Related: The case of the canceled Gucci Mane concerts (Nov. 19, 2009)
During his latest stint in jail, Radric Davis spent much of his time contemplating how he could change his life. The veteran Atlanta rapper known as Gucci Mane had built a tremendous regional following based on his oft-autobiographical songs about partying, drug trafficking and street conflict. But the same lifestyle he rhymed about had repeatedly landed him behind bars, ironically stifling his hopes for national fame.
"I got a lot of ideas together," he says of the six months he served for violating the terms of his probation, stemming from a 2005 incident in which he beat a promoter with a pool cue. "It was a time for me to refocus. I took it and made the best out of a bad situation." He devoured all of the inspirational material he could get his hands on, he says, from the Bible and rap magazines to a title from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
"As bad as it may sound, I think going to jail was one of the best things that could have ever happened to him, because he really grew up," says his manager and business partner, Debra Antney. "He had some time to sit back and think."
Upon his mid-March release from the Fulton County Jail, the 29-year-old immediately got to work. Gucci went straight to the studio and began recording songs, determined to take his career to the next level.
His plan was to capitalize on a burst of momentum. While he was gone, his name had suddenly become one of the hottest hip-hop brands going — a phenomenon not unlike one he experienced four years earlier, when he'd found himself in even deeper trouble with the law.
Evidence of his current success could be seen in the lines of frenzied fans stretching for blocks to see his homecoming appearances; in the labels fighting to release his music; in the raucous crowds attending his shows in states beyond the South, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and California; and in the preview of his July XXL magazine cover. "This is a pinnacle point in Gucci's career," says Melvin Breeden, president of Gucci's former label, Big Cat Records. "He's as hot as he ever has been."
Indeed, there are signs that he could finally take his place next to such Atlanta rap immortals as T.I., OutKast, Ludacris, and Gucci's loathed arch-rival, Young Jeezy. Now in the midst of recording his second major-label album with heavyweight contributions from Snoop Dogg, the Game and Juelz Santana, he's making his presence felt nationally like never before.
"He's really getting his industry grind on right now," says Antney. "He's actually hanging out with other industry people. The old Gucci never did that."
Known for his gold grills and awe-inspiring diamond pendants of characters like Bart Simpson and Garfield's nemesis Odie, Davis raps in a Deep South accent over thick, syrupy club beats. "When you hear me, you hear a lot of pain, a lot of hood," he says on his MySpace page's biography, "you hear what's going on in the inner city in Atlanta."
Supporting himself for years as a drug dealer, his long rap sheet includes a murder allegation, an assault charge, and drug and alcohol-related arrests — and his popularity is closely tied to the authenticity of his lyrics. In an era where hip-hop stars like Rick Ross and Akon have been eviscerated for fabricating their backstories, Gucci is clearly the real deal.
Determined to become a superstar, Davis' path to fame seems straight and clear so long as he stays out of trouble. But staying out of trouble is the one thing he's never been able to do.
Davis spent the first years of his life in the small Alabama town of Bessemer, raised by an elementary school teacher mother and a "hustler" stepfather, in Davis' words. Pops was the original Gucci Mane, so-called by people in his neighborhood for his propensity for the finer things in life. (The moniker "Mane" comes from the heavily Southern-accented pronunciation of "man.")
Arriving in East Atlanta at the age of 9, Davis was ridiculed by other students. "I got [picked on] because of how I spoke and my diction, which was different," he says. "I would talk with a country slang because I was from Alabama." Nonetheless he excelled in his classes, not so much because he studied a lot but because of his God-given abilities. "I was always naturally smart," he boasts. "I had a high IQ."
He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to Georgia Perimeter College, where he took classes in computer programming. But he says he was nonetheless forced to sell drugs to make ends meet. "I still had bills. I still had to eat," he says.
Antney believes the ridicule he faced growing up pushed him toward the thuggish crowd he grew to embrace. "Badass kids took a liking to him," says Antney, whom Davis refers to as his "auntie." "They took him in and loved him unconditionally, when [others] ridiculed and condemned him."
