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The Life And Death Of An Auteur Producer

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There are like, infinite gems in this Red Bull Academy interview with Mannie Fresh, but the one I’d like to focus on comes about an hour and thirteen minutes in, when Fresh answers a question about producers he’s currently feeling. His list is Drumma Boy, Shawty Redd, T-Mix, and Beanz & Kornbread, who are all basically Mannie Fresh disciples (okay, T-Mix is more like a peer), but Fresh’s discussion of how the record labels have good reason to hold these guys back, so that there isn’t well, another superstar studio nerd like Mannie Fresh is pretty fascinating:

“The people who I name right now, if they were sitting on the sofa with me, you wouldn’t know them, because it’s almost like, that’s the way record companies want it to be. They don’t want you to get too far, where you can start naming your price and doing certain things or whatever.”

Fresh’s cynicism is kinda ideal. He rose to fame with Cash-Money and basically built the label, but he got pretty fucked over by them or at least, Birdman Zuckerberg-ed him at some point or another, but he isn’t bitter about it. At least not publicly. He’s of course, also given hits to plenty of rappers outside of Cash-Money, so he’s dealt with major labels too. Though his output’s slowed down as of late (Hurricane Katrina and your sister being murdered will do that to you.), he’s shifted to DJing live sets and doing stuff with his own independent label, Chubby Boy Records (last year’s Return Of The Ballin was minor but excellent nonetheless). The point is, Fresh comes from a pretty rarefied perspective when he gives us all one more reason why the majors are kinda evil.

On the major label level, hip-hop producers are increasingly viewed as disposable. In my Spin column two weeks ago, I mentioned the majors’ slash-and-burn approach: A regional production style arrives on the radio and then is sucked dry until we’re all sick of it (Lex Luger, you need to watch out) and then, it’s onto the next one. Running parallel is a generic, even easier to repeat “pop-rap,” style that absorbs the signifiers of a regional sound and allows a bunch of middling, kinda-alright producers to do a lot of the work on most of the pop-rap hits. Either way, the work’s spread out amongst as many cheap, desperate producers as possible, or handed over to the few major label golden boys. If that producer isn’t a star like Kanye West or Will.i.Am, the plan’s to keep him invisible.

This approach extends beyond hip-hop too. Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” features a dubstep breakdown but the song is produced by Dr. Luke. Just a few years ago even, this kind injection of sub-genre would’ve been accomplished by bringing in an actual person who makes that music (indeed, at some point, Rusko was working with Britney Spears) but now, thanks to technology and a feckless industry, we simply get a facsimile of the style. It’s just as likely that Rusko was just paid a bunch of dough to hand over his dubstep beat, but either way, it represents a hardheaded, closed-circuit approach to musicmaking that’s going to be pretty lethal to both the producers being fucked over and the producers/labels doing the fucking over.

The wholesale jacking of a sound or style isn’t anything new to the music industry and ghost-producing is quite simply, part of the game, but there’s something more nefarious going on here. Previously, regional sounds were able to sneak in, if not immediately, but over time. Now, all in an attempt to keep the industry afloat by protecting the ten or so money-generating artists and producers, regions and the underground get rolled up in the major label sound in careless, selfish ways.

There is some hope however. It’s worth nothing that the recent awesome and mostly Chris Brown-less Chris Brown single “Look At Me Now,” is produced by Diplo and Afrojack, which is nice to see after Will.i.Am took a break from ripping off Baltimore club to pretty much swipe the loping, drooping bounce of Afrojack for The Black Eyed Peas’ “Time Of My Life (Dirty Bit)”. Even more interesting is how the next wave of auteur producers aren’t all that interested in making hits or talking to the majors. Producers like DJ Burn One, Araabmuzik, Clams Casino, and The Block Beattaz, who don’t exactly need the majors and don’t even make beats that court that sound–because well, what’s the point anymore? Major labels are so protective of their very few moneymakers, that they’ll do anything to keep it “in-house,” even if it means slowly but surely killing the industry’s future creative opportunities.

Written by Brandon

March 23rd, 2011 at 3:26 am

Posted in Mannie Fresh

Return of Session/Producer Weirdos!

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A couple random pop music snapshots from the past few years: Timbaland beefing with the guy who used help him make beats on a lumpy victory lap kinda hit. Kanye parlaying soul-beat success into backpacker pop into icy auto-tune warble hits. Mariah Carey singing goofball lines about “bathing in windex” so clearly from the pen of the The-Dream.

Though the ascent of producers and songwriters to all-out artists isn’t anything new, this often awkward advancement dominates hip-hop and R & B in “the ‘aughts”. Timbaland. Kanye West. The-Dream. Ne-Yo. Keri Hilson. Even the explosion of DJ culture and the cult of Dilla and indie label careers of Alchemist or Black Milk owe to this trend gone a little crazy. It’s the reason why a lot of music is so strange and form-stretching and it’s why it’s so weird and messy too. Sometimes, the radio sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. Because they kinda are.

