Westside Gunn Can’t Stop Shining

Westside Gunn Can’t Stop Shining

Whether boasting about walking on water way before Jesus or eating greasy scampi in a pair of Louis Vuitton gloves, the Buffalo emcee and Griselda impresario has re-designed underground rap in his own hyper-confident image

“Buffalo was a thriving community where you could lead a nice little middle-class life,” recalls Westside Gunn (real name Alvin Lamar Worthy), the city’s most influential living rap entrepreneur. “But once the crack era hit it fucked up everything, including my mother. Remember, I’m no spring chicken. I’ve seen it all!”

The 41-year-old is speaking in a carefully considered tone that’s far removed from his exuberant, larger-than-life alter-ego the Fly God. “There were so many setbacks” West sighs, reflecting on a transition from surviving shootouts and drug wars to launching one of street rap’s most ground-breaking labels in Griselda Records. “But despite all the bullshit, here I am…shining.”

Today he’s smoking “the finest weed cigar in California,” wearing a silk robe, and looking out at a neon pink sunset from the vantage point of a luxury hotel suite overlooking Beverly Hills. Last week he was somewhere in the Caribbean, feet up in a hammock. It’s all worlds away from West’s disrupted childhood, largely spent hustling in a decaying western New York State city where the chances of being a victim from a violent crime remain one in 134.

Aside from all the fuzzy static present during our transatlantic phone call, I occasionally hear West’s mass of diamond chains clink whenever he moves. This sounds like someone shaking a bag filled with hefty coins and he predicts the value of these jewels is “comfortably” in the million-dollar plus range. “I am a living legend. I’ve changed lives, bro,” West continues convincingly, now speaking in the more satisfied tone of a paradise-bound Carlito Brigante had he actually made it out of Grand Central Station alive.

It’s like he’s suddenly remembered who he is. Our previous poignant exchange quickly dissipates into pure bravado: “When I die, they will say I was the flyest of all time.”

As an artist, Westside Gunn gloats in the jubilant chant of a child that just got exactly what they wanted for Christmas. He raps in a uniquely high-pitched whine that transforms obscene levels of wealth into nihilistic witticisms — like when he half-joked about eating scampi in a pair of gloves designed by Supreme x Louis Vuitton back on the spooky 2016 MF DOOM duet, “Gorilla Monsoon.” It’s clear he learned a lot from working with the masked one. “DOOM taught me it’s all about having the illest character,” West says. “Right now the Super Fly God is the reincarnation of MF DOOM, RIP. Being the bad guy is a tough job, my brother.”

Imagine the indifference to wealth someone must possess to want to smear fish grease all over a pair of luxury £1500 gloves? Or, as alluded to on “Eggz,” the sheer audacity of wanting to wipe your ass with a bunch of $100 bills? These are both cartoonish visions, but they’re equally transgressive and a pure reflection of Westside Gunn’s love of being the provocateur. Yes, his raps contain a hundred and one different boasts, but there’s always the nagging sense they’re being spoken into existence by someone who would set fire to a million dollars and instantly start grinning like the Cheshire Cat. After all, when you’ve survived the grief associated with murdered family members and social degradation, it’s hard to take the superficiality of wealth too seriously.

West’s high-profile fans include Tyler, The Creator (who credited him with reviving his interest in rapping), Ghostface Killah (whose nutty stream of consciousness approach for the Supreme Clientele album is a clear inspiration), Eminem (amid a brief flirtation with a major label, West used to be signed to Shady Records), Ye, and Jay-Z. And, I’m sure all these towering figures have been drawn to the fact this artist doesn’t so much rap as purr with a super villain-level nonchalance. “I’m the bad guy that you still love,” West agrees.

No other rapper from the last 10 years, except maybe Drakeo The Ruler, has been so skilled at making their enemies feel 3-feet-tall. “Pistol whip him so hard, I fucked up his dandruff” West hilariously remarked on classy Action Bronson-duet “The Dudley Boyz.” It’s a punchline delivered like it has five exclamation marks at the end of it. At points, he’s even had his 11-year-old daughter, Pootie, record ad-libs branding her pops’ rivals as “bums.”

