Mani Draper - The Last Marauder Makes Good

by Jon Burke Rating: Release Date:

Up until recently, Mani Draper was the best kept secret in hip hop. Fortunately for Draper, and for the state of hip hop itself, the secret’s getting out. With just two albums under his belt, and a third in the works, Draper has completely revamped his production, honed his lyrical skills and created a sound uniquely his own. What’s so fascinating about Draper’s evolution is, despite braggadocio and machismo being so integral to the rap game, the man remains genuine and humble–even as the accolades come pouring in. At the nexus of Mani Draper’s socio-political awareness, strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility, exists a man who must be able to look himself in the mirror – both the night of and the morning after. Draper is unable to abide the hypocritical hedonism of rhymes glorifying dope, guns and fucking that get thrown in the face of so many people who are suffering. For many artists this dichotomy would lead to a tortured existence but, when speaking to Draper earlier this year, I found the rapper to be passionate, engaged and ready to add his voice to the national discourse at a time when a voice like his is crucial to the conversation.

SoundBlab (SB): What can you tell us about Richmond, California in terms of your upbringing and its place in the Bay Area music scene? How has Richmond changed in your lifetime?

Mani Draper (MD): Richmond is the place that grandparents from both sides of my family migrated to from the south. Richmond was one of the first places in the Bay Area where black people could own a home. It’s always bothered me that we were seen as one of the more dangerous areas due to the crime rate because, when you live here, it feels like the safest place in the world.

Richmond has produced so many creative people – not just musicians but writers and actors. Ryan Coogler for example. Growing up a lot of us felt limited, like we couldn’t dream bigger. Kids should not fear that one mistake, at age twelve, will seal their fate. So many of my friends caught juvenile cases and their lives just stopped. My senior project was an analysis of recidivism is and how all too often rehabilitation isn’t thorough. My brother caught a case his sophomore year and was gone until I was in college. He’s better now but prison changed him. Just on a human-level it’s terrifying to see someone I know first-hand so changed by a system like that. I have a duty to my nieces and nephews. I want a much better society for them and, to do that, it’s going to take a legitimate tribe.

SB: How did you first come to hip hop culture and who introduced you to rap?

MD: My mom and dad were such hip hop heads that I was probably only four or five the first time I heard Geto Boys. It just rocked my world! Scarface and Rakim are my dad’s favorite rappers and I got to listen to that on my way to school while my friends got the whole “you’re too young to listen to that” from their folks. My peers’ introduction to hip hop was Nelly whereas I was listening to Wu-Tang and Pharcyde. My godbrother and aunts were all about ten years older than me. I feel lucky because I got to figure out and experience new music with them. They let me ride shotgun on the way to the record store, every Tuesday, right after school.

I’ll never forget, [Scarface’s] The Diary because I could identify with why my dad liked that so much. It was like a P.O.V. shot; like watching an entire film! It’s trippy and rare for that to happen. Emotionally, we’re all high sometimes, we’re low, we’re sad, we’re fired-up… we experience these emotions on the daily and it was mind-blowing someone shared [as Scarface did on The Diary] in such a real way. For me it was the first time in rap where I realized there was an actual person on the other end of the mic.

SB: What were you listening to at age 10, at age 20 and now, at 27, what are you listening to?

MD: Age 10 would have been heavy Jay-Z – that’s when I saw Streets Is Watching for the first time. Also everything on No Limit. They were putting out like an album a week but it wasn’t until Mystikal, and Fiend, though when I heard guys on No Limit who could actually rap their ass-off. At age 20 it would have been DD172, Mos Def, anything Ye and Mike Dean were doing. Kendrick and Big K.R.I.T. too. Right now, a lot of my time is spent studying funk and Afro-beat stuff – a lot of Fela Kuti. I was in NYC right before the album [The Last Marauder] came out and went to this underground club. The DJ played straight Afro-beat for hours. I’ve never seen people have a better time and it just changed my life. Those rhythms were so contagious and no matter who you are or where you’re from you just move to the beat.

SB: What do you listen to outside of rap/hip hop and funk? What artists or albums changed your life?

MD: What’s Going On might have saved my life. My grandfather passed when I was 22 and I had the luxury of spending his last couple days with him. He told me he left something for me in the garage and it was like 800 something records. I’d already had a decent collection by then but not what he had and not original pressings either. His copy of What’s Going On was worn so thin from so many plays that it was fragile. I played that record every night going to bed for years. Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul with that 20 minute intro and Prince too. Grizzly Bear is another one, they are just so advanced. And I can’t forget Erykah. Baduizm and Mama’s Gun had a really big influence on me. Baduizm is like a mad comforting lullaby but at the same time it’s so sophisticated.

SB: What role do politics play in your music? It seems like white America has only just realized there are major problems with poverty, incarceration, police violence, etc. Black Americans have been facing those realities since, well, forever.

MD: For a really long time I was ashamed to admit how much hip hop had raised me. When I got to college I was surprised to learn how much information I already knew simply by listening to hip hop. Before I left for college, my coach who was a white guy from Indiana, told me that I was in for a culture shock. And I was like: my best friend in the world is white, my school is extremely diverse and I’m from the Bay Area… I can’t be in for that much culture shock, can I? Coach just said to be prepared. When I got off that plane, man, I said: oh shit! I didn’t even know that it could get this white. It was so mind blowing. I decided I was going to be challenged in a really healthy way and just planned to learn a lot from that challenge. And thank god for that outlook because I had a great professor who really pushed me to understand the system. The great irony of it all is, I was a criminal justice major and I’m reading about private prisons, and white collar crime, and I’m connecting the dots to hip hop. On the Black Star album for example, they’re putting information into the songs that relate directly to my coursework.

