Sharp Darts: The Man With the Plans | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: The Man With the Plans 

Mano's thinking up a million ways to get his beats into your ears.

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Cool Kids, Phono, Hollywood Holt, Mic Terror

WHEN Wed 8/22, 9 PM

WHERE Schubas, 3159 N. Southport

PRICE $8

INFO 773-525-2508

MORE Mano DJs for Hollywood Holt and Mic Terror

Mano is a busy dude. Though he calls himself Million Dollar Mano, for the moment the nickname's about what he hopes his music's worth, not the numbers he's got in the bank--he's working a bunch of different angles, trying to get by without a regular job. When I catch up with him he's just dropped off a mix he made for the local boutique chain Akira to use at a fashion show, and the rest of his day is pretty packed too: he's supposed to be in a Cool Kids video that's being shot that afternoon, he's got to prep for a show at the Hideout, and he's slated to participate in an online group interview for a Japanese magazine called Samurai. The only free moment he has is around lunchtime. While he waits for a delivery guy to show up with his food, we sit down to talk at the Wicker Park outlet of the streetwear store Leaders.

Mano's best known as a DJ. He spins club nights around town, puts together mixes, and backs MCs for their live sets--including Shawnna, who's signed to Def Jam, and local rappers like Hollywood Holt (his cousin) and Mic Terror. (He's also got an ongoing collaboration with electro diva Drea.) But his primary passion is production--if he blows up, his beats and remixes will be the reason. For the past few years he's been making tracks for a small but prolific stable of MCs, refining a style that combines elements of straight-up golden-age hip-hop with elements of house-based dance music--the complicated polyrhythms of juke, for instance, or the gnarly sawtooth-wave synths of vintage electronica. And his unauthorized remixes--Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" reconfigured as a juke track, Bel Biv Devoe's "Poison" turned into Baltimore house--already have a few corners of the Internet going nuts.

Emmanuel Eugene Nickerson, as his parents named him, is only 23, but he has a decade of beat-making experience--he got started on a Dr. Rhythm drum machine when he was in eighth grade. Back then, he remembers, "Me and my brother was always listening to quote-unquote 'real' hip-hop"--especially the Wu-Tang Clan and locals like Crucial Conflict and Do or Die. "I was in these ghetto-house dance groups too, and we was footworking, and it was so funny," he says. "I was stuck between listening to this gangsta stuff and, like, ghetto house."

At first Mano liked to think of himself as a strictly hip-hop kind of guy, but fortunately he wasn't able to keep his focus that narrow for very long. "I started making juke shit too, because it was around me. It was there, and people was like, 'Man, you good at it.'" When he was growing up in the south suburbs, his parents had played a steady rotation of pop R & B at home, rounded out with "supercool rock stuff" like Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel--which helps explain how Mano developed a secret infatuation with the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" in junior high. "I was not telling anybody I liked that song," he says, laughing. "Every time the video would come on I'd be like, 'Oh man this shit is dope,' and then when I'd get to school I'd say, 'Turn that shit off! I wanna hear "Gin & Juice."'" Mano figures his eclectic listening habits put him ahead of the curve when electronica boomed in the late 90s. "When Homework came out I was like, yo, I like this shit. I was watching Amp on MTV, and they were playing all those Moby, Armand Van Helden--all these videos that were huge in Europe, but were like just dance records in the States."

Lately certain developments in hip-hop have seemed to mirror Mano's wide-ranging tastes. Kanye's "Stronger," the second single from his upcoming Graduation, is essentially a Daft Punk remix that he raps over--and the size and breadth of the audience for that song suggests that Mano's own techno hybrids will be falling on fertile ground. "I was thinking the same thing when Pharrell was on the electro-rock tip," he says. "It opened the doors for a lot of people to get familiar and to see that it's not just some small bed of black folks fucking with electro or electro-rock. Because people think it's predominantly a lot of Euro cats and a lot of bands, predominantly white, from New York and shit."

Judging by the crowds at the Mano gigs I've seen and by the type of blogs freaking out over him--probably the most important is Discobelle, based in Sweden--his audience is in fact predominantly white, at least so far, and includes plenty of tastemaking types. But he's not entirely happy about the consequences. "I'm totally bashing whoever came up with this wack-ass term 'hipster-hop,'" he says. "I make hip-hop or dance music. That's it. I don't want what I do to be a trend."

Eight or ten months ago Mano was having a hard time breaking into the Chicago hipster scene, and it was his frustration over that failure that spurred him to his current manic level of activity. "I went into overload and started making all of these edits," he says, "and a lot of my people started fucking with them and sending them to different people." Mano's unauthorized remixes made the rounds of blogs and magazines--Nick Catchdubs was particularly supportive--and soon he was getting work from artists who wanted him to remix them legit, including dance rockers Hail Social and the Rapture.

Mano's a hip-hop kid at heart, though, and he still spends plenty of time on that scene. He recently gave a beat reel to local rapper GLC, who said he liked everything on it but eventually picked a track Mano had built from a juked-up beat and a sample of Bernard Herrmann's theme to Twisted Nerve, better known as the creepy whistle song in Kill Bill. That track became the basis of GLC's "Haterville." Welcome to Haterville, the album it's supposed to be on, has been in limbo for months, but the song's already leaked--it got Mano some attention from GLC's label boss, Kanye West. "'Ye personally called me and said, 'Yo, that shit is dope,'" he says, grinning. "It's awesome that these incredible people give me props over some shit that I did on a weak-ass PC at my mom's house." Mano and Hollywood Holt also earned a few minutes of Internet fame with a video for their moped-centric remake of "Throw Some D's" (briefly noted in Jessica Hopper's July 27 Reader piece about the Peddy Cash moped gang). "It even amazed me how many people threw that up on their blogs," he says. "That's just our lives. We're some eclectic black kids from the hood that ride mopeds."

Mano has big plans--he's hoping his projects with Holt and Drea will go somewhere, and he's working on a streetwear collaboration with some kids in Japan--but first he's focusing on getting his name out there. "If I can't get press in these magazines, I just need to flood the Internet," he says. Right now, though, it's time for the tacos that just showed up.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mno by Jason Creps.

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