On “Horses On Sunset” there’s a claim that crack bags with the scent of peaches tend to encourage repeat customers, while the opulent yet cold The Godfather Part II-esque strings of “Lunchin” help to cushion a life of “back-to-back yachts” and Michael Corleone-level existential pressures. Meanwhile, one of West’s greatest ever songs, “Elizabeth,” sees the strutting elegance of a thrumming saxophone directly channel the unwavering self-belief of the late, always swaggering, Hollywood Cleopatra. This song also contains a powerful pep talk from West to himself: “The Lord got a better plan for you/ Be patient.”

The best Westside Gunn songs (usually produced by Daringer or Conductor Williams or the Alchemist) tend to be built around longing howls lifted from 1970s soul records; dusty, sinking drums; sarcastic lullaby raps about cooking cocaine in an air fryer; and exquisite violins that spark nostalgia for the analog era. It is Buffalo hood rap directed by Brian De Palma. These rags-to-riches narratives aren’t anything new for hip-hop culture, true, but there’s an eternal youth and endearing weirdness to West’s pitched-up vocals that recalls Madlib’s shroom-funelled, chipmunk-voiced alter ego, Quasimoto. Everything, therefore, comes with a strange edge.

Whether you ultimately love or hate West’s swirling vocals, and the way he sits right in the pocket of the beat, he has a signature sound in an industry filled with soundalikes. It’s undeniably fresh. “It’s crazy, ’cause a lot of people hate my rapping voice!” he concedes. “Some people are like: It’s too high-pitched and whiny! But then you got people who are like, bro, you got the illest voice in hip-hop. It grows on you.”

Admitting that he often gets deep tissue massages in the booth while recording his verses, and is also a “student” of braggadocious wrestling legends like Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall and Ric Flair, it’s no surprise West’s subsequent raps have such a galvanizing effect on the listener. To a community of nearly 5 million monthly Spotify streamers, West sees himself more like a life coach than a rapper. “I can show you hundreds of images of people who have my face tattooed on their bodies. My words inspire people.”

Over the last two decades or so West (who released his first proper full-length, Flyest N***a In Charge, Vol. 1, way back in 2005) has transformed independent street rap for the better. As the Kubrickian head honcho of the Griselda movement, he’s helped shepherd the careers of half-brother, Conway The Machine, and first cousin, Benny The Butcher. The Griselda label has also put out forward-thinking art-rap magnum opuses for the likes of Mach-Hommy, Estee Nack, Boldy James, Rome Streetz, Stove God Cooks, Armani Caesar, and Jay Worthy.

West acts as an executive producer and curator of sorts, ensuring all these records are as cinematic as possible, carry a surrealistic sense of humor, and nail the aesthetic of being raw like cocaine from the days when big Pablo was still breathing. In many ways he’s doing what the RZA did while steering the Wu Tang ship across the 1990s and 2000s. West’s track record of solo releases has arguably surpassed the man behind Bobby Digital, with projects like Pray For Paris, Fly God Is An Awesome God, Fly God, and Supreme Blientele all rightly seen as contemporary cult-classics.

When West performed with Benny and Conway on Jimmy Fallon back in 2020, a catatonically depressed-looking East Buffalo-based homeless woman (the late Clara “Clare” Gomez”) was beamed on the screen behind the trio. It was a telling artistic statement: West tells me it is important to “remind” America of the people (junkies, the homeless, the vulnerable) its policies have ruined. Having studied how the likes of Warhol and Basquiat transformed mundane, everyday inner-city occurrences (such as eating out of soup cans, or dustheads smoking PCP) into something prestigious, West has similarly found a way to transform the bleak realities of hood rap into high art.

Some of his vinyls go for a whopping $2000+ on Discogs, treated by rap Redditors like they’re boom-bap Holy Grails. I sense he gets a kick out of altering the balance that decides what we tend to discard or value highly enough to auction on the marbled floors of Sotheby’s. “When you see Eastside Flip on my artwork, you see the struggle and you see where we came from. This is Buffalo! This is the rawness of Buffalo!” he explains. “I want to show that these things can still be of high value. [Changing that balance] is really important.”

