where it started at

How Conway the Machine and Griselda Records Put Upstate New York Rap on the Map

“I was already ill and I was already the king of Buffalo or whatever, but it’s the shit you do outside the booth.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Silvio Campos

Conway the Machine does not appear to be a man concerned with criticism. Particularly unwelcome are outside opinions on his soul-baring bars. They don’t bother him, per se, but they do motivate him. “I’ve been feeling slighted,” he says on the eve of the September 11 release of his latest album and third project of the year, From King to a GOD, his most versatile collection of songs to date. “I don’t be feeling like I reached my goal or the level of respect for my pen.” But he’s quick to add, “N- - - -s is not fucking with me when it comes to this album.”

Much like his brethren in the uncompromisingly gutter Griselda Records camp — which includes fellow upstate New York star and Conway’s brother, Westside Gunn, and their cousin Benny the Butcher — the gruff-voiced, lyrically nimble, and quickly beloved Buffalo rapper has continuously added weight to the Seneca One Tower–size chip on his shoulder while reminding listeners consistently that he’s the “G.O.A.T.” — meaning, to him, Grimiest of All Time. Over the past five years, Griselda has dominated the underground alongside its sonic siblings Roc Marciano, Ka, and 38 Spesh, among others. But they’ve done so while standing apart from the throng as torchbearers for the resurgence of ’90s-inspired dusty loops, focused rhyming, and chilling tales of street woes, all with a presentation that basks in luxury fashion and high art.

It would be fair to say that while Roc Marci is rightly viewed as a pioneer of this shift in sound beginning a decade ago (see: 2012’s Reloaded), Griselda gave it a much darker spin. With the group’s producer, Daringer, at the helm as the crew’s sound architect, Conway’s voice immediately cuts through with precision, his presence unignorable. The Machine’s chilling vocal performance on the opening track from his 2015 project Reject 2, “1000 Corpses,” found him rapping with the measured tone of a hunter fresh from a kill, and serves as an excellent primer for his work:

“I got too many guns, and not enough drama

So I’m broad day in the hood, popping the llama

Get the blocks from Papi

Then I holler hasta mañana

Eating pasta like a mobster, silk Prada pajamas.”

Today, Conway, 38, is recognized among his peers as an MVP, while Griselda’s signing to Eminem’s Shady Records in the winter of 2017 elevated the crew’s visibility to audiences outside their grimy confines. As the first rappers from Buffalo, New York, to sign with a major label, Conway and Westside Gunn (along with Benny the Butcher, who did not sign to Shady) continue to operate like hungry rappers still seeking their big break. Conway and Gunn have record deals with Shady and are managed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, but their rugged outsiderness remains palpable, their dealings still feel self-contained, and they continue to release music at a prolific, workhorselike clip.

Most place Westside Gunn as the brains of the operation, running the sprawling Griselda empire as a fully functioning label and brand. Benny, often hailed as the crew’s most well-rounded artist, has grown considerably as a rapper and songwriter; he often functions as the body of the outfit. However, the heart of Griselda beats strongly with Conway in command, who once served nothing short of brilliance even on what were essentially leftover tracks from studio sessions across the Everybody Is F.O.O.D. series (see: “212” and EIF 2’s “Overdose“), among other releases.

Fans who jumped onboard during the Shady era shouldn’t find From King to a GOD too jarring, but those deeply connected to the earlier Daringer and Beat Butcha sound might not immediately grasp where Conway is taking them. Still, the risks pay off. With FKTG firmly on the mind and anticipation for the record at a fever pitch following a pair stellar singles, “Front Lines” and the Method Man–assisted “Lemon,” Conway’s world-weary persona brightens when he speaks about his newest body of work. “I just felt like this album … I wanted to make a statement, I wanted to make an impact, I wanted to rap my ass off,” he begins.

“Especially with the pandemic and all that shit going on, I’ve been doing so much shit that’s off the scene away from the music that kind of inspired me to create. To take time and give people music they might need to get away from the challenges of life right now, especially with this current state we’re in. Music is therapeutic for me, so I felt like I was just doing my due diligence.”

FKTG reconnects Conway with producer and early collaborator Big Ghost LTD, after previously collaborating on No One Mourns the Wicked in May, and links him again with Alchemist, as they did on March’s the LULU EP. The chemistry between the Machine and Hooligan Al is as vibrant as it’s been on their previous tracks “May Block” and “No Women No Kids.” Conway completed the project the Monday prior to its release, and was hands-on through every step of the process from song selection, shepherding producers, and arranging the sequencing until the 11th hour.

“I wanted to come out swinging for a knockout,” Conway says of FKTG’s Daringer-produced opener “From King.” “When I heard the beat … you know I’m big into wrestling [he and Westside Gunn refer to themselves as tag-team wrestling duo Scott Hall and Kevin Nash]. So, for me it sounded like the intro music for the heel, the bad guy in wrestling, coming to the ring.” Conway’s sneering confidence and unwavering attention to detail will feel familiar to ardent students of Griselda, even in the warm production provided by Hit-Boy on “Fear of God,” one of the many curveballs Conway throws throughout FKTG.

