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"I get mistaken for a DJ, and it's like, 'Wow, no, this is not DJ,'" Mann says.
As a member of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, he's no stranger to playing in a live band, and he aims to replicate that sense of musical spontaneity, even as he performs solo.
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"I can go in and mess with it, rearrange it, change the drums underneath it, dub it out," Mann says. "It's not like a playback, karaoke thing."
Mann's debut disc, Analog Drift, feels like anything but karaoke. The album's 12 songs ricochet between Afrobeat guitars, thick old-school hip-hop synths, glitchy drums, and Latin rhythms. Mann sings in Spanish on most of the tracks, switching to English for a Wild Style-ready take on the Talking Head's "Once in a Lifetime," and the rhythmically meditative "Go to That Place." But even the large chunks of the record that are instrumental feel lyrical, with melodic, twinkling keys accenting the dance-floor beats of the live and sampled drums.
"I was raised in a Cuban family, but I grew up primarily in New Jersey, so it's multi-cultural around here, I guess," Mann says. "I was just exposed to all those worlds [hip-hop, Latin, Afrobeat]. I think the music I make is a really natural expression of the context in which I grew up."
Mann's early life was dominated by music. His mother was a radio disc jockey and pianist, and his father produced merengue records. The saturation in his parents' record collection is evident, but so are elements of electro-pop and breakdancing culture. Mann says his music is made for dancing.
"[Concert-goers] should expect to dance, because if they don't it would be a bummer," he says, laughing.
"Time has gone on, and with social media, I see where my name pops up and stuff, and often times people are like, 'Cleaning the house, listening to Chico Mann,'" he says. "One recent one was, 'I wish I had someone to listen to Chico Mann with me at 4 in the morning 'cause I'm high and drunk . . .'"
It's hard not to move while the record is on, and Mann aims to translate that energy to his live shows.
"In terms of the aesthetic I'm going for, I want it to feel more natural," he says. "I play through the songs. There's variability and imperfection, and I think the beauty of music lies in the those things."
Utilizing studio mixes, he adds live elements over his pre-recorded tracks, but often finds inspiration in subtracting them instead.
"Deconstructing it," he says. "That's even more fun than assembling it."