Yet it’s also fair to say not every single thing West creates has been met with open critical arms. Last year’s AND THEN YOU PRAY FOR ME album was an ambitious leap into more of a trap sound, but some of those used to the more brooding, shuffling Griselda speeds understandably found it a little jarring. This project was at its best when West shot straight from the hip, like on elegant highlight “Kitchen Lights,” where he sang his own take on the teary-eyed blues. On this immaculately introspective song, West powerfully recalls eating grilled government cheeses while watching his “moms get beat” and “roaches crawling / crack pipes on the bathroom sink.” Just like its more celebrated predecessor, Pray For Paris, the artwork of this new album was a result of the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh rejigging Baroque and Renaissance-era paintings so they included Griselda-themed bling.

West’s Hitler Wears Hermes album series has also courted consistent online controversy over recent years, with some unable to see past artwork that presents a Nazi mass murderer as a goofy figure. The title is a spin on the phrase “The Devil Wears Prada,” and West agrees it is intended as a statement about the innate ridiculousness of the kinds of people (coked-out, genocidal dictators) who tend to be able to afford to live lavish lifestyles. To him, it is anything other than antisemitic. However, it’s also easy to feel the pain of his detractors, especially at a time when antisemitism is on the rise.

“You can sit here and paint a picture of the devil, but that doesn’t mean you believe in him,” West claims, defending the title during our conversation. “If I really believed in Hitler, I would be going around with a skinhead and a swastika on my back with ugly high boots. That title doesn’t reflect my beliefs at all. I have never glorified that man in my raps, ever. It’s just art. I know my heart and I know what I do. I don’t come with anything malicious in my mind. I hope the people can see that.”

Whatever West does next (and we’ll have more on that later on in our Q&A), it’s sure to continue to keep tongues wagging and to push hip hop culture forward. “People are always ready to hear Westside Gunn, as my music makes their lives a whole lot better!” he explains with a typically Adonis-level confidence. “I am a living legend. I am culture.” Looking ahead to his plans for the rest of the 2020s, I went deep with Westside Gunn. We talked about cartoonish ad-libs, The American Dream, not being able to trust people, and why he feels an affinity with Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

“DOOT DOOT DOOT DOOT! SKIRRRRTTTTTTT! BOOM BOOM BOOM!” In a Westside Gunn song each of these words transforms noises associated with real-life chaos – such as fired bullets or high speed races with cops – into something surreal and hilarious. Why are those ad-libs so important to you?

WESTSIDE GUNN: I guess they came naturally as I got better at rhyming. If people hear my first projects, you don’t hear ad-libs as much. But as I developed more into the Fly God alter-ego, I got more comfortable and was feeling a different vibe. It started pouring out of me, naturally. Once I started doing them, it became even bigger than I ever thought; it is damn near iconic now! The ad-libs have gone global! I love it man. Those ad libs are crazy. I look at them like the seasoning for a great meal.

I wanted to go back this lyric on the Madlib-produced “Gunnlib,” where you said: “I walked on water way before Jesus”. When I hear a lyric like that, or you saying you can conjure up thunder and lightning, it makes me feel invincible. In a way, do you feel more like a life coach when you rap?

WESTSIDE GUNN: For sure. My raps are like sermons. They make other people feel confident about themselves and more relaxed. The whole Fly God imagery: me as a kid, eight years old, with the thorns on my head? Well, it’s the image of Jesus! I feel that is what I am to hip-hop. Hip-hop was one-dimensional. It was so predictable and one-dimensional before Westside Gunn came! Everyone sounded the same, and it was just like: What happened to the pure essence of being you and doing what you want to do!? Giving them that raw sound! I felt like it was my duty to bring it back.

At that time everyone just cared about being popular and sales and wanting that attention. It felt like an agenda. I just wanted to show that: nah man, there is style to this. This is actually an art. It is worth something! It is worth more than you think!’ I even wanted to show people on the underground at that time, the power is in our hands. I wanted to show people it could be done and they could take care of their family without changing their street sound. They don’t need to sell their soul to get a dollar; they can still be rich just by being themselves and selling some vinyl.

You once rapped “Moms was a basehead/ Blame it on Reagan.” Yes, you gloat in your raps, but I think it’s to show just how far you’ve traveled in life, right? It is very, very powerful gloating.

