Vuhlandes/Courtesy of the artist
Vuhlandes/Courtesy of the artist
Vuhlandes/Courtesy of the artist
This past year saw the rise of a rap trio out of Buffalo, N.Y., who has earned the vocal support of hip-hop's legends. Over the past 12 months, the members of Griselda have collectively put out nine records, including their major label debut together.
Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher are what some call your favorite rapper's favorite rappers — a title that implies that beyond the charts and the awards there's a more meaningful ranking system. Two years ago Griselda signed with Eminem's Shady Records, and this August they also signed a management deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation. They're publicly supported by Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes and Nas. They've worked with artists known for being selective, like Pusha T and Pete Rock.
Griselda works in a style called street rap, which the members describe as less an aesthetic choice and more a statement of biography. Partly because of their dramatic stories — Conway was shot in the head and left with a half-paralyzed face — they've become folk heroes. Hoodies with their faces on them are coveted, and tattoos of their logo are spreading across middle America.
By refusing to pander to radio or follow the dictates of major label release schedules, the members of Griselda argue they've safeguarded their integrity. They continue to make music about their own lives, documenting in real time their processing and their growth. (Their latest album, WWCD, is named for their late partner and Benny's brother, Chine Gun, who was murdered before the group took off.)
"People thought this lifestyle couldn't be popular," Westside Gunn says. "You had to have the radio hit, you had to have the song in the club. And we're showing you that you don't. We look great, we live great, our families is eating. Everybody have a great life — off of street rap and boom bap."
Hear the radio version of this story at the audio link on this page. Read on for Frannie Kelley's extended interview with Griselda.
Frannie Kelley: The way that some people talk about the current state of hip-hop, you guys are making an archaic form of the genre. How do you account for your popularity?
Westside Gunn: I mean, that's the thing about me: It was never about being popular. I just felt everything we do is us. It's organic. We never try to reach to do anything that we felt was popular, everybody else was doing. We really just live our life. We rap about our life, where we from, our city, what we've been through, from the streets to losing people to being in prison. Everything you hear is reality for us. So we never really was trying to do anything to be popular, still to this day.
I mean, this is the first time people ever really heard Buffalo before. You know, we from New York, but we not a borough, and we still go through — Buffalo is very, very poor, you know. Where we from, popular is not even a word we even care about. So we just do us.
It's becoming more popular because maybe — our popularity really comes from the OGs, just co-signing us and saying like, "Yo, this is what we miss. This is what we love. This is where we come from. This is the cloth we cut from." So our popularity is us getting the nod from Jay Z or Eminem or Nas. That's us — we done reached our goals doing that. Everybody else can, you know, follow from the leads of all the pioneers in the game giving us the head nod. It's just traveling that way. But it's not one time we ever made a song like, "We need to be popular." Or, "Let's do this or do that." Griselda's probably the realest in the game. Hands down. No gimmicks.
Kelley: Can you tell me how a person who isn't from Buffalo could hear Buffalo in your records? Maybe using one song that comes to mind?
Conway the Machine: Maybe the way that — the edginess that we rap with. How we rap with that chip on our shoulder. You get that feeling of you could tell that these guys that you listening to came from the bottom, came from nothing and hustled their way up to where they at. You can just hear the content, the words, the beats and just the feeling of it.
The City of Buffalo is interesting cause it got — people like to say it's like a black cloud over Buffalo. It's always kind of like gray outside and gloomy.
Westside: It's never sunny in Buffalo.
Conway: You know what I'm saying? It's never really sunny, and I think our music reflect those type of feelings, of despair and just hopelessness. We put that in the lyrics and in the beats we choose. So I think people can tell like that. Like, they got to be from a place that's the dark and cold. So it's really every song. It's not one in particular.
Kelley: The general aesthetic that you guys are working in is kind of related to boom bap, street rap: You can look at Kool G Rap, you can talk about Wu-Tang, you can talk about Roc Marciano. For a general audience, could you guys do me a favor and just give me your definition of boom bap, of street rap? How do you think about those things? Or do you?
Conway: Boom bap is, you know what I'm saying, it's the beat. It's the style of beat, the kind of beat. The drums and s*** just hit hard. ... To me, street rap is, like, guys expressing themselves through rhyme form that been through the trenches and all that. That hustled, maybe sold drugs or, you know, in and out of jail. Just been through all the ups and downs of the street life. It just reflect in the music.
