The rapper Westside Gunn is starting to slip in and out of the third person. “Westside Gunn is one of the GOATs,” he notes assuredly, before clarifying that despite what “people say” he is neither a “genius” nor a “mastermind.” We’ve been talking for nearly an hour straight and if his self-belief seemed unreal at the beginning of the conversation, now it’s starting to feel a bit like a force of nature. He has a habit of punctuating sentences with a drawling “know-what-I’m-saying” that leaves you standing with an unthinking yes as your only reasonable response. To say that he’s charismatic misses the point entirely. Is the ground charismatic? No, it’s the ground, and it will continue to be the ground no matter how hard you stare down, wondering whether it might not be. “I did the unthinkable, man. This is history in my city. It has never been done,” Gunn says once more. He might be right.
For rap fans who still yearn for the sounds of a previous time, Gunn is a near-mythical figure. In a period in which regionalism in hip-hop has fallen to the wayside and the rattling percussives of the South reign supreme, Gunn sticks out like a sore thumb. His verbals are paradoxical. Each rhyme is packed with gore, but the tenor of his voice makes him sound like he’s still within shouting distance of puberty. Imagine a schoolyard bully but instead of insults he hurls cocaine references and mafioso epics, and he kind of sounds like the parrot from Aladdin. His music can be overwhelming initially, not because his lyrics are particularly inaccessible or profound but because it’s simply difficult to believe that anyone could be all that.
Each of Gunn’s tracks are peppered with ad-libs that mimic machine-gun fire (“BOOM!BOOM!BOOM!BOOM!” or “BRRRRRRRT!”) and violent one-offs that usually include both traphouse and high-art references (“Blood on the Salvator Mundi / We rock cocaine”). He frequently goes by the alter ego “Flygod”—a reference to his keen fashion sense. His 7-year-old daughter, Westside Pootie, has been known to make appearances on his projects to alert listeners to her father’s greatness. He’s received cosigns from Jay-Z and Drake. Off-White designer Virgil Abloh invited Gunn to sit front row during Paris Fashion Week last January (Abloh had tap dancer Cartier Williams perform to one of Gunn’s songs at the show). And in 2017 he signed with Eminem’s Shady Records label—all of which belies the stunning nature of his ascension.
“This lane was dead,” he says. “It was looked at like, ‘We not listening to that shit. Don’t play this shit in my car.’ Everybody dancing and having fun. The boom-bap hard shit was not popular whatsoever. It was real underground. It just had a certain crowd. But no Drake, no LeBron James was talking about us. Some underground shit then. Nobody. But they will today. So, my job is done. My job is done.”
Born Alvin Lamar Worthy, Gunn is 38 years old, ancient in rap years. Since 2012 he has released 11 mixtapes, three solo albums, and four collaborative projects, frequently dropping two or more releases in a year. On Friday, he’ll drop his long-awaited Shady Records debut, Who Made the Sunshine. In an industry in which big-city connections are a virtual prerequisite to mainstream success, Gunn hails from Buffalo, New York, a city closer to Ottawa than Manhattan. In addition to maintaining his own solo career, he has shepherded Griselda, a group featuring Conway the Machine (his brother) and Benny the Butcher (his cousin), to critical success and the creation of their own record label. Gunn’s fan base is rabid. His merch, which he distributes through his clothing company, Griselda by Fashion Rebels, sells out within minutes once it appears online. His tours—well, at least when there were tours—are an exhibition in social engineering. Women, men, frat boys, gangsters, underground fanatics, and mainstream consumers all make the pilgrimage to see him live, to taste his sound.
If there is something that is most conspicuous about him, it’s the way his music sounds, in this era of rap. I say “era” purposefully because there is a thought among some branches of hip-hop’s fandom and intelligentsia that folks have just up and forgot how to rap, and that the past 10 years are a sign of institutional decay. Rap is constantly purging and re-forming itself, always creating something different. So, out of the wreckage of the old ways, and in the shadows of this new world, Gunn’s sound was born both a relic and a revelation. Nearly all of his tracks are sample-based, the way of the old, records laced in the background for the artist to rap over. As the genre has zigged toward the eeriest drill and trap sounds, Gunn is part of a small cadre of artists who got famous for zagging.
