Eugene “ManMan” Roberts’ skill set is diverse enough to bless Saweetie with some throwback swag for “Saturday Night Live,” mix John Legend songs with Afrobeats, and adapt when Kanye West wants more from him on the “Glow in the Dark Tour.”
“When I accepted the gig I flew out to L.A., and I thought I just had to do my two or three songs. Halfway through rehearsal, Ye starts adding more songs. He was like, ‘You play vocoder. Why don’t you play on the hooks?’ The next thing I know, I’m playing on every hook,” Roberts told REVOLT.
You started on the road with John Legend in 2005. How did you two link up initially?
I started with John as the drum tech and stage manager. A friend of mine named Kenny Wright, who was the bass player, was put on the gig by [Adam] Blackstone. Kenny and I grew up playing with this gospel rapper named T-Wise and Temple University. They hired me to be the drum tech and stage manager in 2005. By February 2006, I actually started playing. My first show was the halftime show at the NBA All-Star Game. That was my first John Legend show (laughs). It was cool. Halftime shows are done in advance — you do some pre-recorded stuff. It’s high energy because you try to put as many cool songs as possible in 10-14 minutes. That’s one of the hurdles of putting together a show, especially a tour concert where you try to put the right records, the right amount of the records, and decide how you want to play them. Do you remix them? Do you play them like the original? How do the fans want to experience them?
Your first tour with John Legend was the “Get Lifted Tour.” What was your favorite song to perform from the Get Lifted album?
I’m trying to think that far back. Getting ready for Vegas, I’ve been going back through every John Legend album for the last two weeks. I think performing ‘Get Lifted’ was my jam. It was a vibe, and it came together live. He’s a good performer, but the groove of ‘Get Lifted’ is fun. The entire album was good.
What was your favorite show from that era?
It was actually right before his album Once Again. We did a live show at Royal Albert Hall in London [on October 2, 2006]. We brought out Kanye [West], Estelle, and a bunch of people. That was probably my favorite show of the Get Lifted era. It was one of my first times playing overseas.
How involved is John when it comes to his live shows?
Over time, it became him giving me more responsibility. I was the keyboard player for the first three years I was there. Once I became the music director, I already knew how he liked to operate. Still, I was also in a space where I wanted to experiment with different arrangements, vibes and musical moments to make the music different yet the same. Now he gives his input, but he trusts me to come up with arrangements and how I want things to flow. He’s still involved because he’s a musician and a creative.
Can you tell us about some of those experimental moments?
He has a song called ‘P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care).’ We just did a ‘Bigger Love Tour’ with John. Right now in our show, I did a complete afrobeat remix of it. It’s almost like an ‘Essence’ type of record. We’ve played ‘Number One’ over Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity.’ We’ve flipped songs so many different ways. We’ve performed remixes of ‘Green Light’ with T-Pain on it.
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You were also on tour with Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa on the “Mac and Devin Go To High School Tour” in 2012. Were you playing for both of them?
I was doing both of them. Snoop came to see John on tour with Sade [in 2011], and he asked John about his music director. John connected me with Snoop, and I was Snoop’s music director for a while. When he and Wiz came out with the Mac and Devin project, Wiz didn’t have a band, so he used Snoop’s band. That band was an all-Philly band. I hired all Philly people. Once that tour was over, Wiz wanted his own band. So, I put together an all-Philly band for Wiz. I used to [direct music for] J. Cole before I did Snoop. Once I left Cole, I put my homeboy Irvin Washington on with Cole, and he’s still J. Cole’s MD now. There were all Philly people with John and Durk, too.
How were Snoop and Wiz Khalifa’s shows?
Snoop is really smart and musical, so you have to play off knowing the artist. I know he likes Parliament and older music, so I try to figure out how to give him those vibes he was looking for. With Wiz, he never had a band before. Going in with an artist who never had a band before, you have to slow-walk them into not making major musical changes by adding a lot of cool things that make them feel like they know it’s not the original album. Whether it’s adding strings or transitions to tie songs together, it slowly walks them into creating their sound live.
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You have also worked with newer artists like Coi Leray, Saweetie and Lil Durk. How have you helped develop their live shows?
There’s a lot of communication you have to have when you get these calls — whether it’s management or the artist reaching out directly. I’ve done it at every level, so I know how to watch an artist’s live show grow. I know the proper steps to make them grow with their live sets. At this point, you’re teaching them how to get conditioned to the lifestyle, which deals with working out, eating right, making sure your memory is right to remember songs, and generally grooming them into being a better artist. To help Durk’s show get better, I made certain musical choices for him to tell a certain story as far as talk breaks, how we come in, and the flow of the show. Durk is already a great performer. Creating a structure and helping them become a better performer isn’t about anything specific you tell them — outside of making sure they go over the music, and they’re communicating what they like and don’t like. It’s not a simple answer.
How did you all prepare Saweetie’s “Saturday Night Live” performance?
We had a conversation. I asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ She told me, ‘I would love to do some sort of throwback, pin-up style.’ I asked, ‘What songs do you want to do? You have to do your hits like ‘Tap In’ and ‘Best Friends.’ But you only get two musical slots, and those slots have to be under three minutes and 30 seconds.’ I started moving things around musically to make it fit in the time restraints. She loved the arrangements. I took her wish, which encompassed the Diana Ross throwback era, and made ‘Tap In’ feel like that. We got it to the choreographer so they could do the choreography for it. We went to New York and rehearsed. Went to ‘SNL’ to soundcheck, and then we performed it.
You also played on Kanye West’s “Glow in the Dark Tour.” That’s one of the best tours ever. What was your involvement in it?
Adam Blackstone was the music director. I had just got done touring and doing stuff with Teddy Riley. I had just done Guy and Blackstreet. I learned to play vocoder and talk box from Teddy. Adam hit me like, ‘I need vocoder and talk box for this Kanye tour. Ye wants it especially for ‘Stronger,’ ‘Good Life’ and those songs which are heavy on autotune.’ We were supposed to do ‘Workout Plan’ and all of those songs. When I accepted the gig, I flew out to L.A., and I thought I just had to do my two or three songs. Halfway through rehearsal, Ye starts adding more songs. He was like, ‘You play vocoder. Why don’t you play on the hooks?’ The next thing I know, I’m playing on every hook (laughs). Adam put the show together, and when it came to the parts when I played, he was like, ‘Just create something. This is the hook, play the hook, and do some adlibs.’
Were there any parts of the show that really stuck out to you?
At the top of ‘Flashing Lights,’ I had this solo he had me do. There was a remix of ‘Flashing Light’ someone had done where they changed the hook a little bit with these little in-between ad-lib parts. He played it for me like, ‘Yo, I need you to do that too.’ Between that and ‘Heard Em Say,’ those were my two favorite moments.
Which tour would you say best showed off your talent?
John’s last tour — the ‘Bigger Love Tour’ — may have been the best. The overall outcome of the product, the arrangements, the reaction of the fans, how John felt, the write-ups all show that I used my talents for the best.
What do you have coming up this year?
I got a Vegas residency with John Legend. Saweetie is always performing. Lil Durk is going on tour. I got a few calls for stuff I haven’t said yes to. I’m a commercial partner for a virtual reality company that allows you to experience concerts in the metaverse. I’m also a partner with Epic Tech Group. I’m on the board there. They’re starting a foundation to take a lot of this music back into the schools and colleges the right way. That’s what I’m working on for the year, along with creating and putting out a lot of music with my fianceé and a couple of other artists.