To let the snaps and the Instagram posts tell it, the mythologically tormented Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane is in a very good place right now. Having just come home from a three-year prison stay and despite his house arrest conditions, he's in better physical — and seemingly mental — shape than he's ever been.
For that he has himself to thank, and perhaps also some friends. So much of personal well-being is a function not just of being in the right headspace, but surrounding yourself with the right people, socially and creatively. For his upcoming album, Everybody Looking, recorded in just six days and set to drop on July 22, Gucci reunited with two of his closest friends and collaborators: Zaytoven, the Grammy-winning, church-and-trap pianist behind many of Gooch's early classics, and Mike WiLL Made-It, the producer now known for his work with the likes of Beyoncé, Future, and Miley Cyrus, and who first cut his teeth working under Gucci as a teen.
We spoke to Mike about the trio's newfound studio synergy, Gucci's legendarily feverish recording pace, and the sonic motivations behind their new album. That conversation is below, along with photographer Gunner Stahl’s inside look at Gucci’s home in suburban Atlanta, where the album was recorded and where, on one recent day, Young Thug stopped by for a video shoot.
Had you guys discussed your plans for this new record at all prior to Gucci coming home, or did you jump right in and knock the whole thing out off the cuff?
We were talking to each other over text. Gucci like "Man, explain the beats to me." I'm like "I don't want to talk your head off over this [inmate texting service] CorrLinks stuff." He was like "Man, please talk my head off, I ain't got nothing else to do but read this."
So I'd be like, "This shit sound distorted, this shit sound like this." He'd be like, "We gotta have this shit real crazy, beats knocking hard." So I'm playing back whatever he said in text and that's the vibe I'm going on in the studio. Whatever he said to me that's what I was able to make. When he got out, he was hearing the beats, just like, "Oh yeah I got a song for that." Zaytoven send over a beat, "Oh yeah I got a song for that." Zaytoven pull up and we make a beat together, boom, wrote a song to it.
Gucci’s a machine man. That man's a machine. He's a great. I don't know how Tupac worked, I don't know how Biggie worked. I wasn't able to be there to witness it. But I'm here to witness Gucci Mane and he's making history. People have an idea but they don't really know. He's super smart, he's super ill, he want to see the next person win. He was able to see me at a young age and always fuck with me. And same thing with a lot of people coming up. He love that music and he's talented with that shit. I'm just happy to play my part, because dude's one of a kind.
When did you first connect with Gucci?
I met Gucci when I was 15 or 16. I was just going down to Patchwerk [Studios] getting dropped off, working. I was already a fan of Gucci's work. He was [there] one night so I went upstairs and gave him a beat CD. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was just standing outside in the hallway and he's freestyling to all the beats. I'm just like "Damn this man goin in!" But he wasn't recording nothing. Then he ended up writing a song to one of the beats. Then he was trying to buy the beat, right off the spot.
He had gotten locked up and we fell out of contact but then me and Waka met each other. Waka linked us back up. Then we were in the studio. We did No Pad, No Pencil (2007), like 20 songs, in like three days. He’d rap to one of my beats, go in the lounge, chill smoke, whatever, be listening to it on the speakers. Before he'd walk out he'd be like, "Aye when I come back in here, just already have the next Mike Will beat loaded up." Boom go straight in, beat come on and he just freestyling. That's how we did "East Atlanta 6," that's how we did "I Smoke Kush," that's how we did all them shits. One of those songs he was freestyling and he was like, Mike Will made it / Gucci Mane slayed it. That's when everybody started calling me Mike WiLL-Made It.
How about Zay? What are your first memories of meeting him?
After we did No Pad, No Pencil, we was shooting the videos and Gucci had brought me to Zay like, "This is Mike Will. That's my young nigga, take him under your wing, just fuck with him." Gucci used to always [introduce me to] producers that was popping. They'd be playing their hard ass beats. I'm hearing Drumma Boy beats, I'm hearing Shawty Redd beats. Then Gucci would just stop in the middle like, "Aye man, put in your beats real quick. " And I'm knowing that my beats can't match up to these guys. But he used to always put me right there with them.
