“I’ve always been an ill dude,” rapper, producer, and multi-hyphenate Westside Gunn reflects during our FaceTime Audio session. “I didn’t know I was ill enough to have 50 grown men with my face [tattooed] on them.” When we spoke, the Buffalo-born artist was in Germany, prepping for a flight back home where he’s set to begin promotion for his latest album, 10. It’s midnight where he is, but he’s enthusiastic throughout our discussion, marveling about the global power of the Buffalo, New York-based Griselda movement that he co-founded in 2012.
“When I could go in cities I’ve never been to, and there’s a 10-foot painting of my face? That’s culture,” he says. “That’s what I do it for. That’s why I can’t retire.”
Last year Gunn, the creative mind behind Griselda, announced that he had planned to stop rapping and focus more on being a label head. “I might do one more project after this. I might make two more, but I don’t see myself doing more than two more,” he told Complex last September. Since then, he’s released two more projects: 10, and Peace “Fly” God, an album he completed 48 hours after returning home from Paris Fashion Week in July. But he also has plans to eventually drop Michelle Records (“it’s halfway done”) and remains open to collaborative projects like GunnLib with Madlib.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m done, I’m done,’’ he reflects. “But I don’t want to throw that energy out there like that because I got too many people that love me, and it’d be wrong for me to end it like that. I always want to leave that door open to give them something.” And this fall, ten years after the first installment of his trademark series Hitler Wears Hermes; he felt the timing was right to close the series out. At first, Gunn says he prioritized working on Michelle Records, for a Halloween release, before his creative inspiration shifted, and he decided to close off the Hitler Wears Hermes series at 10, which he deems a more apt conclusion than nine projects. Gunn considers HWH8 Side B to be HWH9. “I just was like if I’m going to do this, I got to go crazy,” he says of HWH10. “I called up a few homies and whipped up something crazy.”
“A few of the homies” includes a who’s who of revered lyricists and producers, Robbie Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls, whose Buffalo studio he records from, and his son Flygod Jr, who makes his production debut on the album’s eponymous track. The loaded track list follows previous entries in the Hitler Wears Hermes series, which have become all-star games for gritty luxury rap curated by Gunn. Before seeing the track list, I asked him if RZA, Ghostface, and Raekwon were on the same track. He explains, “that would be lazy,” before explaining that Ghost and Rae are on the Swizz-produced “Science Class,” which includes him, Busta Rhymes, and Stove God Cooks. Those are the kind of musical combos he relishes giving the fans.
“I’m happy to be able to show my curation skill because [it] supersedes my rap skill,” he contends. “I rap minimal, but my curation is to the max. And, you can say, ‘Oh, well, he ain’t the best rapper if you put him up with a [renowned lyricist]. When I always say, ‘I’m the illest,’ I’m not saying I’m the illest as far as my pen, even though my pen is nasty. My shit is [proving] that every year, for ten years straight, you could be the best rapper, but I’ve got the better album. It’s a difference.”
So far, Westside Gunn has released more than 20 solo projects, and he’s keeping his options open on future work. “It’s just whenever I get the urge, I get busy,” he explains. “I could say right now I’m not going to rap no time soon. [But in] January, I might go to Fashion Week and be like, Pray For Paris 2 two weeks from now!’ Everybody goes like, ‘Oh shit.’ That’s how I move. However I feel, the emotions, the energy, I go with the flow.”
The original Hitler Wears Hermes came out as a contingency plan in 2012. Westside Gunn had got into the rap game with his brother Conway The Machine, planning to leave the East Buffalo streets behind and be Griselda’s label head. When Conway was shot multiple times in March of 2012, including a neck wound that left his face permanently paralyzed, his plans shifted. While Conway mended from his injuries, Gunn stepped up as a rapper to hold down their then-upstart movement. He thought of calling his first project Devil Wears Prada, but thought to flip the idea in his fashion; Hitler Wears Hermes was born. While the title’s origin comes from him deeming the Nazi leader a synonym of the devil, hardly an endorsement, the series has periodically stirred controversy for name-checking Hitler and depicting him on the cover in various fashions. Gunn acknowledges that the title may have cost him Grammy consideration in the past.
But the title wasn’t enough to take precedence over his talent, and his plans to stay behind the scenes quickly changed. “I’m going to be honest, back then, I just always thought it was just going to be me and Conway,” he said. But the music caught fire. New Jersey rapper Mach-Hommy was another Griselda co-founder, then their cousin Benny The Butcher joined the fold. After Mach left the crew, Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny stuck around, and with the help of producers Daringer, Conductor Williams, Camouflage Monk, and the late DJ Shay, they’d bring the Griselda sound — gritty, lyrically dense rap — back into the public consciousness.
Beyond the music, their bold merch, at-times surreal artwork, and knack for infusing classic wrestling references have created an indelible experience. Throughout the years, lyricists have been criticized for failing to draw in listeners beyond their rap skills. However, that’s not the case with Griselda; they’ve entirely helped revamp the underground scene in the modern era.
Gunn plans to fall back and let the next wave of Griselda artists take the lead as he executive produces for them and others. He’s spent years signing the artists that he thought would fit in the crew, and now he has the team he wants. “Jay Worthy is Compton. That’s West Coast,” he explains. “Rome Streetz, that’s New York City. That’s nostalgic. Stove God Cooks is that storyteller, that punchline king, that cocaine rap. Armani Caesar, she runnin’ circles around the dudes. Her project is crazy. And she is a Buffalo kid. She got the rhymes and the beauty. Then you got YN Billy. That’s going to be the new face of Atlanta. So I got the south, I got the West Coast, then you got Boldy, you got the Midwest. And he is already who he is. He is already a legend on his own, but we are on our Griselda shit.”
And outside of music, he wants to give more attention to his other ventures, including the Griselda by Fashion Rebels clothing brand, and his excursion into the art world, like the second installment of his Gunn Basel event at Miami’s Art Basel. He informs that this year’s Gunn Basel will include three days of festivities, with the first day devoted to his Fourth Rope Wrestling promotion. “I’m probably the biggest wrestling head in the world,” he says. “This is going to be real wrestling. So if you are a wrestling fan, you’ll see people in my ring that you see on TV already. Mixed with amateurs and homegrown talent that we are about to start building up.”
That mesh of established names and homegrown talent sounds like the winning formula he applied to develop Griselda into one of rap’s most impressive stable of artists. But that’s not to say that things have gone flawlessly. Conway noted earlier this year that he “didn’t read” his original Griselda contract and was no longer signed to the label. Westside acknowledges Conway’s concerns but sees it as a small, since-resolved discrepancy. “That’s my brother,” Gunn says of Conway. “That fool’s son is my nephew. If you ask that man now if I owe him a penny…that shit got twisted and screwed up. They tried to blow it out of proportion like I robbed my brother. And what he was saying was he never read the contract, which he didn’t. That’s my brother, but he can’t ever say I cheated on him. That’s why you see, ain’t shit stop. We still been on tour since that came out, and we have done every festival since that came out. We’ve been on each other project’s since that came out. If somebody robbed you, why would you do that?” Conway’s been building up his Drumwork Music Group, which Gunn says he fully supports, noting, “My brother’s a grown man; he wants to be a boss and have his chapter. Why not?”
But he’s unequivocal that Conway will always be a part of Griselda. “People got to stay out of family business,” he says. “Family sometimes have disagreements.” But, he adds, “The negative narrative, that’s what people love. That’s what they want. And I’m trying to tell people, put this shit in bold letters: it’s never happening. Griselda is forever, can’t be stopped.”