You had to be in the streets to understand really what street rap is. Like it's easy for — you know, people can say the words and make it rhyme and sound good. But if you know, you know. It's easy to tell if somebody just put some words together well, or if they really, was out there, really was outside.
Westside: Boom bap is Pete Rock, is DJ Premier. When we get on that wave, that's the boom bap side of us. The more street side is The Alchemist, you know — Daringer is a mix of both. I look at boom bap like, the early Joey Bada$$, the Skyzoos. But the street rap is the Pusha T, the Jeezy. It's just you just speaking on what you been through, in the streets.
And you could combine both, which we do. We kind of mix both because even over the boom bap, you know, we still kicking street s***. Because a lot of people that rap over boom bap, you know, they really wasn't prison guys or they really never sold drugs. They really don't have that on their resume. It's more lyrical, kind of putting pieces of words together. But when we rap over it, we still talking street s*** because that's what we lived. So I think Griselda is really like the combination of both. I think we the only crew that actually did that, because even if you look at the other, like I said, the other boom bap guys, they don't have the street resume of a Griselda.
Kelley: Do you any interest in this conversation about hip-hop purists? In some ways it's an intergenerational tension, and in some ways it's not. But there's alyrical, maybe SoundCloud rap, or whatever, as compared to, say, you guys. And some people would be like, you guys are more hip-hop purists. Do you engage with that as an idea?
Benny the Butcher: Maybe. I know some people probably identify with us, or classify us as that because, you know, we was raised by that era, the golden era of hip-hop. And that reflects in our music, so people could define it that way.
Kelley: I'm the same age as you guys, and I don't think that many of the young rap writers are. I wonder sometimes if they are missing things in the music, or they might not know the specifics.
Conway: I think they missing some stuff. It's just the way hip-hop evolved over the years, and changed. I look at it like — when I think about when Nas came out with Illmatic, he was, like, 18, 19 or something like that. Like, when I was growing up, people who were involved in stuff I was involved in and living that street life, we always used to say to ourselves stuff like, "Man, if I ever have kids, man, they'll never grow up like I did or go through what I did."
And then you listen to the average 18- or 19-year-old now — you know what I mean? And that comes from, in my opinion, them not having to grow up the way we did. A lot of these kids grew up, you know, on the outskirts, suburbs. Went to nice schools and had a decent upbringing — the upbringing that we wish we could have had, you know what I mean?
So they don't really — you not gonna hear nobody that's giving it up like Mobb Deep, Hell on Earth. You know what I mean? Infamous album. They was teenagers! Nas Illmatic, they was teenagers. Stuff like that. So the teenagers now, you gotta think — they they Milly rocking and they making "Thriller" videos. Snapchats and all that. They ain't have to eat hot dogs and pork and beans.
Westside: Yeah, man, for real.
Conway: And worry about if the lights — when they come home from school, can they play they video games cause the lights man came and cut it off or not. So it just definitely resonate with the music.
They having fun. Life is good. "Now I'm getting my chain, girls like me, I'm fly. I got this, that." "I'm having fun." It's fun music and I enjoy it. I ain't mad at that. I understand because, you know, our music came from a point of where we wasn't having fun. We was depressed. We were stressed out. We was struggling. We was trying to figure it out. We were scratching our heads. We was trying to just — we was going through the motions, you know what I mean, as young men. We had families and stuff to take care of, when our moms was going through they little issues in the streets and stuff. We had brothers and stuff to take care of. We had responsibilities placed on our shoulders real, real early — as young men. So we matured a little different.
Westside: We was living a grown man's life at 12, 13, 14. Like we been doing this s*** longer than a lot of these dudes been living. Just being in the streets, growing up where we — you know, the '80s, the '90s, certain places you can't go. You still get jumped, you still get robbed. It was a different time that people living in now than then.
It was way more dusty, and Buffalo is very dusty. All the other cities evolved. Buffalo has just been diminishing since then. It was already bad then so just imagine now. Nothing in the east side or west side shows promise — it's just like, "This is what we used to. This what it is. This is life." A lot of people from Buffalo haven't even been outside of Buffalo. Probably 75% of Buffalo never even been in New York City. We just come from a different kind of place. You just have to be from there to kind of understand that.
