Tony Cummings met up with Toronto-born MC MANAFEST whose rock imbued hip-hop has been a surprise success in Japan
The recent release of the 'Citizens Activ' album by Canadian rapper Manafest is a big step forward for the talented MC. The album is a fusion of hard rock, pop hooks and streetwise hip-hop that stretches the rapper to a whole new place. When asked about the record Manafest said, "In my case I'm speaking about the musical journey of being an artist, like sleeping on floors, driving through the night and being away from home. The result is seeing kids' lives affected in a positive way and knowing you played a small part in it."
Because of the Manafest moniker, many people still book Chris Greenwood, aka Manafest, thinking that it's a band. And indeed for many concerts in Canada and USA a full band is what you get. As Chris explained, "I've had to learn to rock it solo because you know it's tough for bands, so many bands run into so much debt. Because it's so hard to tour and pay expenses and stuff. So I do other gigs where I rock to my Ipod."
Chris got into rapping in an unusual way. At the age of 17 he was an established skateboarder in the Toronto area with sponsorships left and right. In fact, his success locally was significant enough that he decided that it was time to move on to bigger things - namely Los Angeles to take his skating to the professional arena. Yet just as all was falling into place, tragedy struck. Shortly before leaving for LA, Chris fell while attempting a trick and suffered a debilitating injury to his foot, one that would force him to give up skating for months. Having always been interested in hip-hop culture, Chris spent a good deal of his time away from skating with some local MCs. These informal hangouts transformed his casual interest in hip-hop into a serious love for the music that began his budding career. Said Manafest, "I remember my very first gig, that was in my home church, so it must have been in 1999 or 2000. There were maybe 20 people there, and it was really horrible. We have it on tape and no one will ever see it!"
From such a humble beginning the rapper's progress was pretty steady and by 2001 he had released his first EP, 'Misled Youth' ("A harmony of true hip-hop culture and alternative styles," enthused Feed magazine). Remembered Manafest, "Two of my favourite songs on that are 'Session', that's more of a hip-hop song about skate boarding, and 'Freedom'."
As Manafest's skills as a rapper increased, so did his creative ambition and his next independent album, 'My Own Thing', was a definite step forward. Said the rapper, "That had 18-20 tracks, that's a lot of tracks. Some of the things on there were pretty good and I ended up getting signed to Tooth & Nail after Trevor McNevan (the frontman of Canada's Thousand Foot Krutch) introduced me to the company. Then in 2005 T&N released 'Epiphany' that had some of the songs that were on 'My Own Thing' plus I did a bunch of new ones as well. Then in 2006 I cut 'Glory' which really blew things up and became a big hit in Japan. It sold over 30 thousand records over there - and we haven't even been over there yet!"
I wondered aloud to the rapper why 'Glory' should have been Manafest's breakthrough record in Japan? After all, there are few Christians there. He responded, "Yeah, there's barely any at all. It's a very low percentage of Christians, like 0.3 per cent. If an album is going to sell there, it's got to do it in the mainstream. So God just opened some really cool doors there. And that's the reason I was able to do the newest record now, 'Citizens Activ'. The new singles off that are 'So Beautiful' and '4,3,2,1'. 'So Beautiful' is more of a rock-driven melodic track featuring my buddy Trevor from TFK. And then '4,3,2,1' is more of a club, party jam kind of song."
Usually for Manafest the songwriting process begins with a rhythm. "I prefer to have a beat first and then I write to the beat or write to the music. Or I'll write to somebody else's track. I'll find an instrumental or something that really inspires me, I'll write then I'll get a certain producer to produce something around the lyrics. But normally it's the beat first. And then I write the lyrics; that's what I prefer. I love to get involved with the hooks - I find that one of the most challenging parts, because it's got to be catchy, that's why it's called a hook. And that's where we really nailed it on 'Citizens Activ'; every song is just very catchy, sing-alongable, very radio friendly. And it's tough you know, there's one song I wrote, 'Breakup', I had all the lyrics and all the verses but it took me like four months. I was like 'No, that's not it, that's not it, that's close, but that's not it.' Finally we just kept working it and working it and finally got it. Or sometimes I'll get Trevor from TFK, he's really good at writing catchy hooks so he helped me with some of the rock stuff with putting the hooks in."
Still living in Toronto, Manafest almost relocated to the USA. He said, "My wife Melanie and I almost moved to Nashville about a year and a bit ago. And then we wanted to move to California at one point. We're still praying about it and still seeing, but there's no rush. We're just trying to feel it out and make sure we don't jump ahead too soon."
On 'Citizens Activ' the most outspokenly Christian song is "So Beautiful". As Manafest himself admitted, "It's saying, 'Hey God I recognise I need you. You've brought me through this. And what you've done is so beautiful and I need you in my life.'" Determined as he is to connect with mainstream hip-hop fans only a few of Manafest's songs are direct gospel proclamations. He explained, "I don't really say Jesus a whole lot in my songs. My personal approach to where I feel God has called me is that I preach from the stage when I perform. And my music is used as just a tool to get me to that stage and that platform. Then I share the Gospel and we've seen thousands of kids get born again and stuff. I don't like to say Jesus a thousand times through my music. I personally don't think it's that effective. I just feel people need to hear the heart. And they need to know, through stories and through real life situations. You could say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus' but what does that mean to anybody? You know what I mean, you say Jesus, I say Christ. It doesn't connect to the unbeliever. I understand that's there's a need for that, and that own market and that own area. But as for me, I know my demographic, I know my market and who I'm trying to reach. I'm trying to go to the lost. Sure, Christians will dig it. And that's where we've been for the most. But our goal and our vision and mission is to go to the lost."