Gucci Mane smiles a lot for a man who has been arrested six times, served numerous jail sentences, and spent two years in a maximum security prison.
He stands in front of a red velvet curtain draped so finely it looks a baroque painting, and he raps into a 1950s style broadcast microphone with a long stem. “I feel like one of the Temptations,” he says with a coy laugh. Several feet over his shoulder, Zaytoven sits at a grand piano leaning back as his fingers hustle across the keys. Somehow this is happening at a piano bar in the Lower East Side with a capacity of just under 400. It’s ornate but worn-in, and it has the feel of a sultry New Orleans burlesque show. On this night in May, a small group of people are witness to the Godfathers of Southern Rap as they perform a stripped down set as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival. The 11 songs they perform illustrate the evolution of their careers, and collaboration at it’s finest.
Zaytoven and Gucci Mane both wear shades
and jeans, looking completely
civilian—were it not for their diamonds
on diamonds on diamonds.
The first three songs they perform, “St. Brick Intro”, “Guwop Home”, and “Waybach” are all from 2016 albums Everybody Looking and The Return of East Atlanta Santa. Zaytoven and Gucci Mane both wear shades and jeans, looking completely civilian—were it not for their diamonds on diamonds on diamonds.There are moments of blistering shine from Gucci’s medallion necklace and wrist watch that seem to direct all the light in the room. The songs have an instrumental backing track with beats that add a slight edge to the otherwise disarming piano melodies. Zaytoven arches and bows his wrists while looking at the audience and at Gucci, but never at the keys. Gucci has a broad smile and sways as he transmits “Scccoooochie” to both sides of the room. They exchange knowing looks, but never miss a beat.
When Gucci was finally released from prison in 2016 he didn’t waste a second, releasing two albums in the first three months following his release. With so much material rushing into the void, it was almost like he never left. Yet there was something noticeably different—a deep focus and sobriety that hadn’t existed before. In an interview with Hot 97 he recalled the experience: “As an artist, it was a super humbling experience.” Although this was far from his first time being behind bars, (he’s served several stints in jail) it was his first time in a maximum security federal prison. When he talks about being in prison, he becomes somber and firmly opens up. “I’m not going back,” he says. “I changed my whole life not to go back.” Zaytoven stayed busy making beats for the new class of Atlanta rappers like Future and Migos, all the while thinking about Gucci’s release. He told The Fader: “I wanted to make sure when he came out to do his album, he’d say: ‘I got to use Zaytoven all over the album.’ I made sure to be in a better place than I was when he left.”
The bulk of the pair’s set is from the late 2000s, a time when Atlanta rap was barely a thing. From the inaugural beats, Gucci Mane and Zaytoven have always been independent, and therefore freed to generate releases constantly without needing a label’s permission (a mode of operating that they pioneered). They rose from the underground by volume, and their songs reflect the underground culture. Gucci draws from street life in “My Chain,” “Street Niggaz”, and “Bricks.” As they perform these songs it’s hard not to imagine how many times they were pounding out of speakers in the hot Atlanta summers.
Back in 2001, Zaytoven was a barber. His studio was in his Mom’s basement, and he played the organ every Sunday at church (he still plays the organ every Sunday at church). Nonetheless, word of his beats got around, and Gucci Mane came to his studio to make tracks for his nephew, not himself. Zaytoven saw right away that Gucci had something. “There was something about the way [Gucci] rapped over the beats that I was giving him,” Zaytoven says. “It was magic.” For years after, the two worked tirelessly and grinded out tons of material without much traction. By the time their song “Icy” became a hit in 2005, they had produced dozens of mixtapes. It took the rest of the world years to catch up, but when Gucci sings the line from “Icy” “lil’ kids want to be like Gucci when they grow up” in 2017, it’s nothing but prophetic.
Gucci Mane and Zaytoven have had beyond prolific careers and they aren’t even 40. Since 2001, Gucci Mane has released 10 studio albums and 70 mixtapes, and since 2007 Zaytoven has made beats for just as many. By 2009, The New York Times acknowledged that Atlanta was “hip-hop’s center of gravity” and in 2017 they still chaperone everything that passes through there. Gucci’s return to music has been fierce, urgent, and unprecedented given the obstacles of his imprisonment. Yet, this might be his biggest year yet with an album out June 23 called Drop Top Wizop, an autobiography out September 19 from Simon & Schuster, and a planned marriage in the fall.
It took the rest of the world years to catch up,
but when Gucci sings the line from “Icy”
“lil’ kids want to be like Gucci when they grow up”
in 2017, it’s nothing but prophetic.
For the final song, they kill the backing track and perform purely acapella. “First Day Out” clearly carries a lot of weight for them. Zaytoven faces Gucci Mane.
“This is my favorite song that Gucci Mane has ever, ever done before. It’s like my No. 1. I remember when he got out of jail and he came and recorded this song. He was fresh out of jail. And he recorded a few songs already. But he was like, ‘Zay, gimme a beat man. I wanna do a song with no hook on it. So I’m like ‘Bet…’ I give him the beat and he start rapping, talkin’ about ‘I’m startin’ out my day with a blunt of Purp.’ So listen, as he’s rapping, the hair on my arms started standing up. So I’m like, I know for a fact this my favorite rapper in the world right here. Gucci, you the king. You the real big dog.”
Once again, Gucci looks so genuinely happy. Then again, maybe it’s not surprising—he has an ice cream tattoo on his right cheek, after all.
Carys Huws | Red Bull Content Pool
All other photos by Maxwell Schiano| Red Bull Content Pool