It’s hard to script a better 2019 than the one Conway the Machine and his Griselda gang have had. He’s already released two acclaimed records with Eif 2: Eat What You Kill and Everybody Is F.O.O.D. 3, and he’s heading into the new decade with his boldest declaration to date: Look What I Became.
All of these records are just a slow build to his forthcoming Shady Records debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes, which he says is coming at the end of this year or in early 2020.
Conway’s been plotting. Along with his brother Westside Gunn, his cousin Benny the Butcher, and Daringer (Griselda’s in-house producer), the Buffalo collective have established themselves as the preeminent purveyors of gritty, nasty old-school rap. As he explains to Billboard over the phone, Griselda is all about “The aggressive bars and the disgustingly dark beats.” Conway doesn’t mince words, and he does a better job of conveying this ethos in eight words than most can do in a paragraph.
With Look What I Became, Conway is trotting a victory lap of sorts. He’s defeated death and poverty, the former a gunshot wound that’s resulted in partial paralyzation of his face, and the latter coming from a hood beginning on the streets of Buffalo. But Conway and his brother have made it. Along with Benny, they’re one of the most imposing, productive collectives making rap music. But somehow, they still keep everything in-house and on-brand. As Conway explains, “We try to keep it boutique and rare.” That philosophy spans from eight-song albums to limited edition, highly priced vinyls. You’re only worth what you charge.
While it’s easy to imagine Griselda getting swallowed up by the major label machine, Conway doesn’t share those concerns. He sees Shady Records as an infrastructure, but his crew is still the roots from which everything forms. Both concise and to the point, the rapper spells it out: “It’s Griselda over everything.”
What do you think makes Look What I Became different from any other record in the Conway catalog?
I’m working with some different producers. I got some producers that are newer to the game like JR Swiftz and my man Sluggah. Well, not new but we ain’t really work together that much. I got Statik Selektah on there, too. I think it’s just the production, tracks people aren’t used to hearing me on. Everyone knows me on Daringer and Alchemist beats, but I wanted to tap in with some other producers and artists I’ve wanted to work with for a while. Like [Jim] Jones and [Dave] East.
How did you link up with Jim Jones?
That’s the homie. I mess with him tough. It was nothing for me to just reach out. We did a record for his album and we keep in touch. He’s a good dude. He fucks with the movement tough. It was really just a phone call. He was like, ‘Say no more.’ Same with Dave East. That’s my guy. I was like, ‘Yo, I got something.’ Dave was like, ‘Say less.’
This is your third record of 2019. Why’d you decide to put out so much music this year?
I just wanted to generate momentum for God Don’t Make Mistakes, my official debut album on Shady Records. I wanted to put the rap game in a chokehold and really introduce myself as my name in hip-hop. I wanted to put it in stone. Griselda is here now. It’s not a game. We intentionally set out to do that.
Me and Westside talked, like, ‘2019, we just gonna smother the game.’ I wanted to prepare everyone for when I come with that album. It’s an important album, not only for myself, but for hip-hop, period. I’m tryna get the new fans prepared and give the old fans something nice for staying loyal.
Do you feel any pressure regarding the buzz around God Don’t Make Mistakes? It’s been talked about for around a year.
Naw, not really. It’s one of the best projects I’ve ever made. I’m very transparent and I’m telling my story, telling my life. I know what my life represents and I know what my story reflects. I’m actually excited for it. I can’t wait for the world to hear this and get this side of Conway.
What’s the wait on the album?
It should be coming at the end of this year or early 2020.
You just mentioned your transparency. There’s a skit on Look What I Became that describes you getting shot in pretty precise detail. Why did now feel like the right time to go into that?
I get a lot of new fans on the daily. I want to keep them familiar with that story, what happened, what I went through, and what it took for me to get here. This shit didn’t happen overnight. We went through a lot, we lost some homies, I almost lost my life…This music shit wasn’t always a possibility. That’s what Look What I Became is all about. We went from tragedy to triumph, so to speak.
I got shot and was in the hospital all fucked up — I couldn’t move, I couldn’t eat. I was supposedly paralyzed from the neck down. Now I’m rocking stages and dropping albums. [Laughs.] Wow, look what I became. It’s the title: Look What I Became, God Don’t Make No Mistakes. It’s all one title, but I just broke it up into two projects.
Now that you have triumphed, put Buffalo on the map, and really became a star, what keeps you hungry?
