Since 2012, Westside Gunn and his brother Conway The Machine have built a devoted fan base, while becoming the most dynamic duo since Ghostface and Raekwon or even Mobb Deep. The brothers each have released countless mixtapes and albums, including Westside Gunn’s critically acclaimed debut album Flygod in 2016. They’ve built their following with some of the best hardcore rap filled with haute couture designer name-drops, old school WWE homages (see their Hall & Nash EP as one example), habitual gunplay onomatopoeias (doot-doot-doot! bddddddd!!), and drug game noir about their poverty-stricken Buffalo, a perennial selection in national polls as one of America’s deadliest cities.
“To my niggas using Corrlinks hold your head
Remember Chine Gun used to piss in the bed
Remember hot dogs getting boiled for the party
Off White fatigues, lord, Griselda’s the army”
(from “Looking Like The Greatest” featuring Conway and Benny off Hitler On Steroids)
Having seen it all, the 35-year old Westside Gunn’s confidence level is as heightened as the mountains of upstate New York. His motivation to succeed and expand his reach beyond his home base of Buffalo, New York to Atlanta comes from growing up fast having children as a teenager. The Flygod speaks about his life mission to financially support his children down South instead of Buffalo and his business savvy. “When you go back from Buffalo to Atlanta, and you got two kids already, now you gotta get money,” he says. “The genius I am, I figured, ‘Hey, it’s money and its supply and demand. What’s in Buffalo that’s needed that I can bring from Atlanta? What’s Atlanta need that I can bring from Buffalo?’ A couple of big chains and foreign cars later, where else I’ma live?”
When most people would retreat in despair upon similar circumstances, Westside Gunn welcomes the challenge of fatherhood by running to it instead of away from it. As he was being a breadwinner to provide for his kids, Westside knew that he had a purpose to stake his claim in the world via rap music and bring his friends with him for the ride.
The Formation of Griselda Records
Originally titled Street Entertainment, Westside Gunn renamed the label in 2012 after the late Colombian drug empress Griselda Blanco. But most of the Griselda Records camp has been through a litany of life hardships along the way towards stardom. That includes, but not limited to, losing their lifelong compatriot and rhyme partner Machine Gun Black’s life to gun violence. Conway details the crew’s trials on fan favorite “The Cow.” Conway was shot twice in the head, suffering from Bell’s palsy, plus served two years in prison. Westside Gunn served multiple years in federal prison, and their longtime partner in rhyme Benny The Butcher was jailed for several years in New York State prison as well.
The collective of Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny the Butcher, and his late brother Machine Gun Black coalesced as friends during their grammar school days when they were called Forerunners. Before their run-ins with the law, their label was originally named Street Entertainment. Benny further explains why being from Buffalo gives them the impetus to fight for their recognition.
“Coming from Buffalo, it was harder, but look where we are,” Benny says. “The thing about it is that we’ve been rapping for so long that you can go back and Google me about how I’ve been here. I’m like a folk hero for Buffalo’s music scene. If we came from any other major city, we probably would’ve been popped by now. I’m 32 years old. In my region I’m considered a legend. Conway, too. We been doing rap, so it’s like a relief for the city. It’s like ‘Oh shit, those dudes did it!’ And it’s not like we’re new dudes who popped up out of nowhere.”
The Flygod is far from being a rookie to the game, but there was a point in time in which he stopped rapping for seven years when he was dealing with his legal matters. But some would argue that he’s one of the hottest rappers just getting started.
The hip-hop community has had mixed reactions for the 2017 XXL Freshman Class cover, and many fans of Griselda have begrudged that Westside Gunn and Conway deserve to be on the cover. Wes doesn’t necessarily look at the recent issue without him on it as a snub. Instead, he’s quite diplomatic and acknowledged that he’s not a freshman in terms of his age, tenure in the rap game, and how to he’d like to market himself.
“I love it, they’re doing their job,” Wes opined. “Anybody in the industry would love to be on a cover. But it’s about the right cover. I would love to be on the cover of XXL, but not as a freshman. You know what? All that shit is for kids. When you go to these festivals and these concerts, that’s the wave right now. I don’t got a problem with none of them. I’m happy for them because they young, they getting money and they pursuing their dream. That’s their lane and everybody ain’t in that lane. For whoever is in that lane, they pick the best.”
Their endless references, skits, and song titles like “Peter Luger,” “Sly Green,” and “Free Chapo,” or similes involving Rayful Edmonds, the magazine covers for F.E.D.S. or Don Diva would seem more apropos for Griselda’s music content than an XXL Freshman Class cover.
The Griselda Sound
Much of Griselda’s music content eviscerates jocularity and prudence, accompanied by melodic dark beats that sound like a street gang marching toward enemy lines. With his business partner and brother Conway, Benny, and formidable producer Daringer, their fledgling label Griselda Records has a sound comprised of boom-bap and soul samples of ‘90s East Coast gangsta rap. Benny broke down their musical inspirations from that time period: “That CNN, Wu, and Mobb era, you hear that in our music and the beats,” Benny explains. “Like how Prodigy mentioned ‘dirty fingernails.’ And when you listen to CNN, Mobb and Wu, they were like the John Gotti gangster type of rappers, street frontline rap. Not like no B.I.G. or Jay-Z in suits, but crime boss mob shit. It’s more impactful. We real street frontline niggas; so that’s where that comes from. That’s what we listened to, and we took a lot from that.”
