Gucci Mane, Trap Music, and The University of Iowa
Written by Ansel Bare
A weekend stroll down any given street within a six-block radius of the University of Iowa would most probably entail hearing soft echoes of loud music and partying. Hip hop lyrics being chanted by a population of college students with a taste for domestic beer and Hawkeye vodka, the like of which might feel akin to a connoisseur of sports, music and hookups, among other finer things. Into the epicenter of student leisure, a passerby could observe a bumble of drunken and excited young adults hollering aloud the hooks of "God’s Plan" by Drake or hear the beat of Offset & Metro Boomin’s ”Ric Flair Drip" emanating from local bar fronts, the sounds of Ped Mall nightlife meshing into one.
To older folks like my pleasant and well-mannered parents, aged seventy and seventy-one, a contemporary scene of off campus partying might seem overwhelming compared to the civil rights era merrymaking of their college days at U-W Platteville. Of course, collegiate traditions have been passed down for generations and student partying and bar going in 2018 is the descendent of that same rebellious lifestyle recognized half a century ago. However, one thing I can say with certainty to my parents is that, the incorporation of hip hop, namely "trap music," would sound equal parts alien as abrasive, the nature of which is not relatable to their reminisces of house parties in their day.
But what exactly is trap music and how did it find itself recognized by the mainstream are questions that could find their answers by traveling back in time to the city of Atlanta, Georgia, about thirty years ago. So, let's take an excursion down a much different street, one unrecognizable to that of a college town in Iowa.
Picture this: a crime epidemic fueled by the War on Drugs and an entire history of political injustices carried out by local, state, and federal governments and borne by people of color, had ravaged the city of Atlanta by the 1970s. Into the 90s, rapes and robberies occurred at such a high rate that many such crimes went unreported. Inner city streets where poor education, poverty, and lack of upward social mobility were commonplace, had given way to massive grids of pavement on which a plethora of illicit activity thrived as a means of survival in desperation. Houses left vacant on blocks which had been losing residents for two decades manifested in drug activity; the drug house's regular flow of addicts, seeking sedative relief from hard years and burdensome lives, 'trapped' in their ways. Thus, the establishment received its common term, "trap house."
A product of these same streets, a new type of hip hop that would come to be characterized by its fast-paced high-hat subdivision, booming bass, shady demeanor, and emphasized by gritty lyricism resembling snapshots of urban lawlessness, had begun to take shape. Atlanta rap groups such as Outkast and Ghetto Mafia began to incorporate lyrics depicting the dangerous, organized, low-profile measures taken to win bread in their city, which embodied the trap house and the hustlers' lifestyle that came with it. By the early 2000s, trap music was a new hip hop sub-genre awaiting its chance to take the stage of a larger audience whose craze would one day change the very nature of the beast.
Enter Radric Davis, recent college expellee and part-time drug dealer with a family tradition of hustling.
Radric Davis' grandfather served it the Second World War. A clean dresser and sharp man, Ralph Dudley Sr. acquired bourgeois tastes in European designer brands, and while overseas had earned his nickname, 'the Gucci man.' Ralph Dudley Jr., Radric's father, was likewise a smart man who sported cool fits and old southern charm. In his cleverness, Ralph Jr. dealt with unvirtuous ways of money-making through swindling and tricking, fleeing on drug charges before the birth of his son who would take his mother's maiden name. Vicky Davis, Radric's mother, was an educated woman with a teaching degree who moved her two sons from small-town Bessemer, Alabama with its quiet streets, seeking opportunity in Atlanta, Georgia, circumstantially residing by its crime-infested ones. While growing up in East Atlanta, young Radric received good grades in school and found a passion for poetry whilst becoming enthralled by hip hop artists of his time.
However, the influence of East Atlanta's crime culture paired with that of his father who intermittently visited, and kids who his older brother ran with, began to rub off on malleable Radric. By the eighth grade, Radric heeded money that he'd grown up without and expanded his dealings from selling marijuana to cocaine.
Radric Davis was expelled from Georgia Perimeter College in 2001 on the grounds of drug possession, and after his first arrest that same year he had decided that he needed to change his lifestyle. Davis had already been in and out of studios, making some extra cash writing raps with the intention of one day becoming a rap manager. After his sixty-seven-day suspension in Fulton County Jail, a friend introduced Davis to a local up and coming producer known by his alias, Zaytoven, who convinced Davis to try his own rapping. Radric was a big fan of rap growing up and was influenced by names like Master P, Eazy E, J Prince, and Mannie Fresh. But knowing he couldn't rap about the same lavish lifestyles of his idols who drove luxury sports cars, Davis rapped to inspire those in his neighborhood who drove Chevy Impalas and Cutlass Supremes: trap music.
Davis began to spend every day in the studio with Zaytoven, recording countless verses with a group of neighborhood rappers who called themselves "Home Grown." Davis marketed his first CD, "Str8 Drop Records Presents, Gucci Mane, La Flare." The family name passed on to his father from his grandfather became his pseudonym, and with all of its Alabama country flavor, Radric Davis became "Gucci Mane." Gucci started distributing posters and hustled his CD as a package deal with the dope he was still selling to finance his rap endeavors, until his music spread from Atlanta throughout Georgia.
