As Griselda expands into a multifaceted behemoth, so do the ambitions of its key players. Westside Gunn is diving headfirst into the world of luxury fashion and Benny the Butcher is building his own Griselda offshoot, Black Soprano Family. Conway the Machine, the group’s 3-and-D, jack-of-all-trades, verbal virtuoso, has moved within the confines of the family structure to propel himself and the group to rap’s upper echelon.
With From King to a GOD, out September 11, Conway has cashed in on a record he’s been hyping up for over a year. And he uses the project to move outside of Griselda’s go-to sounds, spitting his signature one-liners and stylized street raps over beats you might not typically associate with the Buffalo crew. On the Murda Beatz-produced “Anza,” Conway trades in heavy drums and sample-heavy beat selection for a skittering groove that coils around a carnival-esque synth line. It’s unlike anything we’ve heard Conway rap over, but he finds the pocket with ease and shoots from the hip like he always does. On the Freddie Gibbs-assisted “Seen Everything But Jesus,” Conway and Gibbs laugh about the sing-song chorus they indulge in.
“I’m a pop star,” Conway explains to Complex with a laugh. “I was a pop star always, but Westside wanted me to rap and stuff.”
The themes, too, are more varied than some of Conway’s early releases. And after getting handcuffed at his dear friend DJ Shay’s funeral in late August, the anti-police brutality anthem “Front Lines” takes on an even more urgent tone. “I've been a victim of police brutality,” he explains now. “My uncle got killed in police custody. I'm no stranger to it, so I feel like I got that platform and a voice.” The album straddles the old school excess of jewels, gems, and jams that Conway has become famous for, but the edges of his personality are sharper than ever, revealing a multi-dimensional polymath as comfortable over old school grit as he is new school sheen. The album is Conway’s most complete work yet, just another notch in his ever-expanding belt.
“This is elevated,” he tells me near the end of our phone call. “This shit is on a celestial level.”
Complex’s conversation with Conway the Machine, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
It feels like the hype around Griselda grows every few months. What has your perspective of Griselda been like since Look What I Became came out in September 2019?
It’s been skyrocketing. We’ve done Jimmy Fallon and sold out tours around the nation. We’ve also met some really important people in our lives along the way. There have been ups and downs, but for the most part it's been about getting Griselda to where it’s at right now, and where we can take it.
You’ve been talking about From King to a GOD for a long time. Now that it's finally here, what's that feeling like?
Right. Damn, I’ve got to say it’s a feeling of excitement. I've been ready for this for a while. To get this project out and get people ready for the Shady Records release, God Don’t Make Mistakes, is really exciting. I've been sitting on this. It's been tough knowing that I've got these two incredible bodies of work, and I can’t just put them out. I'm used to putting music out whenever I want, like every month, shit like that. So, this kind of stuff is annoying, but just knowing I've got two special projects makes it all worth the wait. Timing is everything. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to what's going to happen for us.
Is it difficult making new music and continuing to look forward when you have these two unreleased albums ready to go?
The only thing that's hard about it is just sitting on the shit. But I'm making so much music, man, that I keep myself pretty busy.
“This is the elevation as a man, as a lyricist, as a father, as everything.”
First of all, my condolences to you and yours regarding DJ Shay. That was awful to see, and I'm wondering if you can reflect on that ceremony, getting taken out in handcuffs, and what that felt like. Did you feel targeted?
Yeah, it was fucked up. It's fucked up. Going to see my man like that, and see his family and shit. Shay was my family. Shay was my boy. I've been working with DJ Shay since I came home from jail in 2005. It'll be, say, over 15 years I've been dealing with that man musically, and he just had an important place in all of our lives, not just mine. It's fucked up. You know what I'm saying?
Especially with tracks on the new album, like “Front Lines,” which talks about the way police target Black people.
Yes. Crazy times we’re living in.
Did you feel an obligation to address police brutality in America on that track in particular? Do you view yourself as a leader in that regard?
