Gucci Mane's Producers w/New York Times (Drumma Boy, Zaytoven, Shawty Redd, Fatboi)
ON Tuesday, the day Gucci Mane released his second studio album, “The State vs. Radric Davis,” he woke up and went to sleep in the Fulton County Jail, in the northwest part of Atlanta, where he’s resided since last month.
It was a not altogether unusual predicament for this rapper, born Radric Davis, one of the most vigorous and exciting in recent memory. This is the second time he’s had his probation from a 2005 aggravated assault conviction revoked, and the second time it’s happened at the moment where his career appeared to be on the verge of exploding.
Still, in spite of these impediments, Gucci Mane, 29, has been the most prolific rapper in Atlanta over the last two years, the most hotly discussed, and also the most improved. In the last few months he’s had the swiftest ascent to hip-hop ubiquity since Lil Wayne.
He didn’t do it alone. Gucci Mane’s rise has occurred in large part thanks to a handful of producers — Zaytoven, Drumma Boy, Shawty Redd and Fatboi, most prominently — whose work over the past four years has come to exemplify the modern Atlanta sound: triumphant but moody, synth-heavy with sharp snares, all sprinkled with almost gothic overtones. Collectively these four been responsible for much of Gucci Mane’s great recent material as well as most of the best songs on “The State vs. Radric Davis” (So Icey/Asylum/Warner Brothers). Their work on this album, Gucci Mane said in a phone interview from jail, “made me feel like, damn, I was smart for working with them for all these years.”
Since the middle of the decade the sound of Gucci Mane, who hails from Alabama, has been a major part of the sound of Atlanta, and in turn, the sound driving much of hip-hop. “One thing we were cognizant of is making sure those producers had a huge part of this album,” said Todd Moscowitz, the president of Asylum Records. “It’s important that the bulk of this album was Atlanta guys, because those are the people who helped him develop his sound.”
And while New York and Los Angeles are still where all the major record labels have their offices, Atlanta has become an increasingly influential hub for hip-hop, as so much music is made there. Notably, none of this wave of producers originally hail from that city. “There’s more transplants here in Atlanta than people from Atlanta,” Coach K, an adviser to Gucci Mane and an A&R director for the new album, said. The result is a style that has trademark elements but is flexible enough to accommodate a range of influences.
That sound can be heard in the music of other Atlanta artists like Young Jeezy, and to a lesser degree, T. I., Soulja Boy and Gorilla Zoe, but it drives and animates “The State vs. Radric Davis,” and its star. Gucci Mane may lack T. I.’s easy swagger, or Young Jeezy’s permanent stain of self-satisfaction, but he raps with a winning naïveté and charm, his rhymes deceptively intricate. While often the tracks he chooses to rap over are menacing, Gucci Mane himself is not. Instead, he teases, cajoles, flatters, winks and brags.
“We’ve seen people talk about these topics for years,” said DJ Drama, the mixtape impresario and frequent Gucci Mane collaborator. “He brings light to the track. It’s a different space than a T. I. or a Jeezy.”
Ominous but bouncy songs have become something of an Atlanta hallmark in recent years. “The trap, the hood clubs — that’s what they like, a real dark 808 type of beat,” Coach K said, referring to the signature kicks and bleeps of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. “All those dark crazy 808 beats, those are the ones he grabs for the mixtapes, where he’s like, ‘I don’t have to worry about radio’ and can go straight to the cars with it.”
Fatboi said that the 808 is central to Atlanta’s versatility. “There’s so many different ways we use it,” he said. “You have your snap music, your crunk music, your trap music, your pop rap.”
Diversity wasn’t always a part of Atlanta’s rap scene. In the 1980s and early 1990s Atlanta had its own variant of Miami’s electro-driven bass music, with homegrown stars like Kilo Ali, MC Shy-D, Raheem the Dream and DJ Smurf (later the producer and executive Mr. Collipark). By the mid-1990s, thanks to the rise of OutKast, Goodie Mob and the production collective Organized Noize, Atlanta developed a reputation as a home for soul-minded hip-hop eccentrics, providing an alternative to hip-hop’s coastal identities.
But in the last decade Atlanta has moved from the margins to becoming hip-hop’s center of gravity, part of a larger shift in hip-hop innovation to the south. “Atlanta is the melting pot of the South,” says Drumma Boy, born Christopher Gholson, who splits his time between Atlanta and Memphis, where he was raised. His father, James Gholson, is principal clarinetist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the University of Memphis, and his mother, Billie, occasionally sang backup for soul sessions.
Of the four producers driving the city, Drumma Boy’s tracks rumble the hardest. Two of his finest recent songs, Gorilla Zoe’s “Lost” and Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” are languorous, almost frightening in their stomp. On “The State vs. Radric Davis,” he contributed four tracks, including the creepy “Worst Enemy” and “All About The Money,” a busy bee swarm of synths overlaid with brash bass injections that’s equal parts Memphis and Atlanta.