Though he had entered the music scene and had a high ceiling for potential, Gucci Mane's long-lasting trials and tribulations only started when he aligned himself with Atlanta's "Zone 6 Click," who spent more time carrying out shady deals, robberies, and doing drugs than rapping. With weed, lean, and promethazine coursing through his veins, Gucci Mane became addicted to hustle. Lawlessness was a full-time job where robbing stash spots and moving large amounts of narcotics in Atlanta and (sometimes twice per day) to his home state Alabama brought in more than enough money to get by on. In Atlanta, his tracks were only getting more attention. In 2002, Gucci started his own label with Zaytoven called "La Flare Entertainment." People couldn't believe how boldly he bragged about criminal activity he'd carried out on his tracks and thus, Gucci had built an underground fandom who swore by his trap music.
In 2005, a rap beef with fellow Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy over rights to their hit collaboration, “Icy", released on Gucci Mane's album, Trap House, turned violent when Gucci was confronted by four armed men acting on Young Jeezy's diss lyrics proclaiming a bounty for Gucci's chain. A surprised Gucci subsequently seized an assailant’s pistol and fired shots, leaving one dead. Acquitted in 2006, Gucci's image was initially harmed by publicity of a murder charge, though Trap House was a big hit across the south and a true testament to his trap music which was already being imitated, as it would for the duration of his career. While Gucci Mane cleaned up his act following his signing with Big Cat Records in 2006, constant run-ins with the law plagued his career through the remainder of the 2000s, where he found himself in Fulton County Jail thrice more.
Although his dependence on lean (a concoction made with prescription-strength cough syrup and soda) and his reckless behavior made him a notorious troublemaker, Gucci founded his label 1017 Bricksquad Records in 2007, marking a new era in his career. Successful projects followed suit including The State vs. Radric Davis in 2009, its charts finding their way to mainstream and predominantly white audiences. Signing then young and unknown rappers like OJ da Juiceman, Waka Flocka, Young Thug, Future, and Migos to his record label, Gucci Mane was already creating the next generation of hip hop and trap music that today is danced to, played at ball games, and celebrated at events like college parties from Iowa City to around the globe. Producer Zaytoven was getting attention from the popularity of Gucci's tracks, and other small-time artists like Nikki Minaj and 2 Chainz had their careers launched working with Gucci Mane, growing into big-time names today. But before Gucci Mane could come to enjoy the fame and success he lavishes in now, he would have to endure a personal and difficult journey through drugs, hardships, and the law.
In 2010, Gucci Mane was arrested once again, this time for a slew of petty crimes. Just a year after celebrating pinnacle achievements, Gucci Mane was quick to lose fans after press deemed him out of control. Again, he was briefly incarcerated in 2011 and 2013 for a laundry list of charges. In September of 2013 his erratic behavior led to arrest and subsequent charges of firearm possession by a convicted felon, disorderly conduct, marijuana possession, and a probation violation. Gucci was sentenced to three years in maximum-security prison.
Perhaps a coping mechanism learned from his East Atlanta childhood, Gucci Mane's ability to rebound from misfortune and his own pitfalls had been a consistent quality of his being, and his all-time low in 2013 was no exception. Having suffered opioid withdrawals from a ten-year addiction to lean, Gucci Mane recovered in Atlanta's Grady Hospital feeling deeply embarrassed and ashamed; he apologized to family, friends, the industry, and fans for his long-lasting ill behaviors in a series of 2013 tweets. Gucci Mane's prison sentence served as a total turning point in his life and upon his release after spending two years behind bars, appeared nearly unrecognizable with a permanent smile and a physique nearly one hundred pounds lighter.
2016 Ushered in a new chapter for Gucci Mane's life and career. Fans and media have reveled in his book, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, as well as album releases Everybody Looking, Mr. Davis, and El Gato: The Human Glacier among others. Recently married to his long-time girlfriend, Keyshia Ka'oir, Gucci Mane has restored his image as a rap legend and boasts a career total of twelve studio albums, seventy-two mixtapes, and thirty-two singles with countless hours of additional collaborations and features.
Though I've endeavored to construct a portrait of Radric Davis and delineate some events which played roles in shaping the influential music career of 'Gucci Mane,' the East Atlanta rapper's extensive discography and autobiography speak for themselves, and I would implore the reader to peruse some of these works to gain a better understanding of the culture and music which I have described. From the streets of East Atlanta, Georgia to those of Iowa City, Iowa, the adaptation of trap music into popular culture, a trend largely aided by Gucci Mane, is ever evident. Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" off his album The State vs. Radric Davis is played at nearly every SCOPE Production social, and why not? A music born and raised on impoverished southern streets has evolved into one that crosses cultures and has even come to be shared with, though never owned by, those who were raised in prosperous northern suburban streets.
Mane, Gucci, and Neil Martinez-Belkin. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. Simon & Schuster, 2017.