Photos by Virgil Solis (click images to enlarge)
“Don’t blend in, stand out,” Mano tells me on an oddly warm day between Christmas and New Year’s. We’re at Born with Soul/Kuts & Kicks (shout outs to Melo), a boutique/barber shop on Chicago’s northwest side. “The reason people f**ked with me and my friends is because we stood out, even from the people they grouped us with,” Mano continues, speaking on the maneuvers and techniques he has used to rise to the top of Chicago’s music scene alongside friends and crew members Hollywood Holt and Mic Terror. The three, along with a number of other creatives including DJs, fashion designers, tattoo artists, boutique owners, and others have done a lot to revive Chicago’s a once stagnant pocket of the city’s indie music scene… and according to Mano, some of them are still just getting warm. “As far as our role goes in Chicago,” he says confidently, “I don’t think it has come to its full potential yet.”
The same can also be said for Million $ Mano in his own right. He finished 2010 in a big way. He produced the fan favorite “No Love Here” from Chip Tha Ripper’s Prelude To Gift Rap’s, and traveled the world as well as the Late Night TV circuit as Travie McCoy’s DJ. It was during a tour stop in New York City that he attended a birthday dinner for close friend Virgil Aboloh’s and longstory short, ended up with a co-production credit on Kanye West’s highly anticipated and general consensus album of the year, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In case you didn’t know, Mano is credited with co-producing “Lost In The World” supplying new drums and adding a Lynn Collins sample to the Bon Iver flipped track. Similar to many of the opportunities and accolades Mano is picking up, the inclusion on what will go down as a history making LP came as a result of years of small steps and smart moves.
Those steps and moves are the focus of this in-depth interview in which Mano talks about his introduction to DJing and producing, the status of his band He Say She Say, and of course his latest and most high profile production credit to date. Read on to see the full interview with Million $ Mano, and get to know one of the music world’s best kept secrets.
RubyHornet: How did you begin? Was it DJing then producing? Producing then DJing, How did you get to where you are right now?
Milion $ Mano: DJing first. I always had the love to make some type of music, I remember being at my grandma’s playing her organ as a kid, and messing with my aunt Vickie’s one 1200 stacked on top of the sound system in the front room. My cousin Muser was a dope producer, French house, German techno, Hip Hop, he does a lot of cool stuff. It really didn’t get to me want to DJ extensively until he got his tables, and I was coming out of 8th grade. He is actually Hollywood’s older brother, and I would just be chillin at Holt’s crib. I was buying records, didn’t even have my tables yet, and we would just kick it at his house. It became so fun that I was just like, ‘yo I need my own tables.’
The first pair I bought were s***ty as hell… I eventually saved some money to get some 12’s. I was young, you know, just a dumbass little kid. Then I got this VR5 drum machine. Usually they only have drum kits in them, and this one had presets for instruments. My friends DJ Spin and DJ Rashad used the drum machine and a sampler to make juke tracks, and I wanted to make juke tracks, but Hip Hop stuff as well. It was Spin’s drum machine and he sold it to me, and I was like ‘yo teach me this!’ but he said “no”. So I had to find out myself. So he left it over my crib for the weekend, and I didn’t have the manual for it, I knew nothing about nothing. I had to use it myself and just f**k with it. I think that was another validating point to myself, it felt way too natural, like I need to be doing this.
RubyHornet: I want to talk about your relationship with Nigel (Hollywood Holt). You and Holt, together, have done a lot of things in the last 3-4 years. Do you look at that and take note and kind of feel responsible for a lot that has gone on in Chicago’s music scene over these past few years.
Million $ Mano: As far as our role goes in Chicago, I don’t think it has come to its full potential yet. Holt hasn’t put out his full length album yet… I can only imagine what happens when his PR gets crazy and they just really go in for his album. Basically I think the s**t is going to hit the fan when the album comes out and I think the same thing for Mic Terror… It’s crazy, we all were doing what we were doing and it was dope because everyone was moving. But just like anything else, people grow. Time continues to take its toll, people move with their own aspirations. But to speak for me, Hollywood and Mic T, I feel like we haven’t lived up to our full potential yet. When these official projects see the light of day, we’ll actually get our rightful shine. I know a lot of people say, ‘you guys should be way bigger than you are.’ But everything hasn’t been made like it should be, and when it does maf**kas going to be like ‘Aww man, they’re everywhere’.
RubyHornet: You’ve told me in the past that you always want to keep things Hip Hop, but you also told me that you would like to move more and more towards rock music. What is that progression for you, and why was the He Say She Say stuff I heard just like a straight up rock album?
