DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now we have the story of a rap trio from Buffalo, N.Y. Over the past 12 months, they have put out eight records, including their major label debut. And they have earned the vocal support of hip-hop's legends. Frannie Kelley has more.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper is a title which implies that beyond the charts and the awards, there's a more meaningful ranking system.
WESTSIDE GUNN: Our popularity really comes from, like, the OGs, you know, 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.
KELLEY: Westside Gunn is one of the founders of Griselda, a record label whose most prominent signees are Westside, his brother Conway...
CONWAY THE MACHINE: I go by the name of Conway the Machine.
KELLEY: ...And their cousin Benny.
BENNY THE BUTCHER: It's Benny the Butcher.
KELLEY: Two years ago, Griselda signed with Eminem's Shady Records, and this year they also signed a management deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation. The day after Thanksgiving, Griselda released its major label debut. The album opens with the voice of yet another legend - the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRISELDA SONG, "MARCHELLO [FT. RAEKWON THE CHEF]")
RAEKWON: And I'm sitting here seeing the demographics of what Griselda's about. And I love it. I appreciate it. It's like a breath of fresh air.
KELLEY: The demographics of what Griselda is about refer to the people of Buffalo, N.Y. Westside describes his city.
WESTSIDE GUNN: Buffalo is very, very poor. Like, our tallest building in our city isn't taller than the building we in right now.
KELLEY: Sitting on the 19th floor of a 32-story building in Midtown Manhattan, Conway says you can hear what's going on in Buffalo in Griselda's music.
CONWAY THE MACHINE: It's like a black cloud over Buffalo. And I think our music reflect those type of feelings of despair and hopelessness. We put that in the lyrics and the beats we choose.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUISER WEIGHT COKE")
GRISELDA: (Rapping) Comfortable in my own hood, same type of time that Nip was on - God bless the dead. But I already beat the odds 'cause they say gangsters never live this long.
KELLEY: The hip-hop that's currently on the radio and performed on the festival circuit is melodic and fun. But when people talk about classic hip-hop, they usually have in mind some regional variation on hard-nosed street rap, which centers the stories of people living like they are in Buffalo right now, where almost half of the children live below the poverty line.
Kris Ex is a writer who's been covering rap music since the early '90s.
KRIS EX: People might say, like - why is street rap still necessary? - or like, we've already told these stories. The question becomes, why is there still so much violent crime in these cities? Nothing is being done about it, so they still have to speak about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MADE IT")
CONWAY THE MACHINE: (Rapping) Working all them double shifts to keep that food up on the shelf. You ain't let it knock you down, ain't let it stress you. Heard you opened your own business, you gon' be successful. And you hurting inside. I can see it in your eyes. I know you ain't been the same since your kids' father's demise.
KELLEY: The members of Griselda have become folk heroes. Hoodies with their faces on them are coveted, and Middle America is getting tattoos of their logo. A lot of that has to do with the dramatic biographies they've recounted in song. Benny singles out his cousin's story.
BENNY THE BUTCHER: Conway - like, 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?
KELLEY: In 2012, Conway was shot in the head. For a while, he was paralyzed from the neck down, but he eventually recovered the use of everything except the right side of his face.
CONWAY THE MACHINE: It's a feel-good story. The underdog came in and won.
(SOUNDBITE OF WESTSIDE GUNN SONG, "THE COW [FT. CONWAY THE MACHINE]")
CONWAY THE MACHINE: (Rapping) After I got shot in my head, I seen my face, like - I'm done with this [expletive]. Trying to spit my verses and mumbling and [expletive], face twisted up, looking ugly and [expletive]. That Bell's palsy had me looking like I had a stroke.
KRIS EX: If you were shot in the back of your head while sitting in your car and you're processing that...
KELLEY: Again, Kris Ex.
KRIS EX: ...You don't make one song about that. And because these guys aren't commercial minded, they're just like, the freedom of us putting out multiple records per year and not having to please some sort of radio demographic means that we can actually realistically use this to explain what these stories are.
KELLEY: For Griselda, staying true to who they are has paid off, says Westside Gunn.
WESTSIDE GUNN: 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're showing you that you don't. We look great. We live great. Our families is eating. Everybody have a great life - you know what I'm saying? - off of street rap and boom bap.
KELLEY: Griselda's big year is a big win for the timeless over the trendy.
For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.
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