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Hip-hop fans everywhere lost their minds when it was revealed back in February that Detroit rapper Boldy James was signing to Griselda Records, home to Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. Gunn's vision of mixing dope talk with art and high fashion—James describes it thusly: "It's like we cooked a hundred bricks in the art gallery"—seemed to be a perfect fit with James' nuanced street stories.
Not long after the announcement that Boldy James would be joining the Griselda roster, Westside Gunn revealed a more left-field collaboration: Vine comedian-turned-producer Jay Versace provided a beat on Gunn's Pray for Paris project, for the song "Versace." In an interview with Complex not long afterward, Gunn hinted there was more to come from the Versace/Griselda pairing.
Now we have it. Boldy James' first project for Griselda, The Versace Tape, has just arrived and, as its name implies, it's entirely produced by Jay Versace. Complex is proud to premiere the video for the song "Cartier" featuring El Camino, which you can see below. We got on the phone with Boldy James, Westside Gunn, and Jay Versace to talk about how they met, The Versace Tape, Kanye West's taste in comedy, and why Gunn is finally putting down the mic forever.
This interview is put together from two different conversations, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Boldy, first off, thank you for using my voice on the record you did with Sterling Toles. It was a great surprise.
Boldy James: That's fire.
I know you're in the studio right now. What are you working on?
Boldy James: I'm finishing this new Alchemist project. I just finished, of course, The Versace Tape. I got some records in the stash that I previously worked on with Gunn, and Harry Fraud sent me a couple of tracks. I just did something with Spitta.
How is this new Alchemist project different from The Price of Tea in China?
Boldy James: All my work with Al is different. None of it's the same, because I'm not the same person mentally during the creative process. We all mature as people. And I'm a father, so every day I'm growing as a man, and my mindset is not as immature as it used to be. I'm more polished. I don't know if that's going to hurt or help me in my creative process, or how the fans are going to receive the music, but there are different mindsets while I'm creating. I don't know what the best mindset is to make the best music possible.
So much of your music depends on stories and memories. As you get further away from the street level stuff you're talking about, is it harder to write about it?
Boldy James: Nah. I can see it more clear when I'm away from it. And when I'm with Al or Gunn, they usually have me so far out of my element that I've got a clearer head to be able to reflect on certain things that I feel are necessary to express, to try to make the fans relate as much as possible. I know most of my fans can't relate to me at all—the music just sounds good. Then there's a couple people that actually can relate. And I guess I do that for me and those people that can. And if the fans accept it, that's a bonus. But less is more in a real n***a's world, you feel me?
"I could argue with anybody that I probably have a top three ear in hip-hop. That's what I love doing the most." - Westside Gunn
Where were you when you were writing The Versace Tape?
Boldy James: I went to Atlanta, and then me and Gunn jumped on the road and we went to Houston. We went to Alabama. I went to Mississippi, came back to Detroit, went to California, then went back to Atlanta before it was completed. But it only took a week to complete.
You went to all those different places in the course of a week?
Boldy James: Yeah.
What was it like creating while being in a different place every day?
Boldy James: See, [Gunn] is very spontaneous, because when you are in a position like he is in, you can't have a predictable routine. It's always stick and move type shit. At the end of the day, it's all about our safety first and foremost, and we got a lot to lose. There's a lot of jealousy and a lot of weird shit going just in his own world, let alone with the work he does with other people to bridge the gap between n****s getting out of poverty and n****s being iconic in music. So bro likes to switch it up.
Whatever the process calls for, then that's the necessary steps we're going to take to get it done. If we would have had to go to motherfucking Acapulco to get the shit done, that's what would have happened. You see he went to Paris, and that's what inspired the Pray for Paris album. Different moods set the tone for the projects.
How did it affect your writing to be constantly on the go like that?
Boldy James: It actually helps it, because being able to see different things allows me to appreciate the things that make me unique. Gunn is creatively more in tune with what needs to be done musically than a lot of people, and he knows who's got what it takes to put the necessary pieces to the puzzle. He's coming up with it, and usually people deliver exactly what he's seen the vision for. And then he just pieces the rest of it together and makes it great. Bro knows what's necessary for us to get greatness out of the artists that's in our circle, that we collectively work with and collaborate with.
Jay, what did you learn from Gunn during the process of making the record?
Jay Versace: I've learned just to trust him, first of all. His work ethic is crazy and I don't know how he does it. He don't miss. If he has an idea, I'm going to just go with it and see what he does with it. I've learned to be vulnerable and let him take control because he really is a genius. I've also learned that I just need to work harder. He gets that out of me, that drive and hunger for more. So those are two big things that I've learned from him.
