Seemingly every week, there’s a new game-changing release from the Buffalo powerhouse Griselda Records. The core trio of Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher have, in just a few years, come from the underground to palling around (and doing business with) with JAY-Z and Eminem, hanging with Virgil Abloh in Paris, catching Drake’s eye, and taking over Times Square.
How did it all happen? Who are these guys, where did they come from, and how did they reach the top? Are they a rap crew or a record label or both? And most importantly, what music from their voluminous output should you listen to first? We broke it all down. Here’s everything you need to know about Griselda.
How did Griselda start?
Griselda began life not as a record label, but as a clothing brand: Griselda by Fashion Rebels, or GxFR. You can hear drops for the brand on the crew’s early mixtapes. Westside Gunn was behind the clothing brand, and was the first one to drop music on Griselda Records as well, with his 2012 project Hitler Wears Hermes. The name “Griselda” comes from Griselda Blanco, the Colombian drug lord.
Is it a label or a crew?
Griselda is a record label and a crew. Griselda Records often teams up with the label Daupe! for physical releases, which inevitably sell out quickly. “Griselda” often also refers to the core members when working together—it is the artist name, for example, on their group album WWCD. Griselda members have a web of business associations. Griselda Records’ deal with Shady Records covers, according to Shady’s website, “solo and joint projects from Westside Gunn and Conway.” Benny’s Black Soprano Family crew has its own record deal with eOne. And Benny and Westside Gunn are both managed by Roc Nation. In addition, there are rumors that one or more of the core members are fielding major label offers for their solo work.
Who is a part of the label?
In addition to Gunn, Benny, Conway, and their producer Daringer (more on him later), the label has also released two projects by the rapper Elcamino. However, he appears to no longer be an active part of the crew, having not released a project on the label since 2019 and not showing up on their latest group album WWCD or in public appearances. He still retweets positive stuff about the core three, though, in an indication that there don’t seem to be any hard feelings.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Griselda added a woman to its roster: the rapper Armani Caesar. At around the same time, the label also signed Detroit spitter Boldy James, whose Alchemist-produced The Price of Tea in China has been one of 2020’s best-reviewed albums. Poet Keisha Plum appears on many Griselda projects and her team includes Griselda power player Derrick “D-Jack” Jackson, but she has not released any music with the label.
Who are these guys, and how do they know each other?
They’re family, for the most part. Westside Gunn and Conway are brothers (technically half-brothers—they share a father, not a mother, as you might guess from the fact that they are only five months apart in age). Benny the Butcher is their younger cousin. The late Machine Gun Blak, after whom the crew named their 2019 album WWCD (“What Would Chine Gun Do”), was Benny’s older brother. He was shot and killed in October, 2006. The four of them were a crew called the Forerunners in their high school days, and a 2000s, pre-Daringer incarnation of their crew was called Street Entertainment—a name that briefly overlapped with the beginnings of Griselda. Daringer, the only non-relative member of the core four, knew Westside Gunn for years before they began working together.
Here’s a lowdown on each of the main members:
As even Benny admits, “Griselda is Westside’s baby.” Westside Gunn is the most fashion-obsessed of the bunch, and the one most determined to turn Griselda into #ART. Alvin Worthy began as a rapper in the early 2000s, and a bunch of his 2003-2005 recordings were recently re-released as Flyest Nig@@ in Charge Vol. 1. But after going on the run from a weapons charge, he was caught, plead guilty (to Conspiracy to Commit False Statement to a Firearms Dealer, according to court records obtained by Complex), and was sent to federal prison in 2006. While serving time, Gunn met and befriended notorious Buffalo drug kingpin Sly Green, and even appeared with Green in Don Diva magazine in 2007. After getting out, Gunn concentrated on managing his brother Conway’s rap career. But when Conway was shot in 2012, Gunn picked the torch back up and released Hitler Wears Hermes, kicking off a whole new era for his crew. Westside's high-pitched rapping voice and distinctive ad-libs are in service of his artistic vision to melt high and low, runway and street, the art gallery and the spray-painted wall outside. Not for nothing, did he once sample Andy Warhol being interviewed at Wrestlemania. That powerful aesthetic, as well as a flood of extremely strong projects, has made him the public face of the Griselda movement. Read our April 2020 interview with him here.