So Zay was fuckin' with me. His family come from the church, my family come from the church. My mom used to sing with Dottie Peoples. We just connected. Zay stayed on Panola road and I stayed in East Cobb, off Canton road. It's like a 45 minute drive but I used to go to work every day, and as soon as I'd get off work I'd go to Zaytoven’s house. Or go to school, go to work, leave work, go to Zaytoven's house. Gucci might be over there, or Rocko. That’s where I met Bankroll Fresh. And Zay was always a producer that… he was never holding back. He's just a good spirit. People would be over there trying to buy beats [from him] and he'd be like, "That's my homie Mike Will right there, he got beats too."
Were you and Zay making beats together back then?
We always said we were gonna do something but it was like… he's so good it's intimidating. I'd just sit and watch Zay. I used to be nervous and shit, I didn't want nobody in the room [when I was making beats] because I'm thinking about what people gon think. I'd be in my own little nest. But Zay used to make beats and I'd tell Gucci, "Bro I know I can do some hard shit on that." He'd be like "Go add some shit!" And I'd be like "Nah, nah. It's too many people in here."
I kept doing what I was doing, working with the different people I was working with, building my team up. Me and Zay we really made our first beat together when we did "MFN Right" [for 2 Chainz, from earlier this year]. We did do some beats for Gucci before but I don't know if those songs ever came out.
Now we got a formula. Mike Will gon lay down the drums right quick, [Zay] gon take it somewhere else with the melody. It's natural vibes. Then when Gucci come in. He's the last instrument, he's the vocal. Boom. It's like a cookout session. My first vibe, Zay's first vibe, Gucci's first vibe. Lay it down, don't overthink it. We'll overthink it later.
Overthink it later in what sense?
Go to the studio and goddamn mix this shit. The whole song is an art piece. You're not supposed to look at a real good art piece and see it for what it is right then and there. It's all about layers. Layers, layers, layers, and more layers. That's what music is for me. This adlib has to have this; this verse has to come in with a reverse reverb. This verse has to come in with a reverse reverb, with a delay right here to make it stutter. And then pause the beat, BOOM, then in drop in. It's all kinds of sonic tricks. That's the shit Gucci be wanting me to do. Take that shit and morph it. “Make it sound like how it sound right here, this natural vibe, but on steroids. Even bigger. Let's break the beat right here. Bring that bass up, bring that bass up.”
One of the engineers, he's a great engineer. He was like, "Man, Mike, I can't put my name on this if it sounds distorted like that.” I was just like, “Bruh, I don't mean no disrespect by this, but you might not have to put your name on it!" We gotta have this shit sounding dirty, we gotta have this shit sounding new. When this shit come on in the club this shit has to sound like an earthquake. When I went to South Africa for the first time and I heard a lion roar, I never heard no shit like that in my life, ever. This has to be that. This has to come on sounding like What the fuck? From top to bottom.
How Gucci say different words — “I PUSH THEM LEGS WAY BACK WAAAAAY” — all that plays a part. That has to stand out. The way this 808's moving has to stand out. It has to rumble a certain kind of way, so Gucci’s just on top of that shit riding. Then Zay putting these crazy melodies on here. You gotta reverb that out, that has to be big. Everything on this song gotta be bigger than life.
I feel like that's what this album is. This is a classic hip-hop album. I haven't really [heard] an album that felt this good since Get Rich Or Die Trying. That's what everybody searching for. Me and Gucci had certain references that we were talking about with this album: All Eyez On Me, The Chronic. He mentioned Layin Da Smack Down by Project Pat. We were just talking about different, solid albums. And we was like, “We gotta bring that solid album of today.” It has to be somebody that's gon elevate this trap sound, this down South rap shit right now. Everybody's doing their thing, but elevate it in a different way.
When you hear the album you'll understand. It just sound all the way new. It don't sound remotely like nothing else that's going on. But it still sounds like classic Gucci. It don't sound like he changed up or he's chasing a sound or he's trying to change. But bar for bar, he's just snapping. Bar for bar, bar for bar, bar for bar, bar for bar.
Hearing you talk about distortion makes me think of those very early Gucci tracks where sometimes it'd be clipping so hard that you couldn't even make out the vocals. Stuff like "Swing My Door."
For real, back then, stuff couldn't get mixed the way we wanted to. It didn't even matter. We'd record a song, go to the strip club, play a song and then if we'd see anybody moving to it we'd be like, "Yeah we gotta add three more songs and we gon finish this project and throw it out next Friday." If we had done the album how we would've back in the day, it would be out right now. But it's like… you heard what he said in his raps: "If you ain't gonna work with the label what you signed for?"
