Mannie Fresh's DJ Roots

Looking back at the super producer's family influence, legendary live shows, and bounce music contributions.

Long before he established himself as an elite producer through his extensive work with Cash Money Records, New Orleans native Mannie Fresh saw his father develop a reputation as one of the cities best DJs during the early 1980s. Known for more than just his considerable skills, the elder Fresh had a reputation for playing sets that bridged generation gaps. “My dad went from the Motown era to the streets, to hip hop,” Fresh told Andrew Nosnitsky in a 2007 interview for his now defunct Cocaine Blunts blog.

Not only did his dad know how to control the party with a meticulous song selections pulled from many genres, he also fed his family with the fruits of his DJ craft. “I got two sisters and me, my mom, a few step brothers or whatever and my dad provided for us as a street DJ,” Fresh told Cocaine Blunts. “So you know, this is genuine love. I’m second generation.”

Given his father’s growing legend and his family’s general love of music, it seemed inevitable that Fresh would eventually enter the family trade. For some reason, however, music didn’t quite take at first. His parents tried to bolster his enthusiasm by giving him instruments and equipment for Christmas, but he often responded with disinterest or indifference. “Somebody got an Atari game, I got a trumpet,” he told Andrew Nosnitsky in a 2011 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “This stuff started to just stack up.” 

Despite his initial lukewarm feelings towards making music, a few key events helped spark a desire to try his own hand at DJing. According to a 2005 Electronic Musician article by Bill Murphy, a pair of turntables that were gifted to him in elementary school and the seminal 1981 DJ record “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” helped set the wheels in motion initially.

Then his father put a 13-year-old Fresh to work hauling equipment and records to some of his early ‘80s gigs at “hole-in-the-wall spots.” Seeing the reaction his father got from various women at the clubs further motivated Mannie to hone his skills on the turntables. “It’s crazy to say it, but I’m gonna say it—these women used to go crazy when my dad played,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “I was like, ‘You know what? I wanna do this.’”

Now possessing the necessary internal desire to develop his abilities, Fresh had to confront the fact that he had a less-than ideal setup. “The first turntables I had were some Toshiba belt-drives with this big old club mixer the size of a computer screen,” he told Electronic Musician.

The clumsiness of belt drive turntables and frequent skipping that happens when DJ maneuvers are executed on them would likely drive a modern DJ insane, but Fresh used the limitations of his setup to his advantage. “I learned to do some magical things with a belt-drive,” he told Electronic Musician. “I didn't have pitch control or none of that, but I could lock my songs up tight.”

After a few years of self-directed practice and live gigs, a golden opportunity for career advancement presented itself when Fresh’s friend DJ Wop introduced him to his cousin, successful mobile DJ, and New York City native Denny D. Having heard of his DJ prowess through the grapevine, Denny asked if the up and coming teenager would audition a live set. Fresh’s subsequent performance left Wop and Denny D in awe.

A short time later the three DJ’s formed the group New York Incorporated with future No Limit MC Mia X. Now part of an established crew, Mannie and his New York Incorporated counterparts dominated the vibrant live music scene in New Orleans for many years. “That was my first family, my first DJ group and we pretty much ran the city from the 80s to the 90s,” he told Cocaine Blunts. “Ain’t a house we ain’t been to, ain’t a school dance we didn’t do.”

With countless live shows under his belt, Fresh saw an opportunity to take take his live sets to unprecedented heights and make people rethink their expectations of what a DJ was capable of. As any DJ knows, intense innovation in live performances can be a double edged sword. Straying from the norm might earn you a fiercely loyal fanbase and a stellar reputation, but it can also alienate audiences and empty dance floors in seconds.

Regardless of the calculated risks, Fresh frequently turned his DJ sets into live performances that featured his emerging keyboard skills. Using a drum machine backing track, he would reply hit records and other songs with his own unique twist. The response was overwhelmingly positive more often than not. “I would stop the party and put my 808 on and break out with one of my analog keyboards, a Moog, a Juno or something and play other peoples songs, funk it how I wanted to funk it,” he told Cocaine Blunts. “And then it became a big thing.”

In addition to his unique live playing, Fresh was also instrumental in introducing a cornerstone sample of bounce music and southern rap—The Showboys “Drag Rap,” which is perhaps better known now as “Triggerman.” Though Memphis innovator and underground rap tape legend DJ Spanish Fly is thought to be the man responsible for bringing the obscure New York rap group’s failed single to the south, Mannie also recalled his role as an early innovator who put “Drag Rap” to work during performances. “I was one of the first people to take ‘Triggerman’ and flip it over to the instrumental before T Tucker was even doing it,” he told Sam Backer during a 2017 Afropop Worldwide interview. “He was just one of the guys who was first to record it.”

Fresh also believes the way he incorporated deep basslines into bounce productions and mixed those elements with famous pop songs helped introduce bounce to new listeners outside of New Orleans. “I would take an old ‘80s song, like Tears For Fears or something, and mix it on top of a bounce beat and loop it,” he told Afropop Worldwide. “People would be like, ‘I heard that song somewhere but I don’t know where.’”

30 years after establishing himself with his early DJ sets, Fresh showed an NPR audience that he still had the magic in 2014 when he performed a live DJ/remix set using the Beatmaker 2 app on his iPad. Staying true to his DJ roots, Fresh wowed the onlookers with his bounce renditions of Earth, Wind & Fire, Hall and Oates, Janet Jackson, country music, and much more. The joy on his face throughout the performance is a reminder that no matter how many platinum plaques he might earn as a producer, DJing is still Mannie Fresh’s first love.

When breaking down his set for the audience he had this valuable insight into why DJing and bounce remixes remain still such an integral part of his creative process:

“If I can’t get your attention I’ll just figure out a way to remix the song. I’m like, ‘Hey, if you like country, I’ll put some New Orleans behind it and I’ll get your attention.’ I have songs in here from Hall and Oates to whatever you want to call it. Real talk, that’s bounce, where you’ll be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he put that beat behind that.’ But, I think, you know, when I’m trying to get your attention, that’s where I’m at. That’s what I do.”

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!