When we spoke, he was still putting the finishing touches on Who Made the Sunshine. In total it took him a week to record the project (he does not make “songs,” he makes “projects”). While he speaks, his producers are in the other room mixing the album.
“I never considered myself really a rapper. I just curate. I love putting different people together and just painting a certain picture,” he says, before getting sidetracked for a moment.
“Having a solo major is dope. You know what I mean? But it’s not like I’m sitting up here having expectations of sales and shit like that. I don’t think like that. It’s just like I want to bring the art to the world.”
From afar, Gunn is a confounding figure. The reality is that if Black folks from Buffalo could get famous off of remaining true to themselves, there would be a whole lot more famous Black folks from Buffalo. Maybe Gunn could “save” the genre, whatever that even means, but the further he got from where he started off, the more he would have to change into something he hadn’t been, right? He didn’t seem to agree.
“No matter where I go, I will never change, bro. I just was in the hood two weeks ago in a Rolls-Royce truck during Cold Springs Day. God is my bodyguard. You know what I’m saying? …” Gunn explains. “Of course, you got haters. I’m not one of those stupid motherfuckers who just thinks I’m superman and shit. I still move correct. But like I said, man, I’m not one of them people that’s like ‘I can’t go back.’ Because I just left.”
There is something about Buffalo and other midsize industrial cities that’s hard to explain to outsiders. America has a habit of mythologizing places on the map that are treated as less-than, flyovers. In popular culture, these areas are branded as home for the country’s disaffected masses and—not coincidentally—they are totalized as white. Cities like Buffalo complicate this cliché. Buffalo is not surrounded by cornfields or at the base of a summit where coal is excavated; it is the second-largest metropolitan area in the Empire State. It is almost 37 percent Black, and a majority of the population is non-white. The child poverty rate in the city is the second highest in the country. The murder rate was the 14th highest as recently as 2018. In 1950, Buffalo had a population of just over 580,000. Today it’s less than half that. There are many reasons for this: automation, redlining, the encroaching purgatory of the American carceral system. What is most important, at least for Gunn’s story, is that Buffalo was at one time a place; somewhere to be, somewhere to pick up your life and move to. Now it is something else. Stunted. Almost like a time capsule.
Gunn grew up surrounded by family. His mother was born in Alabama but moved with her parents to Buffalo when she was a child, as part of the final wave of the Great Migration. Gunn and Conway have different mothers, but are just four months apart in age and have been inseparable since birth. Benny and his brother Machine Gun Black (who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2006) are Gunn’s first cousins, and the four of them spent practically every weekend of their childhood at each other’s homes. The neighborhood they grew up in, Buffalo’s Central Park, was notorious for drug trafficking.
“Sleeping in the same bed, taking baths together. I did all of that with them. Literally,” Gunn says with a laugh. “Same bathtub. Slept on the same bed. Wore the same clothes. So it’s just like we was always close. That’s why it’s like Griselda is so strong, because it’s not a made-up group. You make a group, people split quick over money, over argument, anything. They gone. But how can rap or something like that break up something that’s been together [all] our lives?”
Benny tells me that when they were little and Gunn wanted to have a sleepover, he would convince one of the other boys to ask whichever adult was in charge. Gunn would prep them on exactly what to say and then wait, slyly, in the background. He was convinced it had a higher chance of happening if the request came from someone other than himself. “Me and this nigga is family. And he always been like my cousin who always had the new Jordans and new games and the new this and the new that, always got his way. So, you know, sometimes when he’d see me, my shoes was fucked up. He gave me shoes. So I could shine. Or sometimes he gave me clothes and shit. So I could shine,” Benny says.
As a kid, Gunn shared a home with his uncles and aunts, most of whom were in high school. When he watched them, he was in awe of their gold chains and their fly clothes, but most of all he worshiped their music, hip-hop. At 11, he started to rap, and around the same time he began designing fashion, customizing jeans, shirts, and shoes. By his teenage years he was making regular trips to Atlanta with Conway, to shop for brands he couldn’t get in Buffalo (sometimes he’d even resell them once he got home). They would ride a Greyhound bus and listen to the Lox and Notorious B.I.G. all the way through.
