Books

Writing with the Trap God

A conversation with the the co-author of Gucci Mane’s autobiography about working on one of the year’s most-anticipated books.
Books

Writing with the Trap God

A conversation with the the co-author of Gucci Mane’s autobiography about working on one of the year’s most-anticipated books.

Gucci Mane is best known for putting Atlanta trap music on the map. Since the release of his first album, Trap House, in 2005, the rapper, born Radric Delantic Davis, has made his name as the godfather of the popular rap subgenre known for relying on sinister synths and lyrics detailing the stark realities of drug dealing, poverty, and violence. With four mixtapes, two compilation albums and two studio albums released over the past year alone, and his eleventh studio album, Mr. Davis, dropping on October 13, Gucci Mane is one of the most prolific artists working today. He’s been widely praised for his solid songwriting abilities, tight lyricism, and has influenced countless artists including Lil Yachty, Migos, and 21 Savage. And with the release of his first book, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, the Alabama-born, Atlanta-raised rapper is showing the world yet another side of his brain.

Autobiography tells Gucci’s life story, from his humble start in Bessemer, Alabama, a small city outside of Birmingham, to his triumphant return to the music industry following his release from prison last year after serving three years for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Now, it seems like all Gucci is doing is winning. In addition to releasing Autobiography, the 37-year-old father of one recently learned his probation would be ending two years early and is preparing to marry his girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir next month (the wedding will be broadcast on BET).

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Autobiography buzzes with the grandeur and grittiness that Gucci is known for, and some of that can be attributed to the music journalist Neil Martinez-Belkin, who co-wrote it. Martinez-Belkin, the 29-year-old former music editor at XXL Magazine, is quick to point out that Autobiography is a work that is all Gucci’s own, supplemented by his editorial advice and secondary interviews with figures from Gucci’s life. Martinez-Belkin recently chatted with The Outline via phone from his hometown Boston about his role in putting together the most anticipated autobiography of the year.

When did you first meet Gucci Mane?

I met Gucci for the first time in the fall of 2012. I was an editor of XXL Magazine and his label brought him to New York to kind of do the rounds. Right away I felt the energy of a special person. We met having dinner. A lot of times rappers would come to the office and you get a couple minutes with them. But this was a different setting.

The label had arranged [the dinner]. They wanted to kind of get in the good graces with rap media again, with the publications again [Gucci served three months in county jail in 2011 after pleading guilty to charges of battery, reckless conduct, and disorderly conduct stemming from an incident where he pushed a woman out of a moving vehicle in January of that year. In Autobiography, Gucci denies that the car was moving, saying at the time that he had asked her to exit and, after an ensuing argument, “put that bitch out of my car.” —ed.]. It was me, the Editor-in-Chief of XXL, Vanessa Satten, Gucci, and Young Scooter, another rapper. And then at the other table was some of the label people from Warner Brothers. The idea was basically, “how do we get Gucci another cover on XXL.” And that’s certainly their job. It's not like they were out of line to do that. That was happening all the time. People would be coming in and the idea is how do we get a cover. And Gucci was not on that page. Gucci was like, “listen stop talking about that. I'm here to tell you you need to be paying attention to Scooter. He's next.” And I remember just being impressed like, this guy gets it. He gets that the time right now is not for a Gucci XXL cover. But he's making something out of this. He understands what is really happening and he's still making a play. And I was impressed by that.

Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin at their first meeting in 2012.

Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin at their first meeting in 2012.

So then how many years after that did you get involved with the Autobiography project?

I became involved just about three years ago, the fall or end of the summer of 2014. Maybe for nine months after [we first met], we were kind of in semi-regular contact. What was cool about that time for me was I was responsible for a section of the online edition [of the magazine] that was focused on spotlighting new artists. So at that time he's telling me about Scooter, he's telling me about [Young] Dolph, he's telling me about all these guys super early. The way I found out about Young Thug, the way I found out about all these people, is Gucci's like, “I got this guy in the studio.” We were talking more than I was talking to other artists that I covered, both [because of] my interest in him and a lot of the interest in what he had going on with the younger guys.

In the summer of 2013, I leave XXL and I leave New York. I move back to Boston. And Gucci goes to jail so the basis of our relationship didn't really exist anymore. Gucci and I got along well but I never thought, “Gucci needs a new friend.” I wasn't really writing about rap music and Gucci had serious issues going on. The guy was facing a lot of time. So we fell out touch.