WESTSIDE GUNN: I’ve been to prison twice, bro, but I always remained optimistic! You never know when your time is going to come, so the one thing you have to realize and live with is this: patience. If you don’t live with patience then you can crash and burn. I’ve seen a lot of people with their backs against the wall and they don’t have any patience, and they go back to hustling and now they’ve got life in prison.

I’m someone who laughs in the face of disaster, you know? I am like the good, bad guy. In The Dark Knight, look at how bad the Joker is? But you still love the Joker! You actually love the Joker way more than Batman. That’s Westside Gunn, too.

From getting 50 Cent out of retirement to making a 50-year-old DMX sound fired up, Griselda has achieved so much in the 2010s and early 2020s. If you were from New York City, do you think the praise would have been even louder? And, with your rising profile, do you have to move differently when you go back home to Buffalo?

WESTSIDE GUNN: If I was from New York City they would say I was the illest of all time. It’s because NYC is the big brother and Buffalo is the little brother!

I want people to know I come from the bottom, bottom! When you see me shining, you need to understand how hard I had to work to get all that. I am representing something where we never had no shine; America forgot about us. So when you see me shining, you’ve got no choice but to acknowledge Buffalo, too, you know? That’s really powerful. But I am not gonna let my guard down just ’cause I am Westside Gunn and the people love me. That is what gets you killed quicker, especially when you’re the face of the city.

You’ve been releasing raps for a long time now. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the music industry?

WESTSIDE GUNN: Don’t trust nobody, man. It is sad! But don’t trust nobody, bro! I had a lot of negative energy around me. My whole thing lately is about staying positive and staying out of the way. I am keeping the negative people away from me. You know, with an album like AND THEN YOU PRAY FOR ME, I wanted to show you everything I had learned across my career. With the new project you have something you can cry to, something to turn up to, something to bop your head to. I am living life, taking care of my kids, taking care of my family, traveling the world, meeting people, learning new cultures. All of that is this album, conceptually.

A lot of people are interested to see how Griselda develops from here. What comes next?

WESTSIDE GUNN: My future is just being able to be able to present art in some way. Whether curating, me doing fashion lines, me doing movies, me being behind art shows, or even having my own wrestling company, 4THROPE. I just want to push the culture forward, forever! In many ways I am going to keep doing exactly what I have been doing. I own Griselda Records. I am signed to myself. No label can talk about WSG, unless you talk about WSG the owner! That’s important.

Honestly, being a father is way better than being Westside Gunn. I still take my kids to school, bro. I am a super father. If I am not working, I am going to be with my kids; that’s for sure!

I feel like Griselda is a perfect reflection of The American Dream; you, Benny, and Conway overcame impossible odds to become self-made millionaires and hugely influential artists. There’s got to be a movie coming, surely?

WESTSIDE GUNN: It’s a cinematic story, for sure. Especially just being three kids from the East Side of Buffalo. We had everything thrown at us. We had to go through the crack era, too. I was in the house with Benny at 3 years old, all the way up to 7. Conway too! We grew up our whole lives together. Slept in the same bed, wore the same hand-me-down clothes, went to the same schools. Our whole life we’ve seen the worst shit you could possibly think of! Literally. We’ve seen the worst shit of humanity. From dead bodies to junkies, there’s nothing we ain’t seen before. That is why I say now: it is about teaching the world about art and culture and how to live better! I want to show people why you gotta take care of your kids, you’ve gotta invest, and you need to believe in yourself; that is what the Fly God is! That is my duty. To turn a negative into a positive.

If it all stopped tomorrow, how should they remember you?

WESTSIDE GUNN: Just say I was the flyest of all time. That’s it man. When you think of me being fly, I want you to think of the jewelry, you gon’ think of the houses, you gon’ think about the cars, you gonna think about the sound, me turning other people into millionaires. Me hopping on private jets and poppin my shit. I made a song with every legend possible! I went to the pyramids with my babies! I was front row at all the fashion shows! All the fly shit! And, I am just a poor kid from the East Side of Buffalo. That’s never been done before: so, it is important that I never stop shining.

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