“I know people in Buffalo that have never been to New York City in they life and they 30 years old. So, we come from one of them type of cities, that kind of mentality,” Gunn says. “I always was different because I started traveling and moving and shaking. We were kind of young but grown. Me and Conway were coming out to Atlanta at 14 years old, shit like that. Back when Wu Wear [was popular], Wu-Tang Wu Wear shit, coming out here and getting clothes on the Greyhound. Just young as fuck. Just doing everything.”
A few years ago, in an interview with Complex, Gunn was asked specifically why he makes the music he does when New York City and the rest of East Coast hip-hop have largely progressed toward other sounds. It was a fair question—there had to be some reason he surged in the opposite direction of the genre and culture of mainstream hip-hop. Gunn’s response was biting and, in hindsight, illuminating: Buffalo was not New York City; Buffalo never changed.
The next part of Gunn’s story is well-trodden ground. He grew up. In an impoverished East Buffalo landscape, he turned to the most profitable outlet available to him and got caught up in the streets. Benny, Conway, and Machine Gun Black did the same. Gunn was still in love with hip-hop, but he hungered for money. And when you’re young, poor, and Black, in a city that’s falling apart around you, in a country of plunder and power, well, you know the game.
“My 20-year-old self was trying to get every dollar. Then, I didn’t care how I got it. Whatever I had to do, whatever I had to sell, I did it or sold it. Just chasing the bag. I had two kids at 20. So I was already a father of two. I was getting to it, man,” Gunn says.
In those early years he tried to split his time between the music world and any illegal affairs. Benny and Conway were both pursuing careers behind the mic in addition to their more clandestine activities and had picked up a sizable following around the city. Gunn was more interested in a career on the periphery. In 2005, he released his debut mixtape Flyest Nig@@ in Charge, Vol. 1, but the streets kept calling. A few months after the project dropped he was sent to prison for two years after pleading guilty to a weapons charge. Around the same time, in late 2006, Machine Gun Black was shot and killed while standing with a group near Buffalo’s Hagen Street.
Although Machine Gun Black was older than the rest of the members of Griselda, he was inseparable from them until the day that he died.
“You know how you might have a group of guys, a group of friends and they all act the same way? You know, people from this city act like this, people from that city act that way. Chinegun was us,” Benny says.
After serving the majority of his sentence Gunn was released in 2008, but ended up back in jail less than 24 months later for violating the terms of his parole. While incarcerated again, he searched for anything to pass the time. Gunn worked out and read whatever he could get his hands on—the Quran, the Bible, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Sometimes he and his cellmates would buy books, read them in two or three days, and then trade with each other so they could have something new to immerse themselves in.
“I got a lot of knowledge in there. And I was just like, ‘OK. When I come home …’ Because Conway and Benny were still Conway and Benny. So they were doing they thing. And I’m just like, ‘Well, shit! I want to come out and get money,’” Gunn says.
Gunn is conflicted about the emotional toll of prison. Incarceration is a fact of life for so many people in places like East Buffalo, entrapped in the web of the American legal system. For them, prison is not an obstacle to be overcome, it is an attack on one’s personhood, an extension of a racist status quo. But without it, Gunn believes he would not be where he is. It’s something he can’t leave behind, even if he wanted to.
“I’m never going to miss those days, but those days made me who I am right now today,” he says. “And it definitely just made me move different and just think from a different perspective.”
In 2011, Gunn was released from prison for good. While he knew he wanted to commit himself fully to the music industry, he was still unsure of what path to take. He’d founded Griselda by Fashion Rebels in 2005, but now he wanted to be directly involved in music, either through a management role or as a performer. With the last of the money he’d tucked away from his previous life, Gunn backed Conway, founding Griselda Records (at the time Benny was backed by legendary Buffalo producer DJ Shay, a close associate of the crew who died last month at age 48). A few months later, in 2012, Conway was shot as he attempted to enter his truck after exiting a club. One bullet entered his neck, another hit his shoulder, and another struck the back of his head. His wounds left him paralyzed on the right side of his face.
