On a dead end street bordering the Hollywood Freeway, Mani Coolin’ sits on a stool in a makeshift home recording studio. His dad is here, as well as his producer, Jay Kurzweil, who owns the studio and lives in the adjoining apartment. A hazy, piano-laced beat emanates from the speakers and a muted kung fu movie plays on one of the computer screens. They’re listening to un-mastered tracks from Mani’s upcoming album, Hope4TheYouth. For the last two months, Mani and J. Kurzweil have spent days on end sitting in the foam-padded studio mixing the album’s songs.
“It’s the worst part,” the 21-year-old rapper says. “It’s just sitting here listening to a song over and over until we get it right.”
For the most part, the mixing process is done. In a few days, the songs will be sent to an engineer for mastering and on March 12, the album will drop.
“The whole time I was plotting for this right here,” Mani says, whose real name is Demani Brown. He glances at his iPhone, which has a promotional “#Hope” sticker plastered on the back, to check the time. In a half-hour, his dad will drive them to a soundstage in North Hollywood so that Mani can practice for his performance at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami on Feb. 28.
For someone who has only been making music for the last five or so years, Mani has a lot going on. He has over 5,000 followers on SoundCloud and has already released three mixtapes (Something Perfect, For the Moments, and Bad Decisions, Good Intentions) and one EP (Merry Christmas). He’s performed in cities all over the country and in venues all over L.A., including the Roxy, the Whisky A Go Go, the Key Club, and Los Globos. He’s not famous — yet — but he’s making waves, especially in the underground L.A. rap scene.
His biggest project to date is Hope4TheYouth. The 12-track project took over a year to make and introduces a new sound from the L.A. rapper, one that he describes as “vibe rap.”
“It’s different,” he says of his new album. “I feel like we made something that doesn’t sound like anything right now. We’re bringing a bunch of different sounds together and making it one.”
Whether he’s created a new sound or not is debatable, but one thing’s for sure: This is a definitely a new sound for Coolin’. Since his last mixtape, Bad Decisions, Good Intentions, released in August 2013 when the rapper was 19, he’s reached new heights and matured in sound. The songs in Hope4TheYouth are varied and eclectic, with jazzy undertones and live instrumentals. No two songs sound alike and it’s clear that Mani is trying out new beats and new sounds. His scratchy, youthful voice sounds more crisp and polished than on his previous projects, with a newfound mastery over his rhymes.
Hope4TheYouth relies heavily on storytelling and sheds some light on Mani’s origins. As he puts it, his story is not a rapper's story. He didn’t grow up wanting a career in hip-hop.
“I’m just kind of telling my story growing up,” he says. “I didn’t have no rough childhood. Like, it got hard at certain points, but basically I got myself into things that I could have avoided. So I tell those stories [and] I talk from a point where I think anyone can relate.”
The first song Mani recalls writing was way back when he was 12 years old, but it wasn’t until his last year in high school that he started to seriously consider making music. Encouraged by the students who heard him freestyle after school at Fairfax High, he visited a recording studio in Gardena to record his first raps. Though he himself admits that they weren’t any good, he was hooked. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “It stuck with me probably more than anything else I was doing at the time.”
He realized he had a knack for telling stories and a hankering to do so. “I don’t think anyone outside of L.A. would understand where I came from,” he says of the Mid-City neighborhood he grew up in. So he decided to tell those stories in his music.
Fans who know Mani’s music know that he grew up near Washington Boulevard and Crenshaw Avenue and that his dad’s side is from Compton. They know that his family made a conscious decision to bus him to school in Hollywood, rather than send him to nearby Dorsey High School. “If I woulda went to my home school,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t be the same person.”
In the years after high school, Mani tried going to college in New Orleans, but dropped out after the first semester because “it wasn’t my thing.” Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he returned to L.A. and worked odd jobs for the next few years. All the while, he continued to make music; eventually, his patience and persistence paid off. He was invited to perform at the AC3 Hip-Hop Festival in Atlanta two years in a row and booked shows in Vegas and San Francisco. “I started to get a little buzz,” he says, “and stuff started popping up for me.”
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Fast-forward to today and Mani is still generating buzz, slowly but surely getting his name out there. With Hope4TheYouth, he hopes that his name will become more widely recognized in the L.A. rap game. In fact, he says, maybe people will even start pronouncing it correctly (it’s Mani with a soft “a”). “It's just one of those things,” he says, “where I’ve got to become a superstar and then they'll get it right.”