Few can go bar-for-bar with Griselda, Buffalo’s tight-knit rap crew that is giving an old sound new flavor.
There’s a scene from Francis Coppola’s The Godfather that is widely considered to be one of the trilogy’s defining moments. In the aftermath of the attempt on his father’s life, Michael Corleone finds himself sitting before Virgil “The ” Sollozzo and crooked NYPD captain Mark McCluskey in a dingy old Italian American restaurant to discuss the possibility of a truce between the warring families. As subway cars thunder from the tracks below, the camera zooms in on Michael’s face, the planted handgun that he retrieved from the bathroom burning like a hot iron in his coat pocket. Suddenly, he pushes back his chair and takes aim, gunning down the two men and racing out of the establishment as the theme music erupts in a climactic swell around him.
It’s a masterful bit of cinema, not only because it showcases some of the finest acting of Al Pacino’s storied career, but because it signals the turning point for the film’s protagonist. In the seconds leading up to Michael’s violent outburst, you can see him working up the nerve to carry out the deed, a tumultuous internal dialogue drowning out the spew from the forked tongue across the table. Michael’s decision to pull the trigger sets his future in motion such that by the time the iconic baptism sequence kicks into gear, the cold, unflinching stare of the newly anointed Don Corleone is all that the viewer needs to see.
“Settling all family business” is an equally intimate enterprise for the ascendant Griselda Records. Grown from inauspicious roots, Griselda’s blue-collar ethos is as authentic and unfiltered as anything hip hop has to offer. Like the Corleone family, the Buffalo-bred movement professes a fierce loyalty and lethal extension of the traditional gangster glam and grit wherein tempers are short and the allure of the outlaw persists. Indeed, Griselda’s period decor is a crucial and compelling component of its appeal. In a city best known for its wings, glacial winter conditions, and a bittersweet era of football defined by four consecutive Super Bowl losses, the Griselda collective of Westside Gunn, Conway The Machine, and Benny The Butcher dabble in pungent New York backdrops and goblets of melodrama that are recognizable if drawn from novel exteriors. Drenched in a rich, bulletproof grace, the trio’s take on Buffalo folklore nudges together Hollywood habits, decadent thuggery, and the nocturnal forces of the underworld where you’re just as likely to hear about garrotings and double-crossings as you are Wrestlemania tri.
Westside Gunn at the HNHH office – Image by HNHH
At its core, the fast-growing Griselda catalog is structured around an inheritance of hip hop’s golden era mantle. Gunn and co’s refreshingly warm revivalism, plucked straight from the belly of the grimy ’90s beast, delivers glimpses of a city that has long been omitted from the genre’s regional heat map. They’re cult heroes with the distinction of having escaped a concrete jungle that boasts one of the highest crime rates in the country, one where the deck is stacked against those looking to emerge from beneath the crushing heel of a crooked world. The product they peddle is familiar: thick and dirty drum breaks, glistening samples, and a general lack of song structure lend themselves to this upstate grizzle. Boom bap devotees and contemporary connoisseurs alike have reveled in the tactile pleasures of Griselda’s street-oriented lyricism; look no further than Gunn’s line on “Elizabeth” about fiends wanting to “lick the resin off the razor,” or Conway’s opening verse on G.O.A.T. where he whips up vignettes comprised of “wig fragments” and “yellow tapes and zip plastic.”
For Griselda founder and CEO Westside Gunn, ensuring that the family business flourishes has lead to other more legitimate (and lucrative) endeavors, most notably a partnership with Eminem and a recent management deal with Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation. “I had to build this shit brick by brick,” Gunn tells me over the phone, his nasal drawl draped in the long A’s and hard R’s of his native Buffalo. “People can try to copy the formula, but it will never be the real Griselda.” It’s the Monday before Halloween, a few days before the seventh installment of Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes series is slated to drop. He informs me that he’s back in Buffalo, doing his best to split time between the road and “second home” Atlanta, where he relocated his family. From his early formative years on the sparring grounds of Buffalo’s Central Park to his first foray into the music business as manager for his brother Conway, Gunn has had to grow and adapt as the Griselda don. It hasn’t always been smooth-sailing: 2012 brought with it the death of Gunn’s mother and a near-fatal shooting involving Conway that left the aspiring artist with Bell’s Palsy, paralyzing the right side of his face. The incident and Conway’s miraculous recovery after doctors told him he might never be able to walk again forced Gunn to reevaluate his artistic intentions and position in the streets. “If I do this music 100% but have that same street mentality, I can make it,” he said of the promise he made to himself shortly thereafter.