“If Conway would’ve never got shot, it wouldn’t be no Westside Gunn the rapper,” Gunn says. In the wake of his brother’s shooting, Gunn felt the urge to pick up the mantle. In part, he hoped that his rapping would motivate his brother not to give up on his own career and learn how to navigate his new constrictions.
“Even though he’s my brother and he’s a dope MC, he’s a competitor. He’s going to listen to my shit and be like, ‘OK. This is how bro coming? I got to come like this now.’ So for him to hear me, and hear me doing what I’m doing, I think that was a big inspiration for him to be like, ‘No, I got to get my shit together. I got to fucking ... I got to put an end to this shit,’” Gunn says.
He had his own motivations for making the leap. By 2012, the sound of mainstream hip-hop had already undergone the first wave of metamorphosis toward trap and SoundCloud rap. Artists like Future and Chief Keef had grown in prominence by eschewing traditional rap formats. Even New York City was enthralled with a sound that felt light-years away from the legacy of the MCs Gunn grew up on.
“It turned to a challenge too. Like, ‘Man, I’m better than 90 percent of these dudes. And everybody from New York sounding like they’re from the South.’ … I was like, ‘I’m about to just do me. I’m realer than these dudes. I’m already flyer than these dudes. You know what I’m saying? I already look like a rapper,’” Gunn says.
After seven years away from the mic, in October 2012, Gunn dropped Hitler Wears Hermes, the first of seven mixtapes by the same name. The sound was enthralling. Songs like “Me & My Eagle” were cluttered with highlight-reel-worthy stream-of-consciousness bars (“Them shells they ate through ’em / Left his stomach on his suede Ewings”) and the production was built entirely around the type of crooning samples that would become Gunn’s hallmark. But the name courted controversy. His intention was for it to be a grimier, more provocative, play on Devil Wears Prada. Asked whether he regretted the title of the series, he jumps at the question, as though he’s been waiting for me to bring it up: “Nope.”
“If that title was that title, and I was going around with swastikas and shit on, and skinhead and high boots and shit, and talking about hail Hitler in every other song, now we got a problem,” Gunn says before pausing for a moment. “I don’t even mention Hitler even in none of my shit. That is just a title.”
Over the next eight years he released six more of the mixtapes (the most recent of which scored a billboard in New York City’s Times Square) and his following grew with each release. For an artist from a fringe market like Buffalo, there is an argument to be made that the publicity from the title probably benefited him. In 2016, he dropped his highly acclaimed debut album Flygod, and two years later he released the equally acclaimed Supreme Blientele (an ode to Ghostface Killah’s sophomore album). Last year, after nearly a decade trying to make it happen, Gunn engineered Griselda’s first group album WWCD (What Would Chinegun Do), named in honor of their fallen brother. In 2020 alone he’s released two projects, with a third on the way (he’s also planning to drop a fourth, Hitler Wears Hermes 8, at some point this year). Gunn says this was all part of the plan. When I ask whether he ever considered making a different style of music, he insists “never.”
“That’s what I signed up for. That’s what the Flygod is, bro. It’s like the savior, man. That’s why the image is what it is,” he says.
In June, Gunn made waves on the blog circuit for his song “Michael Irvin,” which includes the truly awe-inspiring bar “You ever cooked a half a brick in the air fryer?” Among Griselda fans it’s long been a running joke to count the number of cocaine references in a given song. Gunn is not the first rapper to inhabit this genre. Gangster rap was born out of the curses of mass incarceration and the drug war. In the midst of a generational attack on Black bodies, hip-hop provided an out for those who could master it. Consumers, of all races, would buy their tales of criminal empires, their mafioso odysseys—because if there’s one thing America loves almost as much as locking people up, it’s a tale of crime. Through hip-hop, people branded criminals could turn their “illegalities” into profit. Gunn is just the latest in a long line of performers, dope entrepreneurs, who’ve turned their scars into verses. He took a piece of himself and used it to make the music and life he always dreamed of.
“I get a lot of guys that send me [emails], ‘You’ll like this. It’s boom-bap.’ Automatically, I don’t open that email,” Shady Records executive Mike Herard tells me. “I usually delete it straight away because there’s a difference between what people call boom-bap, and like what Westside Gunn and Griselda do.”
