Buffalo Boom Bap: A Griselda Primer

An introduction to the crew and their essential recordings. 

by
Griselda: Benny the Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine (from left). Credit: Universal Music.

Before a few years ago, Buffalo, N.Y., wasn’t on the rap map at all, and rap groups in general seemed to be on their way out in favor of solo quests for success. Thankfully Griselda has their own way of doing things. 

In the 2000s, Westside Gunn, his half-brother Conway the Machine and their cousin Benny the Butcher had fledgling rap careers built on telling their stories of running the streets of their hometown — a city in Western New York known more for its proximity to Niagara Falls than for any sort of musical lineage that might associate it with NYC. Gunn had a long-established interest in fashion, and left rap behind for several years to serve time, focus on his clothing line and fund the rise of Conway, who was building a reputation as one of the best rappers in Buffalo. Benny, meanwhile, continued building his own buzz. Each of them was talented, and each of them brought a unique skill set. But in 2012 Conway was shot and nearly killed while leaving a club. 

That night would end up being the catalyst for the next era of the newly minted hottest squad in rap. Gunn decided to return to music, so that he could build industry relationships and open doors as Conway healed. He released the mixtape Hitler Wears Hermes that same year, founded Griselda Records (taking the original name of his clothing line) and continued creating solo music before Conway was well again. They later brought Benny into the fold, and between solo albums, group offerings, in-house production and Gunn’s keen mind for business, they began to craft the sort of hard, cavernous rap that fans associated with Gotham in the ’90s. 

In fact, acts who earned their reputation in the ’90s — Raekwon, Fat Joe and more — began to collaborate with Griselda while respecting their willingness to fill what had felt, despite the efforts of Roc Marciano and others, like a void in hip-hop. Listeners became disciples, following every move they made and buying up every item of merchandise they’d sell. Before long, Westside Gunn and Conway had a deal with Shady Records for solo and group releases, and Gunn and Benny had each nabbed management contracts with Roc Nation. A family-bred crew from the middle of nowhere (in rap terms, anyway) became an indie powerhouse, and began working with two of the biggest names in rap history — all on their own terms. (At press time, it was announced that Gunn’s most recent solo album, Who Made the Sunshine, would be his last with Shady.)   

Perhaps the only way Griselda follows the rest of the industry is in their prolific output, and even in that space, they outperform. The crew has dropped more than three-dozen projects since the label was founded, and it’s normal for any member to release several projects in a calendar year. With two new signees in 2020, Armani Caesar and Boldy James, their output won’t be slowing down anytime soon. It’s a lot to keep up with, even for diehard fans. Below, check a list of some of Griselda’s most essential projects so far, but be warned — at this rate there will be more to add by the time you’re done reading.  

Conway the Machine
Reject 2 (2015)

In 2012, Conway the Machine’s life hung in the balance when he was shot in the back of his head and neck. It took him years to recover, but he returned with a vengeance in 2015, with a face partially paralyzed by Bell’s palsy and a newly slurred voice that reflected the pain he had overcome. Reject 2 was his second mixtape of the year, after The Devil’s Reject, and it was the project that put him on underground rap’s radar beyond his Buffalo stomping ground. 

On songs like “1000 Corpses,” Conway delivered clever zingers over sinister beats by in-house producer Daringer, and an appearance by Roc Marciano, the architect behind the new iteration of the brooding New York City sound, solidified his new standing. He shared his journey succinctly and candidly on “Wraith-Ful”: “I been thru it, all my scars are the proof/I sold raw on the stoop/Now it’s BET Awards in a suit/Cracking cigars underneath the stars in the roof/But I’m still thanking God for all that he do/Got shot, Bell’s palsy so my jaw wouldn’t move/Now I can outrap your whole squad and your crew.”

Conway the Machine
EIF 2: Eat What U Kill (2018)

The second installment in Conway the Machine’s Everything Is F.O.O.D. mixtape series showcases commendable stylistic and emotional range. “224 May Block” is one of Griselda’s early signature gems with Alchemist, while “Cocaine Paid” feels Southern-influenced, with Conway’s languid flow and stuttering hi-hats. He uses “Be Proud of Me” to narrate a complicated friendship, acknowledging their support in his life at one time while lamenting a lack of it in others, and pays tribute to his fallen comrade and family member Machine Gun Black on “Piece of My Heart.” EIF 2 is a collection of solid mixtape cuts, but below the surface it’s a snapshot of a rising star who is learning to deal with his impending success.