Million $ Mano: The thing with that is my personal preference. Someone might like POD or Limp Bizkit, but that is lame to me. I don’t’ f**k with rap rock. I like the two genres separated cause that’s what they are. The Beastie Boys are about the only people in that palette that I can take seriously. But beyond that I like to separate the two, because it’s already hard enough being a Black Kid making rock music, and have these labels think ‘how are we going to market this toward the masses?’ But I don’t give a f**k about the masses. It’s good music, and I want to put it out. It is what it is. If people decide to be fans of it, then they decide to be fans of it. I want to prove that there is a point in me making this music and owning something that black people started. It’s not a racial issue, but something for me to bring up. Anytime you’re doing something in an alternative space, or rock space, and you’re a black kid or a minority, it has to be cross referenced with what ever sub-genre your ethnicity holds. So Santigold can’t just be a rocker. Santi had a punk band called Stiff before she did her solo stuff, and they said she sounded too much like Gwen Stefani, and her style was really No Doubt. But that was Santi. It wasn’t Gwen. Her band was dope, and you have some bands like Death, or Bad Brains and they don’t get any credit. Death is one of the first punk bands ever and they were three black brothers. They were an R&B band before they played punk and they started playing before punk was even a genre. They made punk rock music after going to an Alice Cooper show and they developed a sound. This was before the New York and London punk craze was even thought of or invented.
I think that is a constant struggle I have as a black musician. I don’t want a label put on myself like ‘oh he’s got soul’, or ‘oh this has some urban reference.’ But it’s like, ‘no it’s going to be lo-fi garage rock like Jay Retard, like The Strokes, like all of these other punk and garage bands.’ Just because I dress a certain way, or my skin is light, they’ll be like ‘so your sort of rap rock’… NO, it’s this genre. It’s rock music that’s it! Just like doing rap is just rap music, there’s no addition to it… And that’s why I separate the two, enforcing that ya’ll need to respect the music.
RubyHornet: What’s happened with He Say She Say… I don’t think the public knows much if anything about that situation.
Million $ Mano: The thing that happened more so with He Say She Say is that we had a time when we were signed to (Lupe Fiasco’s label) 1st & 15th. We had a time and a buzz to make things happen, but they didn’t come to fruition because when you’re in contract and the powers that be have administrative rights over what you do as an artist, and the moves you’re supposed to be making for yourself, and they say stuff like ‘you shouldn’t do that because I have such and such going on’, it can hinder you. You had an opportunity, but it left you because you have someone else like, ‘chill don’t do that’. So it really got f**ked up along the way. It left a bittersweet taste in my mouth, my partner Drea’s mouth. It’s difficult for her. It’s like I have 50 million things going on. She doesn’t have the proper hustles as I do. I can still make it this entertainment Industry. Its’ not like ‘He Say She Say is done, go get a regular job.’ I’m still on my s**t. So then me being fair to my bandmate, she doesn’t have those things available to her. She’s looking at me on the outside looking in because she does have to go back to a regular job. It sucks because these things that we both need to accomplish can’t come to fruition because there is a certain frustration that she has being on the outside and seeing me still do these other things. It’s like, ‘yo n***a where do your priorities lay?’
My priority is my band and it always will be, but we just had a lot of difficulties because I have these other priorities that I need to make happen. Then it felt like to her that I’m not making it as important as it should be, which I am, but I’m not about to sit around and wait. I got to make this other stuff happen that needs to as well. So I won’t say that He Say She Say is totally done, because we’ve just gone fishing now. Drea has incredible projects that will come to fruition with her being an incredible writer. Put it like this, I could never replace her and she could never replace me. We are He Say She Say. So she is going to get her s**t going as a writer. She’s doing her own project with the incredible Doc McKinley from Montréal, and I’m getting my s**t done. I’m finishing Hollywood Holt’s album, and my own EP with a new band that I’m starting as well.
RubyHornet: What do you see as your style and your brand? What makes something OK for you to do stylistically, what is dope and what makes Mano want to be apart of it?
Million $ Mano: From my music taste, to how I dress, to sub-genres and sub-cultures I participate in, it’s really undefined, and goes with me liking legitimate things. I brand myself as a connoisseur of connoisseurs because I know and I like really cool things. Things that are cool to me, I share those things with everyone else. Not to sound cocky in the least bit, but it’s semi-trendsetting… Speaking on DJing parties, if I was going to constantly put my name on some ghetto ass parties, people are going to brand me with those ghetto ass parties. If my name is constantly on flyers for tasteful events and red carpet s**t, then I can do anything after that. So if I leave Chicago to do some crazy ass fashion week s**t, and come back to Chicago and do a loft party, and I can do that, it’s like ‘Dude, this ni**a Mano was just rocking with all these celebrities, this n***a cool as hell coming back trying to party with the people.’ I’m not trying to put on this cool. I’m not trying to perserve my celebrity. No, I’m still here and I’m still down with ya’ll.
RubyHornet: Let’s talk about getting a break and being Kanye’s new album. How did that feel?
