Interview: Million $ Mano

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featured in issue 002 - subscribe here

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Enter The Mind of Million $ Mano

Foresight, faith, and a shit load of confidence are all qualities possessed by 29 year-old producer, DJ, and sometimes rapper, Emmanuel Nickerson, better known as Million $ Mano. To those just getting hip to the Chicago native, Mano may be best known for raging shirtless on Saturday Night Live while deejaying for Kanye West, or for providing critically acclaimed production on 2013 releases from Big Sean, 2 Chainz and Pusha T, all part of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music crew.  Those that have been along for the ride a little longer know Mano as a leader of Treated Crew – an impressive, exclusive, albeit expansive collection of creatives that represent the frontier of music, graphic design, filmmaking, fashion and live events.  

As a leader of this crew he also became the generator of the highly coveted and publicly unattainable “Treated Crowns” starter hats donned by some of the most notable rappers on Earth, Kanye West and Jay-Z.  As a virtual hype-machine wizard, he was able to debut Treated Crew’s first official album alongside the first publicly available “Treated Crown” merchandise.  The package was available for $150 at Chicago-based boutique, Jugrnaut, and sold out.  For those that really know, Mano has been an essential piece to the Chicago Hip Hop scene since the earliest “internet rap days,” by collaborating with artists and influencers such as The Cool Kids and Hollywood Holt.  Mano (along with Holt, The Cool Kids, Flosstradamus and others) was selected as part of a New Chicago as far back as 2007.  The list, which was created by URB Magazine, aimed to identify a crop of artists that would lead Chicago into its next musical growth period.

To fully understand Million $ Mano though, all of these identities must be acknowledged. One must also have to understand that he is someone who has been told over and over again that he’s too eccentric, that he would never accomplish more than anyone expected of him, and that he couldn’t do it without help.  

Here we go inside the mind of Million $ Mano.

[Interview has been excerpted and condensed]

 

Greenroom: What were your listening habits like growing up?

Million $ Mano: "My parents had a good juxtaposition of music that was always around me, being played in the house. I remember this cassette my mom had called Hip Hop All-Stars, and it had all of these famous, early-80’s Hip Hop songs from “King of Rock” to “Roxanne, Roxanne”, which gave me a good basis of what Hip Hop was. My mom would play this tape in her car every time we drove anywhere. I grew up going to church as a young kid, to singing in a choir and going to my grandmother’s house, playing on her organ. I just took an interest in making music because it made me feel good."

 GR: I’ve heard you play all sorts of genres while DJing, from 90’s grunge, alternative rock, juke. Was that something that you discovered as you DJ’d more, or were you listening to all those at the same time too. Where’d that come from?

M$M: "I do feel like me and my friends are the perfect juxtaposition of culture in Chicago, that stuff just happened. I went to Catholic grade school.  The first I went to was all Black in the city, and the second was in the suburbs, in Hazel Crest, a lower-middle class, blue-collar neighborhood that eventually turned all Black.  That was the first time I ever experienced white people being in poverty like that.  Experiencing that juxtaposition at school was an eye opener. It helped me through life, I could have been the same ignorant kid that I was at the first school, because it was predominately black kids and culture, where you would try to fight off the rest of this stuff that wasn’t thought to be black culture. When I was super-young, even when my dad was listening to Pink Floyd, I would be like 'Man, what are you listening to that white people music for?' I was ignorant to thinking that black people made a certain type of music when I was young, and that was the only music I was interested in hearing. When I found out that we make a lot of shit, it made me feel so much more comfortable liking it myself. I kept all of the grunge rock and indie shit that I liked to myself, because my friends around me at the time wouldn’t allow me to be the person that I was. '1979' [Smashing Pumpkins] was my guilty pleasure, I loved that song. It resonated with me because all the rest of the black people around me were calling it some white shit."

GR: Did you meet most of these guys, like The Cool Kids, through the music, or through the scene you and Hollywood Holt developed?

M$M: "I was up on Mikey [Rocks] since he was a shorty and didn’t even know it, because he lived in the same neighborhood as Nigel [Hollywood Holt]. And I met Chuck [Inglish] because I dated this girl who went to art school with Evan [Chuck Inglish]. She would always tell me 'My homie Evan makes beats too, but he tells me nobody will rap on them unless they’re Nas.' I hadn’t even heard his beats yet, and we did some party at the Buddha Lounge, he came to my place afterwards. I played some beats, and he was going nuts, loving all of the beats I was playing. Then I got to hear their music and I was just like, 'This is super cool.' It was dope, man."

 GR: What are your thoughts on URB Magazine’s feature, “The New Chicago” a few years back. It had you, Hollywood Holt, The Cool Kids, and a few others on it.

M$M: "I think it was a cesspool of bullshit. Someone had the stupid ass idea of shooting us in front of Cabrini-Green [House Projects], and I was like 'whoa.' If that’s not exploitation of this shit, I don’t know what is."

