“Heard you just killed it at the rap show,” raps Westside Gunn on “French Toast,” the sleeper hit off his latest album—and best work yet—Pray For Paris.
It’s a simple line delivered with a jeering candor. “French Toast” was produced by Camo Monk, 31, a Buffalo native who fondly remembers his entire music career forming in his mother’s attic. Through the transitive property, this means Griselda formed in Monk’s attic. Monk was there before the Shady Records deal, before universal acclaim, before everyone knew a series of Doot Doot Doots meant business.
Joining Monk on Pray For Paris is his blood cousin, Billie Essco, 29. Essco’s silky vocal manned the hook of “327,” also produced by Camo Monk. Within 10 minutes, going back to back, Monk and Essco bring the Griselda history full circle, going from a gang of Buffalo-raised kids trying to make it, to grown men with a history and a legacy under their collective belts.
“My mom was the cool mom,” Camo Monk tells me over the phone. “The best thing she could do was allow me to have a studio in her home so she always [knew] I’m under her roof and I’m alright. That transitioned into my friends coming around. I probably saved some of my friends’ lives as well—just being able to be at the house and not in the streets. As a kid, when I was 10, 11, I was sitting in front of the computer, figuring programs out just to create. I was able to have my own studio from 10, learn how to record, use every DAW there is, and the story is there! Everything pretty much started in that attic.”
He didn’t know it, but young Camo Monk was building the bedrock of Griselda Records history in his mom’s attic. With a bowl of cereal in hand, young Monk would scour the internet and teach himself the ways of the superproducer. A born hustler, Monk would continuously be on the lookout for the next lesson, the next opportunity, anything to change his situation. Of course, life has a dour way of making decisions for you. In 2013, Monk lost his father, his mother moved out of Buffalo, and Monk found himself in Atlanta with a studio and a creative itch.
Enter: Westside Gunn.
“I always knew Gunn, from outside of music,” Monk says. “He used to get money back in Buffalo on some hood shit, and me being where I’m from, I got to see a lot of it right off my mom’s porch. The street I grew up on was the heart of all that. That’s how I got in tune with West because a lot of my OGs is cool with him as well.”
Monk continues: “I hit West and I said, ‘We’re both from Buffalo, I’m in the A. I got the studio, wanna come out here?’ We wasn’t thinking of creating nothing crazy; I just wanted to link with someone I knew. West ain’t have to hit me back, but he did. We linked the next day in Atlanta, and I had the studio in my basement. The first record we did was the ‘City, Sos & Me’ beat. Everybody that was in the house came downstairs to listen to that shit. That’s when we knew we had something—we ain’t know what it was, but we had something.”
That something turned into Monk’s 500-beat summer and led to the founding of Griselda Kids. “That’s the super beginning of everything,” Monk recalls. “That led to us creating Griselda Kids. Before it was Griselda Records, we were the kids of Griselda, just running it.”
Too, this something was the start of putting on for Buffalo, a city that, as Monk tells it, hasn’t had a famous person since Rick James. According to Monk, Griselda Records came from the strength of the projects Gunn began releasing. Always praised for his curation skills, Gunn’s ability to assemble the best of the family—Conway, Benny, Daringer, etc.—made the label feel like a necessity. Griselda earned itself.
“When I met Gunn, he had already been familiar with our music—I’m not sure how,” Billie Essco tells me. Essco co-founded Buffalo’s F1rst Class collective, focused on bridging gaps between youth cultures in Buffalo, NY. “This was around the time Gunn had been released [from jail]. He had put out Hitler Wears Hermes, and he dropped off a CD to one of my group member’s—Jae Skeeze—job. Skeeze listened to it and called me right away. ‘Yo, some dude just dropped off a CD. I don’t know who he is, but you need to listen to it.’ Fast forward, I listen to Gunn’s tape. I hit him on Twitter, he hit me back immediately, like, ‘Yo, I appreciate it. I fuck with your stuff, too.’”
“[Gunn] had already had the Griselda imprint idea,” Essco continues. “As much as it was growing, I always looked at him at the level he is now. I’m just glad the world is seeing him. He’s always been this person; he pulls it off. That’s what drew me to him because I had similar aspirations. From then on, we started rocking, and I’ve always been an independent artist myself. I was able to stay affiliated with Griselda because of that real relationship. It wasn’t about the music, it was, ‘That’s the little homie.’”
“It formed from the projects,” Monk tells me of the Griselda Records we know today. “In the beginning, we were Griselda, but we weren’t this big label. West was putting projects together that gave that look of, ‘Man, Griselda is the label. We here now.’ Conway and Benny, they speak for themselves. They rap skills is crazy. It’s always been like that, for as long as I could remember. Since I was a kid, we looked up to Benny. He was the dude in my city who was rapping and on top. Benny set the bar back in 2005, 2006, for this music stuff in Buffalo. For West to notice that and keep that around, it’s big.”