Flash forward about a year. I wrote a piece for for Vice, the premise of which was kind of like, “how does Gucci Mane put out all this music when he's in jail.” Because there was all this new music coming out. People were like, does he have a studio in his cell? And that was something I had been curious about for years. So I wrote this piece. I did not speak with Gucci for it, but I connected with his audio engineer who was putting together these releases and then some other people that were involved in his team behind the scenes. So that was kind of my [return] to being connected with the Gucci Mane world.

He's like, “You wanna help me with this thing, big dog?” And I was like, “Yeah!” And we hit the ground running.

And then I had seen a tweet come from his Twitter account: “I'm writing a book about my life.” And that was when initially I had reached out to those people [that I had interviewed for the Vice article] saying, “this is so cool. What can you tell me about it?” And they were kind of like, “We don't really know what to tell you about it. He just told us to tweet that out. I guess he's writing a book.” They didn't seem to know much. So that's when I wrote Gucci a letter in jail.

I was like, “Hey, if you ever need someone with editorial skills to bounce ideas off of or to help you kind of shape it and fit it in this greater narrative,” which is nonsense because what do I know about bookmaking? I've been writing magazines and online features. But I wanted to make this happen. And then he got back to me. The phone rang and it was his girlfriend [now wife], Keyshia Ka’oir, and she was like, “I've got Gucci on the other line.” I hadn't spoken to Gucci in years. She clicked us in and he's like, “You wanna help me with this thing, big dog?” And I was like, “Yeah!” And we hit the ground running.

When you heard he was writing this memoir, what made you so excited about it?

On a very surface level, this story is, I think, interesting to anyone. Like, what do they say sells, right? Drugs, violence, crime, all these very sexy things. For me, having met Gucci and having had a real interest in what was happening in Atlanta music over the past 15 years or so — I just thought [what was] happening in Atlanta music is incredible. At one point Atlanta was dictating rap music in the way that New York had before, and then it went beyond that. I'm of the belief that Atlanta is dictating the sound of contemporary popular music on the whole. Like, Miley Cyrus is doing this shit.

So there's Gucci's story, there was the greater context of it, and then I think I was just fascinated by Gucci himself. When I was at XXL I had a chance to meet a lot of famous rappers, but he's something, man. It's hard to explain until you meet him. More often than not, you meet [famous people] and like, “oh they're shorter than me or they have a pimple on their face or whatever.” You have that humanizing moment. And with Gucci, I will tell you that is not the case. That guy lives up to your expectations and then some.

I was just trying to figure out why I and why so many people were so enamored with Gucci and what made him special. He was never at the top. He never had this long winning streak. He defined real in an industry that puts on a pedestal being a “real” rapper. Those are some of those things that were compelling to me.

What was your role exactly?

Well I should say, Gucci is a phenomenal writer. And I listen to so much of his music that I think, this guy is a better writer than I am. But [what I did was] just providing some of the editorial framework and kind of piecing his memories and stories together. And then pushing him, “Hey, go deeper here, go deeper there, let's unpack this more.” Being a sounding board and just someone to help and work on this thing.

I did a lot of secondary interviews. There were a lot of constraints of him being in jail working on this thing. Sometimes we could talk, sometimes we couldn't talk. [At one] facility he can't talk at all. [At another] facility he's kind of running his way and he can talk to me all day. So in times that we weren't connecting, I was doing these secondary interviews with people in which I would be like, “Hey Gucci told me about…” or “Gucci wrote this story,” and I would try to see other people's memories. And then I would bring them back to Gucci and be like, “Hey, I shared that story that you wrote with so and so, and they told me this little detail.” That would kind of jog his memory and be like, “Yeah. And also this, that, and the third.” And it just kind of enhanced this collection of stories.

You told me you visited Gucci once while you were working on the book. Tell me about that visit.

It was surreal to visit him. For me going to a correctional facility is not a totally foreign experience. My degree is in criminology. I studied crime theory. I've visited county jails. I've visited state prisons. So it was not surreal in that I was shaken by the experience of visiting a prison. The part that was surreal for me about that visit was it's weird to see a person who you know, and the world knows, to be such a powerful person in a powerless position. And honestly that shook me.

