Westside Gunn and the Great Griselda Takeover
Respect the Almighty, no matter what language it's in
This year few record labels enjoyed a following as dedicated as the one for Griselda Records. Founded by rapper Westside Gunn and his brother Conway the Machine, the Buffalo-born imprint has taken up the cause for gritty boom-bap and underground east coast bangers. The Griselda sound has largely been defined by the work of in-house producer Daringer and their roster has grown to include Benny and ELCAMINO. They’ve also created the sister clothing company Fashion Rebels.
During their biggest year yet, when Griselda issued five of its releases on vinyl through Daupe Media, between 500 and 1000 copies of each one sold out in a minute or less. And soon those releases were being resold online for hundred of dollars to eager collectors. Gunn and Conway were also signed as artists to Shady Records, and they may also be moving to Def Jam as well after Shady’s Paul Rosenberg became the historic label’s new CEO. The duo also toured the country with The Lox, while Gunn collaborated with DOOM for the too brief WESTSIDEDOOM project.
As we continue our conversations with people who shifted the culture in 2017, in early December, MASS APPEAL sat down for some big talk with the man who spearheads the Griselda movement, Westside Gunn. He was candid about how he and his brother’s rap careers came about, and he was eager to talk about his art. He spoke on everything from escaping poverty in Buffalo to why he’s big in Macedonia. With each answer, Gunn demonstrated a passion for hip hop that is refreshing in this day and age. And with that, check out what the FLYGOD had to say.
Getting all these packages together and trying to get them off. Did a nice little run over the holiday weekend, so just trying to get these things out before I go to Art Basel tomorrow.
That’s perfect, because I was going to ask you about your Good Friday and Cyber Monday sales. You dropped something new and opened up the vaults too!
The Black Friday was the Almighty hoodies. The black and white, and the navy and the red. I built up a nice little hype around it. I wore it to a lot of big events and sat courtside opening night, and I wore it at the Eminem cipher. So I was just really waiting for the perfect timing and every year I do something on Black Friday because of my cousin, which is Benny’s brother, his name was Machine Gun Black (RIP). So, I play off the Machine Gun Black/Black Friday. I just wanted to do something big that day and I was like, “When’s a better time to drop these Almighty hoodies and what it stands for?” So I just did it, and, man, people went crazy for this shit.
And on Cyber Monday, I have some vinyl that just been stacking because I always get maybe 15 or 20 of ’em, every release. So they was just stacked up and I’m just like, “You know what? I’m gonna sell them to the people.” There’s so many people that want the vinyl and they so limited, the demand is so high [that] like one vinyl might be $800, $900, $1000 [on reseller sites]. So it was just like, let me do something real quick for the people, man. And they enjoyed it. As soon as I put ‘em up, they was gone.
Yeah, I know all about it.
It’s crazy! Everything I’ve ever dropped has sold out, bro. Like every shirt has sold out. Every vinyl release has sold out. Any CD I put up, sell out. The fans, man, it’s just been nothing but love. So, I don’t got no complaints on that. I just love people wearing it. I leave a post and people are arguing and mad. People even trade. “Yo, I got this for that.” I love seeing that, cuz I remember when I started I literally didn’t even have 24 people to buy a shirt. I was trying to print 12, but they was like, “There’s a two dozen minimum.” I remember that day. So to just go from that to any number I put on it… I can even add another $200, $300 to it and it’ll still sell out in the same amount of time because the demand is so crazy.
How many copies of each title were available?
It wasn’t that many. I would say it was roughly 50 to 60 of them. I still kept some personals that’s gonna be mines forever. I’m not gonna give away everything. People came up that day. They definitely came up that day. And to be honest, I was happy to do it. I didn’t even have to do it. But it was like, you know what? I wanna do it. It’s just 50 to 60 more people that’s collecting this art. That’s the thing about me, I don’t care about how much it’s gonna be worth in the future or how much money I’m losing by doing this. That don’t matter to me. I’m going to make money regardless. What good is it doing me just sitting around, when somebody could have it.
Like I said when I put it up, this isn’t for resellers. This is for people who collect art. This is for people who are real Griselda fans that are trying to click on it the day it came out. And them shits was gone in literally 60 seconds. This is for those people that tried, that went on their lunch break trying to get it and still couldn’t get it. This for them to have a better opportunity. There’s a lot of people who hit me like, “Man, I appreciate it, bro. A couple of them I needed and now my collection is complete.” It was just nothing but love and I’m glad I could do that.
