As an artist, respect is worth its weight in gold. The respect level for American artist Kerry James Marshall pushed one of his paintings, originally sold for tens of thousands, to sell for tens of millions at auction just last month. It’s the fine line between an art piece submitted anonymously to a London exhibition being rejected and the same piece being resubmitted with Banksy’s name attached. To some, that notoriety speaks more than their net worth ever could.
Over the phone, Westside Gunn tells me that he, his brother Conway The Machine and cousins Benny The Butcher and Machine Gun Black had always spent their days on the streets with rap dreams as big as their Buffalo surroundings. The stories and skills of Kool G Rap and Wu-Tang Clan told of war-torn streets that reaped heavy rewards—and consequences—that were reflected on the pavement of one of the most dangerous cities in the country. It also pushed them closer and closer to the art of rap. “We always knew we was dope,” Gunn tells me with a chuckle.
The revolving door of the prison system kept their ambitions unfocused, but facing a second prison term and dealing with the death of Machine Gun Black made Gunn’s focus laser-sharp; he made himself a promise:
“If I do this music 100% but have that same street mentality, I can make it. We came from somewhere where no one had made it like that before. I knew that I wanted my shit to be art, to react to it like when you first see a painting for the first time. I want people to play my shit and hear tracks 1 through 17 like it’s the first time. When I dropped Hitler [Wears Hermes] 1, the cover was a painting. I didn’t want anyone to see my face and just interact with my art.”
But before the inaugural Hitler Wears Hermes, he didn’t have those artistic intentions. Gunn—born Alvin Worthy—was more interested in the business side of the music industry, crafting what would become the Griselda x Fashion Rebels clothing line and managing his brother Conway. It wasn’t until 2012, after Conway was shot in the back of the head, that Gunn had even considered getting behind the mic on his own. But after a grip of mixtapes, collaborations, and two full-length albums, he’s molded what originally started as Street Entertainment into Griselda Records, a label worthy of the art he promised to Machine Gun Black—and he knows it.
Westside Gunn is ready for his respect on a grander scale. The kind he felt after being passed the torch by Raekwon on the Webster Hall stage last year. The kind that he feels after selling obscene amounts of clothing and self-funding an entire project, from the features and production work to the cover artwork. The kind that comes from playing festival stages all summer and signing a partnership with Eminem, who for all intents and purposes, is still the biggest rapper in the world.
“I felt I should be on the same level as a ScHoolboy, as a Kendrick, as a Drake. For what I’m doing, I feel like I’m on the same level. God is the greatest and he don’t make mistakes. Everything happens for a reason. I just felt maybe the push from the major label would get me there, since I’ve only been doing it on my level. It’s no disrespect, but no one is fuckin’ with my shit. They might have the marketing dollars and the praise, but this is a self-funded production by me. No Paul or Shady money.”
Gunn's confidence shone through in our brief conversation. He repeatedly mentioned being among the first rappers to make it out of Buffalo and Griselda's record deal with Shady Records. His also outlined the lofty ambitions that came with his debut album FLYGOD: “The whole FLYGOD was me saying I was the Messiah to the game,” he plainly states. “I was gonna be the guy to bridge the gap, to bring the essence. You got the younger kids that fuck with me and you got the OGs that fuck with me. Whether people are gonna fuck with me or not, I’m still gonna be that guy.” This is similar to the bond that Gunn’s friend Smoke DZA formed with hip-hop veteran Pete Rock for their joint album Don’t Smoke Rock, an analogous bid at giving an old sound new energy. But even the great Pete Rock doesn’t have an army of fans both young and old lining up for vinyl and hoodies.
FLYGOD’s cover gets right to the point; an old baby picture repainted and set against a red backdrop, complete with three gold chains and a crown of thorns wrapped around his head. He is the bridge over the gap.
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Three years later, he’s describing the process of bringing together the production team for his sophomore album Supreme Blientele with the vigor of Agent Coulson gathering The Avengers: “Who has an album produced by Pete Rock, Roc Marci, 9th Wonder and Alchemist?” he says. On top of working with in-house talent like Conway and Benny, Gunn tapped younger luminaries like Anderson .Paak and CRIMEAPPLE, as well as respected veterans like Jadakiss, Elzhi, and Busta Rhymes to share the spotlight. More often than not, their verses open songs, a conscious decision made apparent with Benny’s beginning verse on the first proper song, “GODS Don’t Bleed.”
