The future belongs to Westside Gunn
Westside Gunn had an important decision to make.
For years, the Buffalo native born Alvin Lamar Worthy was street hustling to fund his clothing company Griselda by Fashion Rebels, as well as the rap career of his half-brother Conway the Machine, who was quickly earning a reputation as one of the sharpest MCs in the city. But that all came to a halt one night in 2012, when Conway was shot in the head and neck; doctors thought the incident would leave him paralyzed for life. It wasn't the first time the family encountered tragedy: Six years earlier, Worthy's cousin, the rapper Machine Gun Blak, was shot and killed.
After Conway's injuries, Worthy considered his next move. It had been seven years since he tried his hand at rapping, having lost interest after Machine Gun Blak's death and his own time spent behind bars. But with Conway recovering in the hospital, and his interest in building buzz for his crew, Worthy decided to give music another go, taking up the team's mantle under his Westside Gunn alias until his brother's hopeful return.
"It was just like, 'Let me go ahead, give it a shot,'" recalls the 38-year-old MC. "I'm a hustler, so the way I move, I'm like a one of one. No matter what, I was staying focused and always thinking about the bigger picture, the bigger play."
"He knows where his value lies, he understands the worth of his brand, and he just has a star quality about him," says DJ Premier, who has collaborated with Gunn and the greater Griselda crew. "Very braggadocious, thinks everything he does is the greatest –– and that's how you're supposed to be."
Gunn confirms that approach. "You can put me wherever. I can run a Def Jam or I can run a Nike," he says over the phone from his home in Atlanta, after having lunch with his kids. "I don't have to be known as the best rapper, but the best rapper wishes he was Westside Gunn."
The accomplishments of Westside Gunn and Griselda would deserve respect regardless of locale, but they're especially laudable in Buffalo, a no-man's land for hip-hop. The city is filled with the kind of poverty and violence rap has always chronicled, but lacks the historical reverence or music industry infrastructure of New York City.
"The mentality of somebody from Buffalo, they don't even think about making it out. They just want to be the biggest dope boy or the biggest killer or the flyest dude there," Gunn says. "There's people in Buffalo who haven't even seen Niagara Falls once, and it's 15 minutes away. They're stuck."
That type of environment had a massive impact on Gunn, who was born in the city and lived with his grandmother as a child. He often visited his mother in Atlanta, which gave him more exposure to a world outside his hometown. But life in Buffalo forced him to grow up fast; he hit the streets at an early age and had two kids while he was still in high school.
"It was just a lot of street s---; a lot of drugs, a lot of violence," he says. "There really wasn't too many leaders. Even the leaders you did have was the bad guys too. It just trickled down. It's honestly sad. It's still like that to this day."
Gunn soon found himself living on the run, in Alabama. By 2006, he was serving a two-year bid in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit false statements to a firearms dealer, according to a report by Complex. When Conway was shot, Gunn had already spent years living the lifestyle many rappers extol, which gave him even more of a reason to focus on music. "I was like, I'm better than these dudes," he remembers. "I look better than these dudes. My story's realer than these dudes." He proved it with his 2012 mixtape, the outlandishly titled Hitler Wears Hermes, before founding Griselda Records in 2014. Conway had then healed enough to return to rapping (his face is now partially paralyzed from the shooting). Along with Gunn's cousin, Benny the Butcher, the trio began releasing music under the Griselda banner — with Westside Gunn providing branding and business strategy.
Griselda's mix of uncompromising accounts of life on the streets, clever professional wrestling references, and the lost sonics of '90s golden-era rap has since developed a cult following outside the confines of Buffalo. Each release follows a similar but striking blueprint: haunting, textured melodies, dusty drums, Conway and Benny's gruff and stoic vocals, and Westside Gunn's contrastingly nasal but menacing high-pitched tone. ("When I heard him, I thought he was a teenager," recalls DJ Premier.)
The formula proved successful. In 2016, they hit a new peak with the release of Westside Gunn's solo album FLYGOD, which had cameos and production by underground rap darlings like Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Your Old Droog, and The Alchemist. The cover art was provocative: an illustration of a child version of Gunn, wearing a gold necklace and a crown of thorns with blood streaming down his eyes. It was a perfect combination of gritty street rap, name recognition, and a subversive aesthetic that merged the corner with the art gallery. It also landed Gunn a meeting with Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg, to discuss a record deal. At the same time, he was working on a separate arrangement with Roc Nation. The Buffalo native eventually teamed with both, on unique terms: He signed Griselda to Shady for group and solo albums by himself and Conway, and Roc Nation for management duties for himself and Benny.
The trio have responded to their all-star affiliations by releasing music at a historic clip. Last year, they dropped nearly a dozen solo and group projects between the three of them, as well as a rolling collection of high-end, sought-after merch — essential in an era when fans are more likely to pay for a hoodie than music. The clothing they sell often showcases work that Westside Gunn commissions from artists he respects. Gunn has had a lifelong obsession with visual art and fashion (his personal collection includes works by Hebru Brantley, Takashi Murakami, Ron English, and Mariella Angela). As a child, he and his friend created and sold comics to classmates, and by the time he was a teenager, he was pushing screen-print tees. He also shopped at stores like Gucci, Versace, and Nautica while in Atlanta, finding inspiration in their approaches to business, along with standards he felt Griselda clothing should live up to.