Yeah, I definitely view myself as a leader in my community in particular. That's my concern. I do a lot for the city of Buffalo behind the scenes that I don't really put out there and tweet about and talk about or whatever, because I don't do it for clout, or for praise, or a pat on the back. I do it because I love my city. I've been feeding the homeless and giving back in so many different ways in my city. So, I definitely view myself as a leader. But just being a Black man and growing in the inner city, and having two sons, makes me more aware. My oldest son is 14 now. I've been a victim of police brutality. My uncle got killed in police custody. I'm no stranger to it, so I feel like I got that platform and a voice. Who better to speak on something than somebody that's reporting live from on the scene? I just try to use my platform to talk about every aspect of growing up in the hood, in the inner city. I feel these protesters and I can relate. We're tired of violence. Tired of turning on a movie, seeing that shit. Tired of my son having to... He understands the news and all that when he's watching now. He says, "Dad, that's messed up." You know what I'm saying? I be having to explain shit like that. Me being a street n***a, I just feel it's my obligation to stand on the front lines for my community and my city. That's where that record came from, “Front Lines.”
Have you always wanted to be a community leader in this sense? Or was it once you started getting popular and you had this platform that you realized, “Oh, I should be the one speaking on this”?
I was really immature, just to be honest. I really didn't give a fuck about none of that shit. Just being older now and looking back, I really was destroying my community. So, I just want to take this platform that God blessed me with by giving me even a second chance to live, and allowing me to have this gift where I can rhyme beautifully and all that. I've got to give back and uplift the community, and build the community up. We were selling drugs and selling dope. You know what I'm saying? We ain't had hope. I didn't care about a Black owned business or none of that. I didn't care about that. I cared about myself. Staying alive. I was just trying to stay alive every night, come home every night. Remember, I was just young. We were just young, wild, and free. I definitely didn't always see myself like that. I didn't want to be a role model, but I just felt like it was my purpose to be a leader, be an inspiration, and be a voice for the voiceless.
How do you continue to stay humble and tied to your roots in Buffalo when you’re touring all over the world and people are listening to your music everywhere?
I don’t know, man. Honestly, I really don’t know. I just remind myself the work is not done. The work's not done. I don't like to get myself caught up in that and thinking I'm better than what I was. You know what I'm saying? I don't want that feeling of, yeah, I made it. I'm at the finish line. All I want to do is work harder. I want to do more shit. I want to go bigger and broader than before. I just don't want no ceiling on wherever I can take this shit to. I just let that shit keep me on. Buffalo, this is where I started. This is where I sharpened my sword, honed my skills, got my stories. I'm comfortable here. I'm comfortable with myself, and I know God got me. I know my kids love me, and I know what I'm doing for my community. I can sleep at night. I think that's what keeps me so humble and grounded.
On tracks like “Anza,” which is produced by Murda Beatz, you rap over totally different beats than you normally do. Why did you embrace these types of beats this time?
I really was challenging myself. I do shit like that sometimes because I'm not just a one style, one dimensional type of artist. I can do anything, so I just want to kill anything. I just wanted to rap on some different shit than the usual sound that me and Daringer come up with. I've still got that on there for the people. I just wanted to show that I can, and that I've got some flavor too. I've got some wave, you know?
Is it easier to take risks now that you’re successful? And you're not grinding and hustling for every new fan?
You could say that it’s easier, but for me, it’s always been easy because I don’t really care about what nobody thinks of me. To be an elite MC, you've got to be fearless, and you've got to have supreme confidence in yourself. I definitely have both of those qualities. I’m fearless. It's like I’m not afraid to try new things and do different shit. My confidence is so high, nobody can tell me nothing. Nobody could do nothing to tear me down or say nothing to tear me down. I don't care what nobody thinks of me, and there's power in that. I can be myself and be free.
Have you always had that mindset?
Oh shit, yeah. I always had that mindset, but I got away from that, and deviated away from it when I got shot. I was down on myself. I deviated when I got shot because of how my face was looking and everything. I just got into this shell, and I was just fucked up. I didn't want to come out of the house or come out of my room. I thought people was going to be looking at me crazy. In a sense, I cared what people were thinking for a small moment. Then I snapped out of that shit after a couple years and got back to being me. That's why I'm able to still do my shows and rap and smile and take pictures with fans and all that shit, and not really care about nobody, because I don't care what nobody think. I'm comfortable with my appearance now. My appearance, my grief, honesty, and all that shit. I'll go and talk about that shit.
You even do some singing on this new record. There’s that Gibbs-featured track on there, “Seen Everything But Jesus,” and you show off the pipes a little bit. What went into that decision?