Benny the Butcher
Tana Talk 3 (2018)

As Griselda built their reputation in the mid-2000s, fans fell in love with Conway’s gruff-voiced punchlines and Gunn’s high-pitched menace. But in late 2018, Benny the Butcher established himself as the new member to watch. He had already delivered standout freestyles and cameos with the crew, but when he had his own space to rock, he made the most of it. Benny rapped about his past with unflinching detail-oriented lyricism that, of course, matched perfectly to the dark production by Alchemist and Daringer. Songs like “97’ Hov,” “Rick” and “Broken Bottles” made the case for Benny being Griselda’s best member — an idea that may have seemed inconceivable before Tana Talk 3 proved his merit in spades. 

Westside Gunn
Hitler Wears Hermes 7 (2019)

Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series began in 2012 when Conway was shot, and it’s only gotten better with each installment, as Gunn grows more confident in his aesthetic. On Part 7 the execution is virtually flawless: After an intro with a shouting DJ Drama, Gunn delivers his threatening high-register street stories over a barrage of production that fluctuates between gorgeous and gloomy. “Banana Yacht” shines with lush orchestral strings that would fit at the setting the title implies, while the following “GONDEK” would fit perfectly in place with a ’90s Wu-Tang album.

Griselda
WWCD (2019)

There’s a long history of street and underground rappers signing to major labels and losing the essence that earned them their followings in the first place. Some worried that fate would follow Griselda after they announced a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records. But if the crew’s ability to keep up their prolific mixtape output didn’t ease fans’ concerns, WWCD sealed the deal. 

The album title is an acronym for What Would Chine Gun Do, an ode to the aforementioned Machine Gun Black, and after receiving a blessing from coke-rap god Raekwon the Chef on the intro, they do their supporters and loved ones proud. Griselda keep the same grim soundbeds from Daringer and Beat Butcha that fueled their rise, and all three core MCs supply more of the witty gun-toting, drug-pushing, WWE-referencing raps they’ve relied on since the early days. They instruct Gunn’s friend and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh to “write brick on my brick” on “DR BIRDS,” and “Chef Dreds” feels straight from the ’90s with their tag-teamed rhymes and an eerie backdrop. Even 50 Cent returns with some of the darkest rhymes he’s spit in years on “City on the Map”; he recognized the future of New York street rap and responded accordingly. 

Armani Caesar
The Liz Tape (2020)

Following a years-long rapport with the crew — the result of a connection made through the recently deceased DJ Shay — Armani Caesar finally signed to Griselda in March 2020 and released her first project under the label months later. The Liz Tape proves that not only is Caesar comfortable spitting street raps that keep up with her labelmates’ rhymes (“Countdown,” “Gucci Casket”), but she can also dabble in trappy club vibes (“Yum Yum”) and triplet flows (“Drill a RaMA”). In any case, that’s all ground she navigated in her time before signing to Griselda in the first place. Armani Caesar isn’t only the first lady of the crew — she’s covering new ground musically as well.

Westside Gunn
Pray for Paris (2020)

Westside Gunn’s first project of 2020 was inspired by his January trip to Paris, where he attended Fashion Week at the invitation of Abloh. The album and the campaign perfectly encapsulated Gunn’s marriage of luxurious excess and street nihilism. Abloh designed the cover, using Caravaggio’s painting of the biblical underdog David holding his sling in one hand and the head of a slain Goliath in his other; here, Gunn’s recognizable chains hang around David’s neck. The music mixes audio clips of painting auctions; beats that range from lush (“Euro Step”) to ominous (“No Vacancy”); and rhymes that detail cooking coke and sipping wine with equal conviction. His industry respect also continued to blossom: Guests Joey Bada$$, Tyler, the Creator, Wale, Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano meet Gunn on his turf instead of the other way around. 

Benny the Butcher
Burden of Proof (2020)

“Last year was ’bout branding, this one’s about expanding,” Benny announces at the beginning of Burden of Proof. He’s telling the truth: Griselda had spent the previous several years building a boom-bap sound that seemingly had no aim beyond the hardcore underground fans who felt rap was missing that feel. But for his second studio album, Benny teamed up with Hit-Boy, the West Coast producer known for smashes like “N-----s in Paris” by JAY-Z and Kanye West and “Trophies” by Drake. 

The result is a sonic palette more dynamic than any other release from the crew, with vibrant soul samples sounding more like gems from the golden era of Roc-A-Fella Records, and one of the more contemporary recent Griselda guest lists with cameos by Big Sean, Lil Wayne, Freddie Gibbs, Queen Naija and Rick Ross. For Benny’s part, though, he maintains his lyrical identity, with more heartless tales from the block and prison, tributes to people he’s lost and rhymes connecting his recent success to his previous struggles. Burden of Proof shows that Benny is still a long way from reaching his ceiling. 

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