"Somebody sells a shirt for $50, it's just a $50 shirt. I sell the shirt for $50, and two days later, it's $200 [on the resale market]," he says. "I appreciate the people that support them, but I'm also not giving them trash. People wouldn't buy this if it wasn't the flyest s--- for the most reasonable prices."
Next up, Gunn will debut a line of hats with streetwear brand Just Don.
"These are just people that I always looked up to that now I'm literally working with," he says. "I've been Just Don gang ever since he came out — all the shorts, all the hats, This first drop is going to be real limited."
Griselda's marriage of fashion and streetwear is perfectly illustrated by Westside Gunn's work with Virgil Abloh, the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear and CEO of Off-White. The two have been friends for years, and in January, Abloh invited him to his Off-White show during Paris Fashion Week. Gunn later enlisted Abloh to create the cover art for 2020's Pray for Paris, a solo album inspired by the rapper's time in the city.
"I could talk to the Hovs, the [Kanyes], the Virgils of the world, whoever at the time, because people already respect my vision," says the rapper.
The October 2 release of Westside Gunn's first Shady Records solo LP, Who Made the Sunshine, coincides with another linchpin in Griselda's history — though you would never know it if you looked at the crew's packed release schedule and social media feeds. Conway the Machine just dropped his album From King to a GOD, and Benny the Butcher has an upcoming project produced by multiplatinum beatmaker Hit-Boy. (Griselda also has two new signees, Detroit street rapper Boldly James and Buffalo MC Armani Caesar, who have both released projects this year.)
But internally, the crew has weathered recent turmoil, including Westside Gunn's battle with COVID-19. He proclaimed himself a "corona survivor" in an April tweet, but he tells EW that he was diagnosed as early as March, a month before the release of Pray for Paris.
"My last two shows of tour was in L.A. I left L.A., flew to New York [to visit] Raekwon, flew to Wyoming. Left Wyoming, flew back on the [private jet] with [Kanye]. Two days later, I couldn't even get out the bed," he says. Most of the mixtape was already completed before he was sick, aside from the DJ Premier-produced "Shawn Vs. Flair," which he could only finish one verse for. He didn't let many friends know about his illness at the time, but he quietly made arrangements for his children and family members in case he died. "My breathing was very bad. I kept it low, kept it private, and I just dealt the best way I could. Pray for Paris is really what got me through that s---."
Months later, tragedy struck the Griselda crew again, when DJ and producer Demetrius "DJ Shay" Robinson — a crew producer, former manager of Conway and Benny, and studio engineer for other Buffalo rappers –– passed away. ("Shay wanted the whole city on," Gunn recalls. "He's seen way more than me because he had the studio. He had the connections. Everybody wanted to come down and record. He opened up his doors to anybody that was nice.") Gunn then adds Kutter, a longtime friend and original member of his previous self-started label Street Entertainment, was arrested at Shay's funeral; he's now serving a seven-year prison sentence. "It's like we lost two people on the same day," Gunn says. "We had to bury one, and then lost one to prison." It's a lot for a crew like Griselda, where members are literally and figuratively family.
Yet when addressing the tumultuous events of the last six months, Westside Gunn reverts to the back-to-business tactic he's adopted for previous tragedies. "We've been through a lot, still go through a lot. It's like, it don't stop man," he says. "We just got to keep pushing and moving forward." But residue remains. Gunn still has complications from COVID-19, with his weed habit causing him chest pains. And he wanted to push back the release of Who Makes the Sunshine to cope with Shay's death before preparing for an album run.
Still, the new record sounds like something that would make Shay, and all Griselda fans, proud. The marriage between ominous and ornate aesthetics continues to bloom — gloomy pianos, strings that range from operatic to discordant, bare-bones drum loops by Griselda in-house production wiz Daringer and British producer Beat Butcha. Meanwhile, rap icons like Black Thought, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, producer Just Blaze, and Slick Rick make appearances alongside Griselda groupmates like Conway, Benny, Boldy, and Armani. Sometimes Gunn raps along, sometimes he only sings a chorus — whatever the song needs, he does it his own way.
"I don't have to, 'Oh, let me make a South song because this s-- is selling, I'm on the chart," he says. "I'm not going to anybody else's world. I'm going to make people come to mine. I've never switched up.... I still to this day, have not been on the radio and don't even care to."
What's also notable about Sunshine is who doesn't show up. Eminem is nowhere to be found, whether on a guest verse or as a producer — a rarity for projects on his label.
"Shady fans are going to be hurt," Gunn says with a chuckle. "But at the end of the day, I feel like I'm the illest in the entire industry. Not even just as a rapper, but as a curator. I'm a one of one. I don't feel I have to have Marshall, or call Jay-Z or Kanye. I know I can go to any one of these people and get it, but at the end of the day, I'm my own man."
At this point, he's earned the right to bet on himself.