Kelley: So what you guys are saying is that it's not so much an aesthetic choice as it is a biography.
Benny: It's like a way of life.
Westside: This is us. Cause some people try to try to be somebody that they not. Everything about this is kinda too real.
Conway: Going to the studio and recording and stuff, for us, was a way to get off the block, get out of the hood. Like, we would go to the studio when it was like, you know, the police out, it's hot right now. "I'm bout to go to Spoons house." You know what I mean?
Or something like that. We ain't really — the music for us was an escape.
We was actually blessed to even have the homies who had the studios and the labs and all that, to give us something to where we were able to get out of the hood for a second and do something with ourselves. Cause we was really — we was dope. Probably doper than we realized at the time. We was dope, and that was an escape for us.
Westside: I mean, even the studio is guns there. There's drugs there. It's not like a regular studio. Nah, there's killers in there. It's dealers in there.
Conway: Studio's getting raided.
Benny: And it still — through all that, it still felt like a safe haven, though.
Conway: Word. I would never want my son around that. That's what I was saying earlier: Like, we grow up different. I wouldn't want my son growing up like we did. I was around all that, I'm 14. You know what I mean? It's guns. It's drugs. I'm drinking 40s, smoking blunts, rapping. Rapping crazy though.
Kelley: So it's also kind of a class story. If you get money and you move and your kids aren't there, it's just not the same.
Conway: Nah, it ain't the same. It ain't the same, yo.
Kelley: You guys address this in your music — do you ever think about the consequences of hustling? Is it something that keeps you up at night ever?
Benny: Man, we did more than think about it, we dealt with the consequences.
Kelley: I mean not just doing time.
Conway: Yeah, it's given us anxiety. It's a lot of different sides of it. It ain't like you thinking, "I'm going to jail." "Something could happen to me, get robbed or whatever." I can't say that was really a thing for me. But what would happen if something did happen to me? Like to my family. That type of consequence. The effects that it will have on my loved ones.
So, of course you got that in the back of your mind while you hustling. And then you are paranoid. You lose sleep over all that s***. That ain't no game, man. Stay out. If you ain't cut from that cloth, stay out.
Benny: I remember any time I was hustling — I'm a reckless hustler. I'ma be honest with you. Like if I got the drugs, I'm just gonna tell all the customers where I'm at. "Come get 'em. Knock on the door. Call my phone. I'm up." I'm a trapper. That's how I know how to hustle. So any time I start getting good money, it crashed down on me. I went to jail. ... Cause that's the norm for people. Like, this not the norm for where we from.
Conway: Yea, this ain't normal. We learned all this s*** on the fly.
Benny: Exactly. Even though we was dope and we worked hard at it, who really — like, look at where we at right now. This s*** is crazy. I kinda was expecting the other ending.
I told myself plenty of times, "You know, you might not never get a record deal." And I was nice! Nicer than a lot of n*****. And I was dope and I was seasoned, but my thing was like, "You might not never make it out the streets. No matter how nice you are." So I already came to terms with how s*** might end for me. You feel what I'm saying?
Kelley: Yeah. And what about the consequences of selling drugs to people who are addicted?
Conway: I never gave a f***.
Westside: Yea, I never gave a f***.
Conway: That's for them to think about.
Benny: I am the consequences. My mother was addicted to that. My little brother was a crack baby. I am the consequences of those situations. So I kinda was numb to it. It's a survival thing. You really don't think about nothing like that. When you trying to survive and feed your family yourself? You don't got time to think about that. You don't got the luxury to think about, "You know what? I'm killing people." Real s***.
Westside: Especially being from Buffalo. Like, you just don't give a f***.
Conway: And, like we was saying, we was going through — my moms was smoking. Everybody was on drugs when we was growing up. So like he said, it was a survival thing. Like, "S***, how I'ma get these school clothes?" I can't have no feelings about nobody ele. I gotta get school clothes. My little brother gotta eat. We gotta get these Hot Pockets. Like, "I'll think about that later." I ain't worried about jail. None of that. The ops, none of that. I'm out here. It's imperative. Or I'ma be hungry tonight.
Benny: Like, "F*** else we gonna do?" It's almost a gift from God to be able to get money selling drugs in the hood. Or have a good connect. Like, people pray for that.
