The term “Influence” is heavily leaned on when it comes to artists. People want a simplified and generalized way to pinpoint why an artist does what they do. So to ask them “what/who is your biggest influence” is like the catch all question. Whenever you read an interview and that word comes up, the answer is typically something like “My parents” or “I heard this one album and it changed how I listened to music”. while those things are certainly valid and everyone has their own process when it comes to becoming who they are, personally, I loath the question. Between that and “What inspires you?!” I don’t know what i hate worse. But the reason I hate that question is cause , often, what influences you is subtle. It’s an amalgamation of things you can’t even clearly identify. It’s a whole lot of grey area. For me, my go to stock answer was “The hip hop I grew up on”. which is a purposely boring answer for a boring lazy question. If pressed further I’ll go into more detail about the producers of my youth that set the standard that would later be what I strive for. That said, it’s kinda bullshit. I mean, without question, I was inspired by their work and have taken little things from all sorts of people before me (as well as contemporaries and people 20 years younger than me). But, for me, my actual biggest musical influence was this dude Manny. Just some random nobody of a guy I once knew who had a profound effect on my life. Now, before I get into this, I realize this all is gonna sound like a set up for some fucked up pedophile story of horrors but I assure , it is not. Hell, looking back on it now, it’s crazy that it even happened. It really makes no sense. Like, when i think of people finding mentors, there are few cases where someone did it out of the kindness of their heart but I genuinely believe this was the case. But, hey, maybe I’m just blurry eyed from the nostalgia of it all.
So, Manny was a dude I met when I was about 12/13. He worked in the toy store section of a drug store called Mckays on 6th ave and west 4th street in Manhattan. I met him cause manny was a dork who would buy and trade japanese toys with my friend, Ko, who was also a dork and had japanese toys to buy and trade. No clue how they met but I would roll with Ko to see manny and they would conduct business. At the time, manny seemed endlessly older than me. In reality, he was probably 18 or 19 when I met him. So, just some background, when i was 12 i was obsessed with hip hop. This was far before the internet and all we really had to go one was Video music box, Yo MTV raps and WBLS. So, my knowledge of the music was pretty contained to whatever they played. Which was a pretty vast array of stuff but, you know, i was 12…I liked Kid N play just as much as I liked 2 live crew and just as much as i liked public enemy. I just liked it all. I guess manny caught wind of my interest in hip hop and he would chat about it with me. He’d mention groups I never heard of and tell me who was ACTUALLY dope and who was wack. He’d even explain why to me. Sure, this was one mans opinion. a 19 year old who works at a drug store and loves toys but, to me, his word was gospel. Lucky for me, Manny actually had great taste. On top of that, he told me he went to high school with slick rick and MC serch so to my young brain, that was the coolest shit ever. So, anyway, as time went on, I started visiting manny without Ko. He was like this fountain of knowledge and I couldn’t get enough of it. I should mention, he also was a rapper. He had a crew called DB4. He would read me his rhymes and break them down for me. Thing is, Manny was a good writer. A student of rakim for sure. That said, he was a terrible rapper. His voice sucked. His flow was suspect. His boys were actually pretty good and his producer was very dope. but, regardless, this was all very new and adult to me so I was with it. Around 14 years old, inspired by manny, i started writing my own rhymes. i didn’t tell manny cause, well, I was justifiably embarrassed. A year or so later, I felt confident to read him some shit. Not rap it, but read it to him. I was always good with punchlines. I was funny so those came easy to me. I’d sloppily read my raps to manny and he’s bug out over certain lines…and then one day, he asked if he could use some of my lines on a song he was recording.
I was over the moon. He changed a bunch of parts but the majority of it was my stuff. So, it was then I started doing a little ghost writing for manny. About a year later, I was chilling in Mckays with Manny and his producer, duke, was there. Duke was a huge dude who wore all those wooden africa medallions. While he looked pretty stoic and intense, he was actually incredibly friendly. Almost nerdy, in a way. We started talking about making beats and I was like “my dad has mad records, I bet he got some samples you will like” his eyes lit up and he was all about it. I went home and ran through tons of my dads old jazz records. I recorded all the parts I thought were good to sample and gave them to Duke on a tape. He listened in front of me on his walkman. I couldn’t hear what he was listening to but I was following his every reaction meticulously. His eyes would get wide at some parts and his head would bob and I would be overrun with an adrenaline burst. He took the tape and that was that. A month later, Manny played me a song where Duke had used a loop and some drums i gave him and manny rapped my raps over it. Granted, manny rapped them badly but still..this was the greatest feeling ever. and on top of that, these grown men were giving me props like I was a major piece of the puzzle. I wasn’t really but it felt like that. By the time I was 16, manny and I were just straight up friends. we would hang at his job for hours and shoot the shit. He would tell me about his life. His love life was particularly harrowing. I was used to high school stories of sex and relationships. Like “Oh she sucked his dick where? no way!”. Manny was another level from that. By the time he was in his early 20’s, he had just had a kid with his girl. At the same time, he was also fucking the girl who worked with him at mckays. He would tell me shit I couldn’t comprehend. Like i didn’t even know how to finger a girl right and this dude had a kid and side pieces. The craziest shit being how, on the night his child was born, he was literally fucking another woman in a nearby hotel while his wife was in labor. yes, manny was not perfect. In fact, the older I got the more his stories stuck with me and honestly bothered me. Even back then, it never felt “cool” even though it was presented to me in that way. When he told me these stories, it was in a matter of fact and almost charming way that it never seemed that bad at the time. Looking back, dude was a piece of shit with girls. No doubt about it. But he was also a kid himself. Not making excuses but I’m also not treating him like he knew what the fuck he was doing with his life.