“I’m not a selfish dude, it’s about making dope music and being creative. It’s just an art piece and I want it to flow through. Some people are even scared to let somebody start their own shit. But that’s my little cousin and I wanted him to start off thumpin’. There’s even people who would be scared to come after Benny and Jadakiss. I was even gonna put a song with Benny on it and nothing from me. I’m just here to give the best music. That’s my job. That’s what I signed up for. It’s not about me, it’s about Griselda.”
Controversy has a tendency to follow all great art, and Gunn’s catalog is no exception. How can it be when he has a mixtape series named after Hitler? The alliteration in the title sold him. “It just rolled off the tongue,” he says. “People could’ve got me out of here over Hitler Wears Hermes, but I just wanted to put my own spin on Devil Wears Prada. Of course, it was nothing malicious about it. I loved the title and decided to let the music speak for itself.” Although a somewhat confusing sentiment, it's hard to deny that the music speaks for itself; it's the kind of grimy opulence Gunn has worked to perfect over the past six years.
He ran into the same problem with his latest album. The official title, Supreme Blientele, is an homage to Ghostface Killah’s career-defining one-two punch of Ironman and Supreme Clientele, one that Gunn hopes to mirror with FLYGOD and Blientele. “This is me coming back into the album world again and showing motherfuckers that I’m Westside Gunn 2.0,” he explains. “When [Ghostface] came with Clientele, that’s what took him to the next level of the fly and flashy shit. The Wallabees, the big jewels. It was a whole other Ghostface. He took the fly shit to a whole other level. I felt like that was the type of shit I was headed towards.”
Blientele wasn't the only title, though; it was one of three. The second, Chris Benoit, brought its own set of problems. As a wrestling nut, Gunn chose the name because Benoit is one of his favorites, though that doesn’t ease the fog of the man’s infamous double murder-suicide involving his wife and son back in 2007. The third title was supposed to match up with another painting of Benoit, but the painter Gunn had commissioned respectfully backed out at the last minute. He didn’t think the idea of memorializing a man who had strangled his own son to death would be a good example for his son.
Gunn, then, decided to hone in on Blientele, taking the title and artwork back to his roots. He had an idea that involved a Fendi face mask, but it wouldn’t be easy to pull off (or on):
“I couldn’t find [the Fendi mask] for shit. I was looking on eBay for two weeks, and one day it just popped up. One pair for $500. I ordered it on the spot. I didn’t even had the idea and I hit DJ Kerosene up with the idea. I asked him if he knew any photographers, and he said he knew Big K.R.I.T.’s photographer. He took that picture. He came through about midnight in one of the worst neighborhoods in Atlanta, he came through and took the photo. I had the idea with the chopper and the mask and he took the picture and it came out dope. This one is gonna have an even bigger impact than the Chanel mask [from Hitler Wears Hermes 2]. And Marshall wore that onstage at Coachella. I love this cover. It’s my favorite one of all time.”
Blientele’s cover is a distillation of everything that gives Gunn’s raps color, ironically presented in black and white. The Fendi draped across his face marks the quest for opulence, while the AK in his left hand is both a reminder of his past and the paranoia and memories of fallen friends and family that keep him up at night. I find the choice to include a clip from Kanye West and Charlamagne Tha God’s interview about living “an Hermès level existence” fitting: “You look at a Birkin bag, the more scratches on it, the more value it has.” That, in a nutshell, is the best way to look at Gunn’s music; a first-rate Bape hoodie whose battle scars are as crucial as the stitching.
And there’s still plenty of gas in the Griselda tank. While the label is still clearly comfortable releasing work on their own, both Gunn and Conway are currently working on their respective debuts on Shady Records. Griselda is gearing up for a line of fitted hats with New Era. Gunn is in front of the camera now, and he’s getting uncomfortable waiting for his close-up. “So many people don’t even know I have a project with DOOM,” he exclaims. That’s the shit that’s hardest to change and that makes me a bit uncomfortable. I think Blientele is gonna open eyes and make people do their homework and hear everything.”
More than ever, it’s time for Buffalo’s FLYGOD and his team to reign supreme.