So in the hood, we don't look at it as bad things we doing, we look at it like: Your phone ringing every day? You getting money? You taking care of your family? You get on your knees like, "God, thank you for this." Facts.
Westside: And then, everything that we been through, you know, it was a part of our story. Everything, at the end of the day — the goods and bads is a part of the story. We was in so much s***, but at the end of the day — not to even sound spiritual or none of this — but it was just like God kind of knew how much we could take. Like, show you just enough to be like, "Look, this s*** could get worse."
Benny: Right. I feel that way too.
Westside: Because we done seen so many people get life, doing 30, 40, 50 years doing the same s*** that we've done, you know what I'm saying? Or people dying. We did enough jail time to kind of open our eyes to a little bit more, still come out, do the same s***, go back, come out, but it was never like 30 years, 40 years. It was just like petty s***.
But it still made us stronger. Like we had to do those years in jail. We had to be from where we was from. We had to have, you know what I'm saying — we have people in our lives too, whether it was Ma or Grams or Aunt Lonnie.
Westside: Yeah, I mean our moms was going through what they was going through, and it was like, that's just the s*** that we had to see. We had to see that to make us who we are today.
Conway: Our mothers was young.
Westside: We had to have fathers barely there so we could be the best fathers we can be today.
Benny and Conway: Right.
Westside: We had to be from Eastside, Westside Buffalo so we could show our kids you will never have to see this s***, ever.
Conway: Free lunches and all that.
Benny: Right, right. That was mandatory.
Westside: We done been through it all. Like literally anything you could possibly think of, period, we done been through it all. This Griselda s*** is something different. I don't know no other crew that really been through what we been through and still can sit here and smile and have billboards in Times Square and look like — we look like we got a hit song on the radio right now! And we don't have one.
That's what make us stronger than other people. That's what make us smarter than other people. And I think that's why we're who we are today, just building this culture. People believe it, and everything we speak on? The facts is in the streets.
Kelley: But also, people do change. Which you guys have noted, like with "94' Ghost S***" or " '97 Hov." Somebody who listens to a lot of the music knows exactly what that means.
Do you guys think that you will have eras though? Like, what causes change? Is it signing to a major? Is it getting super big? Just becoming more comfortable, feeling more fulfilled and satisfied by what you've made?
Westside: I mean, Griselda right now is '94 Ghost. '97 Hov. So 2035, they gone be saying "2020 Griselda." You know what I'm saying? Those was like elite artists at those times, that kind of helped raise us and groom us to who we are today.
And I feel like what Griselda's doing, every year, it's going up. A lot of people will be — you know, after they second, third, fourth project they start going down the tubes. Like, "Damn, man, what happened to ... ?" We actually getting better every project, which is very rare. What you heard from us from day one is still what you hear today, whether it was a major involved or not. ... It's actually even grimier. We don't focus on nothing else but just being the best that we can be. And at the same time while we're doing that, we're creating history.
Kelley: Well, I have a question about nothing changing when you're on a major. I watched this documentary short that you guys put out — I may have misunderstood something — but you guys brought in somebody to kind of help [your producer] Daringer because you can't sample the way that you were before Shady. Or you can't sample on the projects that are going out through Shady.
Westside: I mean we can, but it's less money at the end of the day.
Benny: Yea, from a hustler's standpoint — because we still the same people — it's like, if we don't need to cut nobody in on this bag we getting, why would we? When we got the resources to have people play it back. And Beat Butcha's a person who we already worked with — it's not like a person that we just grabbed off the street or nothing, we already worked with him before. So, it's just an aspect of capitalizing off everything, you know what I'm saying?
Kelley: Once you have more resources, then you don't have to cut other people in, essentially.
Benny: Yeah, you know, cutting the middleman out. It's like when you get your status up — it's like the streets. If you meet a plug, but the plug is up here and you down here, but you don't got the reputation to go step to him yourself, once you do get that reputation, you cut 'em out.
You just do it like that: No sampling or nothing. We got to cut a check to somebody? For what? Let's do it. It's the Griselda movement.
Westside: And it still sounds amazing. Beat Butcha's incredible. It's to the point where when we dropped the album, nobody didn't even know it was no samples on the album until like a week and a half later. Everybody thought those were samples. We been talking to a lot of OGs and they still like, "Wait a minute, no samples?" Because that's how incredible it sounds.
