Rapper Mannie Fresh at the Voodoo Festival in New Orleans. Credit: Ryan Buxton
Rapper Mannie Fresh at the Voodoo Festival in New Orleans. Credit: Ryan Buxton

By Ryan Buxton | LSU Student

NEW ORLEANS - Hip-hop is often a genre of association. Just ask Mannie Fresh.

The 42-year-old New Orleans native, famous as a prolific producer of Southern rap, is likely best known for his connections to Cash Money Records, the Louisiana-based label that brought Grammy-winning superstar Lil' Wayne to the masses.

He's also known for being one half of the rap duo Big Tymers, whose hit single "Still Fly" propelled the group's album, "Hood Rich," to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard 200 chart in 2002.

Navigating alone through an industry that's all about your connections to others can be tough, but that's what Mannie Fresh — born Byron Thomas — is undertaking these days. He split from the Cash Money label in 2005 over royalty disputes, leaving behind the most common associations the public sphere had for him.

But even though he's no longer in business with Cash Money, he doesn't mind that people think of him as a member of the Big Tymers.

"That's going to always be a part of my DNA. I don't slam it when people say that — that's a part of my life," Fresh said in a recent interview. "I would never say, 'don't associate me with that.' I accept it and keep moving."

Mannie has laid low, at least relatively, over the last couple years since the release of his second solo album in 2009. Though he loves rapping and producing, he says he is focusing on his first love — being a DJ.

It runs in the family. Fresh's father was a DJ himself, and being around that aspect of music from a young age infused hip-hop into Fresh's very being. He began making music at age 12.

"My Christmas gifts were turntables, keyboards and stuff like that," he said. "My dad already knew this – it was destiny."

As evidenced by his father's influence, family is important to Fresh. But he made some important decisions for himself four years ago after his familial foundation was rocked by tragedy.

His sister, Angela Bryant, was murdered in 2007 in her New Orleans home, leaving Fresh shocked and contemplating what he put out into the world through his often explicit lyrics.

"It made me think about some of the things I was saying," he said. "Can I really live with myself by saying some of the things I'm saying? You might think its entertainment, but it might harm someone else."

He said the tragedy hasn't changed him — at least not as a musician — but it's led him to be more contemplative of his path and choices.

And that means he's eager to put to rest rumors surrounding him, including rumblings of a reunion of the Hot Boys, a New Orleans hip-hop collective active mostly during the late '90s. Its members included Lil' Wayne and Juvenile, among others, with Fresh as the group's go-to producer.

Speculation has swirled for several years about the group reuniting, but Fresh answers that notion with a resounding denial. "It's so far from doing a reunion. There's never been talks about that."

Fresh's candid responses differentiates him from other artists who he says sometimes play to what people want to hear.

"I will tell you the blunt truth," he said. "Everybody else might tell you something that sounds cool, but that's not in me to do that."

He's honest about a lot — his ambivalence to today's popular rap, the effects of his sister's death and the fact that money was what came between his relationships with the Cash Money family.

"I really feel like it should never come to that, but let's face it, money really is the root of all evil. That's really what it is."

Fresh still associates with his former cohorts. He talks with Lil' Wayne often and will even speak occasionally with his former Big Tymers partner, Bryan "Baby" Williams.

"We're civil," he said. "But we're a far ways from working together. I wish them the best in the world. … I have no ill feelings — it takes too much energy to do that."

Fresh doesn't like distractions. Whether that means focusing his energy on negative relationships or worrying about how a crowd perceives him. He says he lets those emotions go and focuses on his first priority — proliferating good music.

"I'm always super amped about rocking the crowd. That's my God's gift. If I looked out into the crowd and the Ku Klux Klan was out there, I'm like, 'You know what, I'm gonna rock y'all.'"