Tell me the story of how you first connected with Westside Gunn.
Jay Versace: Actually, let me look at the message. I have it on my phone, because my memory be slipping sometimes. It was very short. I said, "Yo. I want to send you some beats." And then he was like, "I fuck with your shit. Here's my email, and the stuff that I've heard already was fire." So apparently he heard stuff already by the time I hit him up, and he was just already with it, which was a relief. I sent what I was working on. That first song that he used for Pray for Paris, that was a song that originally had drums on it. That was one of the first songs I ever made. Over the years, I was trying to figure out a different way to use it because the sample was so buttery. And I was like, "You know what? Let me just take these drums off." That's just what I sent him, and he liked it.
Gunn, what's your memory of that encounter?
Westside Gunn: It was in my DM, and he was like, "Can I send you some beats?" So you know me: I'm a guy that actually goes and does the homework. I don't like shooting people down, because you never know. I'm a student of the game. I could argue with anybody that I probably have a top three ear in hip-hop. That's what I love doing the most.
I'm one of them guys when people send me beats, I actually like to hear what they have. So I went on his main page, and then I clicked on the SoundCloud link. I heard some beats he made and I'm like, "Yo, he fire." I just reached back out like, "Yo, let's do it," and he sent me some heat. I ended up using the record "Versace" for Pray for Paris. He started sending more and I wanted to do a surprise project.
I had so much going on, I really didn't have time to do that project. But the beats were so fire that I knew they needed to be heard, and what other person could compare to what the original project was going to be? It was Boldy James. I'm like, what if I link Boldy with the Jay Versace shit and make a classic? And here we are.
Were you aware of Jay's previous career as a comedian when he first hit you up?
Westside Gunn: I had no idea, man. I be having tunnel vision. Everybody else is big on video games—I haven't played a video game in 15 years. I couldn't even tell you what a joystick feels like. I move kind of different.
It's crazy because when I went to Wyoming and I was talking to Kanye about [Jay]. He was like, "The comedian? The one that do the videos?" I'm like, "Yeah." Everybody knew, but I didn't. Then I started looking at all of them like, "He funny as hell." But when he first hit me, I did not know.
I can't let that slip by. What were you doing in Wyoming?
Westside Gunn: Oh man. Just enjoying the weather. Just enjoying the weather.
"We are living testimonies of people who survived it." - Boldy James
Jay, do you see any parallels between writing and performing comedy and making music?
Jay Versace: For some people, they could say yes. But for me, I feel like I'm trying to completely detach from comedy, because I was never really supposed to do comedy for a long time in the first place. I was originally wanting to focus on artistic stuff, photography. And I'm just a funny person, so that's what caught on because people laugh at how I act. I'm getting back to what I know how to do now.
Can you see yourself ever returning to comedy?
Jay Versace: No. I'm just a goofy person. I don't take nothing serious. There's always going to be something funny that I say that people are going to catch or capture. But as far as me seriously trying to be funny, I'm not doing that no more, because it was never supposed to happen in the first place. I just said, "Let me see where this takes me." I used the opportunity to get where I'm at right now, and now I'm back with what I really wanted to do, which is art.
Boldy, one of the things I love about your rapping is the detail. There's always something specific that really draws you in. Why do you do that?
Boldy James: Because when I first started rapping, me being from Detroit, they always stressed that nobody would take your music serious if you weren't as serious as the music you were creating. Meaning, you know how everybody always stresses how they live their music? They're saying some real shit, and that's all facts, no cap, and all that dumb ass shit? I really grew up during that era. You couldn't rap nothing that you didn't live. You heard Jay: "Couldn't talk about it if you ain't live it." That's just how I grew up.
If I say something that's cap, then n****s are going to call me out on it. If I talk about some money I don't got, or a piece of jewelry or a car, they're going to give you the cold shoulder. So I learned how to be comfortable within the confinements of my truth. Whatever it took in the music for me to stress and illustrate my truth, then that's how I went about it. I don't know about how other n****s go about it, but me personally, it got to be true to me and the n****s I grew up with, the n****s I lost, the n****s that's upstate still rooting for a n***a because they know I kept it real.
I'm out here on real time, really raising my kids, really surviving the same shit that a lot of n****s lose to on the daily. That's what makes n****s like me and Gunn and Conway and Benny special. Them being from Buffalo and me being from Detroit, everybody knows what those two cities is about when it comes to gun violence and us surviving real situations in the same circumstances that swallow a lot of n****s whole. That's what makes us who we are. We are living testimonies of people who survived it.
"I'm trying to completely detach from comedy, because I was never really supposed to do comedy for a long time in the first place." - Jay Versace
It’s pretty clear that the music the Griselda crew puts out has a specific sound. How would you describe it?
