Griselda’s New Signee Rome Streetz Is Out to Spit ‘Master-Level Rap’

New York City rapper Rome Streetz speaks with Complex about his winding career, signing to Griselda, channeling a '90s feel, and staying true to his craft.

Rome Streetz

via Rome Streetz

Rome Streetz

Rome Streetz is having a year. The New York underground stalwart has been dropping lyrical gems for over a decade now, but more people are paying attention than ever, thanks to his Death & The Magician collaboration with DJ Muggs and show-stealing appearances like his “Kill All Rats” verse with Conway the Machine and Ransom. Westside Gunn recently told Complex that Rome gives him that ‘90s feel, and that’s what led to a signing with Griselda.

Rome says his name comes, in part, from killing cyphers and rap battles all over New York City back in the day, making valuable friendships and connections in various neighborhoods because of his skills. It’s fitting that his name harkens to a journey, because it hasn’t been a simple path for Rome. He was born in London and moved to New York City as an infant, before his mom sent him to live with his aunt in London to keep him out of trouble. While on the cusp of getting a record deal at 17, though, his aunt sent him back to New York. During our phone call, he divulges that he also endured the “ups and downs” of jail stints that hindered his career. 

Even when he came home and locked in, his gritty, lyrically dense brand of hip-hop had a more difficult road in a city where media personalities like Ebro were calling any artist without a radio hit a “minor league” artist. But those kinds of superficial assertions have faded enough from the scene to allow spitters to be unabashedly themselves. One can take a look at last year’s lyricist-heavy nominations for the Best Rap Album Grammy, for instance. Rome stuck to his guns through multiple generations of New York rap, and he’s now taking advantage of the times to have what he says is “probably my best year” as a rapper. 

Rome has already dropped three projects this year (the Muggs project, Genesis 1:27, and Razor’s Edge), and he’s set to release his Coup de Grâce collaboration with Ransom at the end of the month. Early feedback from their early October Quad Studios listening session indicates that the project will be another ‘21 favorite for hip-hop heads. We spoke with him about his winding career, Westside Gunn’s genius, and why his “pen has adrenaline.” The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

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You’ve been on fire this year. You released three projects so far and you’re about to drop another one. How has 2021 been for you?

It’s actually been great. A lot of fly shit has been happening for me, I can’t front. I used to think that 2019 was my breakout year. You know, the year I dropped Noise Kandy 3 and all that shit, but this year might be another breakout year for me. It’s a breakout after the first breakout, because I did the [DJ] Muggs album, and that shit opened up a lot of doors for me. That shit put a lot of eyes on me that wasn’t there before. It got me into different algorithms, and after that I dropped the collab tape with Ankhlejohn. That was actually done before the Muggs album, but we had that shit in the tuck. 

Then the Futurewave shit was fire, too, because one of my critically acclaimed albums is Headcrack, so people were really excited for me to do another tape with Futurewave. Then people seen me with Westside Gunn, and that shit did something good, too. It was just back-to-back shit, plus all the features. This year has been really good. I would say it’s probably my best year as far as my rap career. But every year it gets better and better.

What made you realize the reception to the Muggs collab was different from previous projects?

Just the response, and my followers going up non-stop. Messages from people. Different fucking blogs that I was trying to reach out to before that wasn’t responding back, now they’re posting my shit. I don’t think I was on Complex before the Muggs shit, so that was a big thing. Getting on Complex is a big deal. That’s something that every artist wants to be a part of, so the Muggs [project] brought more media attention that I wasn’t getting before, and more fans.

You’ve released a lot of projects over the past couple years. What keeps you motivated to create?

I always say that rapping is the easiest part of this shit. I’ve been rapping for years, since I was a kid. This is what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be a rapper, even though it took a long time for me to get on a level where people are receptive to my shit. This is something that I always wanted to do, so now that I’m actually doing it, that’s the inspiration right there. It’s exciting because the way that I used to look at rappers coming up, now there’s people that look at me like that, so it’s like I’ve got a job to do. 

Rap is competitive. When I hear somebody else do some fire shit, it just makes me want to do some shit like that. It’s like, “Oh, aight, these motherfuckers are coming with it, so now I’m going to have to come with some shit.” That’s it, really. Plus I’ve got a mic in my crib, so it’s not hard for me to record. I’m my own inspiration. I know I got a future in this shit, so now it’s like, I got a whole city I’m representing. People are actually looking at me like, “You’re the one for us,” so that’s inspiring, too.

Rome Streetz

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You mentioned the challenges of not knowing the right people in the industry. Do you feel like New York rap media considers your brand of hip-hop as much as they could? I saw Wayno recently tweeted, “Yo upcoming artists specifically in NY make something other than a drill song & your best a boogie impersonation.” But there are hundreds of rappers who don’t do either of those things.