Davis' scholarship was revoked after he was caught with a large amount of crack and sent to jail for three months. Electing not to return to school, he began pursuing his rap career in earnest, releasing popular independent albums and breaking out regionally with his 2005 CD Trap House, released on Atlanta label Big Cat Records.
The work featured the infectious track "Icy," a tribute to his chains and jewelry recorded with Young Jeezy. It was Gucci's first big hit, but the situation turned sour after his camp allegedly rebuffed Jeezy's record label, Def Jam, in its attempt to include the song on the rapper's 2005 album Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101.
Jeezy subsequently recorded a diss song, "Stay Strapped," offering a $10,000 bounty for Gucci's "So Icy" pendant. "I want that motherfucking bullshit-ass 'Icy' chain," Jeezy said on the track. "So if he come to your town and you happen to snatch that motherfucker off his neck, or knock that motherfucker off his neck, when I come to town, shoot it to me."
It was a terrifying turn of events, and Davis' worst fears came true not long afterward when he was visiting a stripper named Foxy at her Decatur home. Five men blitzkrieged the house, armed with guns, brass knuckles and duct tape in an apparent attempt to snatch his chain — or worse. Davis shot and killed one of the assailants. The man's body was discovered days later; it was a rapper named Henry "Pookie Loc" Clark III, who supposedly had been close to signing with Jeezy's Corporate Thugz Entertainment label. Davis admitted to the slaying but claimed self-defense, and murder charges were dropped after prosecutors concluded they lacked the evidence to try him.
Though tragic, the incident certainly wasn't bad for business. Released on the same week Davis posted bond from DeKalb County Jail, Trap House went on to sell some 175,000 copies, according to Big Cat's estimates, making it a huge success for an independent album.
A recently circulated YouTube video shows further evidence of Gucci's brutal tendencies. Reportedly filmed at a 2005 record release party, it shows him performing onstage next to Atlanta rapper and one-time romantic interest Mac Bre-Z. In the clip, he asks her to step off the stage and then, when she refuses, pushes her off violently. She appears to hurl a glass at him, at which point he lunges at her and cold-cocks her in the face.
The situation was apparently resolved without police; in an interview filmed immediately after the incident, in fact, Bre-Z bizarrely asserts that she holds no ill will. But in October 2005, Davis began serving a six-month jail sentence for beating a concert promoter named Troy Bufford with a pool stick.
Bufford used Gucci's name to promote an event without his authorization, says Davis' former Big Cat labelmate Tamala Walker. "The fans were expecting him to be there, and it makes him look bad at the end of the day," says Walker, a rapper known as Tam Tam. "I'm not saying that's right, but when you come from the street, that's how the streets handle the business." (Bufford could not be reached for comment, and Davis declined to speak on any of his run-ins with the law.)
Shortly after beginning that jail stint, Davis was badly beaten by another inmate and placed into 23-hour-a-day protective lockdown for most of his remaining sentence. Upon his release, Davis was assigned 600 hours of community service, but was forced to return to jail in late 2008 after it was discovered that he had completed only 25 of them. "It was a misunderstanding," he asserts, adding that he spoke at school events and delivered Christmas presents to children.
Antney maintains that he did indeed fulfill his service requirement, but that his hours weren't properly documented. "When we asked people to send [paperwork] over to the courts, they didn't put it on their letterheads."
Regardless, in ordering Davis back to jail, the judge also took into account other recent slip-ups, including arrests for DUI, marijuana and illegal weapons possession.
Though his tangles with the law made the headlines, Gucci kept writing and recording music at a torrid pace behind the scenes. He began experimenting with cadence and pacing, taking great pride in his craftsmanship. Soon, he'd developed from a unique-sounding yet gimmicky braggart into a sophisticated storyteller, capable of seizing control of beats with his distinct, nasally flow.
The coming-of-age song "Neva Had Shit" features Gucci at his most vulnerable as he reflects on his upbringing. "I ain't neva had shit, nigga, that's the truth/Rich kids in the school used to jone my shoes," he raps. "I wish I had a nickel for every fight I fought/ ... just a little bad black boy it ain't my fault."