The sound of Griselda Records is simultaneously invasive and mellow with samples of seventies heavy metal guitar riffs, prog rock, fusion jazz, and mellow soul samples that pour out of your speakers like molasses. Daringer—who began making beats in 2005 after deejaying for several years in Buffalo’s underground hip-hop scene—programs and records his beats on his laptop’s digital MPC Studio and ProTools while on tour. But he always seeks organic analog equipment, including an MPC 2000xl and MPC 2500 with a turntable and a Fender Road telecaster guitar to create his minimalist, industrial boom-bap beats with the pace of 60 to 70 beats per minute. The producer explains his approach to his beatmaking for Griselda’s projects:
“I sample breaks, but a lot of the times I take breaks that may be common to some, I pitch them down and get them in that slower tempo, it kinda disguises theme a little bit,” he says. “Once I slow these records down and the breaks as well, it gives me a certain sound and it just sounds grittier, to make the mood a bit darker. [They] actually preferred these records to be slowed down. We have the upbeat stuff too, but even our upbeat stuff isn’t that fast at the end of the day. That’s just the zone that they like it.” He continues, “When you speed it up, you get that classic boom-bap ‘90s hip-hop feel or sounds altogether. All the past productions play a huge influence of how I listen to records and pick out samples and use drums. Heads were really digging back in the day and that shit inspired me to keep that art still going. A lot of people think that it’s easy to find records with the internet nowadays to go on and find some stuff, going the easy route. You can, but I always put more time and effort and every dollar to my name to find shit. It’s always about taking that extra step.”
Strengthening The Griselda Movement With Rap Legend Co-Signs, Hate, and Perseverance
During the Griselda on Steroids tour stop at New York City’s Webster Hall in June, rap legends including Raekwon, Styles P and Jadakiss, Roc Marciano, and the late Prodigy came to give their props to Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny. It was a manifestation that Griselda has ascended as the one of the strongest movements to come out of New York State.
Westside Gunn explains why he eschewed the festival circuit in order to be seen as a headliner on his own tour and sell his crew’s GxFR merchandise, which are all the rage amongst his fans:
“The first time I wanted people to see me was our own [Griselda] tour,” he says. “Now I want to do all the festivals, the A3Cs, the SXSW’s, whatever. We could’ve been doing those forever. But it was about first time I want people to people to see me in the flesh, I wanted it to be some shit that we do.”
They don’t take this showing of gratitude for keeping New York’s legacy alive for granted. Benny still believes there is a lot for his cohorts to keep the fight going because of industry shadiness they’ve experienced. “In the industry, Griselda is still taking everything we get,” he adds. “Nobody handed us nothing. You watched the [Funk Flex] freestyle. Flex don’t even wanna fuckin’ crack a smile or he didn’t even want to say, ‘Yo they dope!’ or as soon as we got off the air he exchanged numbers with Conway and told us, ‘People don’t do it in one take like y’all did it.’ He didn’t wanna say nothing on the air because that would be handing us his co-sign because he knows what that means. But it’s too late because we got co-signs from the Jadakiss’s, the Mobbs, Wu-Tang Clans, and all that. We see the shady behavior because of where we’re from.”
Beyond the traditionalist New York sound, Conway recently stepped beyond their comfort zone to show how he can rework the most popular rap songs of the year in Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping “Humble” to show his artistic range on his most recent mixtape Reject On Steroids.
“I like the record. I was working on Reject On Steroids mixtape and I liked [the beat]. When I do my mixtapes I like fucking with different instrumentals and all of that,” he says. “But I love that [Kendrick album] and that record. When I found that instrumental I said ‘hold on, lemme see how I can play with this one real quick.”
Conway—who’s known for his physical aesthetic, along with his muscular delivery and baritone voice—shows love to wanting to work with more West Coast artists of his element. He states his love of old school R&B artists. “I fuck with ScHoolboy, Kendrick, and MURS. I wanna work with Bobby Brown. I wanna work with Stephanie Mills [laughs].”
Now that Westside Gunn is seeing his hard work finally pay off, he and Conway introduced in March to their fans that they’ve joined forces with Eminem to become the next group act that will revive Shady Records and be the next way under Slim Shady’s watch. But to mark their first song with his camp, they paid their respects by naming their first song for Shady after their fallen comrade Machine Gun Black.
Westside Gunn declared that their music will remain the same in their creative process without having to acquiesce to Eminem’s prototypical sound for crossover appeal.
“It’s still gonna remain Griselda. It don’t matter who you with,” Gunn says. “Shout out to Shady and Interscope. Just keep expecting the grimy, raw shit. Ain’t shit changing at all. Don’t think just because we got signed that we’re about to switch or change our style up. Everything you ever heard is gonna remain the same. The formula’s there. You’re never gonna stop Griselda.”
Photo Credits: Shady Records