And once we figured like, OK, mixing Beat Butcha up with Daringer, we could create a sound with no sample and kind of can even show the world, and even our lane of musician, our peers, like, 'Look, this can be done.' You know I'm saying? 'Cause a lot of people think it can't be done, that you have to have a sample.
Kelley: I think about that a lot — like, what would hip-hop be if sampling rules were different.
Westside: Aw, man. If sampling rules was different — honestly, the music will be a lot better. I mean, we have a lot of sample s*** too, but this album was the first album we did on a major, so this the first one that really counted, if you really look at it. So it's like, since this the album that really do count, we need to maximize and kind of just get the most we can get out of this. And the most we could get out of this is not doing samples.
The thing about it is, you hear a lot of people album that have no samples, but the beats is trash. They might not have a Beat Butcha. You have to play the game smart. You have to actually know how to use the players that you have around you, if you have access to 'em. Fortunately, we have a Beat Butcha. Fortunately, we have a Daringer. So, like I said, that that marriage right there, it's incredible, you know I'm saying? ... To have keep people around and just to keep pushing the culture forward, showing people that it can be done. And I think more people might try more now, because they like, "Damn, OK. If a whole album came out with no samples sounding like this, let's try this."
Kelley: I'm surprised to hear you say that this is the first one that counts. Let's talk about your business model: expensive limited-run vinyl, merch, obviously shows. To me it sort of seems like it's the development of IP and thinking about partnerships. How do you think about what it is that you're building?
Westside: I mean, since we done came out, the focus was always just being the best at everything we do, whether it's music, fashion, art, you know what I'm saying. Once we just do what we do, other people — like, I have a New Era hat deal. And all of us have different things that we're tapped into that's corporate. You know, that's big situations.
The focus to me was always just being the best that we can be. Just being trendsetters and only focusing on us. And it just so happens, the way the dice rolls, you know, people love what we do. Anything we really tap into is well respected by the majors. People want to be in Griselda business. We only do good business and people respect that. It's a respect thing.
I can sit in here and talk to you, then turn around and go to New Era, then turn around and sit with Nike, turn around and sit with Purple Denim, go out to the West Coast have a meeting in the cannabis business. Like, everybody wants to be in business just for us being who we are and staying true. Everything I do is just about elevation and building and just making history.
Right now we're still living everything in real time. Five, 10 years from now, there's no telling who we going to be partnered up with. But people will see, like, "Yo, this s*** is history."
Kelley: Can you help me connect that idea of innovation in business and being an artist? Like, really valuing people who are good at this very particular thing that you do, wanting to be the best and get their respect, their cosign. Some people would say there's a conflict there — essentially, that there's the commercial world and the art world, and don't they diminish each other.
Westside: Not for us.
Benny: I don't feel like that's the case. I don't feel like there's a line between 'em. I feel like sometimes the industry try to draw a line between it, and they try to separate it. But, as you can see, it's no line between it. And we a perfect example of that.
People like what they like. They don't need the radio to tell 'em what they like. They don't need a cable station to tell 'em what they like. The access to the music and the art is so easy now, that you don't need nobody to point you in a direction, you could stumble over it on your own. Or like word of mouth, like from the cosigns from the legends and everything. It just got to be that rare thing that's been missing. It gotta be that gem. No disrespect to nobody else, but everything is not that. I know a lot of dudes aim for that, but everything is not that.
Westside: Us just living our life, being who we are, dressing how we are, picking the beats, rapping what we rap about, living the life, and doing what we do, we're making our lifestyle popular. You know, people thought this lifestyle couldn't be popular. You had to have the radio hit. You had to have the song in the club. And we showing you that you don't. We look great. We live great. Our families is eating. Everybody have a great life off of street rap and boom bap. Not disrespecting nobody, but it's a lot of people that rap on boom bap that live with they mother.
Westside: Performing, getting $500 a show — lucky if they get that. Go on tour 20 cities and getting $700 a show.
Kelley: How much do you get a show?
Westside: We good! Because not only are we gonna make money off the show, we're gonna make money off the merch, we're gonna make money off of meet-and-greets, cause who don't want to meet us? It's all of that. What we built is something special. It's different. So I don't like to compare us really to nobody because in today's game, Griselda is a one of one.