Westside Gunn: I'd say raw. It just has the classic hip hop sound, but raw. I've tapped into a lot of jazz with the boom bap, with the drums. It gives you that early '90s feel, but it's 2020. A lot of people strayed away from that, or thought it can never be mainstream again. I never cared for it to go mainstream again. It was just, we're just going to do us.
If you listen to my FNIC mixtape I dropped in January, it shows the music that I was making in '04, '05, and it sounds the same. I'm talking about Bathing Ape and Prada and Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Versace and this and that, and the same flow patterns. This isn't somebody who just came on the scene. I stopped rapping after that. I didn't rap again until Hitler Wears Hermes Part I. I stopped rapping seriously for seven years straight. I didn't start again until Conway got shot.
I linked up with Daringer. I knew him from those days. It was like, if I'm going to rap again, I need to go back to the guy who I was going to link with back then. And everything he sent me, I fell in love with it. I made Hitler Wears Hermes Part II in one day. He sent me those beats, and that album was done the next morning. I wrote the whole thing from scratch. I don't have a rhyme book. Every song you ever heard from me in history, I made it right then on the spot.
Jay, how would you describe the sound, as someone coming to it from the outside?
Jay Versace: I feel like it's like history repeating itself, and that's what makes it classic. Too often, a lot of rappers try to make a futuristic-sounding beat or a project that sounds like something crazy. When you shy away from history and what came before you, and you neglect it, it doesn't stick. [Griselda] won't ever die, because we always refer to the past for stuff of the future.
Speaking of the future, to judge by your Instagram, Sun Ra is a huge figure for you. Why?
Jay Versace: I feel like he was just on a whole other plane that nobody could understand at that time. What I love about Sun Ra is the fact that he was thinking futuristically. He reminds me of Gunn a little bit. He did timeless classic stuff that people are going to study for the next 30-something years.
Sun Ra really reminds me of myself and the stuff that I do. A lot of the viral videos that I've made didn't go viral until five years later. He gives me that same energy, plus he's a genius with the stuff that he said and the music that he made.
"I was talking to Kanye about Jay Versace. He was like, 'The comedian? The one that do the videos?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' Everybody knew, but I didn't." - Westside Gunn
Gunn, what's coming up for you and Griselda?
Westside Gunn: Oh, man. You’ll have to give me another 20, 30 minutes to talk! Of course you know The Versace Tape this Friday. Next Friday is Armani Caesar's project. Then on the 28th, the Friday after that, I drop Who Made the Sunshine on Shady. A week after that, Benny drops The Burden of Proof with Hit-Boy. And then a week after that, Conway drops From King to a God. Then a week after that, YN Billy dropping his shit for the streets. That's my young boy from out here in Atlanta that's with me now. He's about to tear the streets up.
I've got the movie Conflicted, first movie on Griselda Films. We're shopping that right now. It's a hood classic. I have a documentary that shows me making Pray for Paris, which is incredible. This has taken us just to October. But then, of course, I'm still dropping that last Hitler Wears Hermes tape on Halloween. I got to finish off how I started. I'm retiring this year, man. Halloween, I'm done.
Are you going to stop rapping entirely? Stop releasing solo albums? Retirement's a slippery word with rappers.
Westside Gunn: I don't want to rap at all, man. I'm trying to sit front row at all the wrestlings, design my clothes, and executive produce the illest music the culture has ever seen. I don't have to rap to do that. I rapped long enough. I feel like eight years was good and strong. I always said I was going to end it this year. I didn't just come up with this. This was always me. I'm going to do what I do and leave on top. That was always my plan.
You know how [Jay] just said comedy got him lit, but he don't even want to do it? That's the same thing with me. Rapping got me here, but I don't even really want to do it, man. I love it. I'm a emcee. Hip-hop is my life. Art is my life. But I love designing clothes. I love art. I love wrestling. Those are the things I'm about to be tapping into full-time, but still giving you the best music the culture has seen.
"I'm retiring this year, man. Halloween, I'm done." - Westside Gunn
Speaking of art: After COVID, what's the first museum you're going to?
Westside Gunn: I'm going to smoke at the Louvre again. Of course, my whole rollout and layout, how I was just going to do everything for Pray for Paris, I couldn't do, because of COVID. I'm going straight to Paris, man. I got to go over there, show my face. I'm still going to shoot videos from that album in Paris, because I was going to do a mini-movie over there. I was going to take like 10 hood dudes and make a hood movie while in Paris. Just something crazy. So I'm going to the Louvre.
Jay, what about you?
Jay Versace: Whatever museum he just said, that's where I'm going.