Last month, Gucci Mane released an unofficial remix to Rick Ross' "War Ready," which was equal parts intriguing and confusing. Upon its initial release, "War Ready" was packaged as an important moment because the song marked the end of a longstanding feud between Ross and Young Jeezy. By most accounts, Gucci Mane and Rick Ross are currently on good terms, while Gucci and Young Jeezy are still very much not on good terms. So it wasn't clear what Gucci's intentions were in inserting himself onto the record, though by alluding to his 2005 shooting of a Young Jeezy affiliate in his verse ("Say Gucci got a Murder One/ I killed a man allegedly") it didn't seem like he was extending any kind of olive branch of his own. So, why then did Gucci Mane want to be on "War Ready"? And considering that he's been incarcerated since September awaiting trial on federal gun charges, just how did he manage to get on "War Ready?" I ventured down the Lemon Brick Road with the hope of finding the answers to these questions, and what I got was a glimpse behind the curtain of the Gucci Mane operation.
"Gucci told me to do that," laughs Sean Paine, Gucci's audio engineer, when asked about "War Ready." "You know Gucci—he likes to cause a little controversy. I told him he was crazy but he just started laughing, so I went into the archives and found something."
Though Paine currently serves as Gucci Mane's audio engineer, the 29-year-old describes their relationship as "more of a brother-brother type thing." The two met three years ago at Atlanta's Patchwerk Studios, where Paine was interning. One evening, Gucci requested an engineer for a studio session and when none were available, he settled for an intern. "All the other interns were scared, but I was like 'Come on with it'" Paine recalls. "Ever since that night, he only requested me."
Paine would leave Patchwerk to become the head engineer at Gucci's nearby Brick Factory studios in East Atlanta. In addition to the mixing and recording of nearly all of Gucci's recent work, he's recorded extensively with the rest of the 1017 Brick Squad roster. Last May, Paine co-executive produced Gucci's Trap House III and did the same on last December's The State vs. Radric Davis II: The Caged Bird Sings. On the latter, he shared the title with Ronald "Caveman" Rosario.
Caveman is the Director of Urban Music at 101 Distribution, a music distribution company based out of Phoenix, Arizona. Like Paine, Caveman's only been working directly with Gucci Mane for a couple of years, though he's now a integral part of the team. Whereas Paine is in possession of the music, Caveman's more of the money guy. The two met through OJ Da Juiceman, whom Paine had been working with for several years beforehand. "I sat down with Gucci right around the release of Trap God and let him know that these mixtapes were a source of income and that he was basically giving the money away to sites like LiveMixtapes."
Caveman works in mid-tier distribution, which simply put means he distributes independent releases to digital retailers like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Best Buy online. He's the reason most of Gucci Mane's recent mixtapes are available for purchase online, as are the releases of many other Atlanta artists like OJ Da Juiceman, Rocko, Migos, among others. "With Gucci, last year we did a total of 12 projects, including nine Gucci Mane projects and three 1017 projects." He claims Gucci netted "about $1.3 million from that" in 2013. Caveman is also the co-owner of TrapMerch.com, which sells Gucci's official merchandise. "We have the official 'Free Guwop' tee shirt. That shit sells all day everyday."
As it did with The State vs. Radric Davis II, the creative process behind putting new Gucci Mane projects together involves extensive phone calls with the incarcerated Gucci, who's currently in a Federal Detention Center in Lovejoy, Georgia. "He's very, very, vocal about what he wants, and how he wants it sound," explains Caveman. "He does not remember a lot of the songs that he recorded, so we have to sift through it and I literally play the songs over the phone so he can remember them." Paine reports much of the same. "He'll call from jail and give us some direction on these projects and then we kind of go from there. Gucci really makes all the decisions."
The vast majority of new Gucci Mane songs consist of music that was recorded in full prior to his incarceration, when Caveman says Gucci was recording about 13 songs a day. But then there are also songs like "War Ready," and a handful of others, in which Sean stitches together brand new creations. "Some of these songs might have a great first verse but not a strong second verse. Some have great verses but the hook's not there. So we sift through everything with Gucci and really create new songs" says Caveman, who also serves as an A&R in addition to his more business related responsibilities.