The behind-the-scenes to the stage trend speaks to a bunch of shifts this decade, but namely the everybody’s-a-star, post-reality show blah blah blah and the still confusing way that rap and R & B’s increased mainstreaming runs parallel to it’s idiosyncracies, porous borders, experimentation, etc. No doubt, this personalization of any and everything and the rarefication of a pop sound slam into one another in a ton of interesting ways, but like so many of the bizarro mergers and odd alliances of the decade, the “little guy”, the actual weirdo, is pushed to the side. Not entirely pushed to the side and indeed, the internet and indie labels have adjusted expectations in some really cool ways, but well, there’s a couple of interesting people that get to do everything and a lot of dudes that get lost in the mix.

For every, 808s & Heartbreak, there’s a whole bunch of Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin’ type records: Rolled out onto iTunes, eventually comes out on CD, and has no promotion. Something like 88 Keys’ Death of Adam at one time, could’ve been “that weird record by the guy who produced “Thieves in the Night” but instead it was a three-years in-the-making, hyped-on-mixtapes, had a pre-mixtape-teaser-even record that was too weird and not poppy enough. There’d be more things like Cody Chesnutt’s Headphone Masterpiece if the stakes were just a lower.

Yeah, this is dipped in nostalgia but there’s something exciting about stuff like Eddie Hazel’s Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs or the records from Lee Hazlewood producer Billy Strange sitting in a bin of 25 Cent records. Or a Memphis Horns record. Or the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. These one-off things a label conceded to putting-out or handed over some studio time for because hey, the people behind the hits deserved that much. Now, a label gives dudes a real budget, a P.R push, and facilitates some hit records which yeah, is surely preferable to the chance of making a weird, “personal” record but isn’t so good for longevity or anything like that.

What stirred this all up though, is a few recent releases: Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown, Ryan Leslie’s Transition, and Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin, out now on iTunes, 11/17 physical). All three of these records are excellent and all of them give off the same feeling as some random-ass Billy Strange LP: A little too weird, a little too disinterested in catching a lot of listeners…jumbled, slabs of indulgence. And they gain their strength from this sensibility, they aren’t weary listens and they don’t fall back on the crutch of mega-popular artist’s “experimental” album–there’s something more being worked-out here.

You hear it in the all-over-the-place emotions of Ryan Leslie’s new one–really, if you listen to the lyrics, the guy’s a mess, obviously “a love addict” maybe a Co-Dependant–and you hear it in the underlying sadness of Fresh’s “Like a Boss” or that coat of tinny vocoder on “Go Girl” and just pick up Dam’s Toeachizown–it’s over two hours of wash-over-you synth work. Steeped in the past but not aggressively “vintage” or anything, it’s just Dam, free of the SOLAR Records studio or a Westside Connection sample-avoiding recording session. I could go on, highlighting a dozen more tiny details that make these records so fascinating, but the appeal here is how each of these will touch a listener totally differently; every song’s a “hit” and none of them are. They’re full of frayed edges and bubbling over with personality and shit just doesn’t sound like this all that much anymore. Records that sound like the inside of the musician’s mind.

This isn’t to bemoan the current music landscape, though it’s spitting out talents left and right all the time–like the economy, the free-market-ism hitting a critical mass to where only the super-successful have the right to do much of anything–it’s just to point out that how music works right now (not enough pop stars, all the behind the scenes people want to and will get a chance to be pop stars and’ll fail) doesn’t allow for the kind of organic, slow-rolling weirdo creativity music behind-the-scenes-ers could once indulge in from time to time–and sometimes, they’d still make a hit.

further reading/viewing:

-”Rising: Dam-Funk” from Pitchfork
-Al Shipley talking about the new Mariah
-Billy Strange Conducts Sinatra
-Richard Rorty on “the free market” from Take Care of Freedom…

Written by Brandon

November 9th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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Remember 2004? Mannie Fresh’s ‘The Mind Of…’

I did one of these before, talking about Slum Village’s 2004 release ‘Detroit Deli’. I guess my uh, “thesis” which even only I buy like 25% of, is that 2004 was a really good year for rap music but rap fans are insatiable pricks and in light of rap being supposedly terrible in 2007, I’m saying they should have maybe given a shit about these good and interesting releases of 2004 and supported them. I guess in a way, it’s my own moronic version of nostalgia…

While ‘Detroit Deli’ in my opinion, defined the loose crossover possibilities of the “conscious” set and in effect, the general feeling I was getting from rap in 2004, ‘The Mind Of…’ seems to be an album that for those paying attention, hinted at some of the shit that is currently going on. If you are okay with rap now you’ll probably like this album. If all you talk about are Cassidy mixtapes, Saigon, and how rap sucks in 2007, you won’t like this album.

