that they didn’t make this much money in their whole career. This anniversary put so many other people back to work, and like I said, it shined a spotlight on a lot of artists that the younger generation didn’t know. And now, I ain’t gonna say forced, but now if it’s in your face enough, you have to pay attention to it.

Gambit: How was it doing that Tiny Desk show?

Mannie Fresh: Crazy, dude. But we went in there with the New Orleans mentality. We went in there with “We’re takin’ over. We’re takin’ over Tiny Desk.” To have the support of Trombone Shorty, Jon Batiste, for the band to be from New Orleans, that’s epic. When you got your peers, it’s going down.

Gambit: It really was this insane display of New Orleans. You could feel that energy.

Mannie Fresh: It resonated that way and it came off across that way to the world and anybody who saw it. They was like, “They must really know each other. They must really vibe with each other.” Sometimes when you do things, there’s no chemistry. To the world, it translated. You saw the chemistry we was doing. You got to hang out with people to have that kind of energy.

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Gambit: How long have you and Juvenile known each other?

Mannie: Like 30-something-plus.

We met at a bus stop. I knew of him before that because he used to do block parties when my dad was DJing. My dad used to give him the mic and let him do just whatever his songs were at the time. But we officially met at a bus stop where he started rapping, and I was just like “You got to sign this dude.” And the rest is history.

Trombone Shorty, I’ve been knowing him, I think, since he was probably 10 or something like that. He played on some of the early Cash Money Songs. A lot of people don’t know that. Troy played on some of those songs. I don’t even know the playlist because we just had him do a lot of stuff, like riffs on songs. But Troy used to play for wrestling tickets. He’d be like, “Man, just give me some tickets to the wrestling match.” Because he was a kid. At the time, all he wanted to do was go to the wrestling match.

Gambit: Did y’all get a lot of feedback about that Tiny Desk? A lot of people talking about it?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah. I think for Juvie it’s like a second wind because he’s been on the road ever since. He hasn’t stopped ,and he’s been added to tours and all kinds of stuff. It was time to do it.

Gambit: Before wrapping up, is there anything you’d like to talk about?

Mannie Fresh: The only thing I think I don’t do enough, I don’t give my mom enough credit. So I would definitely like to give my mom all the credit in the world. Most people know my story and they always say “your dad, your dad.” My mom put up with so much shit from me, and I don’t mean bad stuff, just me making noise and me following my dreams and her letting me do it. So I don’t think I give her enough credit — she could have told me “turn all of that off.” My mom really let me see this thing through.

Gambit: Does your mom still live in New Orleans? Are y’all close?

Mannie Fresh: Yeah, my mom still stays in New Orleans. Me and my mom still listen to music together. She listens to everything, from rap to Marvin Gaye. So we still have those moments where we going through the playlist and I’m like, “Well what do you want to hear?” And my mom still educates me on stuff that I didn’t hear before.

My mom would have some fantastic stories to tell y’all, and it will start like what I’m saying, “He made so much noise.” Because I just played music all day, every day. There was no in-between.

Q&As with artists about the past, present and future of New Orleans hip-hop and bounce.

The New Orleans rapper was joined by Mannie Fresh, Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty and a can of Juvie Juice.

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