“Sound Effects”, November 2000: “Amen Mannie”

This column first appeared in the Nov 22, 2000 edition of the late great San Francisco Bay Guardian . “Sound Effects” (borrowed from the Simon Frith book – thanks Jerome Weeks) was my way of using pop music to contextualize people, places and things around me.
by Tony Green

I REMEMBER GETTING into a discussion with a daily
newspaper columnist on the subject of censorship. We vibed
immediately on nearly every issue, until we started talking about
rap. She felt that censors who complained about rap and hiphop
were engaging in a rather obvious game of blame-themessenger.
“I mean,” she said, “what do you expect inner-city
conditions to produce?”
I don’t remember what she said after that because I went into
tune-out mode. Part of it was because I was disappointed that I
disagreed so completely with somebody I agreed with most of
the time.
The other part was anger at hearing yet another
backhanded compliment directed at rap, one that reimagines
rap artists (and black artists in general) as unconscious rather
than conscious participants in the creative process – implying
that their expressions are less works of art than sociological
documents. Documents that have little meaning – wouldn’t exist
at all – removed from the ghetto. Furthermore, it’s a view that
imagines life in the ghetto as a one-stroke painting, lacking
nuance, humor, or contradiction.
The only reason I’ve come to remember anything at all about
the conversation is because of a couple of hours I spent in the
studio with rap producer Mannie Fresh.

Let me state this for the record: I worship Mannie Fresh. Well,
not worship, considering I play in a gospel band. Let’s just say
that, in my book, Mannie Fresh is the shit when it comes to
southern-style dance tracks. You can hate on his rap clique, the
Cash Money Millionaires – on Juvenile, on Baby’s platinum grill,
and on all the lyrics about champagne, loose women, and
jewelry – but you can in no way, shape, or form hate on Mannie.
Anyhow, there I was, sitting in a studio in Miami, watching
Mannie test out some disks on his SP-1200 (the hip-hop
equivalent of an electric typewriter).
“Lessee … What’s on this one?” He plucked a disc out of a shoe
box, inserted it into his machine, and tested out the sounds.
box, inserted it into his machine, and tested out the sounds.
Satisfied, he gave the disc a run-through. He tinkered with each
sound/sample, truncating, mutating, stretching, and extending,
layering bleeps and blips in a brutally polyrhythmic tapestry that
would probably have set an entire block party on fire had he
bothered to save it. It took all of about three minutes to finish
the sample tracks, at which point he paused and let the sound
from the thundering monitors sink in.
“A’ight. Fa sho …” He shut the machine off, returned the disc to
the box, and picked out another one.

“Lessee what’s on this one …”
As I watched him work, two things occurred to me. First, that
every five minutes he was ditching the musical equivalent of the
most recent Radiohead album. Second, and more important,
that musical intelligence is maddeningly contradictory. It’s too
subtle to be described in terms of class, race, social status, or
physical environment, yet too concrete, too obvious, too craftily
applied to be chalked up to something as vague as “instinct” or
“natural talent.”  You could say that Mannie’s breathtaking skill
with what some would consider a bewilderingly alien piece of
hardware is the result of channeling 400 years of oppression, or
tapping into the collective angst of a disenfranchised
community.
Or you could even take a less, um, poetic approach,
pointing to the fact that he is used to producing music for an
extremely unforgiving audience and that he hails from one of the
most vibrant musical cities on the planet: New Orleans.  It
wouldn’t explain, however, why New Orleans isn’t crawling with
Mannie Freshes, why Outkast’s new album is as abstract as it is
poignant, or why the funniest guy I knew as a youngster never
knew his father or his mother.
Maybe Mannie knows. I thought about that as I watched his
stocky, dark yella self amble through the hotel lobby the
following morning, cat eyes locked in a detached gaze, cheeks
sucked in against his cheekbones, walking the walk of someone
who expects the rest of the world to trip over itself chasing after him.

About whatdoesbabysay

Middle School Teacher in Pinellas County, Florida. Kind of a writer, kind of a musician. Ex-athlete. Just hanging.
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