Million $ Mano: Something that a lot of people don’t know about me is that before Kanye started doing everything in Hawaii they were doing it all in New York, and he flew me out to New York to work on Blueprint 3 and 808’s. I got the call from Don like, ‘yo man, we want you to come out here for the 808s album and Ye wants to hear some production.’ I’m not going to front, when that happened I was super geeked, like ‘damn man, I’m going out there with Kanye, going to work on Jay-Z’s album.’ It literally started from me wanting to do some stuff for John Legend’s album. Then all of this stuff came to fruition. It was me, No ID , Plain Pat, Ibn, Don, all in the studio, and Kanye was trying to produce the whole BP3. He wanted everything presented to Jay at once… It sort of sucked because nothing came to fruition from me going out there. I still got paid for a session, and Kanye was still interested in some beats that I played for him that he wanted to flip and make them his, but nothing really came from me going out to New York and working on that project and I would keep in contact with Kanye via email. But before any of this happened, I think when I was 19 or 20, I produced the song “Haterville” for GLC and that came from my manager at the time, one of my best friends, Jay Street. He would always play my beats for GLC, and he told me they mess with me cause I was an up an comer, and cause Jay Street was their homie. So fast forward to September…
I was in New York. Trav had to do this show at SOB’s and he was headlining and I was going go out and kick it afterwards. I twittered and and wrote on facebook that I was in town and my homie Ibn, who is Ye’s stylist, was like ‘yo man, where you at? It’s our homie’s b-day party you should come.’ They had a little dinner for him, real intimate. It was at this place Jay-Z owns called The Spotted Pig, and I didn’t think anything of it. I was just like ‘it’s my homie Virigl’s s**t so I’m gonna come through.’ So Virgil was there with his wifey and a couple other people, Consquence, Kanye, and Ibn, and we’re just kicking the s**t about a whole bunch of stuff and Kanye said, ‘I want you to check out this song I just did called “Lost In The World”. I want to get your take on the drums.’ I was like ‘yeah man off course.’ Mind you, I did not hear the song at all. I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know if it was going to be a G.O.O.D Friday song, but Ibn told me it just got leaked, it was the Bon Iver woods s**t. But I still didn’t know about it. Then Don made sure I got a studio session that night.
So I just ended up going to the studio with Ibn and Don, and Ye asked me for some DJ sound effects, and he gave me the session to “Lost In The World” and I had a really enlightening session with my big homies Don and Ibn, and it left some really good things with me that I most definitely felt like I needed. It was dope to see these dudes I’ve always looked up to see me in the same way I may see them. They gave me the session and I heard the song and thought the drums were dope. They had this sorta industrial sound like “Love Lockdown” and the BPM was at 117. I was having the hardest time with it, because I couldn’t really bang out on this like I’d like to… He gave me the session right before I was going to Europe, and I was trying to make a beat on the plane, but couldn’t come up with anything. When I finally got to Germany I hit them up, and hit the engineer. ‘I knew there might be a deadline for it and I wanted to get it turned in. I wanted to make sure to make this count. It was even a point to where I saw Cudi at Superfun and I was like ‘Ye got me working on a song for the album’ and he was like, ‘man, you better hurry up cause that deadline is almost here.’ So when I was in Europe I talked to the engineer and I hit Ye and asked them if I could go all in on it, or if I should just stick with the original flavor? They told me to go all in, so I pinched the tempo up so it could be more Dancey. That’s how I heard it, and I put it up to 124 BPM and added the Lyn Collins “Think” sample. They told me they brought it down to 117 to keep it Hip Hop. So I was like, ‘damn what can I use that’s fast but still Hip Hop… Lynn Collins’ “Think”. So I started really messing with these snares and added this distorted bass in there and literally made the whole thing on headphones…
Watch Video For Full Answer.
RubyHornet: With the GLC track you produced, “Haterville”, you were the “lil homie” at that time. At this point you are not that kid anymore. Now we see people that are older than us still rock and younger kids getting shine, now you’re in this middle ground. How have you adjusted to this middle stage?
Million $ Mano: Something that I’ve always said, and will continue to say, is that I try not to have this mentality with the crabs, but these crabs have created it for me. It’s like, why would I need someone’s help after I asked for it, and they didn’t give it to me? So to those people… f**k you. My thing right now is quality over quantity. A lot of younger cats are making lots of music, and because they may have a lot of product they think that would make me want to fuck with them. But it’s like no, you have to allow me to become a fan of yours. If I’m not a fan I’m not being true to myself, and it’s not a legitimate reason for me to want to bring someone on. Any young cat that I’ve become a fan of, I took the time to listen to their music and liked them as people. A lot of that has to do with them being humble and having some patience. I feel like a lot of younger dudes have no patience and just wanna shine, when it’s like dude, you should be at the crib practicing. That set was weak as f**k, or you sound like the latest fashionable rapper. Don’t blend in, stand out. The reason people f**ked with me and my friends is because we stood out, even from the people they grouped us with. That’s always important for me.
RubyHornet: What’s exciting for you, what are you hoping for now?
Million $ Mano: I have a lot of things that are coming to fruition for me and my friends. Mic Terror’s single is produced by me and is finally going to see a national release on a major label. It’s on Universal/Little Owl records, and that’s incredible to me. The looks he’s going to get from his video being on MTV, and finishing Hollywood’s album by the end of the year will be huge. That finally is going to see the light of day, and as much as it’s Hollywood’s baby or Chocolate Industry’s baby, it’s mine as well as I’m co-executive producing it and have the production credits. I’m also releasing my EP and starting a legitimate business with my music, and I know in 2011 a lot of things are going to see the light of day for me and my counterparts and were going to make an incredible impact with my crew.