This adaptability to a range of blended styles dates back to the beginning of Gucci Mane’s career, from his 2005 breakthrough single “Icy,” produced by Zaytoven.
As the in-house producer for Gucci Mane’s So Icey Entertainment, Zaytoven has been crucial to the development of Gucci Mane’s sound. He also produced the recent Usher single “Papers.” Nowadays, Zaytoven said, “the R&B guys want the same stuff you gave these rap guys.”
“My tracks have a real deep 808 kick drive to it,” he continued, “the drum pattern might be gutter and hard, but the music is so friendly.”
His work wasn’t always so welcome, though: “Icy” initially had a bumpy reception. “A lot of people, when they first heard it, they didn’t like it, but they came around,” Gucci Mane said. “A lot that was happening in 2005, 2006, good and bad, the beats reflected it. It was a lot of money around. People was making music to throw money to.”
“Icy” was radical and bizarre, which Zaytoven, born Xavier Dotson, attributes to residual influence from his time in the Bay Area scene. But with its squelchy, burping synths, it helped usher in an era of exuberance in Atlanta rap — “the record that changed the sound,” Zaytoven said.
At the time Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy were “the only two street cats doing street music,” Shawty Redd recalled. “They was talking street stuff in their records, but you could dance to it.”
Born Demetrius Stewart, Shawty Redd produced several songs on the debut albums by Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, who went on to have one of the most enduring beefs in recent hip-hop memory. That mutual animosity helped fuel their careers, but no more: this month it was brought to an end, for now, during a confab on DJ Drama’s radio show on Atlanta’s Hot 107.9.
The rivalry had become more of a distraction than a boon anyhow. Over the last few months Gucci Mane has been unavoidable — getting his heart broken on Mario’s “Break Up,” wearing a crisp white suit in the video for Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed (Remix),” hilarious on the deliciously ludicrous “Speak French,” with Jamie Foxx.
Also, since his last stint in jail, which ended in March, Gucci Mane has released a torrent of mixtapes — “Writing on the Wall,” “The Movie 3-D: The Burrprint!” and the three-part Cold War series (“Guccimerica” “Brrrussia,” “Great Brrritain”), among others — all brimming with original material. That he’s releasing a proper album seems almost quaint, a relic of another time. This unending stream has been the key to Gucci Mane’s success, both before and since the rest of the country took notice. Mixtapes often feature an artist rapping over beats from other rappers’ songs; Gucci Mane’s are miniature albums, more lightly conceived but equally relevant to his development. For the most part the producers he worked with on “The State vs. Radric Davis” are the ones he collaborates with on mixtapes.
“He’ll do a show,” Shawty Redd said, “come right back with his show money, break me off, break Drama off and break Zaytoven off and start right over.” Only one Shawty Redd track made “The State vs. Radric Davis,” but it’s a doozy: “Heavy” is like horror-film bounce music.
Gucci Mane recording sessions are models of simplicity. “We make everything from scratch,” he said of working with his favored producers. What comes out is as “surprising to me as much as to them.” Everyone mentions the ease of his songwriting, lyrics spilling out of him at a seemingly unmatchable clip.
“We’ll battle to see who’s going to finish first,” Fatboi said. “Sometimes he’ll have three verses and the hook done before I get done with the beat.”
Fatboi, born LaDamon Douglas, got his start in Savannah, Ga., producing for the rapper Camoflauge, and later worked with Shawty Redd. Fatboi’s father, Larry Douglas Sr., was also his middle-school music teacher and coincidentally taught Zaytoven in high school.
Fatboi produced three songs on “The State vs. Radric Davis” including the single “Wasted,” featuring Plies, which is a thorough distillation of the modern Atlanta sound — a steady foundation of strings building and receding, squirrelly synths jabbing in and out, abrupt coughs of drum-machine snares giving the song shape. It’s also the album’s biggest success so far. Its other major single, “Spotlight,” which features Usher, plays like a craven grab for crossover attention — it was produced by the more established and more pop-minded Atlanta producer Polow Da Don — but it hasn’t yet eclipsed “Wasted.”
Gucci Mane won’t be eligible for release from jail until next year, but there’s plenty of material, unreleased songs and videos, to sustain him for a while. “The stuff that’s popular right now is the 2007, 2008 stuff,” Zaytoven said. “I’m hoping that two years from now, the stuff we doing right now is popping.”
The city continues to speed along, though. “Right before I came in here I felt like it was coming so easy to me,” Gucci Mane said. “I was using different words, talking about deeper things. When I get out, I want to not only pick up where I left off, but improve. I’m trying my best to be a star.”