Stove Music: Gucci Mane and the songs of post-industrial drug trade
By Noah Angell
I’m a gold mouth dog, definition of the South
Ain’t no quarters, ain’t no halves, just some wholes in this house*
Ain’t no bitch, it ain’t no baby, ain’t no clothes in this house
It’s a drought, and my price will make your eyes pop out
Gucci Mane was born Radric Davis in Birmingham, Alabama in 1980. He was the second to bear the name, as his father’s street name was also Gucci Mane. He has dominated the Atlanta hip-hop scene for nearly ten years, and is a fountain of influence even from his present position behind bars, where he is currently serving a sentence on weapons and assault charges.
In rap music, ad-libs are familiar phrases or vocal sounds that foreground an artist’s aural appearance. They often rhythmically punctuate delivery, acting as sound stamps that key the listener into an artist’s sonic and symbolic world. Over the years, ad-libs have taken on more currency as peripheral forms of rap become more evolved. Gucci Mane’s ad-libs are more symbolically loaded than most – they include a vomit sound (a quick, dry wretch, brought on by dizzying levels of excess; making Gucci and all those who lay eyes on him sick). There is also “Burr!” an exclamation of how cold he is, his aura a snow globe-like ecosystem of cocaine and diamonds. “Catch up!” taunts the listener, as if he’s smiling back at us from the front of a race, mocking our inability to advance. “Skrr!” is an onomatopoeia that mimics the sound of scraping the sides of a pot used to cook crack cocaine, in order to maximise yield. A similar, intensified and elongated sound, “skkkrrrrrttt” approximates the squeal of tires as they accelerate off into the distance.
When Gucci begins to rap, his style is at once showy and muted. Cadences tailored with unusual sensitivity to the particulars of each beat, dance with skilful and slurred articulation, like light reflecting off of jewels. However, even when his delivery is at its most energetic, there is a sort of emotional deadness, numbness central to his voice, like he’s taking refuge inside a lightshow; his flamboyant appearance and vocal styles overwhelming the listener while concealing his hurt.
Gucci possesses a dark, absurdist wit, in-which cartoon-like characterisations of abundance and excess clash with their devastating counterparts in reality. In both his flamboyant appearance (Gucci has been photographed with medallions featuring cartoon characters including Bart Simpson, Odie from Garfield, and the South Park “Eskimo”) and his lyrics (“I cook so much dope my arm need a motor”) the attempt and the failure to inhabit a cartoon-like reality is indicative of the gap between imaginings of wealth, and their counterpart in lived reality. This chasm between the imaginary and the actual is the place of conflict from which Gucci’s sadness and laughter emanate.
Gucci Fishing. Source: MediaTakeOut.com
In Gucci’s laughter there is a kind of deep and affirming embrace of chaos; of the transformative power of money, as well as its failure to transform. There is pride in knowing this too, as only one who has attained wealth can know its limitations. At the root of these qualities, there is the ever-raw wound of poverty. Gucci’s autobiography, which he reveals in abrupt glimpses, is the story of his selling drugs.
Gucci Mane describes selling dope as something compulsive, dystopian, and cyclical. The drug dealer, like the drug addict, is stuck in a chemical and economic cycle – the dealer is in as much of a hurry to get rid of their product, as their clientele is to receive it. Stock is replenished before it’s gone. If not, the insecurity of not having drugs to sell is akin to the dry, anxious feeling that addicts feel when there are none to take. In a future of dope dealing, death and prison loom, but one attempts to defy fate and stay in the cycle long enough to leave with some sense of security. Time cones into a claustrophobic tunnel, where the end is always near, the exit evasive.
Unlike many rappers who claim a history as a dealer as a preamble to their rap career, so that they may reflect safely on their troubled origins, Gucci’s dope dealing is not generally located in the past tense. His mythology does not include leaving the dope game, or “going legit”.