Herard is trying to figure out what it is about Gunn’s style that makes him a folk hero to so many fans. When Gunn entered into contract discussions with Shady, the company hadn’t seen anything quite like him. Gunn’s mafioso tendencies may have provided the initial kindling for his career, but Shady believed that something else was sustaining the fire. It’s difficult to verbalize; more like a “feeling,” Herard says. I ask him about the first time he heard Gunn rap and Herard tells me it was a song off of Hitler Wears Hermes 3, the fourth track, “Dear Winter Bloody Fiegs.” He stumbled upon it accidentally, but couldn’t stop listening to it.
“I just heard his voice cutting through and it was just like … it’s the stuff that he’s saying that makes you stick around, you know what I mean? It’s just the shit that he’s come up with. Like what the fuck is this guy? It draws you in. The voice, what he’s saying, it’s just a perfect match,” Herard says.
I mention that Gunn has always been adept at flossing in references to the world of high art without evoking the eyerolls that frequently accompany such material. That’s when it clicks for Herard. Gunn’s music is just different enough to mask the ways that it’s not. It allows listeners to feel something again—a time, a place, an ideal—without making them feel like they’re running in a circle. For as much as each of his songs is indebted to a particular time period, the songs are not imitations.
“There’s a sound difference, there’s a feel difference where it’s kind of like what I grew up on, but also, it’s fairly new. So it’s like, these worlds are merging,” Herard says.
He says Gunn’s “authenticity” is integral to this appeal. There are few popular artists who can rightly claim that they got famous alongside their actual family. Even fewer can say they did so making the music they grew up idolizing. For Gunn, the existence of Griselda is a testament to both his singular vision and the truth of his image. He blew up, and not only did he not forget where he came from, he brought his people with him.
“The people who you see with us on tour and the people who you see with us behind us and with videos, those are not rappers. Those are not videographers, photographers. Those are real street dudes still living what they’re living, still going through what they’re going through …” Benny tells me. “You’re always just a step away.”
That’s exactly why Gunn makes a point of going home so often. “The same grimy streets, the same grimy places, now you see a Rolls-Royce out there like, ‘Oh shit! Westside.’ But I mean, that’s just what it is. You know what I’m saying? And I love showing that, and I love bringing that to the city when I’m there because it’s like I’m the people’s champ. I give the city the hope of, ‘He put the city on, and he showing everybody you could do it and still come around.’ So I like to try to go home and show them that as much as possible,” he says. Sometimes Gunn will go back to Buffalo and not even tell anyone—no posts on Instagram, no party invites.
“It’s not always about having a Rolls-Royce. I just chill up there too. Sometimes I go to Buffalo and drive my sister’s car. You know what I’m saying? Eat my favorite foods, get influenced, see the people that mean the most to me,” says Gunn.
Before all of the rage and tumult of the past few months, Gunn and the rest of Griselda appeared on Apple Music’s Fire in the Booth, a web series hosted by London DJ Charlie Sloth. The show is a popular platform for both up-and-comers and established veterans in the rap game, a venue to show out and sharpen one’s sword. In recent years artists like Pop Smoke, Megan Thee Stallion, and Drake have all gone viral for their freestyles on the show. Griselda’s appearance began at a simmer. In the first few moments of the video Gunn has his hood up, positioned just so you can see the peak of his eyes. Under his jacket he is drenched in jewelry, his signature pendant hanging tightly from his neck. Sloth starts to play a beat for the group to freestyle over and Gunn steps closer to a mic. He rattles out his standard machine-gun-fire theatrics. “Talk to ’em Westside!” Sloth urges, waiting in eager anticipation. Gunn looks poised, methodical. “Told y’all n***as I ain’t gotta fucking rap man,” he hisses into the microphone. “East side, Buffalo shit!” he blurts over the beat. On either side of his shoulders, his family stands, ready to perform. He lets loose a few more ad-libs and then steps away from the microphone. His brother and cousin trade verses for the rest of the video. Gunn never raps a word. He doesn’t need to.