Conway the Machine
Conway has been grinding for years, rapping and putting out a ton of projects under a variety of rap names: Kannon, Killa Angel, Homicide Kannon, Loose Kannon, Jimmy Conway, and finally Conway the Machine. But in the early morning hours of March 17, 2012, his career took a turn. Conway had been living in Atlanta (he and his brother had been back and forth between that city and Buffalo regularly since their teen years), but flew back to Buffalo in hopes of garnering a French Montana verse. Conway, according to newspaper reports, was at the wheel of a car when it was shot from behind. He was hit in his neck and shoulder. The shooting left him with Bell’s palsy—half of his face is paralyzed. It was a rough road to recovery (not for nothing did he name a 2014 project Physikal Therapy). But he eventually figured out how to change his style to best suit his new situation. “I had to slow it down and get dirty beats, get it spooky to go with how my voice sounds,” he told Bandcamp. And his new approach works perfectly. Conway's post-shooting output has the clever raps and fascinating flows of the veteran spitter he is. But it also has something intangible: a unique sound and vision that brings a bit of necessary menace to every track. Read our March 2020 interview with him here.
Benny the Butcher
Jeremie Pennick’s rap name is an acronym: “Benny” is short for “Best Ever N New York.” As a rapper, he built up a fair amount of local success early on, selling tens of thousands of mixtapes with music that was a combination of, as one local writeup put it, “New York City-style lyrics with the ‘bootie-shaking’ beats of the South.” He garnered the nickname “2 Chain Benny Mane,” and as recently as the early 2010s, still had some feelings about an Atlanta artist who bears a similar moniker. “That’s my name, and that’s all I’m gonna say,” Benny said at the time. “Ain’t too many coincidences.” Benny’s career momentum was stifled by occasional prison bids, including a two-year stint between 2011-2013, right as Gunn was conceptualizing Griselda. During one of his times behind bars, at FCI Ashland in Ashland, Kentucky, Benny was actually in the same facility as JAY-Z’s longtime pal Emery Jones, though they didn’t meet. After huge artistic and commercial strides over the past few years, Benny’s BSF (Black Soprano Family) label recently signed a deal with eOne. Benny's years on the mixtape grind have served him well. He has taken his talent for vivid songwriting and punchlines, evident on even his earliest releases, and mixed it with his compelling life story, with all of its ups and downs. When you add all that to the patented Griselda dark beats, you have an unstoppable combination. Read our April 2020 interview with him here.
The quietest of the crew, producer Thomas “Daringer” Paldino provides Griselda with its signature spooky, dark soundscapes. He has been producing since 2005. His style is sample-heavy (“He digs,” Westside has said, admiringly), and he admits that he’s “not the biggest musician”—a reason he teamed with composer Beat Butcha on the sample-free WWCD. Daringer first met Gunn at a rap night at the Buffalo bar Broadway Joe’s, and reconnected some time later for Hitler Wears Hermes, where he contributed his first Griselda song, “Messhall Talk.” From there, it was off to the races. Daringer, a Buffalo native, was born into a family of jazz musicians and took initial inspiration (and samples) from his pianist father’s record collection. The beatmaker cites DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and frequent Griselda collaborator Alchemist as important early influences. Daringer's work forms the backbone of the Griselda sound. In fact, in a 2019 interview with Vlad TV, you can see Conway get agitated as he comes to the defense of the producer and his “spooky” beats. “Me and Daringer just made a marriage,” Conway explains. “His beats work perfect for my style.”
What should I listen to first?
If you count all of their pre-Griselda output, the crew has well over 100 releases from 2004 to today, with more coming out all the time. There’s a lot to get through, and some are near-impossible to find (if anyone has the first volume of Benny’s Tana Talk series, holler). What follows is by no means a best-of. It’s just a list of recommended songs to start your journey.
Griselda, “Chef Dreds” (2019)
It’s only right to start with a crew track. And this one, a highlight of WWCD, features superb performances from all three core rappers and a knocking beat from Daringer and Beat Butcha.
Benny the Butcher f/Pusha T, “18 Wheeler” (2019)
This track, produced by Benny’s longtime collaborator (and former label head) Demetrius “DJ Shay” Robinson, features the Best Ever N New York holding his own with talk of the hard white up against one of the best coke-rappers ever to do it.
Westside Gunn f/ Conway the Machine, “Undertaker vs. Goldberg” (2019)
An ominous-sounding, drum-less beat? Check. Wrestling references? Check. Gun sound ad-libs? Check. Shout-outs to six-figure watches and high-fashion brands? Check. Westside Gunn and Conway both spitting killer bars? Of course, check. If you wanted a picture of the current incarnation of the Griselda story, you could easily start with this compelling Hitler Wears Hermes 7 track.