Crafting one of rap’s most anticipated releases and working with legends like Method Man, Havoc of Mobb Deep, DJ Premier, and Erick Sermon is a far cry from the early days of Conway’s career. In the early 2010s, he had more than just rap to worry about: He was shot in the back of the head in 2012, which has rendered a portion of his face paralyzed as a result of Bell’s palsy (something he rhymes about at various intervals across his discography). After his recovery, he released his Reject 2 mixtape in 2015. Featuring appearances from Roc Marci, Skyzoo, and Mach-Hommy, among others, the project earned a large portion of Griselda’s early fan base. “We was a lot more hungry back then. I mean, I’m still hungry now, I’m not relaxed or comfortable,” Conway says. “But I’m saying back then there was a lot I was dealing with that I don’t have to deal with now.”

“I dealt with homelessness, selling drugs, doing drugs, still in the streets one foot in and one foot out. I was just living off the land, kind of. So, after I got shot, and I was healthy enough again to record and rap, that’s when I knew it was time to take this shit serious, because at that time after the shooting, I lost everything. My money dwindled, so to speak, so I made a choice to work on this and get my n- - - -s out the hood.”

In 2016, when Griselda’s mixtape output was becoming increasingly prolific, a pair of so-called bootleg tapes made their way onto the internet: Westside Gunn’s Extendos and Conway the Machine’s 50 Round Drum were both collections of songs from across released projects peppered with loosies and freestyles. On Conway’s tape, he tackled known rap classics like “We Made It” and “Rigamortis” using styles that, until then, few knew he could pull off.

Conway didn’t come to that level of ability out of thin air. His maternal uncle educated him with selections from both coasts growing up. “He was the one who kind of exposed me to the hip-hop world. He would have all the tapes and all the n- - - -s’ albums,” he explains, “and this was the time when the West Coast was really running shit. He would have MC Eiht, Spice 1, Geto Boys, all the Ice Cube shits. Scarface, Kool G Rap, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest. You know, all of the shit before New York got grimy, like before B.I.G. or Mobb Deep, and Nas, or Wu-Tang Clan took the crown back. I was on that West Coast shit.”

Conway continued studying by watching Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City with his uncle, cementing early on that this would be an art form that he’d strive to become an expert on. And like many a kid before him, Conway had to sneak around the watchful eye of his mother to soak in the music his uncle continued to supply him with. (“I want to be included in this class of extraordinary gentlemen,” Conway says with a slight laugh.) As Conway grew into rapping, he began to take his skills to the streets of Buffalo, earning a reputation as a gifted teenage battle rapper who took on older opponents. Soon, pure love of the game turned into a desire to use it for advocacy. “That’s what I mean on the album and the title, From King to a GOD. I was already ill and I was already the king of Buffalo or whatever, but it’s the shit you do outside the booth. Like in basketball, they say it’s what you do off the court to go from being good to great,” he says. “The music became secondary after that. As I became a better man and better father, I naturally was going to become a better artist.”

Recently Conway was dealt a blow with the loss of DJ Shay, an instrumental figure in the lives of all the Griselda core artists and several others across Buffalo. “He was our mentor, our big homie. He was one of the few cats in Buffalo who put up a studio for us to hang out and to create,” Conway reflects. “And sometimes, it was just a place for us to lay low and stay out of trouble. Even back in 2005, when I got out of jail, I went straight from there to Shay’s studio. That’s what it was like: If you needed somewhere to go or to get out of the streets, you went there.”

Music is still very much a part of the plan for Conway, who believes his upcoming Shady Records debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes, will be his career opus. “The records I’ve got on here are powerful. These are timeless records. It’s more autobiographical, my testimony, my story. I really put my all into it, blood, sweat and tears. I’ve been working on that album longer than I worked on this one [FKTG], and I’m still working on it,” Conway teases. He also promises a fourth release in the Everybody Is F.O.O.D. mixtape series, and has plans to provide a sequel for Reject 2. Those albums were created during some of his lowest periods, but things are on the upswing.

“All them albums came from a dark place — my frustrations and anger on my young-boy shit — but life’s been treating me kind of good for the last couple of years, so the music will keep coming [from a better place].”

As a unit, Griselda exists now among the most active crews in hip-hop. Westside Gunn released two acclaimed albums, Pray for Paris and Flygod Is an Awesome God 2, this year, while Benny continues to shine on his features on songs with the likes of Russ, the L.O.X., Freddie Gibbs, and the Alchemist. Adding to Griselda’s growing roster is the first woman to join the crew: Armani Caesar, who, too, is inching her way to higher visibility with her upcoming project The Liz. And with new Griselda Records signee, Boldy James — along with Benny introducing his own crew of shooters, the Black Soprano Family, with a DJ Drama–assisted mixtape called The Respected Sopranos — Griselda is shaping up for a commanding future.

Griselda Records Is Just Getting Started