Status Ain't Hood

A Mannie Fresh Comeback Needs To Happen

Hate” is a fun song: jittery bounce beat, tingly synthetic bells, humming keyboard riff, chanted hook, three rappers tripping all over each other and talking slick through heavy and slurry Louisiana accents. On its own, it’s not much more than a fun song. But it feels a bit bigger because of what it represents. “Hate” marks the reunion of at least some of the Cash Money Millionaires, one of the great rap crews of the late ’90s and early ’00s. It also marks what I hope will be some sort of creative rebirth from Mannie Fresh, one of the greatest rap producers of all time and, arguably, the guy who made all the other Cash Money guys famous.

Fresh is, quite simply, a national treasure, a production genius who changed the way rap music sounded in the late ’90s. He came up within bounce music, the ferociously local, militaristically simple form of New Orleans party music that, when he was starting out in the ’80s, really only had a casual relationship with rap music. When the Williams brothers started Cash Money in the early ’90s, they installed Fresh as the house producer, and he had everything to do with their sudden national success. Fresh knew bounce music inside and out, but he’d also absorbed ideas from house music and New York broken-bottle club-banger rap and Timbaland-style future-funk. By the late ’90s, Fresh had figured out how to turn bounce music into irresistible, anthemic pop music without losing any of what made it special. And for those of us who grew up with no idea that bounce music was even a thing, Fresh’s productions sounded like a backfiring spaceship — all those explosive snares and R2D2 blorps and bass wobbles erupting in patterns that I’d never heard, making their own kind of sense.

Cash Money were an unruly but tight-knit crew — four rappers, one producer who also rapped, one label head who did something that I guess you could call rapping. They had accents so thick and gnarled that mid-Atlantic suburban white kids like me had to, in a pre-Rap Genius era, make vague and general guesses at what the fuck they were even talking about. No Limit had exploded out of the same city, to staggering success, a few years earlier, and they already seemed weird. Cash Money seemed to take everything No Limit were doing — the punishingly sparse beats, the guttural crime-life rapping, the arresting visual sensibility, the ridiculously catchy hooks — and do them all better, and weirder, and with more fervor. The Cash Money guys wore diamond grills and jewelry over plain, long white T-shirts and camouflage bandanas, the raggedy street-kid fashions somehow thrown into relief by the crazily expensive accessories. When Lil Wayne said “ain’t got on no suits cuz we ain’t tryna be presidents” on “Tha Block Is Hot,” it was immediately clear, even to a total outsider, that he was taking a shot at the more theatrically pimped-out No Limit ensembles. Cash Money made it just as big as No Limit — bigger, even — and they did it entirely on their own terms.

Mannie Fresh was key to all that — through the beats he was making, but also through his genial, goofy presence. Everyone else in Cash Money worked hard to project an image of young-hyena hunger. They talked incessantly about rims and diamonds, but they didn’t come off like kingpins; they came off like corner kids who suddenly had piles of money but hadn’t lost their sense of desperation. Even an adolescent Lil Wayne, not yet 18 and still making a point not to cuss on records because he didn’t want to disappoint his mom, had that aura of ferocity. Not Mannie Fresh. Fresh was the goofy uncle of the crew. On Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” the crew’s first huge crossover hit, Mannie was the guy fucking around on his verse, throwing in a Monie Love reference. (I will always maintain that he had the best verse on that track.) And even when he was being as nasty as everyone else in Cash Money, he seemed to be having more fun with it: “God! Damn! Mother! Fucker! She’s! A! Good dick-sucker!”

And while everyone else on Cash Money was becoming a solo star, Fresh was content to stay in the background, making beats and serving as comic relief. Alongside Birdman, he was half of Big Tymers, a group that sold tons even if both of the guys in it were just part-time rappers. By the time Fresh finally went solo, Cash Money was in ruins, presumably mostly because of Birdman’s allegedly sheisty-as-fuck accounting practices. B.G. had left. Juvenile had left and come back, and he was about to leave again. Turk had gone to prison for shooting a cop. (He only just recently got out.) Wayne was basically keeping the label afloat by himself, and he had to become the world’s greatest rapper to make that a realistic possibility. In 2004, in that context of decline, Fresh finally released The Mind Of Mannie Fresh, his first-ever solo album. It’s really all anyone could ever want from a Mannie Fresh album, which means it’s more of a comedy album than a rap one.