While that was some charity for the fans, let’s talk about some real charity work you recently did.
Oh definitely. I did the FLYGOD for Families, man. Gave out 100 turkeys to 100 families. I just wanted to start something. It’s a start. Buffalo was the second poorest city in the country. So at the end of the day, the majority [of families] in Buffalo is living in poverty. I know there’s a lot of families out there that don’t have a turkey. They are less fortunate. I’m just like, “You know what? I have to take lead and do something for my city.” And maybe once people see me do it, then other people will want to match me next year or get more involved. Next year we could double it, triple it, and just try to keep building and building, and building. I’m going back up there. I’m gonna do something for the kids for Christmas too.
It’s about giving back, man. I know the people got faith in me and it’s love. I’m doing something my city’s never seen before. Griselda is something that my whole entire city has never seen before. So I’m appreciative and I thank them for the love. All our shows sell out and it’s nothing but love. We never even had an incident…and Buffalo is crazy. The respect for Griselda is that high that even the people that got issues, they let the shit slide that day, like, “We not even going to mess this up. This is a good night for the city.” So it’s about giving back to those same people.
As far as the Almighty design, why that word specifically and why in Russian?
Well, the word “almighty” to me, it don’t get no higher. I used to call myself Almighty, The FLYGOD, and I say praise both. And I just started off using “almighty” all the time because I feel like we unfuckwitable, we unstoppable. I think Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny, and Daringer came down as the illest at what we all do. And we a collective, we all on the same team. I don’t care who ask, Preemo, Alchemist, anybody. Ask them about Daringer and see what they tell you. And even little bro Camino. We unfuckwitable, man. The almighty. We on the next level. When it comes to bringing art back—that real hip hop sound, the storytelling, the swag, the style—it’s not too many people that fuck with it. Period. I’m talking about new or old.
And it’s not even Russian, it’s actually Macedonian. So the shirt is huge now in Macedonia, by the way. How I found it was, I was looking at [the word] in different fonts and just came across it. I just thought it was dope. As soon I seen it, I was like, that’s the one.
Yeah, it’s not a crazy design like the FLYGOD or Don’t Get Scared Now, but there is something about it.
It’s simple. Sometimes less is more. Like I said, everything is art. You look at all the other ones, you see the art piece that I use as a design. But this one is still art to me. Even though it’s one word, it’s the way it’s written. I didn’t have to put a whole lot of shit on the shirt to get my point across. Just one word and it means so much. It’s powerful in itself. I think people love the simplicity of it. As soon as you see it, it’s like, “What’s that?”
And so who did the the artwork for FLYGOD and Don’t Get Scared Now?
It’s an artist named Cepenwhy. We was already fans of each others work. I seen him at the Sean P album release party Bernadette did. He was like, “I’m Cepenwhy,” and I’m like, “Oh shit, what’s going on?” We exchanged numbers. I had the FLYGOD concept of what I was going to do anyways because that’s a picture of me when I was seven years old with the three chains on and all of that. So I’m just like, “I want this to be an art piece.” And I was already a fan of Cep’s work because he had did work for a lot of different people already. I seen it and I was like, “I think this guy could pull it off.” I came with the whole idea of putting the thorns on the head with the eyes bleeding, but keep the same outfit on me, keep the same chains on me. It was like, “Keep my image, but just add that on and then just give it your style on it.” When I seen it, I was like, “This shit is legendary. People gonna know this forever.”
Same thing with Don’t Get Scared Now. We cooked up a few different pieces. Now that shit is muraled places and people got it tattooed on ‘em. The images is iconic.
I feel like logos were definitely an important part of a hip hop artist’s image in the ‘90s, and that Griselda have taken that to the next level.
Everything I do is art. It’s just art based and art driven. That’s what my mentality is. When I rhyme, when I make a project, it’s art. The words is my paint brush. When I do projects, literally I do ‘em in a couple days. I cook up right then and there, and when it’s done, it’s done. When you hear these albums, it’s me making it all in two days, three days. From top to bottom. I’m not like, I’m about to start a album and I get done in March. Okay, I just wrapped up my album, ‘bout to drop it. I literally be like I’m going to start my album today (ed. note: interview was conducted last Wednesday) and by Friday, we listening to it. Because that’s my piece. That’s my art. That’s my painting. So, all those projects you heard, it was never longer than two, three days making them. I don’t have a book of rhymes that someone is gonna find one day. Everything you hear is what I made right then and there when I heard the production.