I don’t want to let the city down, I don’t wanna let my people down—I don’t wanna let my brother down and I don’t wanna let Machine Gun Black [RIP] down. I tell my brother and Benny [The Butcher] all the time, ‘Let’s not change up our script, let’s not switch nothin’, let’s just keep going where God is here.’ That means just keeping our pen nasty and coming with what we’ve been coming with and where we’ve been coming with it; that same vigor, that same tenacity in our music. If we do that, we’ll be aight.
Also, we doin’ something special. We doin’ something that’s never really happened for my city. Aside from Rick James, no one really signed to a major or was in a position to be with Eminem, Jay-Z and shit like that. What we’re doing for the city is special. I’m inspiring so many people. I wanna inspire more.
How would you describe Griselda’s current role in the rap landscape? Where do y’all fit in?
We really don’t fit in, we stand out. That’s the difference. The shit we’re doin’, ain’t nobody else doin’, because they can’t do it. They don’t have Griselda. They don’t have a Daringer, a Westside Gunn, a Benny the Butcher. We stand out because of the beats we rap on, the production, the musical content, the cover art, the merch sales, the vinyl sales, everything. This is special. This is outside the box for artists that come with our type of content and our backgrounds. This just doesn’t happen.
Are you and your brother competitive, or is it more of a supportive dynamic?
It’s both. Actually, it’s just fully supportive. West isn’t looking to be the best rapper, the GOAT. I think he is, but he wants to be Master P or one of them n—as [like] Puffy. He wants to be the mogul, the mastermind behind the scenes. He wants to be the facilitator and the orchestrator. He likes the art and the creation of it. I’m pushing myself to have my pen sharp and my bars right. He’s not tryna outdo me and I’m not tryna outdo him. We’re real supportive, so when we put that shit together, it’s ill.
But if one of you comes with something weak, y’all are honest with each other?
Of course! Look What I Became originally had more songs. They didn’t make the cut. Westside was like, ‘Nahhhhhh.’ We do that for each other. We’re very upfront and honest. We just don’t have the time. We’re worried about one thing: The consistency and quality needs to be there. We can’t let up or slack because we’re afraid to tell each other, ‘Naw, that ain’t right.’ We push each other. Come with your illest shit. We need that energy. That’s why we’re so great. We’re family, we’re not about to go outside and fight. [Laughs.]
How much more special is success, sharing it with your brother and Benny?
It makes it 10 times sweeter. We eliminated the snake dynamic of it. We don’t need to worry about distrust. It’s family. We got here together, we push each other, we gonna get to the top together. That’s what we on. That’s the beauty of it. To be able to say that you did it with the people that you started out with day 1, when West and I were recording on a karaoke machine onto a cassette tape in the basement… it’s incredible. Shit, it’s one million times sweeter.
You guys were early on with the high-priced, super-exclusive, limited-run model for albums and vinyl. Why do you think it worked so well for you?
We’re unique and different. It just ain’t your usual shit. It’s mostly… we geniuses. [Laughs.]
It seems like Griselda has been able to maintain some independence when a lot of other subsidiaries can get caught up in the major label system.
It happens. Fortunately for us, we’ve seen it a lot. We’re real knowledgeable. Like I said earlier, we geniuses. We have an in-house producer, so we can just record something and put it out. That’s Griselda Records. Reject 2, Everybody Is F.O.O.D., that ain’t Shady, that’s Griselda Records business. The Shady Records business is God Don’t Make No Mistakes, Westside Gunn’s solo album that’s coming soon — those sort of releases.
The last track on the record is dedicated to underappreciated, hard-working women affected by gun violence. What inspired that?
Statik set me a batch of beats and I heard that one in particular. I forget where I was…I was leaving Walgreens, I think. I saw shawty, this girl I knew from school. She lost the father of her kids to gun violence and I just know a lot of chicks like that in the hood. It’s hard for them to bounce back. You can just look at them and tell they never really recovered from it. Whatever you’ve been through, I know it’s been hard. I just want to salute and applaud them.
It’s just like, "Look at you. Look what you overcame, look what you’re doing with your life. You’re raising your kids and you have a beautiful family. You’re moving on with your life." I wanted to honor that. I wanted to honor women. Period.
What do you hope fans who listen to Look What I Became take away from it?
I hope they get a better understanding of Conway the Machine as a person and artist. I hope they just appreciate raw hip-hop. I just want people to understand what we’re doing for the culture and for the art.