I wanted to get the people ready for my R&B debut! I’m a pop star. I was a pop star always, but Westside wanted me to rap and stuff, so I had to start dabbling with the rap game. With the track, I wanted to get back to my pop roots. [Laughs].
How do you keep the Griselda work ethic and the boutique aesthetic of it all now that you’re under this massive Shady imprint?
We just focus on not really changing none of the script, just sticking to the script and not trying to deviate away from the plan and the strategy that we put in place. Me and Westside masterminded this shit, so we just try to keep going with what got us here. That's all we got to do, so that's how we try to keep going.
You've got some serious legends on this album. Method Man shows up. There’s a beat from DJ Premier. Do you ever take a step back and think about the fact that you’re working with these legends?
All the time. That shit takes me there all the time. I be like, “I can’t believe I’m on the planet with Method Man.” I remember going to school and shit, and seeing the “Bring the Pain” video before I went to class. That shit just had me want to put snot tissue in my nose. I had my hair braided and shit like that. So, to be on a record with Meth, and then he absolutely floated on that shit and left me in the dust―what do you expect? That's what I get for playing with legends. [Laughs]. That's what I get for jumping in that lion cage.
Does legacy weigh on you and the way you’re currently approaching music?
No, I ain’t thinking about... Well, yeah, I am thinking about it because the legacy I want to leave behind is to be remembered as the illest to do it, dead or alive, top five dead or alive. So, I definitely keep that in mind every time I write a verse, every time I wrote a song.
On “Spurs 3,” you reunite the trio one more time for a posse cut. Why did you want to do another version of the “Spurs” track, taking it back to the old days?
Really just that, like what you said. I just wanted to take it back to the old days and give the fans one of the nostalgic Griselda songs―a thorough ass, grimy ass track. When I heard that beat, I already knew. Before I even wrote my verse, I already knew I'm having Benny and Westside on it. I knew what I wanted to do, to get that feel back that the fans know and love so much.
As Griselda continues to develop and grow, and you sign new artists like Boldy, how do you view your role changing within the group?
I don’t know, man. I think my role is to just keep doing what I'm doing. My role is to spit out high-powered, top-tier, verse of the year caliber verses every time you hear me on a song. When I be with these artists, these artists learn from me. They learn these little things from me, and grow. That's what I appreciate the most: n****s being able to take some of my work ethic, or my honor, or my mind space. You know how with Kobe, you have the Mamba mentality? People take that with them, the Mamba mentality. I hope people look at me like that, like, “I got that from big brother. He taught how to sing.” That's what I want my story to be. I’m a n***a that ain't never gave up, ain’t never gave a fuck what nobody thought about him, and just stuck to his guns and made that shit shake, and did it. It's dope. Didn't get no hand outs. Didn't get no love. He just stayed hungry. Stayed diligent and put himself on.
Very few people can push through all the shit you’ve been through.
It's tough. I don't know if anybody can do it either, because you got to be able to avoid temptation and distractions. Sometimes when you’re chasing something like this, you can fall. For me, I had to be broke for a while. For a long time, I had to sleep on n****s’ couches, and steal sandwiches and shit off the gas station to eat. I had to do this and that and third because I didn't want to be out hustling, selling dope, or doing nothing, which I know I could have easily did, and make out my bread. But, that would have been distracting me from the goal that I'm pursuing, which is taking over the rap game, getting on and putting the team on. Right?
Man, it's hard. I could be over here, throwing this, and driving cars, and having jewelry and being the man, but got the feds and police and all that shit on me. Or, I could just stay focused and not worry about the temptations, the girls, having bitches, being fly, eating lobster tails every night. You know what I'm saying? I really had to discipline myself. I stayed over there, slept on Daringer’s couch. I said, "I ain't going nowhere. I don't want to do shit but make music and rap."
I was a piece of shit. I was broke for a while. And my baby mother used to be on my back about all that shit. That shit be paying no bills or bringing no bread in, and I'm over 30. It's looking like you're a piece of shit, you know what I mean? But I just believed in myself, and I knew if I just stayed over here with Daringer, I could get a project out of this that's going to be one of the illest projects in the last two decades of hip hop. That's how it happened.
What do you hope people take away about you from this new record?
I just hope they see the growth and maturity. That’s why I named it From King to a GOD. This is just different. This is the elevation as a man, as a lyricist, as a father, as everything. From King to a GOD. You feel me?