There is nothing but pure unalloyed goofiness on The Mind Of Mannie Fresh. The best song, “Conversation,” is pretty much entirely Fresh just ineptly hitting on a girl in the club — “I got a heart-shaped Posturepedic waterbed / The sheets might be satin and the pillows look suede” — while she makes fun of them and then the two of them yell out dance instructions. The between-song skits are just “Fitter, Happier” robot voices cussing, or Lil Wayne rapping and then Fresh telling him to stop rapping about killing people. Even on the big single, “Real Big,” the boasts are straight-up silly: “I ain’t gotta get money, man; money get me.” It’s the sort of thing Prince Paul might’ve made if he’d been born in New Orleans. I love it so much.

The Mind Of Mannie Fresh didn’t sell, and Fresh left Cash Money soon after, though he did stick around long enough to produce all of Lil Wayne’s first Carter album. He made a few more hits for rappers like Young Jeezy and T.I., and he made an entirely forgettable solo album called Return Of The Ballin’ in 2009. Lately, he’s been on the Red Bull Sound Academy circuit, playing lucrative-I-hope DJ sets to tastemaker types. Meanwhile, various groupings of Cash Money rappers have broken apart from each other, dissed one another, and then come back together. Birdman and Lil Wayne, previously the only indivisible duo in the whole crew, got into a bitter dispute late in 2014 and then patched it up again earlier this year. Around the same time Turk got out of prison, B.G. went in. He’s currently serving 14 years for gun possession and witness tampering. So B.G. won’t be rejoining the other guys anytime soon, but even the partial Cash Money reunion is a beautiful thing. And it comes as part of a forthcoming Mannie Fresh album, and that’s even better.

Now: We probably shouldn’t get too excited about a Cash Money reunion. Off top, I can’t think of a single case of a long-estranged rap crew coming back together and recapturing all of its old magic. (I happen to love Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams, but absolutely nobody agrees with me on that one.) Still, the idea of a new Mannie Fresh album is a fun think to think about. Mannie’s now signed to Mass Appeal, the label that Nas co-founded. (I honestly cannot imagine what a conversation between Mannie Fresh and Nas would sound like.) But being on Mass Appeal is working out great for Run The Jewels, and if Mannie has that kind of freedom, what could he accomplish? Especially if the other Cash Money guys are along for the ride? I can’t wait to find out.


1. Cormega – “Guns And Butter” (Feat. Gunplay)
This is the second time Cormega, the living symbol of cerebral and inward ’90s New York shit, and Gunplay, the fuming Florida headbanger, have done a song together. They are such a weird combination on paper, and yet they work together because they both just love rapping. Here, they take turns using their vastly different approaches to tear a lovely Harry Fraud loop to pieces. Could we get a whole album like that? Is that too much to ask?

2. Westside Gunn – “Dudley Boys” (Feat. Action Bronson)
Look, if you want to get me on your side, it’s very simple: Just name a song after a classic pro wrestling tag team. And if that song is some dense, convincingly dirtbaggy New York shit with a hazy Alchemist beat, that’s all a bonus. Honestly, though, you can make a complete piece of shit, and I’ll probably still like it as long as you name it “The Brainbusters” or whatever.

3. Iamsu! – “Up All Night” (Feat. HBK CJ)
Certain Bay Area rappers can adapt that whole slick ’80s synth-funk melodicism without even making it sound like a big deal. It’s just a part of the package, and it doesn’t even need to draw attention to itself. This is one of the best examples of that I’ve heard in ages.

4. ILoveMakonnen – “Don’t Do Too Much” (Feat. Tunji Ige)
ILoveMakonnen is very good at picking beats. He is even better at grunting.

5. AG Da Coroner – “My Truth”
“Too many people in the house, no attention for me / So I ain’t wanna leave school / More detention for me.” Autobiographical rap is the best when it ditches mythologization and goes straight for uncomfortable realness.