Like I said, I look at art totally different. A lot people using the word freely, and a lot of people using the word since I been saying it. Ever since my first project, I wasn’t even on the cover. I didn’t even want people to know who I was, how I looked or nothing. From day one. That’s when I came with Hitler Wears Hermes. Then, when Hitler Wears Hermes 2 and 3 came out, I kept a ski mask on. I tried to keep that mystery so you appreciate the music, the art first. I kinda did the DOOM, the Ghostface style. Just like, “Who is this dude?” People didn’t know if I was young, old. I got the high pitched voice. People were thinking I was 17, 18. Not knowing I’m a grown-ass man. I just wanted the music and the art to speak for itself before you even knew who I was. Like I said, everything is art with me. You gonna see the art and already think it’s a classic before you even hear one word.
That’s a good segue to WESTSIDEDOOM. How did it happen?
How did I know that was coming. People be like, “How the fuck?” Yo, that shit is crazy. I always mentioned him in songs. If you go back in the history, I say, “I only wanna meet MF DOOM.” So, since I said that, people are just like, “You need to do something with DOOM.” He was so mysterious and that’s why I said I wanted to meet him. At the time I said that, I knew I could meet Nas. I knew I could meet Hov. I knew I could meet Marshall. I knew I could meet really whoever I wanted to. DOOM though was mysterious as fuck and his style was always crazy. I always rapped over his instrumentals—playing with shit, just testing the waters when I first started. I didn’t even have Daringer yet.
So, one day I’m sitting there with my lawyer and we talking. We at Starbucks talking about the clothing shit and she asks me, “What else you got going on?” And I’m telling her the DOOM idea. Like, “Yo, I want to do something crazy. I want to do WESTSIDEDOOM.” And she’s like, “You know I’m DOOM’s lawyer too?” I’m like, “What? Man, get the fuck out of here!” She’s like, “No, I’m dead-ass serious.” So you’re trying to tell me you DOOM’s lawyer this whole time too? Then she connected us and it was a respect thing, man. He fucks with my shit, I’m a fan of his shit. I hit up Alchemist and told him I need something. Hit up Daringer and told him I need something. And we went ahead and knocked it out. [It’s] some classic shit.
I know you like to get together in person with people to record tracks. Did you get together with DOOM?
Out of all the questions you can ask me, I can answer anything, but that’s the only question I really can’t answer for certain reasons.
I was talking to Conway and he told me a little bit about his upcoming Shady release G.O.A.T. (Grimiest Of All Time). But people want to know about your record for Shady too.
My release with Shady, no bullshit, I’m literally starting tomorrow. So when I go down to Miami, I have a studio session every single day, just to zone out, because Daringer been up there bro. Ever since we got off tour, he been in Buff and I’ve been traveling. I done went to ComplexCon, I been out in LA, I been out in Chicago, I been in Miami, I been in Atlanta. I been just working on clothing and collecting art and copping toys, just doing the shit that inspires me. Staying sharp. And they been staying sharp. Daringer been cooking beats. Bro been recording. Benny just dropped the Butcher On Steroids and everything came out crazy with that. So it’s just been all working, doing what everybody do. We gonna come back like Voltron at the top of the year and take off running in 2018.
Me and Daringer get back together tomorrow, so we about to start cooking. I got a couple songs already on ice. The label is like, “You need two singles.” I got those two singles, so the rest is just me doing what I do. And even the singles is still 9th Wonder. It’s not like it’s some bullshit you about to sit up and be like, “Damn, what the fuck he do that for?” Nah, the single is still ‘top producers in the game’ quality.
Now, that I know I have those, I can cook the craziest Daringer [beats], the craziest… I already hit up Al, I already hit up Preemo, I already hit up Pete. The people like that who I know are just one phone call away. Me having access to Daringer and Alchemist is already crazy. But me having access to DJ Premier and Pete Rock and Statik Selektah and 9th Wonder and Just Blaze, Nottz, Buckwild, at one text away? You already know we ‘bout to cook up. I’m about to start it tomorrow. I don’t know when I’m going to be done, but it don’t take me long. It’s gonna take a little longer because now it’s like, “Al, you free? Nah? You shooting something with Bronson. Aight, let me know when you’re done, I’ma fly to you.” “Preemo, you doing some PRhyme shit with Royce. Aight, lemme know when done, I’ll fly to you.” I gotta make sure their time is free and my time is free, but soon as they say their time is free, I’m in album mode, so I’m on the next flight. I’m about to cook up something legendary.