The current climate… it’s just so funny. I’ve had so many different people emailing me to say that something I shared in a song years ago is in the news today. Now with what’s happening, and I try my best not to be offended by it, I’ve had friends from school who’ve written me apologizing for not knowing how bad it really was. The correct response is never ‘I told you so,’ it’s more, ‘what do we do as a unit, now?’ Kate Lamont, who sings on the intro [to The Last Marauder] is white and she and I were talking this past summer about how my entire life [as a black male] has been dedicated to making sure someone else was comfortable and didn’t feel threatened. I work double-time just to exist. It was a casual conversation, over wine, and she suddenly started crying. She said it was fucking mind-blowing and that she’s never had to consider that at all. But it’s a reality. No one is asking for the world to stop but just for enough empathy so that we can change it from its core. Not just a few laws to give the appearance of change but, instead, to actually overhaul this shit so that we can move forward.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who did Between the World and Me, has been my go-to for conversations to help connect everyone to understand what life in the struggle is and how we can start the conversation. The whole book is about him trying to figure out how to have this hard conversation with his son, about being black in America and how heartbreaking it is that nothing had changed for generations.

SB: I watched a lot of your videos on YouTube and I noticed you don’t wear labels and the women in your videos are treated like fellow artists instead of eye candy. How do you relate to your female contemporaries?

MD: I was raised by all women and I’m drawn to women like the next guy but I’m really drawn to women with knowledge, confidence and power. So that’s always been a thing in working with women who are operating on that frequency. It’s such a copout to just bounce some ass for three minutes.

SB: You play live shows with a live band. Why do you do that? Also, I watched one clip that featured your bass player soloing. Who is that dude? Because he is a great bass player.

MD: We need to start with him, Clark Sims. He’ll be nineteen but when I found him he was just seventeen years old and just jamming in his room, practicing solo, Prince and Sly Stone stuff. I went to an open mic in Oakland and saw him, and instantly knew I wanted him in my band. He [Clark Sims] hadn’t heard Thundercat so I gave him Apocalypse and Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes. He was already a great bass player but now he’s just in a whole other world. He has dedicated himself to learning the intricacies of playing hip hop and started listening to a ton of Organized Noize production and a lot of Madlib loops – just to figure out how he jammed those basslines together.

My grandmother connected me with Brian, from her church, who played in a Canadian pop band and was at the time doing a residency at a hotel in Dubai. He came back from Dubai, we formed a band, and they played the album release party for Ella Mae. It suddenly became clear that we could do this for the next record.

SB: Where did your flow come from? Like I said in the review, I can hear 50 but I can also hear Scarface, Dungeon Family, Rakim, Nas… Are there rappers whose flow that you idolize?

MD: When I realized what was going on with Rakim – I’d be lying if I said I got it right away – it was just so tight and I didn’t realize that when I was younger. He’s a legitimate master of ceremony. Also, Scarface’s voice, the realness of it, the sincerity of it. It always bugs me when everyone talks about Andre 3000 but leaves out how brilliant Big Boi is. The same with Snoop – he doesn’t get credit for his melodic aspect. When you talk about modern day dudes, like Travis Scott, Hieroglyphics influence is so apparent.

Richmond is always classified as “the country” area of The Bay. When folks here say they’re from the South, they are from the south. They have the drawl and everything. My grandmother, god bless her, until the day she passed couldn’t say certain words properly. That [southern influence] just finds its way into you. I think that’s why a lot of that southern music (Organized Noize) stuck for me because it reminds me so much of my aunts and uncles; the stories they told and how they told them, with their unique way of getting to the point.

SB: What is your relationship with criticism? Do you have any sites or authors you read regularly? For me a site like Passion of the Weiss is required reading. How do you feel about hip hop blog culture?

MD: I do read a lot of blogs. Criticism doesn’t really bother me – especially because I know where it’s coming from. I literally won’t go to write or record unless I’m moved. I’m not gonna hit you with a bunch of bullshit and there won’t be much fat to trim.

SB: How do you feel you’ve evolved from Ella Mae to Last Marauder as an artist? How have the sounds of those records evolved over the course of your career?

MD: You can’t unlearn certain things and once you understand the gear, and analog versus digital, you can’t go back. So with Last Marauder I took everything I learned with Ella Mae and applied it. I keep getting love every step of the way and so I want to go bigger each time. The challenger with going bigger though is to never forget the roots: the drum and bass. They are why we’re here. You can add all the strings and guitars but don’t you ever forget the foundation.

SB: If money and access were no problem at all, who would you collaborate with? You do so well with female vocalists, like Jane Hancock and Jasmin Nicole, ideally do you have a female vocalist you’d like to perform with?

MD: Dream collaborator, Q-Tip or Mike Dean for sure. I could learn so much just being in the studio with them. I was so scared and nervous about the new Tribe record but not only did I love it, I was so blown away by their ability to make it so relevant. It can compete right now but it also didn’t compromise anything that they did before and they didn’t sound old.

For singers, I got to see Lauryn for the first time. And she came on right after Nas and I always loved her singing but I realized she is the best rapper I’ve ever heard. She made it look so easy but the control… She can really rap her ass off. It would have to be Lauryn because of what she’s capable of. I’d love to bring back an O.G. who doesn’t get the credit she deserves… someone like Michel'le.

SB: What’s next for Mani Draper?

MD: We’ve already started recording. I’ve been going to Portland – I went last month and I’m going again this month. I went full force and have been studying as much as I can like the Afro-beat stuff. Then the band and I are getting ready to hit the road for Last Marauder when all the college kids are back from Spring Break and that should be a lot of fun.

Photos by Adam Montgomery

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Finally got round to listening to this album and it's really good. I don't listen to as much hip hop nowadays but this takes me back to the 90s. It's all in the voice and Mani is a great rapper. Great interview.