Benny the Butcher & Conway the Machine – Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images
What would have broken most men became the spark for something much greater, and the Griselda brainchild was born. Gunn’s inaugural and alliterative spin on The Devil Wears Prada quickly made waves on the local circuit and garnered respectable attention on an industry level. Now seven years removed, the demand for Griselda’s brand of ruthless opulence speaks to a highly engaged clientele of hip hop heads, hypebeasts, skaters, and syllable counters (some of them willing to shell out upwards of $500 for a copy of Gunn’s 2016 breakthrough Flygod). Even as they look to bring their recipe to a more mainstream audience, Gunn and his Griselda cohorts have ensured that their goon rap romanticizing remains grade A certified. They haven’t diluted or compromised their output, and the consistency with which they’ve applied pressure since Griselda’s inception has earned them sterling endorsements from the likes of , , and Roc Marciano. Although nostalgia is certainly at play in the rising critical and commercial acclaim, what Griselda offers is distinctly their own. It’s true that the trio have honed the techniques and tropes pioneered by New York groups such as Wu-Tang, , , and Dipset, but the vintage rawness with which they’ve revitalized this beloved sound is laced with a more modern street diction that supersedes any notion of mere parroting. “Griselda is like the fruit punch of all the illest crews,” Gunn says with a chuckle. “You put all the illest crews and put them in a blender, that’s Griselda.”
While Gunn’s curatorial presence is felt throughout the Griselda discography, each of the three seasoned vets on the roster has a role to play in the label’s domino effect success. Gunn is the inexhaustible mogul, pulling strings behind-the-scenes when it comes to art direction, design, and album rollout strategizing. His business acumen and love of “fly street shit” are reflective of a shrewd fashion sense and keen eye (and ear) for detail. “Even if I haven’t cosigned it, I know about it,” he boasts before rattling off the names of underground acts such as Flee Lord, Crimeapple, Edo G., Al Divino, and Fly Anakin. Gunn’s on wax persona is lively and boisterous, and his unmistakable cadence, interrupted here and there by swirling “doot, doot, doot, doot” adlibs, speaks to his more flamboyant tendencies (he showed up to the Rap Radar podcast wearing an oversized, maroon-dappled fur that would’ve made even Cam’ron blush). Conway, the self-proclaimed “kid with the twisted face,” is more crushing in his delivery. He’s a bruiser with boilerplate lyrics whose dark sense of humor is spiked with a blood-curdling slur, the sole indicator of his brush with death. Though capable of exacting proficiency, Conway would much rather rip out the opposition’s entrails through sheer force. And then there’s cousin Benny the brick bandit, lunging forth from the muck with gruff, full-bodied brags and an inkwell of novelistic detail. Given The Butcher’s penchant for reeling off mafioso quotables, it’s only fitting that his favorite emcee is ‘97 Hov fresh off of Reasonable Doubt.
Locked-in to the irregular, free-flowing rhythms and production “glue” from Daringer, , Alchemist, and others, Griselda’s well-oiled machine is poised to flood the market for years to come. The Buffalo unit’s straightforward and unyielding formula offers the operatic simplicity of what many people fell in love with when they first happened upon hip-hop, the second coming of “that classic shit” as Gunn puts it. Needless to say, they’re now reaping the rewards of ambitious rap dreams, all the while repping a city that has never birthed a bonafide star until now. With our conversation wrapping up, Gunn made it abundantly clear that he plans to keep Griselda’s prodigious pace intact (and even hinted at a full-length “Gunnlib” project arriving sometime in 2020). “The shit we making is timeless. We cemented right now…I’m not changing shit, just bringing it to the next level. Let’s just finish what we gotta do for ‘19 and then run all of ‘20.” For such a rare breed, a bigger stage can only mean more Fendi print face masks and WWE name checks are in order. One thing’s for certain: “the Buffalo kids done did it.”
STREAM GRISELDA’S NEW ALBUM “WWCD” .