The Westside Gunn lineage, really, begins with the Hitler Wears Hermes tapes, on which Billie Essco featured in 2015. “We did Hitler Wears Hermes 3, I’m on ‘Freestyling in Ferragamo,’” Essco remembers. “That was our first song. In the Flygod era, we was just mobbing out. Initially, I was on ‘Vivian at the Art Basel.’ What happened was, my verse combined with his and Your Old Droog’s made the song too long. [Gunn] called me over to Daringer’s house, ‘I got good news and bad news. The good news is, we ‘bout to make another track. The bad news is, I gotta take you off ‘Vivian.’’ Right there and then, we did the ‘Albright Knox’ track, knocked it out in 15 minutes… [Flygod], that’s his Reasonable Doubt. That was his genesis of this whole situation.”
“We recorded Hitler Wears Hermes 2, and I don’t think West was at the best place financially,” Monk recalls. “We driving around listening to Hitler 2, and we trying to find jobs. I’m sitting here, looking at West, like, ‘Bro, you tatted from head to toe, ain’t no job ‘bout to hire you. You a two-time felon. We gotta go harder on this music.’ I remember that to this day.”
It’s Gunn’s hunger and hustle that inspired both Monk and Essco to go harder themselves. The same hunger and hustle wormed its way into Essco’s consciousness earlier this year when the man got himself a passport and a plane ticket to Paris to meet Gunn in the city for Fashion Week.
“Everything you hear on the album is based on what happened those first three days,” Essco says of the Paris trip and recording sessions. “The night before we booked a studio session, we was at the flat. It was so surreal. [Gunn] told me, ‘Hit your cousin up and send me some beats.’ He sent like 100 beats, and it’s crazy because I can’t find the folder no more. [“327”] was the third beat [Gunn] played. We wrote it, and I didn’t hear his verse until we went to the studio. Once he recorded his verse, I felt like [“327”] was gon’ be a classic.”
Impending classic moments aside, Griselda would be nothing without Conway The Machine and Benny The Butcher. As Monk tells it, Benny set the bar in Buffalo over 15 years ago and has been consistently resetting the bar and outdoing himself along with his Griselda brothers ever since.
“He’s an amazing soul,” Monk says of Benny. “I’m proud of him because I remember him in halfway house after halfway house. Granted, it’s a lot of good news because he a good dude who makes a lot of good music, but when you in the streets, a lot of shit happens. I’m glad he’s in the space he at right now. I don’t think he realizes how powerful and crazy everything he’s done… I was on stage in LA with them, and JAY-Z was on the stage watching him. I might have to drop a tear, man.”
As for Conway, Monk recalls The Machine always looking out for him, hopping on records (“Wally Era”) without question. Monk recorded Conway at Essco’s home studio—he recorded Prodigy in that studio as well. As we get into the thick of our talk, I noticed, too, that every mention of reverence for Griselda, every ounce of love, has a familial bend to it.
“That’s what makes Griselda so powerful,” Essco says. “It’s a label that’s built off of friends and family; the relationship with Gunn, Benny, and Conway. [Gunn] grew up with Keisha Plum and Daringer. These are friends before anything.”
Beyond family, Griselda is a balance. Their logo—the scales—is no measure of vanity. I bring up “French Toast,” how Monk’s production got Gunn to loosen up his flows. Monk sounds giddy. He tells me it’s beautiful his record is my favorite of the bunch. “That’s what Griselda is—balance,” Monk expounds. “Griselda is a scale, and we keep our scale balanced by keeping it hardcore gangster, and West can do his mellow shit. I always took notice of that—that’s the history he’s putting together. We in the house, and this is just us creating that sound between just us. That’s what keeps me going, too.”
For this music shit, Monk has had to give up a lot. Mainly, his family and a traditional lifestyle. Always being on the move, and not always being financially stable, kept him from having the family life he wanted to give his children. “I don’t live with [my family] no more,” he says. “I gotta see ‘em every other week. It’s weird because I grew up with both my parents. I feel like my kids deserve that, but I can’t give ‘em that. I got that on my conscience every day.” Even so, Monk sounds optimistic. Both he and Essco understand what Gunn and Griselda mean to Buffalo, and they do not take that for granted.
“It’s everything to the city,” Monk says of Gunn’s impact. “I don’t think not one person can feel any type of negative way. Whenever West is around, it’s all joy. West was able to put that feeling back—he gave everybody a feeling of hope.”