Big Cat Records CEO Marlon Rowe says the rapper regularly recorded tracks at the almost-unbelievable pace of some six songs per day. And these weren't throwaway tracks, but well-executed tunes. "That amazed me," says Rowe. "He's a very good songwriter, a very intelligent guy." (Gucci Mane has literally dozens of mixtape titles, and the flood of music released during his recent jail stint built his buzz and left many fans unaware he was even locked up.)
After the success of Trap House, Big Cat sold Davis' contract to Atlantic Records for $300,000 and a future royalty from his major-label debut, Back to the Trap House. But before that album could be released in late 2007, Gucci had another hit on Big Cat, "Freaky Gurl" — an homage to Rick James' "Super Freak." Atlantic responded by releasing a remixed version of the song featuring Lil Kim and Ludacris, which prompted Big Cat to release yet another version of the song on a collection called Trap-A-Thon. Gucci issued a public statement asking fans not to buy Trap-A-Thon, and the dispute over the song landed the labels in court, with Atlantic claiming Big Cat had violated the terms of their buyout agreement.
They settled privately but returned to court earlier this year, after Big Cat announced the release of another Gucci Mane work, Murder Was the Case, which dropped May 5. The album gained significant traction based on the nationally played single "Stoopid." Since the incarcerated Gucci was unable and unwilling to be a part of the song's promotion, Big Cat commissioned an animated video featuring a cartoon Gucci fleeing from police in a convertible Hummer.
The parties again settled out of court. Rowe says Big Cat paid Davis a royalty to release the album, agreed to turn over its 100 or so unreleased Gucci Mane tracks, and promised not to put out any more of his music. "It's all over," says Antney.
While Rowe insists that the music on Murder Was the Case was recorded "right before he went to prison," Antney calls its tracks — as well as those from other recently issued, unauthorized mixtapes — "as old as Methuselah." Davis also discouraged fans from purchasing the Big Cat album in a recent statement, asking them to check out his recent, "authorized" mixtape, Writing On the Wall, instead.
Rowe contends that the two men are still on good terms. "When he was in prison, we talked. We've still got a relationship. He understands it's business." Davis declined comment on his relationship with Rowe, who himself finished serving more than a year on a gun charge in 2007. He told the New York Times he was forced to carry the firearm for protection while traveling with Davis in the wake of the Jeezy dust-up.
"I'm going to lay it on the line," Davis says of his second as yet untitled major-label album, due in August from his So Icey Entertainment imprint and Warner Bros. Music, an arm of Atlantic parent company Warner Music Group. "I'm going to talk about topics that I've never really talked about, the trials and tribulations in my life, relationships and my family, my relationship to the street, my hustle before I came to be a rapper, and the life of the rapper — the good and the bad."
Composing an album full of quality, street-ready anthems shouldn't prove difficult for Davis, as he's been doing exactly that for much of the decade. Winning the adoration of middle America, however, will be more difficult.
Frequent collaborator Soulja Boy Tell 'Em contends that Davis' management has yet to market him properly. "He ain't been presented on that right platform," says the rapper. "Like, you see T.I. performing at the BET Awards, but you never see Gucci Mane at the BET Awards. When Gucci finally gets that right team and that right label situation, he's going to be put on that platform just like Jeezy and T.I."
Antney seems to recognize that Davis' image needs an overhaul, but blames the media for overplaying his violent streak. "It's not fair. People started saying he was this person that he wasn't," she says, adding that he's really a big kid at heart. "He's the most lovable person. Anyone that works with him loves him."
She suspects that his public perception will improve now that he's out of jail. "He's really got his grown man on," she says. "His business savvy is a lot better. He thinks differently."
Davis echoes these sentiments. "I'm not going to have problems with nobody," he asserts. "I'm going to stay focused, stay on my grind. The more I travel, the more people I encounter, the more I read, the more I try to make those things a part of my life. I'm growing every day as a person."
Cynics could say we've seen this movie before. After his murder charge was dropped, for example, he also promised to make dramatic changes in his life. But it's understandable why his fans are so quick to forgive his sins. Many identify with his struggles, and they understand that he didn't ask for much of the conflict he's been drawn into.
Sure, he might act stupid sometimes, they argue, but it's hard to begrudge him the chance to be a better human. Especially since his songs are so damn catchy.
um, her name is Hayley Williams, not Griffin.
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