That is annoying, to see a tweet like that. Him being from New York, him knowing that every rapper from New York isn’t making drill. But you know what it is? The only thing that I have to understand is that these people won’t acknowledge a person like me until they get the music from a person like Westside Gunn. When Westside Gunn is over here, that’s when they’ll be like, “Oh, this Rome Streetz kid,” then they’ll check out everything I’m doing. But they could see my name all day on Twitter getting retweeted or people tagging me under they shit, and they won’t acknowledge it. It’s weird. 

I was watching an interview the other day and it was talking about something like that. Like, the New York mentality goes back to back in the day when rap first started. A DJ was DJing and playing a break, and a person would be like, “Yo, what’s that?” in the DJ booth, but the DJ blanked out the record so you can’t see it. It’s like, “Nigga, I’m not about to give you my songs. I’m not about to tell you what this shit is.” You had to find it yourself.

So a motherfucker, let’s say Wayno, who has a big-ass platform, he probably knows who I am. He probably heard my shit, but you know what, he’s not going to acknowledge Rome Streetz publicly because then he’s going to give me a big platform, and there’s nothing to really tie me and him together. So it’s like, “You know what? I’ll put him on my platform when I see that he’s an artist that gets on platforms that big.” The mainstream rap, that’s easy. He’s going to say everybody’s rapping like Migos and shit because that’s the mainstream. Everybody wants to jump into that mainstream bag. Everybody can’t rap like how I rap. So the majority of people he sees don’t rap like me. They rap like the Migos. So that’s what would create the frustration. I don’t take that shit personally. 

Me being from New York, I don’t take it personally. My whole mentality behind that is like, “You know what? I’m going to put so much work in that these motherfuckers can’t deny it.” And by the time they really acknowledge me, it’s like, “Yo, bro, you mad late. Where you been at? You wasn’t doing your job. The job that you say you do for the culture, you obviously not doing it right.” Because it took somebody from not even this region… Yeah Westside Gunn is from New York, but he’s not from New York City. 

So you got all these tastemakers from New York City that’s talking about, “Nobody raps like New York City,” making all these dumbass tweets. But then a person from Buffalo has to show y’all, a person from New York City, someone who y’all should have been knew. I don’t even care about shit like that. It doesn’t bother me, because life happens like that, and everybody is busy. You may not see everything, but once you do find out, you’re going to be like, “Damn, I missed out.” But that shit don’t bother me.

Did that dynamic, where people are selective about who they choose to co-sign, ever affect your creative process?

It didn’t really affect my creative process. If anything, it just made me talk about it in raps. It didn’t discourage me. At first, I’ve been rapping like how I rap, but then a motherfucker will be like, “You know what, Rome? You should make at least one song like that to try and bring people in to listen to the shit you really want to do.” There were times where I’ve done things like that, because as an artist, you’re not going to want to do just one thing. Yeah, I can rap like this, but I might be able to drop a joint like that, and it’ll bring everybody in to listen to what I really want to say, so it didn’t really discourage me. 

Once I realized I can cultivate my own fanbase and give them the music that they’re asking for, and find people that really like this shit, and I can get a bag off it, I don’t really give a fuck what the media are saying. The media is worried about streaming. I got niggas paying $100 for my vinyl. These motherfuckers don’t even know that shit exists yet. They still don’t even know that shit is going on. I’m selling CDs for $30, $50 out of my hand. Niggas not even playing the CDs in the car. They just buying it to put it on their fucking wall like a collectible. Once I realized I could do shit like that, I stopped giving a fuck about the media.

How did your relationship with Griselda develop, and how did it get to the point of you signing?

When I first started to come out, when I dropped Street Farmacy, I remember Benny [the Butcher] was doing a show in Amityville. I might have actually went to do the show in Buffalo with Benny before that, so I met Benny before. We were familiar with each other, and he’d see me around. I met Westside Gunn one time, but I think it really started off when my manager used to throw these parties in the Lower East Side. We were just there chilling or whatever, and then I’m outside smoking and this nigga Westside Gunn just walked up to me out of nowhere like, “Yo, what’s good?” I’m like, oh, shit, I didn’t even know where that nigga came from. I went to introduce myself to him like, “Yo, I’m Rome Streetz,” and he’s like, “Nigga, I know who you are. That shit is hard, that ‘96 Nauti Windbreaker Shit.’” 

After that, we smoked, and that’s when we took that picture, that first picture that me and West took. It was probably like two years ago. We chilled that night and exchanged numbers, and then he just randomly hit me up one day on Twitter like, “Yo, I got something for you.” That’s when I did the first song with him on the Fly God Is an Awesome God. 