“When I went to South Africa for the first time and I heard a lion roar, I never heard no shit like that in my life, ever. This has to be that. This has to come on sounding like <i>What the fuck?</i> From top to bo”tom."
Do you feel more secure working in this environment with friends?
Zay brings out the confidence. Gooch too. Me, I'mma doubt myself first. I could bring the best out of somebody else but I'mma always doubt myself first. Zay makes me be confident and just goddamn go for it. If I'm making my own beat I gotta think about it. Like let me try to have this shit like melodically going to a place. I'm not super fluent on the keys. I'm an Eardrummer, I do everything by ear. But Zay is trained to played all types of keys.
When we're doing something for Gucci, I'm thinking about, This need to be a banger for the club. I know what people like to hear in the club, I know what people like to hear in the car. And I know what producers like to hear. I know producers want to hear forward shit, like some shit that they wouldn't do. Shit that they would be scared to do but it sounds good. So I'll do shit like that, that might not make sense but it still fall in the pocket. It's like organized noise. Shout out to Rico [Wade, of Organized Noize], but that's really what it is. It's noise but it's going crazy. And as long as that motherfucker bouncing, I know Zay gonna take it to another place. I might be thinking about a melody in my head but I'll never tell Zay what I'm thinking about. He gonna surprise me. He'll go in there and take it somewhere totally different. We from two different places, too. I'm from Atlanta, he from the Bay Area. So he'll come with a different bounce or he might just space out the notes and then add something in there.
That's why Gucci love our shit. Because he know we gonna bring something different. He never been a person to try and chase something. He never been a person to be like "Oh, I need some shit that sound like…" He just gonna do him, and people gonna love it.
Earlier, I overheard you guys talking about turning up the tempos.
Just changing the tempos. [You] have DJs saying like, "This shit ain't matching the tempo of what's going on in the club right now." I always ask them, "Yo, how many times has somebody in the club been like 'Is that 120… or is that 130?'" Nigga don't nobody even think about that shit if the song feels good. You could turn on Biggie Smalls' "One More Chance" and it's laid back, but it's a club banger. Ain't nobody thinking about what tempo that is. That's just DJs. The DJs just got the little program right there that's showing them all the tempos and they flipping it back and forth. And if you a producer that's trying to get on, and nobody paying you attention, what's the best thing to do? Fit in. [Make it] that same tempo so they can play my song in the mix. But if you somebody that's a hitmaker or that's trying to push things forward or change the game, the best thing to do is do something different.
My whole thing is we're creating a wave. That's all we’re doing. We're creating a waveform. Rhythm and melody are the universal language. I might not be able to talk to somebody from Asia or the Middle East or Africa, but I could play something. And they might move their way how they move, and I might move my way how I move. I listen to all types of music, rock & roll and all that shit. That's how I look at an 808. Distortion is always the new black. No matter what genre you listen to, if you like hard hitting shit, you gonna love distortion. You gonna love a good-ass 808. You gonna love some shit that's just sounds mean. People who want to turn their music up loud, they want that shit to be bumpin in they factory speakers or whatever system they got. They just want that shit to be beating, sounding good. And then boom, Gucci right on top of it. He gon be so animated with his voice, you gotta keep the beat open a lot of times.
Over the past few years, it does seem rap has become increasingly focused on sonics and textures.
That's what it's always been about. Dr. Dre was always about sonics, Puffy was always about sonics, Pharrell was always about sonics, Timbo was about sonics. The greats. I'm a student of that. A lot of producers just make the beat, give it to an artist, then send it to an engineer they trust to make it sound clean. Bounce that down, send it out. I was that one day, I started off just making beats. But as I started getting in the studio with artists more and more, I started paying attention to producing. You go from making a hard beat to making a hard song to making a hit song, to making a hit project to really understanding. You start looking at it more and more and start taking steps back.
I remember after we did No Pad, No Pencil, [Gucci] called me up to his house. It was just me and him. He was just smoking and I was playing some beats. I had this beat CD and I went all the way to his house. He listened to all of them, like, "Man, Mike, I ain't gonna lie to you, you just gotta step your sound up. I'm trying to take shit to the next level, dog. I ain't trying to keep doing all these mixtapes and shit." And I'm 18 years old, 19, just looking at him like "What?! These beats is way harder than what we got out and everybody love that shit!" I didn't really understand what he was saying until different bangers started coming. Goddamn "Lemonade," "Wasted." Then I was just like "Ohhh…" And I started working on developing my sound.