Denver rapper Young Manny's road to DIY success hasn't exactly been easy, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
Born Emmanuel Xavier Moore to military parents in Denver, he moved often as a child for his parents' assignments. At age sixteen, he was living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of J. Cole, when the legendary rapper visited Manny's school.
"I used to ditch a lot in high school," Manny says, "But the one day I chose to go, J. Cole came and talked to us. And for me, that was so inspiring."
After hearing Cole speak about the struggles he faced before finding success in the music industry, Manny was determined to follow the same path. He dedicated himself to writing at least five songs a day, garnering feedback and encouragement from friends who heard his tracks.
"My rhymes in a sense are hypocritical," he says. "Like in one song, I'll talk about trying to save the world and how I want people to be better with themselves and love themselves, and then I'll make a song where I'm like, 'Fuck everybody, blah, blah, blah,' you know? For me it displays the two sides of everybody."
After returning to Denver and graduating from high school, Manny found a manager with connections in the music industry in Austin, Texas. That manager booked Manny his first live performance, opening for the late Fredo Santana and Lil Durk at the 2016 edition of South by Southwest.
The gig almost didn't happen. The van transporting Manny and a few other artists from Denver to SXSW broke down in a blizzard in New Mexico. The others wanted to turn back, but Manny was determined to make it to the festival, so they used their entire travel budget to fix the car, praying they'd be paid enough to afford the trip home.
After that concert, Manny was hooked on performing. He's had gigs at SXSW every year since except for 2017. That year, he was supposed to play five shows at the festival with rapper Dave East, for $1,000 a show. But just before he left for Austin, he was celebrating at Fogo de Chão. An armed robber, standing by the door of the restaurant, pulled out his gun, threatening to take Manny's Rolex watch and chain. Another man approached him to take his jewelry, but Manny was armed. As he went to flash his firearm, hoping it would scare the thieves away, the first man fired a shot. Miraculously, the bullet hit Manny's gun instead of his stomach. However, as the bullet bounced off Manny's Glock, it grazed his hand, throat and lip. He drove himself to the hospital, barely conscious.
"I woke up, and the police are asking me questions, and I keep going in and out of consciousness," Manny recounts. "It sounds very cliché, but I heard a voice saying, 'Don't give up. It's not your time yet. You have so much more to accomplish.' Ever since that day, I feel like that's when my music started to really take off. I was like, 'Damn, I almost died.' Life is too short to be bullshitting. I say everything happens for a reason. It's not about what happened; it's about what did it teach you. If I didn't go through these certain things, I would never know. I've made a lot of mistakes, but I've learned."
After surviving the shooting, Young Manny had a new lease on life and a new vision for his future.
"I really think I'm here for a reason," he says. "I feel like my purpose is to reach and inspire others that came from where I came from, or are doing what I was doing, or that want to do what I'm doing. I want to show everybody that anything is possible if you just really believe in yourself. The greatest thing I ever did is believe in myself. A lot of people who will put down your dreams, it's because they didn't have the balls to pursue their own."
Manny has released five albums on Apple Music since narrowly avoiding death, including Mobulations 2 this past July. But his latest project, #Underrated, released on November 29, is a departure from his past albums; every song was specifically written and recorded with the album in mind. With only ten tracks, rather than his usual twenty, it's Manny's shortest project to date.
"What I wanted to do with this album is make it a perfect album," Manny explains. "I started to study my listeners — and nowadays listeners have a short attention span. I started to notice that toward the end of my albums, the streams would start to die down. So none of these songs are too long. It's just enough to where you listen to it and want to hear it again."
The album's title represents where Young Manny feels he is in his career. "I know I'm underrated. I don't mean to sound cocky, but I know I make good music. I just haven't had that publicity. And I feel like it's a Colorado thing. Because I could go to Austin and do a local show out there, and people will be walking by and walk in just because they want to hear local music. Out here, people be like, 'Oh, I don't know who that is,' so they're not interested."
But whether he's performing for four people or 400, Young Manny will do it his way. "I produce my beats, I make my music, I do this myself," he explains, saying he won't work with other people's labels. "Why should I give you all the rights to my music? And a lot of people, especially when you're down bad and you don't have that much money and you're kind of struggling, when they throw that big money at you, you think, 'Oh shit, a million-dollar deal. I'm going to sign it.'"
But Manny is a business-minded guy, and he knows that the more people you involve, the less money you personally make.
"If you have somebody else do something for you, they're not going to have that love and passion for it like you do," he says.
A key part of Manny's business philosophy is that you set your own worth. Which is why #Underrated will be sold on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon for $50.
He was inspired to set a high price by the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who famously sold two of his albums for $100 and $1,000. Hussle got the idea from a man in Philadelphia who was charging $100 for a Philly cheesesteak. The $100 sandwich caused outrage from customers, but it also drew the attention of celebrities like Oprah, who ended up visiting the shop.
Young Manny isn't fazed by naysayers who say no one will buy his album. The point is to get people talking.
He's employing the same technique with his new clothing line, 1996, which launched the same day as #Underrated's release. The 1996 line, a collaboration between Young Manny, his new manager, Lázaro Sandoval, and his DJ, Young Mac, is not your average artist merch. In keeping with the line's motto, "Good Things Last," they plan on stitching, rather than printing, their designs, on high-quality materials. The imagery was created by Sandoval, who is also a visual artist.
"I didn't want to do Young Manny merchandise; I wanted to make a brand," says Manny. "So we're selling our hoodies for $100, our shirts for $80, and a lot of people say, 'That's a lot. Who's going to pay for that?' At the end of the day, you determine your worth. So if you say your shirts are worth $25, that's what they're going to think you're worth. But if you set your standards high, I feel like it draws attention."
With the opportunities ahead of him, Young Manny is thankful for every hurdle he had to surpass.
"#Underrated, for me, is about everything that I've gone through this year, everything I've gone through in the years of making music. That's what got me to this point and this mindset I have. I feel like if I had gotten these opportunities when I was younger, I probably would've fucked them up, because I wasn't mature enough to handle it. But now I just have tunnel vision, and nothing can stop me."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.