Benny the Butcher, “Prayer Hands” (2016)
Benny personally holds this song close. “I wrote that...when I was in prison, and when I hear these verses I hear myself and get taken back to that time again,” he told Okayplayer.
Conway the Machine, “Kannon Exclusive” (2005)
This song appears on Westside Gunn’s recently re-released mixtape Flyest Nig@@ in Charge, Vol. 1. It’s Conway’s take on Eminem’s “Stan,” with the Machine, who then went by “Kannon,” talking to himself and taking stock of his life and career choices. It’s startling and moving to hear him at his most thoughtful, introspective, and questioning.
Benny the Butcher, “Rubber Bands & Weight” (2018)
This Alchemist-produced masterpiece finds Benny truly at his artistic peak. His rapping is rhythmically inventive and forceful, and his personality and life story jumps out. It’s as good of an example as any to show why he may well be the trio’s breakout star.
Conway the Machine f/ Westside Gunn & Roc Marciano, “Rex Ryan” (2015)
Conway himself views 2015’s Reject 2 as his breakthrough release, and this cut shows why. The Machine addresses the aftermath of his shooting (“I keep the blicky since them niggas clapped my truck up”), makes ominous threats, talks about how good his weed is, and still finds time to brag that his girl looks like Rita Ora. Gunn adds a killer verse, and you can never go wrong with Roc Marciano, whose album Marcberg set the stage for the Griselda takeover a decade ago. Roc Marci’s verse ends with a line that could serve as GxFR’s motto: “You can’t buy taste/We looking at you sideways.”
Conway the Machine, “Pavement” (2018)
“I do this shit for Machine Gun Blak/Trade in my talent to rap to get Machine Gun back,” begins Conway on this dark and sad reflection on the people he’s lost. “I’ve been to more funerals than I’ve been to weddings,” he reflects later in the track. “And this shit is depressing.”
Westside Gunn f/Joey Badass, Tyler, the Creator, and Billie Essco, “327” (2020)
Westside Gunn goes to Paris Fashion Week in this Pray for Paris cut, which was produced by longtime Griselda associate Camoflauge Monk. “On the runway in my coke fashion,” he boasts. And Tyler’s newsmaking verse is a must-listen.
Westside Gunn f/ Danny Brown, “Bodies on Fairfax” (2016)
Westside Gunn’s Flygod project was a major turning point in his career. It featured among the highest-profile collabs of any Griselda project up to that point, including Danny Brown. This track not only features a great performance by Danny, it also cements Westside Gunn’s position as someone who’s both street-smart enough and fashion-savvy enough to sell his dope in front of a Supreme store.
Benny the Butcher, “Freestyle (TT2)” (2009)
This freestyle by the rapper then known as B.E.N.N.Y. off Tana Talk 2 goes hard over the “Public Service Announcement” beat. You see flashes of things to come when he spits, “Cocaine pusher/Code name butcher.” It’s a good example of Benny’s early mixtape work.
Westside Gunn & Conway the Machine, “Hall & Nash” (2015)
In 2015-16, Conway and Westside were an absolutely unbeatable team, releasing collab projects like Griselda Ghost and Hall & Nash at a staggering clip. The back-and-forth on this Daringer-produced track shows their chemistry at its best.
Conway the Machine, “Calvin” (2020)
Conway takes a trip to the Dirty South on this song from his Alchemist collaboration Lulu. He spends nearly the whole song using the triplet flow popularized by Migos. “I felt like it'd be a dope contrast—that kind of beat with that kind of flow,” Conway told us.
Machine Gun Blak, “Machine Gun Blak Freestyle” (2005)
Another cut from FNIC, this is two minutes of the late MGB doing what he did best. And you can’t understand Griselda without understanding Machine Gun Blak. “This is why I do a lot of this shit,” Westside Gunn told an interviewer in 2014 about Benny’s late brother. “This was his dream.”
BSF f/ Benny the Butcher, Rick Hyde, and Heem, “Da Mob” (2020)
Benny’s BSF crew steps into the spotlight on this track, which they recorded the same day they signed to eOne. Benny’s longtime right-hand man Rick Hyde and Heem have stellar appearances and Benny, batting cleanup, is in prime form.