So when I'm sitting there in the visiting room and the doors open and there he is, and even though he's in this jumpsuit and his hair is disheveled, none of that matters because when you have that kind star power it transcends that he doesn't have nice clothes or he doesn't have his jewelry on. It's still there. He walks into the room and he's walking towards me and he flashes a smile and I almost burst out laughing because he had his fucking grill still in his mouth. And so I'm just like, he's still himself.

He was not in control of his life in that place. You're just, like, a piece of property. There's nothing glamorous about this shit, nothing glamorous about going to jail. This is horrifying. And this person who's bursting with creativity and is an artist is just rendered powerless. And that was just a very intense experience I think.

Like you said before, you were the music editor at XXL. So obviously people know you as a writer. And Gucci Mane is a super successful hip-hop songwriter but only now is he being celebrated as a capital-W writer. So I'm interested to know if you learned anything from him about writing while working on this book.

I think the voice of [Autobiography] is very straightforward, very clear, very direct. And I think for me, [I have] my own personal insecurities as a writer. I'm not someone who went to journalism school. I'm not someone who has read all the classic American literature. I don't feel like I have the most expansive vocabulary. When I finished school and I came to New York and I started working in this capacity, I was so in awe of all these great writers from the New York Times or all of the great Pitchfork writers. And I thought that good writing was almost like, you kind of have to do these literary acrobat[ics]. And I think from this I found the power in connecting with people from the shared human experience that we all have as opposed to the razzle dazzle of flexing your editorial chops. Not to put one over the other. It's just I think [working on this project] put it into perspective for me a little bit as to what can be strong, compelling writing.

Yeah I'm glad that you brought that up because the book has sort of a conversational tone (in reference to writing “East Atlanta 6” in 2007, Gucci writes, “I killed that shit! I’d just been trying to shake things up and do something different, but damn that came out hard. And I had so much fun doing it.”) and I found it refreshing that Gucci Mane doesn't bend over backwards to cater to an audience that is unfamiliar with his work, or hip hop culture in Atlanta, or the slang that he uses, not trying to fit into a mold. What were your conversations around tone and language in the book?

Well, when I got involved, he had already been writing. So one of the first things that happened when we reconnected — because we had not been in touch in some time — was he sent over the pages that he had been writing. So that tone was already there, and I was like, “You should go with this.” I don't know if it was a real conscious decision.

[At one point I was] telling him, “Look, man, you're not just telling the Gucci Mane story. You're telling the story of trap music. You're telling the story of trap outside of music in the sense of modern day American counterculture, like the new Western or you know, the new biker gang or the new mafia movie. You're telling the story of addiction. You're telling the story of the prison industrial complex, like really ambitious stuff.” And Gucci's very quick to be like, “Dude, you're doing too much here. It's not what I'm doing. I've got a lot of shit to get off my chest. And that's what I'm trying to do.” From that point, it was understood. And that tone that you spoke to, that's what we tried to hone in on, that very singular focus, like tunnel vision.

Were there any big surprises along the way in putting this together?

The big surprise to me was how difficult it was to get to get a publishing deal. [Martinez-Belkin signed onto the project before a publishing deal was in place. — ed] To me, this thing from right when I signed on was such an obvious grand slam. So to take this around and to hear every single publisher say like, “Cool story but we don't this is gonna to translate into a book-buying audience. Like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no.’” The book deal didn't come until Gucci was out of jail and the writing was on the fucking wall that this dude was coming back with a fucking hurricane of a vengeance. They needed to see him on The New York Times shredded up, they needed to see him in the Wall Street Journal, they needed that sort of validation to be like, “Oh, this is gonna justify an investment and effort from us,” and that's when the book deal came. But that was a big surprise for me because I believed so strongly in this guy's story that it drove me berserk that people weren't clawing to be the ones to put this book out. But you know what, everything worked out in the end, right?

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What do you hope people come away from this book with?

I know on a surface level this is a story that should inspire people, like if you're down you can come back. And I get that and I hope people do get that. But really, from working on this thing and seeing what it came out of, I think for Gucci it was not about what other people are going to get. I think it was a cathartic experience for him. And that's where my focus was was to help him get that experience that he wanted out of this book.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.