Talk about how you met Daringer.
I know Daringer from like just the Buffalo underground scene. I’m a street dude, I was hustlin’, so I was always in the hood gettin’ my money. It was more mainstream. The hood is partying, dancin’, clubbin’, but I knew some dudes that was on the underground scene. So I’m hearing Madlib doing the Quasimoto shit, and I’m listening to Company Flow and the Weathermen. At that time people looked at it like it was some weird shit, cuz I’m from the Eastside of Buffalo, we listening to that raw. It was just different. When they put me onto the scene, there was a couple nightclubs that would cater just to that boom bap—a hundred people in there, muthafuckers breakdancing…just real hip-hop. I was like the only person from the hood who would even go over there. I used to go back to the hood like, “Hey, listen to this.” And they like, “Man, we don’t want to hear that bullshit.” I just gravitated to it and I loved the shit.
Daringer was a part of that crew. He was a DJ. He wasn’t even known for the beats. He made beats but he wasn’t know for ‘em. We met before I went to prison and then when I came home from prison, I wasn’t rapping for years. It was always Conway’s dream. So when I came home and bro was rapping, I got back hustlin’ again and I’m like, “Yo, you do the rapping shit and I’ma just be the backend. I’ma go in the streets and get you right.” We got some bread and I was already a natural born hustler when it comes to the mouthpiece. So, I’m like, “I’ma handle everything else, you just rap.” Bro ended up getting shot and then something hit me, “I’m gonna do it again.” I was already in business mode with it, so I’m like, “You know what? I’ma do what I was gonna do for bro and do it for me.” But again my style was always underground. It was always the rhyme. It was an art to me because I appreciated it. I appreciated the culture.
So when it was time for me to rhyme, of course that’s what I’m going to. At that time, everybody was poppin’ bottles, everybody wanted to stand on couches and make it rain. When I did Hitler [Wears Hermes] 1, that’s what was going on. And don’t get it twisted, I was in the club making it rain, poppin’ bottles, standing on couches too—cuz that’s me and that’s just what I do. But when it comes to the music, it’s the total opposite. It’s all about the culture and the art. So I was practicing over Al beats, Preemo beats, Dilla beats, DOOM beats, but then I’m like, “Yo, I remember this kid that had some beats. Let me reach out to him.” It had been years. I had went to prison and everything. I got in touch with him and I’m like, “Yo, send me a beat.” He sent me a beat and it was “Messhall Talk.” I recorded it that day and sent it back to him the next day. He was doing beats for people in Buffalo but he still wasn’t Daringer. Nobody knew he was making songs except that hundred people that would be in that club. So I said, “Send me every fucking thing.” That’s how Hitler 2 came [about].
You’ve also done a lot of dope tracks with Camo Monk. How did y’all hook up?
Right before I made Hitler 2, that’s when I met Monk. Hitler 1 was already bubblin’ in the streets but didn’t nobody know who I was cuz it was a painting on the cover. Once a few people knew who I was, it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s Gunn, that’s Wes, he reached out to me.” We just clicked. At that time, I was kinda like big homie already, so I’m looking at him like a little bro. I’m going back and forth [from Buffalo] to Atlanta. He was like, “Yo, I’m about to move to Atlanta too.” And I’m like, “Man, let’s do something.” When he came down I kinda took him under my wing like a little bro because I was already off that Hitler 1 high. It was just in time for Hitler 2. Daringer sent me everything he had and I went to Monk’s house, cuz Monk had some equipment. I made Hitler 2 the same day. Every time he played a Daringer beat, I’m like, “This shit crazy.” I would go to sleep for an hour or two, wake up, get right back to it. Smokin’ nonstop, just cookin’. That was the beginning of me and Monk.
You ever worried that racists are going to adopt your Hitler iconography?
It hasn’t happen before. The whole Hitler series is done. I did one through five. I ended it with five. It’s already too late. It’s art. I’ve never had an issue. That’s the wild part about it. Still to this day, for five years straight, I’ve never had one issue ever. So, nah, not at all.
What kind of fashion stuff you got coming?
I been reached out to some heads at Nike, so I’ma go out there to the campus and do some work. In 2018 I’m coming out with my own New Era hats. I’m on the designer tip in 2018. It’s really about to be next level. You gonna see me expanding and not just me independently doing my clothing, but collabs with some of the biggest brands in the world.