You can name the other crews — if that's, you know, a Dreamville or a TDE, you know, something like that. But I mean, when it really come down to it, we have the largest body of work in the shortest amount of time. And again, we live the same life without having one song on radio. We're not getting asked to do Super Bowl halftime shows and s***. You don't have to do that to still live a great life. So it's like, why change? What are we changing for? Let us keep doing what we're doing, and hopefully we could be the blueprint for the guys that's under us to see like, "Yo, we don't have to do that s***. Let's just be us."
Kelley: Raekwon opens WWCD, and he has this line, "I'm sittin' here seein' the demographics of what Griselda's about." What does that mean to you guys?
Conway: How we just still living the life of a mainstream artist without changing up our integrity, jeopardizing our integrity, you know what I mean? Whe what we doing is like, you got people — I mean middle America and all over the world — tattooing our logos and faces and s*** on they skin. Painting murals all over the country, all over the world, graf artists and all that. People f****** with the merch, buying all the merch up, selling out the shows and staying around for an hour or two after just to get a flick. Get they vinyl signed. The vinyl selling out in five minutes. We ain't really seen nothing like that since the Clan. Know what I'm saying?
Westside: That's a fact.
Benny: And the people treat it as such. Shout out to all the fans and the supporters because they treat it as such. Like even Conway: You look at his situation, what he been through. How many people do you know who survived that? Let alone one of the best rappers out. Let alone the accomplishments after that. People want to know! It's deep. It's intriguing to people. They want to know everything about it.
Conway: It's a feel-good story. The underdogs came in and won. We finally got through them chapters that was like the turmoil part of the book, when we was just going through it all.
Benny: And it seemed like that part of book was never gonna be over at times.
Conway: But now we in a different chapter and, you know, the book is nowhere near the ending yet. We got a lot more chapters, man. And a lot more growing to do. We only gone get better. We only gone get smarter. We only gone get richer.
Westside: I think 2020 is gonna be the year where actually we make our sound popular. Hollywood is starting to embrace us. We just walked out the building, TMZ right in front of our face, ready for interviews. I feel, just from the Roc Nation situation and being at the right places right time, a lot of actors, actresses, you know, popular artists — everybody is starting to want to stand next to Griselda.
Being from Eastside Buffalo, nobody really know what we're about. All they hear is the shoot-em-up, bang bang. The drugs, the prison. We lost Chine Gun, bro being shot. They didn't know how to kind of — like, "Is this cool to accept? Can we sit next to this s***?' 'Because this s*** is kinda too raw." But now that they see the biggest names in the game and the A-listers and everybody stand next to this — like, the basketball stars, NFL stars. Everybody is behind the Griselda culture. It's like, "Oh, it's cool to stand next to these guys. Hey, let's take a picture!"
So 2020 is gone be a lot more pictures. And it's just gonna make us popular without us changing s*** — like, no, this is what we really do. We're really tapping into the culture. We really grew up hearing that music in the late '80s all through the grimy '90s. We come from that same cloth. That Wu-Tang cloth? We're cut from it. Mobb Deep, Nas, all them people that people love. The Kool G era — all of that. We was alive for it, we was around for it, we heard it soon as it came out, just like when they did it. Griselda could have came out in the '90s.
Kelley: Who is Chine Gun and what is his relationship to you guys?
Benny: Chine Gun is my older brother, and their cousin. It's no secret we all family, but that was my older brother. He a person who would be sitting right here if he didn't pass away. Extreme dude. Street dude. Street guy.
Benny: Right, a protector. He wouldn't let nothing happen to nobody he was around. He felt it was his duty to ride for anybody he had love for. He was just a good dude. People loved him. Everybody saluted him. Everybody had love for him; he had love for everybody.
Kelley: So why was it important to name this major label debut after him — or after, "What would he do?"
Benny: To make sure that he's a part of this, and make sure that that he living through us. He is us, and we is him.
Westside: I always say, I only praise one dude — that's Chine Gun. We evolved, he evolved with us. [I have] his whole face tattooed over my heart. I wear his chain every day. Now we have our debut album named after him. As long as you know Griselda, you gonna know Chine Gun. Period. Even though he's the fallen member, he's still with us to this day.