This symmetrical, interdependent, and mutually destructive relationship between dealer and addict collapses into an apotheosis once the dealer himself is overtaken by his own drug use. While the prevalent mythology of drug dealing in rap, first articulated in N.W.A.’s “Dopeman” and echoed in Biggie Smalls’ “10 Crack Commandments”, has been “don’t get high on your own supply”, in recent years the messy spillover that has been masked by the business dictum, has been increasingly left to show. In the end, the songs about selling drugs and songs about taking drugs sit side by side on the same records; these are the songs of the drug trade.
My big Auntie sell dope
My uncle still smoke blow
I can cook coke with no hands
Ima cook the dope with two stoves
Cooking crack is a task Gucci refers to frequently, almost obsessively. Crack cocaine is made by heating cocaine in boiling water, adding baking soda, and stirring to form a chemical reaction which makes a cheaper, extraordinarily addictive, solid smoke-able cocaine. Crack came to prominence in the late 80’s, making many poor young men millions of dollars, while corroding the communities they lived in. Addicts were spawned en masse, families disintegrated by the score, and market wars resulted in bloodbaths across the US.
For Gucci the stove is the site of traumatic transformation – from the trauma of poverty, to the trauma of excess generated with damaging velocity through the drug trade, and the warfare and loss which accompany it. Staring off into boiling water, inhaling the numbing and unpleasant fumes, Gucci speaks as one who is wounded yet immovable – determined to flee this persistent feeling of traumatic lack. Stuck in a sort of overdrive, weighed down by his heavy jewellery, Gucci’s excess is compensatory.
At times, Gucci seems to be ridiculing his younger self for the sin of being broke – the indignity and humiliation of being poor in America, where success is thought to be one’s birthright, proving too much to bear.
3 months still ain’t bought no clothes yet
no sofa, no bed, or hoe yet
Everyday all day, standin where the stove at
talkin to the floor like ‘homie where the blow at?’
Georgia where the sun, east Atlanta where the snow at
Insufficiency cries out from the past, strengthening Gucci’s resolve that he will relive this moment of self-annihilation over and over. For him it is a magical act, proof of his secret power to make capital materialise, like his unique way with cocaine and baking soda; an alchemical initiation into a world once denied.
Gucci Mane speaks about labour from a perspective that is in historical continuity with the narrative forms of Black field worker’s songs, and the country blues of his native Alabama, where being worked past the point of exhaustion characterised a working life. These songs represent the field worker’s perspective as emblematic of the plantation system of the time. However, the socio-political setting around Gucci’s life and music is much less widely considered by his international public. His work is rarely framed as coming from a generation where the death of urban industrial labor has left a vacuum filled largely by the drug trade. From this perspective, Gucci tells us about the dehumanising effects of capital from the perspective of a dealer.
Got a hundred bricks, stuffed em in the fridge (burr!)
200 ps (pounds) stuffed it in the attic
I’m a drug addict, bitch I gotta have it
I got a gift, I can water whip
I can flip a brick, I can triple up
Need a hundred mil, fuck a record deal
cause a couple mil is just not enough
There are a whole subsection of independent artists, Gucci among them, whose ‘street money’, gained through hustling and dealing, has enabled development away from the dictates of the music industry. While Gucci’s popularity thrived on a regional level he was largely ignored by the industry until he became too big to avoid doing business with.
Coming into music with his own money allowed Gucci the space to develop artistically; to pay producers, to spend countless nights in the studio without a record company charging him for that time, or pressuring him to produce material that fulfils their agenda. While this money may have enabled Gucci to bypass the label system, it leaves him in a precarious position, still connected to street money, and so subject to precisely the violence and imprisonment that he may aspiring to leave behind.
In many ways, so-called “trap music”** also relates to various traditions of American auctioneering, where the auctioneer acts as a vocalist, engaging in a chant in which the projected movement of capital sets the rhythm. As an example, as recently as 1990 the pace of tobacco auctioneering was set to accommodate selling 400-600 piles of tobacco per hour, each sold in 6-10 seconds***. In the case of rap, the rhythm of the music is set to establish a pace by which capital is projected to flow. Gucci raps about his daily routine, in a way that exposes a consciousness of continually making sales, a consciousness which betrays a chronic and underlying economic insecurity.