Once I started doing my tour, he reached out to me one day. I told him I was in Atlanta and that I was about to do a show. Then he pulled up on me and we started chopping it up. We rode around, and he said he fucked with me and was just telling me his plans. He was telling me how he wanted to add more people to the Griselda roster, because Conway [the Machine] got his own shit going with his label and his artists. Benny got his own shit going with his label and his artists. And he said he don’t really want to rap no more, so he’s telling me I’m one of the dopest rappers that he’s heard in this shit, so he wanted to fuck with me. 

Then he was like, “Yo, come out to Phoenix.” And when I went to Phoenix, he was like, “I want to executive produce an album for you.” Matter fact, this is the real deal right here. Somebody put a tweet online that was like, “Westside Gunn should do an album with Rome Streetz,” and I’m like, “If he do that, that would be the hardest shit he ever did,” and he saw the tweet. He did Pray for Paris, Pray for Haiti, all the Fly shit, and he’s like, “You think the shit you do is going to be harder than that?” He said he respected it, because he was like, “That’s some shit I would say. I want to fuck with you. Come out to Phoenix and let’s cook up.” 

So we went out to Phoenix, and that’s when I did the features for the Hitler album, and then I just cooked up a tape. He was like, “Listen, I want to sign you,” and that’s how that shit came about. He was fucking with me for a minute, but recently he just expressed, “Yo, you killing shit by yourself.” He knows he has a big platform, so he’s like, “You know what, we might as well accelerate the pace of what you’re doing, so I’ll put you on the platform right now. Fuck waiting.” 

It might take a year or two to get to where he is. It might take three or four years to get to where I get the media attention that Westside Gunn got. So he’s like, “Fuck with Griselda, you’ll get that shit overnight,” and I was like, “Shit, you’re right,” and it’s here. We about to do Radio City Music Hall tomorrow. There’s a lot of rappers in New York City that’s been rapping at a high level for years, and they can’t even say they rapped on the Radio City Music Hall stage. For me to be doing that shit less than a month after I signed, everything he said he was going to do is happening. I can’t even say nothing about that. This shit is lit.

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Can you speak more about Westside Gunn’s vision in the rap game and just being a curator and helping so many artists elevate and be fully themselves?

Me being a fan of Westside Gunn and being a fan of Griselda before I’ve known him personally, from my standpoint, I feel like he’s grown from just a rapper putting out his solo albums to… You know how when you listen to The Chronic, it’s a Dr. Dre album, but he’s orchestrating and putting so much together? I feel like, right now, Westside Gunn is like Dr. Dre to me. He just doesn’t make beats. When Dr. Dre makes an album, it’s like an orchestra. It’s a big-ass event. It’s not just him rapping on every song. He’s putting different artists together that probably would have never rapped together, and just making a beautiful composition. So with Westside Gunn, I feel like he’s elevated from just being a rapper putting out an album. 

Now, he’s an artist putting out a composition, and he can just put shit together so that shit is ill. He’s doing amazing shit for the culture. If you had told me five years ago that I would be on the same album with Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and Jay Electronica, I would’ve been like, “Who the fuck did I sell my soul to?” Because the way my life was a couple years ago, it would’ve had to be something miraculous, or I would’ve had to really level up. So he’s doing that shit. I can’t say nothing bad about what Westside Gunn is doing, because he’s allowing people to get shine. 

Some rappers would never do that. Some rappers would never allow another rapper to get on their album and shine. He told me, “If I send you 16 bars, spit a 60. This is like an alley-oop. If we’re playing basketball, I’m the one throwing the ball up. You’re the one dunking, because at the end of the day, the one that does the dunking is the one that everybody is looking at.” So for him to be a person who everybody wants to see dunk, but he’s throwing alley-oops, that’s amazing. He’s literally the culture right now, even if a motherfucker don’t realize it.

You have the collaboration project with Ransom coming out. What made you want to put that together?

I’ve always been a fan of Ransom since the DJ Clue tapes and shit. I met Ransom in Cinematic Records, and when I met him, I introduced myself, and he was like, “I know who you are. You’re killing shit. We have to spar.” In my mind, I’m like shit, Ransom is one of the illest lyricists I’ve ever heard, so for him to say we have to spar instead of just doing a song, I knew he wanted to go crazy.

A couple months later, he sent me the “American Hustle” joint, and I knew that shit was hard, so I slid on that. Then I sent him a joint, and he sent me a joint back, and all the fans are like, “Y’all sound crazy together.” Then Ransom just put out a tweet like, “Yo, me and Rome Streetz about to do an album.” I’m like, “Word, we are?” And I said fuck it, let’s get it, because at the end of the day, Ransom has been one of my favorite rappers, so why would I say no? That couldn’t do anything bad for me. If anything, it’s going to push my pen and put me on a different stratosphere, because there’s people who look at Ransom like he’s one of the best lyricists ever in rap. 