Alongside Gucci's manager Yusef, who took on management duties last year after Gucci's fallout with longtime former manager Kevin "Coach K" Lee, Sean and Caveman make up the meat and potatoes of Gucci Mane's team, which is considerably smaller than one might expect from a rap star of his magnitude. Though Billboard recently reported that 1017 Brick Squad is still a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, Gucci and co. certainly seem to be operating on their own. Both Trap House III and The State vs. Radric Davis II were digitally distributed through 101 Distribution.
Currently, the team is prepping the April 1 release of two projects: The Brick Factory Vol. 1, a 1017 Brick Squad compilation album, and Young Thugga Mane LaFlare, a collaborative effort with rap's hottest commodity Young Thug, for whom Paine mixed the entirety of 1017 Thug just over a year ago. Thug's status with the label has been a point of contention as of late, with the rapper recently aligning himself with Birdman and Cash Money Records despite multiple reports that he's still very much signed to Brick Squad. Yesterday, in an extensive exposé on Young Thug's label Status, Buzzfeed reported that Thug also signed a second production contract with Atlantic imprint Artist Partners Group in the Fall of 2013. Both Paine and Caveman insist they haven't spoken with Gucci regarding Thug's situation, but there certainly seems to be tension surrounding it.
"The fucking reality of it is Thug is signed to 1017, regardless of where he wants to go," says Caveman. "So regardless of what people want to say, what they want to Tweet or Instagram, Gucci is still gonna get paid. Thug is running around saying Rich Gang, but a lot of people don't understand that Rich Gang is a management company. It is a management deal. It isn't a record deal. So Birdman and his team are now representing him, but regardless of his representation he's still signed to Gucci."
Caveman's right. Thug's single "Stoner," which was recently serviced to radio, is currently credited to Asylum/Atlantic on the Billboard Hot 100, where it sits at #47. It's reminiscent of a similar situation not too long ago when Young Scooter, a fellow Atlanta rapper and 1017 Brick Squad signee went from claiming Brick Squad to repping Future's Freebandz imprint to then declaring himself independent. There wasn't a clear resolution to that, though Scooter, like Thug, is also now claiming allegiance to Rich Gang. These are tricky dilemmas: With Gucci's incarceration it's probably not the most convenient time to be a signed artist to 1017 Brick Squad; on the flip side, these artists did sign recording contracts and Gucci's early cosigns have certainly played a part in their success. "[Gucci] has his ears to the streets. So when people come up to him like 'This dude's poppin', this dude's winning he'll bring them close and in a sense teach them. He'll bring them on the road, have them open up for him. He shows them how this shit works," adds Caveman. Gucci's TBD length of incarceration certainly isn't making any of this easier to resolve. "1017 isn't at a standstill, but we're definitely waiting to see what they're doing with Gucci first," Paine says.
This time around, it's the feds vs. Radric Davis, and there's a lot up in the air for Gucci, who's facing up to 20 years behind bars stemming from two September incidents in which he was allegedly found in possession of a firearm. But if there are any certainties in life, it's that there will always be more Gucci Mane music. The Brick Factory and Young Thugga Mane LaFlre haven't even been released yet, and Paine's quick to assure me that, "Trap House 4's on the way." Caveman too, isn't concerned about a lack of Gucci music becoming an issue. "We could drop three albums a year for the next three years and still have enough material for another three years."
On a bright note, the leaks off The Brick Factory and Young Thugga Mane LaFlare have been promising, and Gucci sounds invigorated alongside the young crop of talent that came to work at Gucci's studio. "The Brick Factory - it was like its own movement. It was weird, man. Ain't nothing like it," says Paine. Most of all though, these releases further validate Gucci as one of Atlanta's most important cultivators of raw talent. Gucci's willingness to grab an intern out of Patchwerk and make him his head engineer is the same willingness that had him invested in the careers of OJ Da Juiceman, Waka Flocka Flame, Mike Will Made It, Young Scooter, Young Thug and many others, long before anyone else of his status cared. On "Aight," off The Brick Factory, Quavo of the Atlanta trio Migos (who are not signed to 1017) raps "When Gucci called my manager/That night it changed my life," reminding just how many careers Guwop has jumpstarted. Anyone paying attention to contemporary rap music knows that there are some truly amazing things coming out of Atlanta right now. And even if Gucci Mane is away, Sean Paine is making sure he's still got one foot in the trap.
Neil Martinez-Belkin had a good time skipping down the Lemon Brick Road. He's on Twitter - @Neil_MB