Among Buffalo, New York’s greatest exports: Rick James, The Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco, Brian McKnight, and Emmy-winning actor Kyle Chandler. Of that assortment, DJ Premier was most familiar with the “Super Freak” singer-songwriter — until he found himself bumping two songs that expanded his understanding of the city that popularized chicken wings.
“Mr. T” loops a soulful croon as its star, who raps in a gully yelp, regales us with threats of robbery at gunpoint and fast money ambitions. The cascading keys on “Eric B” pirouettes around boom-bap percussion, as the same rhymer ends the song with a street hosannah: “Thank God, He gave us drug dealing.” Those two tracks — released in 2015 and 2014, respectively — got DJ Premier hooked on Westside Gunn.
After years spent grinding in Buffalo’s local scene, the rapper born Alvin Lamar Worthy finally found himself in the national spotlight thanks to a series of exceptional solo projects (more recently, 2018’s Supreme Blientele) and a partnership between Shady Records and his Griselda label. Griselda is also home to his brother Conway — who suffers from paralysis on the left side of his face, the result of a gunshot wound to the head — and his sharp-witted cousin Benny the Butcher. All three are featured on DJ Premier’s “Headlines,” the third single from the legendary producer’s ongoing singles series for the relaunched Payday Records.
Though it took a few years, Griselda and DJ Premier’s partnership is kismet. Of course, Premier’s style is the trunk from which Griselda and co.’s gritty raps branch from, but Griselda’s sound isn’t solely about recreating or paying homage to a golden era of hip-hop. Buffalo is an aggressively segregated town with the nation’s fourth-worst poverty rate for children. The dusty mix and the crime bars are just a natural part of the trio’s lexicon.
“Everything we’ve been through, we’ve seen, and stuff we were into… all play a part in our style and our sound,” Conway tells Billboard. “The Griselda sound is basically the Buffalo sound: Dirty, grimy, chip-on-your-shoulder, aggressive hip-hop.”
In a series of phone conversations, DJ Premier and the Griselda crew spoke about making “Headlines,” their work habits, and what’s in store for both in the near future. Read the interviews, condensed and edited for clarity, below.
You’ve been in the game for a minute. Did you think it was likely you’d be working with rappers from Buffalo?
DJ Premier: Nah, not really, because when you think about Buffalo, you think Rick James. Obviously he put Buffalo on the map — he’s one of the greatest ever, especially in my generation. Shoutout to Alchemist and Statik Selektah: They’re the ones who told me about Griselda early. It was really Westside Gunn, then it just trickled down.
Then it was Conway, Conway, Conway. I did my own [research], and I liked his story about getting shot and finding a way to still be able to rap. Now his trademark is that punch when he spits. All of a sudden, Benny’s name started to become as big as Conway’s.
I’m from New York and went to school in Buffalo, so when Westside Gunn started popping, I was like, “Oh, this is pretty cool.”
Premier: Yeah man. We just shot the video out there. I did not know it was that grimy out there. It looked like the apocalypse, like they dropped bombs everywhere and they survived all the destruction. Because you can’t kill them off—they are just that raw and hardcore to withstand the city.
Yeah, they used to tell us don’t go past a certain point in Main Street.
Premier: Some of the locations we were about to go to, they were like, “Nah.” It was crazy, because their whole crew would literally, in-sync, respond, “Naaahhhh, can’t go there. It’s on and popping over there.” Well, how about this street? “Aw hell nah.” It wasn’t just one or two — everybody responded [in unison].
Westside Gunn: Buffalo isn’t one of them cities that’s extra friendly and you can go anywhere and have fun. Even though we are who we are in the city, we just don’t go to other people’s neighborhoods. S–t is still going on outside. If he’s on our watch, we’re making sure nothing in the world happens to him or could possibly happen to him.
It must’ve been big for you to link up with DJ Premier.
Gunn: We haven’t had nobody pop for real since Rick James. Griselda is the hip-hop version of Rick James in our city. It was just legendary to have him come where we come from. People don’t even come to Buffalo to perform. So just to have a legend there, it was like, wow. The whole city is just excited to hear the single now.
Did you guys immediately gel during the “Headlines” session?
Premier: We’ve been seeing each for the last three years going, “One day we’re gonna do something.” I gave [Westside Gunn] my number, and I don’t give my number out like that. They texted me like, “Yo, I need a joint,” and I’m like, "Yo, I’m on tour right now." “You can just throw me one.” I’m like, "No, I don’t do beats like that. I make them with a blank canvas while you wait." They were like, “Oh, we thought you had a stash and we could just pick one.” Never did that in my whole career. Every now and then there might be a beat someone turned down that I have as an unused beat. But everything that predominantly matches the artist in my 30 years of doing this, it was me walking in and sitting there with no drums, no samples, no nothing, and making a beat on the spot.
Conway came [to the studio] at around 2:00 a.m., and they were already writing when they got there. Everybody else came earlier at around midnight, Conway comes in around 2:00 a.m. and he’s like, “I’mma go first,” and he starts writing on the spot.
What does recording with DJ Premier look like?
Conway: Being in the same room with a guy like that does something to you. For me, as a rapper, it’s like playing ball and you’re in the gym with LeBron or Jordan. You’re in the gym with Jordan, and he’s on the other side shooting his free throws while you’re on the other side shooting your free throws.
Was DJ Premier’s production style an adjustment for you?
Gunn: Everything I ever made was from scratch. I don’t have no book of rhymes: The Westside Gunn book of rhymes don’t exist. Everything anybody ever heard me [rap], since the first song I ever made, when I hear the beat I just go in right then and there, and it’s done. Ten, 15 minutes tops, it’s done and over with. Eighty percent of my projects were made in 48 hours.
Do you feel more pressure on the national stage as opposed to the local Buffalo scene?
Benny the Butcher: It’s the same thing. We’ve been doing this for years. The world is just now seeing it and they’re going to continue seeing more of it. But we’re using the same formula.
The local scene is more in tune to what we’re doing ,to be honest with you. So you got a lot of people in Buffalo trying to sound like us. You got a lot of people trying to do their own thing. [Buffalo’s rap scene] is more vibrant now because of the doors we opened. You got people looking to Buffalo for the next Griselda, but they’ll never find it because there’s only one.
Does Griselda’s gritty, more traditional raps feel like a full circle moment at all for Payday?
Premier: Shoutout to Patrick Moxey, who launched Payday. He was my manager before Gang Starr. He was Gang Starr’s manager from the very first album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, all the way to The Ownerz. He was the one who said, “Hey, if you produce the Jeru album, I’ll sign ‘em…. If you produce Group Home, I’ll sign ‘em…. As long as you’re doing it, I know they’re going to come out right. I’ll cut y'all a check.” And he did.
When Patrick shut down the label in the early 2000s and saw me while I was on tour in Paris, he told me, “Hey man, I want to relaunch the label, but I want to bring back that gutter edge you always had. Can you help me by launching a couple of singles?” I was like, "How many are you looking for?" “Maybe like three or four.” I said, "Let’s cut a deal with four singles — I have one more left. I have a person in mind for the last one. Hopefully, I can get it; if I don’t, I’ll still make sure the fourth single closes out just as big as the other ones."
You mind sharing that last person you had in mind?
Premier: Nah, I don’t want to jinx it. [Laughs.]