As some kind of predictor of rap in 2007 ‘The Mind Of…’ seems nearly prophetic. You get Lil Wayne on four tracks, including two solo performances that are presented as Wayne hi-jacking the album (‘Wayne’s Takeover 1 & 2’). This is the same year ‘The Carter’ came out and is the era that most seem to perceive as the beginning of Wayne becoming the “rapper-eater” he is today. There is also the actually sort of prophetic ‘Mayor Song’ in which Mannie calls-out the poor governing of his beloved New Orleans a year before Katrina hit. Then of course, there’s Mannie’s production which is an example of and influence on the Southern rap style everybody likes to hate so damned much…

On ‘The Mind Of..’ the production seems a little more ambitious. ‘Intro’ doesn’t lack any of the Mannie Fresh bounce but it also contains a super-clean acoustic guitar and some really great, precise soul horns and wah-ed out bass and guitar. All of the songs have live instrumentation and real, solid playing on them, but Mannie seems a little more okay with letting that sound really stray from conventions of Southern rap. The playing pops-out a little more on ‘Intro’ and this helps adjust your ear to the mid-album songs which are as much some weird new form of soul as they are rap. ‘Nothing Compares to Love’ has this strange extended chorus that feels as much like ‘Another Brick In the Wall’ as Southern chant-rap.

A few tracks later, you get ‘Not Tonight’ more of an actual soul song than a rap song that also works as a soul parody because Mannie croons stuff like “is you out yo motherfuckin’ mind/Pagin’ me, putting 69/We don’t do that shit”. It works because Mannie’s got the chops to make it actually sound like a Freddie Jackson song and not some lazy parody. Then, after that, he gives you ‘The DJ’ sort of like Mannie’s own version of ‘Terminator X Speaks With His Hands’ and follows it up with a definitive Mannie Fresh production ‘Real Big’. And then…he goes into a particularly hilarious skit, the first of two labeled ‘Great Moments in the Ghetto’ a ‘Chappelle’s Show’ rip-off, complete with sincere delivery of said “great moment”, acoustic guitar strumming, and some harmonizing that signifies/parodies “down-home”. It’s tough to explain, but it’s really this sincere love and understanding of a genre or style, with the love so deep that you’re totally safe laughing your ass off at it. The Pharcyde do that on ‘Bizarre Ride II’ where the guys are likely to break into a parody of Louis Armstrong’s singing or toss in some half-sincere Thelonious Monk-ish piano vamps…

‘Mayor’s Song’ is a brief but effective track that imagines Fresh confronting the politicians that aren’t doing dick to aid his hometown. Mannie travels up the tiers of corruption, starting with the Mayor who blows him off, moving onto the Governor whose aide won’t even let Mannie ask a question and then, we get a quick snapshot of the President who is more concerned with playing golf. It sounds like it comes from experience; it’s more than generalized political anger. If one has ever tried to call even a local politician, what Mannie experiences on the track is exactly what happens, as the complaint is given to an intern and then the responsibility is shirked and passed-on to some other department. He also addresses the way that one’s wealth is used to downplay one’s political passions especially in the black community. When he questions the Governor’s Aide on taxes and the response is “you sound like you think white people are the only people getting by”.

It is the only political song on the album and while that makes one think of it as less sincere a concession to politics, I think it’s just realistic, especially on an album called ‘The Mind Of…Mannie Fresh’. My mind is certainly occupied by political thoughts and concerns but really, my brain spends way more time thinking about banging girls or trying to bang girls; that is why we get more songs like ‘Pussy Power’ and less like ‘Mayor Song’. At the same time, that shouldn’t downplay the significance of ‘Mayor Song’.

The production here is the main appeal, well that and the humor (every skit on the album is funny), and the only reason I spent more time on the ideas than the fucking great production is because a Southern rap album being taken seriously is still a problem. The production is what you’d expect but does seem a little more elastic and fun without losing the BPMs or the aggression. ‘Pussy Power’ jumps from typical bounce to interpolating the ‘Ghostbusters’ theme, and subtly changes up about ten other times throughout. ‘Tell It Like It Is’ has this weird breakdown with this high-pitched scatting and beat-boxing in lieu of an actual chorus and then falls right back into Mannie’s Rudy Ray Moore-esque story of cheating. Of course, Mannie is like the best Southern producers in that he never gets too lost in his own mind and never strays too far from what is expected, so the stranger details are complimented by conventionally “ignorant” beats like ‘Real Big’ and ‘Day In The Life (Cadillac Doors)’.

Written by Brandon

August 6th, 2007 at 6:17 pm