I’m back off in the kitchen workin with a chicken
you get 63 grams for like 1250
60 pounds of purp, 60 pounds of midget
as soon as it’s gone I sell another 60
There is a subtle streak of orthodox Black Nationalist consciousness in Gucci’s material. On “Blue Faced Rollie” he raps “like Malcolm X I’m a born leader And I’m shooting 5 for my damn people”, on Plain Jane “I’m from East Atlanta and I say it loud, got a black Ferrari cause I’m black and proud”, on ‘My people’ he says “I know Locs (Crips), yeah them blue people, Bloods yeah them red people, Gucci Mane a black man got a pocket full of dead people”. These traces of militancy in Gucci Mane may be a residue of the 90’s rap, which was endemic with Five Percenter and Black Power references, but it could also come from being born into a world that was threatened with economic extinction. Rather than adopting the Black Panthers’ position that racism is a function of capitalism, for Gucci capital, his pocket full of dead people is the only route to power, or even mere self-preservation.
Gucci’s invocation of ‘By any means necessary’ also reads as a plea for understanding, an attempt at justifying behaviour that haunts him, a half-formed admission that he has hurt his own people in a quest to advance his own interests.
Since the era of the Geto Boys and N.W.A, Gangsta rap has been the predominant form of politically oriented rap, through descriptions of structural poverty and the violence that it spawns. It is a deficient, often racist or anti-poor reading of rap that does not afford a rapper’s authorship as much depth as that of a film director, or a writer of historical fiction. The detractors of Gangsta rap read its lyrics as an indictment of the individual whose lips form them, rather than of the system that they elucidate.
Despite Atlanta arguably being the epicentre of rap since the turn of the millennium, media centres based predominantly in New York still have difficulty understanding Southern rappers on their own terms. This is not unlike the critical championing of jazz over the blues, where jazz was understood as an intellectually challenging form when the blues was painted as a rural phenomenon, an act of oral transmission lacking in artistic agency. Despite the abstraction of jazz, as revelatory as it was, this refutation precluded explicit engagement with the politics of labour, of migration, of families breaking apart in poverty, which formed the basis of the Blues’ lyrical content.
Music like Gucci’s is rarely understood as political because it does not operate through the conventional political frames of activism, moralising, or prescribing policy. Gucci’s is an embodied perspective, he is in it. To not recognise the political import of these raps is a refusal or failure to listen to, or imagine, the reality that he has described so lucidly, which so many poor, black people in America know too well. His vast numbers of listeners in the modern day “chitlin circuit” (as evidenced by his sold out shows across the South and Midwest) stand in testament to the importance of his work being locally understood and recognised, but these numbers do not transfer to print and online media, not to mention politically. Hence the importance of disseminating and engaging with an artist like Gucci now.
*A reference to Frank Ski’s 12” vinyl “There’s some whores in this house” – A Baltimore club classic, which had a big presence in Atlanta’s bass music scene to the time of release. Produced on the label Deco Records in 1993.
**The term ”trap music”, which can likely be traced back to the Dungeon Family, is both a verb for selling drugs (“trap/trapping”) and the location where drugs are sold (a “trap” / “trap house”). Notably, Atlanta’s T.I. released his sophomore album Trap Muzik in 2003, and Shawty Red is often credited as the producer whose 808s drums, synths, and chopped up high hats typified Trap Music as a sound, but in recent years the term has been appropriated by EDM artists who have made more up-tempo rave- oriented music using the same sound kit, departing completely from the hip hop context.
*** Ed. Daniel W. Patterson & Charles G. Zug III. Arts in Earnest, Durham,. Duke University Press North Carolina 1990. P.105
Lecture-performance ‘Everything Gucci: The poetic and political economy of Gucci Mane’ by Noah Angell, 13 Nov 2015, was commissioned by Res as an elaborated iteration of this essay. An earlier version of the essay was published in Arabic on Ma3azef.com in March 2015.