But i digress…
So, At this point , Manny had molded my taste in rap music, inspired me to rhyme and put the very first bug in my ear to think about beats and how they are made. When I was around 14, he had introduced me to a new radio show called The stretch armstrong show. Now, those of you in the know, realize this was a huge deal. It was a radio show on Columbia universities radio station that would play from 1 am to 4 am every thursday night (technically friday). Manny would record them and lend me the tapes. This may have been the most mind expanding part of my formative years cause the stuff they played on Stretch was out there. It was experimental and weird but also creative and inspiring. What is was , was the beginnings of “underground rap” and it was exactly what my ears craved. It was that show that set me on my path and , shortly after, had me digging around for other similar things. Which would lead me to other underground radio shows and , more importantly, rap music from other places. Up until that point, I only knew NYC stuff with a little gangster rap from L.A. and Houston thrown in, This was all so new and exciting to me and, honestly, I was more on board with it than Manny was. He was more traditional than I was , musically but , still, I’d play him stuff he hadn’t heard and he would be down with it. We were becoming less of a mentor/understudy vibe and more on the same level. My opinions slowly became my own and we would debate rap stuff…which, when you’re a real rap nerd, is heaven on earth. Can’t say I ever wanna do that these days but back then? Wooooooo! I loved it.
Manny was the first person to ever bring me to a studio. He had gotten some studio time in Brooklyn and asked if i wanted to come along and check it out. I jumped at the opportunity. The day before it was planned, I started feeling very sick. It was strep throat and i felt like I was dying. But there was no way I was gonna miss this opportunity. So a dragged my sick ass to the studio in a part of brooklyn i didn’t even know existed. This was 1993. Things were different. I brought a 40 of olde english , with hopes it would both relax me and make me feel better. It did not , in fact, i took one sip and felt 100 times worse but it made a good prop for me to have in my first experience in a recording studio. So, nervously and sick as I could possibly be, I entered the studio. It was a small room with a few seats, a small couch and mixing board. There was a mic booth that could fit maybe 3 or 4 people if they were smashed together. Manny was there. His producer was there. They were the guys I was friendly with. Also there was this dude Darren. He was the best rapper in the group and also kind of a dick. He was openly not fond of white people in general and definitely barely tolerated my presence. I honestly can’t blame the guy. Who brought the 16 year old white kid? These were grown men. Granted , I was fully grown at that age and looked older but still, I had no business being there. He had invited a few of his friends and they were even less friendly than he was. His boys were thugged out dudes from Brownsville, to this day still one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I basically sat back in the corner of the couch and just watched. I often wonder if I hadn’t been sick if I would have engaged more but probably not. i felt like a fly on the wall. What I saw was not what i expected. recording was sloppy. It took forever. It was boring. They were smoking blunts, drinking Hennessey and just kinda dragging ass. Watching a rapper do his takes over and over again was mind numbing (This is something I would later become well acquainted with later in life when I started rapping badly). Eventually, they finished a few songs. They were okay. Manny, in particular , struggled with his verses but it’s interesting. His boys seemed oblivious to him being the obvious weak link. Like, sure, he wrote good stuff but he couldn’t rap for shit. I was hyper aware of that then and , to this day, it shocked me that I didn’t see one shared eye roll glance between his group member when he fucked up his sloppy verse for the 27th time. They were all genuinely supportive of one another. At the end of the session they had some time left so they put on a beat and everyone kicked freestyles. This part was the best thing of the whole night for me. They all were pretty mediocre at it but the energy was amazing. Darrens boys got in and started rapping and it sounded familiar. Then one of them said his rap name Fish-b-one and i realized , holy shit, this is the dude from Da Bushwackass. A group i had recently heard freestyling for the first time on stretch and bobbito.
So, I’m like “Holy shit…this person is famous” when in reality, they hadn’t even put a record out yet but they had freestyle on the radio once. still, I was enthralled to be witnessing it. The was until his verse started veering into how much he hated white people. that part was a little uncomfortable. “I don’t give a damn about no white man!” he bellowed and i just kinda sunk into my seat a little more. Thing is, I was never mad at shit like that. I accepted my place and just kinda kept my head down. I was a guest in all of this, in my mind, so I acted accordingly. But , still, having those words snarled in your direction is, at the very least, uncomfortable. The session ended, manny put me in a cab and that was it. I missed school for a week with step throat but , when i finally came back and regaled all my friends with my story of studio time, they didn’t even know what i was talking about. In a way, part of what made this all so special to me is that is was something I had all to myself. It was this separate world from my normal life that was all I cared about.
By my senior year in high school, I began seeing manny less. I’d pop in and chill for an hour once a month or so , if he wasn’t busy. My social life started taking precedence over everything. The next year, i went to college and when i came back from my first semester, Mckay’s had closed. I still had manny’s number and we spoke on the phone a few more times but , eventually, we drifted apart…or his number got changed. I really don’t recall. In truth, it’s kinda like our mentorship expired. we were friends but I can’t say how much of that as one sided. Even though I never got a vibe from him that it was fake. That said, I do feel he genuinely enjoyed shooting the shit with me and he enjoyed being a teacher to an eager pupil. He set me on a path that really defined my entire life and he doesn’t even know it. I haven’t had any contact with him in over 20 years. every now and then I google him to see if anything comes up but his name is so common it’s pretty much impossible. Also, i know so little about him outside of his name and where he went to high school. He could have moved 15 times. he could be dead for all I know. In a way, i’d rather not know what happened to him cause his place in my head is such a specific thing. I wouldn’t wanna taint that. I mean, i hope he’s doing well and happy but outside that, he lives in that time for me and will always be one of those rare people I can look back on in my entire life and , without question, say was the most influential person, musically, in my life. Which makes the fact that he was a bad rapper all the more endearing.