GR: What did you think that they were trying to represent? Was there some kind of community that was bubbling?

M$M: "I think that the representation quickly turned to exploitation. They were trying to exploit us, just like they [various media outlets] were trying to exploit Chief Keef and the rest of these kids. They don’t understand the consequences that come with it. Like, if we did do that shoot in front of Cabrini-Green, and someone was injured or hurt because nobody from that fucking shoot was from the projects. What the fuck kind of juxtaposition are you trying to show? We ain’t from the projects, we didn’t say we were.. I just didn’t understand where that idea came from and it made me angry… I wanted to bring everyone in and work together. They tried to exploit the fact that we were black kids doing some eccentric shit."

GR: How did your idea of collaboration and working together manifest with Treated Crew?

M$M: "Treated Crew started in 2006, and it happened from [Hollywood Holt] making “Caked Up.” We already had a crew and friends and all these people were asking, “What are you guys as a whole?” We were together as a whole, but we were all separate artists. It was like a bogus rat race. When people are young, they’re selfish, they don’t learn to work together. When you get older you learn that the unity is in people, and not in one."

GR: Treated Crew has experimented with selling the music as a part of the experience, the hat line that dropped with the album. What do you see happening with new ways to sell music and expand your brand? Where do you see the opportunities to make money the way you want to?

M$M: "I said 'Oh, our hats gonna be $150. And we’re gonna sell an album with it.' I had a meeting with the President of Sony [Music], I was telling her what I did, and her jaw-dropped."

 GR: How do you see the message being spread, music and clothes-wise?

M$M: "I love that people are understating the music - the Treated album, I wanted it to be bigger than it was, but I knew that it wasn’t gonna get as much publicity as it should have because we didn’t have the right media outlets at the time."

GR: Kanye said in an interview that he doesn’t want to work with anybody older than him anymore. Is that something he’s talked with you about?

M$M: "Ye knows the power of the youth. One of my biggest appreciations of him is that he’s grown enough to know that he can be confident enough to let other lights shine. The fake boss mentality is to make everybody feel like they can’t do anything without you being there. The real boss mentality is to instill confidence in all of the team members so that the job gets done, and that’s what Kanye does. He makes it not about himself, not about how good his ability as the sole person is. He just wants to get the best product."

 GR: Were there any moments just as a fan, like “Holy shit I’m DJing for Jay Z and Kanye”?

M$M: "Abso-fucking-lutely dude. The first time I DJ’d for Kanye was at Lollapalooza in Chile. I was so nervous, just to not play the wrong thing and have this n***a snap on me. It was so crazy, after we did “Through The Wire”, for this transition I was supposed to press this 808-kick and it was actually my Million $ Mano-drop. And I was like “Ahhh!” It was my first gig with him ever so I was freaked out. It was so funny, Kanye turned and pinched his lips but when we came onstage after he was saying it was all good. Kanye’s my brother. He did that shit to me then year’s later he puts the BeenTrill drop on the “All of The Lights” show edit, like 'Oh, you gonna look at me all crazy for dropping my drop accidentally but now we got the drop in the show?' I just have to hit my fam off like that sometimes (laughs)."

GR: How’s the comfort level now, like how do you work together onstage?

 

M$M: "It’s clockwork cause it’s an actual production, but when we do shows in general, it’s so much better now. When I started DJing with him I was 26 and that was a life goal for me, and I did it at 26. It was really dope that even at that first time we were getting the vibe. Mike Dean [acclaimed producer/engineer] has become one of my dearest friends. I ain’t even think I could become friends with someone that much my senior, but Mike is literally one of the coolest people ever. Omar Edwards and Jeff Bhasker knew each other before I started DJing, and I was an avid fan of Mike Dean’s work since I was a kid, but all of those factors make it to where it’s clockwork, it’s comfortable. We’re a fam, we work together."

 GR: Any life lessons you’ve learned from Kanye or Mike Dean? How do you see yourself influencing them as well?

M$M: "They tell me all the time that they’re influenced by me. This is the thing that is so crazy, when you’re at this high of a brand and taste level, motherfuckers are so scared to do anything. You have to have the confidence to try anything. Powerful people are impressed by bold people who believe in themselves. One of the biggest things I think I’ve learned from Ye is to believe in myself, and say “fuck all of these people.” To have the confidence when everybody is trying to take it away from you. I promise you, if I didn’t tell myself I can do this the way I know I can, I wouldn’t be able to. Put it like this, if other people were in my shoes, they would have given up. They’re not as strong as I am, I am strong. I have been through so much shit. My strong mind and my ability made me believe that I can make the best out of anything. Ye’s confidence most definitely helped. Having a homie that is that huge, to be that humble and let you know how great you are is dope."