So for me to do a whole album with him, it’s going to be like, “Okay, so who is this Rome Streetz nigga rapping with Ransom and he’s keeping up with him? This nigga is crazy.” I looked at it as a win-win, and the album is fucking disgusting. I don’t really think there are too many two-man albums that can really stand up to this shit. And even if there is, this shit is up there with them.

What was the recording process like? Were y’all in the studio together?

We did that shit during the pandemic, so getting in the studio was a little difficult. We probably got in the studio together for one joint, but I record at my crib, and so does he. Once it came about, it was like, “Yo, I got a joint.” I’ll be in the crib, I’ll record something. I’ll send it to him or he’ll send me something, and I’ll send it back the same day. I’m the type of person, like when Westside Gunn sends me features, if I’m not with him in the studio, he’ll get that shit back the same day. 

If I’m in the crib, I’m doing that shit right there, so a lot of the shit with me and Ransom was done the same day, like we were in the studio. I do a joint, I send it to him, he sends that shit right back. And we’re on the phone talking, so even though we’re not there physically in the flesh every step of the way, we’re corresponding or we’re bouncing ideas off one another, so it wasn’t just some mechanical shit.

Westside Gunn told me when he’s working with artists, he’ll send them something and say he needs it back in 48 hours. Did you experience that with him yet? Did it put pressure on you?

I experienced that with him, but it’s not really pressure. Other people have hit me up saying they need something fast, but with him, I kind of set the tone with that. That “Steve Behr” record that we did, I sent that shit back, like, an hour later. He sent me that shit, I went to the store to get a drink, came back, recorded the shit, and sent it back. I kind of set that precedent.

It’s really not any pressure. I thrive in that shit because now I rap for a living. What the fuck? Man, this is nothing. My pen has adrenaline. If any rapper that I deem as somebody who I respect sends me a track, I’m going to send that shit back today, because fuck waiting, I want this nigga to know I kill shit. I don’t play with this shit, so it’s no pressure. I get it done. Even when I went to Arizona, I probably did 14 songs in four days, and it’s not forcing it either. I was just in a mode. I was energized. I’m hyped for this shit for myself. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m hyped for it. When I’m in a situation, it’s nothing. Rapping is the easy part. Sometimes being present and showing up and all the extra shit that comes with this rap shit is the difficult thing. It’s not really difficult, but I’m just used to rapping. It’s second nature to me.

I’ve read you liked to write raps on the J train. Can you speak to the process of writing in public? And do you remember the first rap you wrote on the train?

I can’t really remember the first thing I wrote on the J train, but I remember I did this song called “The Train Ride From Manhattan.” The process isn’t really nothing. I put the headphones on, and I just write. Ninety-nine percent of the shit I create, I wrote that shit on my phone. It’s nothing for me to write while I’m on the train and shit, but I don’t really do that no more because I drive now and shit. But on the come-up, with the train, you get to see everything. You get to see a bunch of different people, and the thing about New York is it’s a thin line between everything. For instance, you could see a millionaire and a homeless person in the same step. You got fucking $5,000 a month condos across the street from the projects. Being in New York, you see both sides of life at their extremes, all in one sight. 

When you’re on the train, you’re traveling through all these different places, and everywhere has a different flavor. So if you’re going on a long train ride, you see a bunch of different people and flavors. You’re looking out the window and seeing different types of architecture, whether it’s historic New York shit that will just jog your creativity, as opposed to just sitting in a room by yourself and just writing. So when you’re on a train, you could reference some shit that happened just now, like immediately. Sitting in your room, it’s all in your head, so the train was a cool creative space for me. I used to do pen and pad, but if I’m writing with a pen and pad all the time, what if I’m not at home next to that pen? Then what? Hopefully I can remember this shit all the way until I get next to a pen. If I got my phone on me with the notes, and if I think of some shit right now, I’m going to write that shit right now.

What does the future hold for you? What else are you working on?

Besides the Ransom album, there’s the album I got with Griselda. That’s coming out, but I don’t know when. And just more Griselda shit. I’m signed. One thing Westside told me is the same shit he was doing with Benny is the same shit you’re going to see him do with me, so I can’t really tell you exactly what the hell is going to happen, because it’s really whatever West can create in his mind. Whatever looks that he can just curate. We’re trying to do another tour. I don’t really want to disclose a lot of the information about where we’re going to go for the tour and who it’s with yet, because it’s not super solidified, but there’s more lit shit about to take off. I can say that. Just look out for music and videos, that’s a fact.

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