Two of the planet’s illest emcees hail from the elite Griselda Records crew, and they have one collective goal: They both want to be the best to ever do it. Not just in Buffalo. Anywhere.
Conway the Machine knows what’s going to eventually land his face on the “Mount Rushmore of elite lyricism.” To become one of the defining emcees of not just his time, but of all-time, his ability to pay attention to his surroundings is going to be that deciding factor.
Paying attention starts with seeing what’s happening in his city. Just a couple weeks back, a truck driver ran over a cyclist at a Breonna Taylor protest at Buffalo’s Niagara Square. For Conway, releasing tracks like 'Front Lines', given the state of the world, is a more crucial move than ever.
Paying attention also means indulging in praise, and criticism, from blogs. Conway has seen every list he’s been left off of in the last year and admits that it’s pushed him toward his most critical work yet in September’s 'From King To A God'. - But one critique has really driven him. He tells me - a four-year Buffalonian myself - that he’s never been Griselda’s weakest link as some suggest, and he’s certainly nobody’s third-string rapper. Instead, he’s destined to be in that upper echelon. And his latest record, whether it's on your end-of-the-year list or not, has already taken him there.
“You know the feeling of being under-appreciated, under-valued, slighted, doubted, slept-on, that’s how I felt even in 2019,” Conway says. “In 2020, I decided I needed to have a stronger, more impactful year than I had in 2019. That’s why I’ve been pumping out music at this rate. With this From King to a God album, all those emotions, all that I was feeling, I just channeled that. Like, ‘You know what, watch this.’”
Now, the entire world is watching our city because of him. With the 716 on his back, Conway and his Griselda crew - including his brother Westside Gunn and cousin Benny the Butcher - have already etched their names, their grimy boom-bap beats and those unmistakable upstate raps into hip-hop’s history books. Conway’s just waiting on his face to be chiseled into a rock.
And he’s now turning the world’s attention to Griselda’s new signee and the label’s first lady, Armani Caesar, a longtime musical partner of the crew and like Conway, an emcee who's driven to see her face in stone.
On Sept. 18, Caesar - once a student of Alchemist beats - dropped her debut Griselda project 'The Liz Tape', a record that she hopes can add to the discussion around how female rappers can, have and will always run the game.
“I’m able to have girls that look like me and aspire to not just be somebody’s baby mama, but to boss up and get her own,” Caesar says. “And just to continue to push female equality and women empowerment. And not so much just make it about being a woman but making it about being great. You know, when I first started rapping, I didn't try to be the best female rapper. I tried to be the best rapper. And that's what I aspire to do.”
Clash caught up with the two emcees individually last week to discuss 'From King To A God' and 'The Liz Tape', earning respect from the blogs and chasing their crowns to get to where they see themselves a decade from now. The conversations, combined for length and clarity, follow below.
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Conway, have you always been so prolific when it comes to sharing music and when we look at this pace that you’re going at? Do you like the feeling of fans having so much of your art at once?
Conway: I definitely feel like the fans need to have it. I feel like they’ve been missing out on a lot. We’ve been having this type of quality hip-hop that we’ve been cooking up for a while… There’s really no particular reason why we put out so much shit. But all I do is record, make music all day. And I ain’t sitting on them. Everything I record, that shit’s raw. So, let me put that shit out. The fans need to hear that. I owe it to the fans.
And talk me through this record. What was the biggest motivating factor thematically for 'From King To A God'?
Conway: You know the feeling of being under-appreciated, under-valued, slighted, doubted, slept-on, that’s how I felt even in 2019. In 2020, I decided I needed to have a stronger, more impactful year than I had in 2019. That’s why I’ve been pumping out music at this rate. With this 'From King to a God' album, all those emotions, all that I was feeling, I just channeled that. Like, ‘You know what, watch this.’
Once the pandemic hit and all that with COVID-19, I was not fucking with no studio. I’m real cautious about that type of shit. I just thought of all this shit and really taught myself, and learned how to facilitate what I’m tryna’ do. I recorded all that shit myself. Before I knew it, I had a classic.
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Looking at this record, something like 'Front Lines' is incredibly important right now. When we see this country and even looking at Buffalo, I know somebody ran over a cyclist the other day at a protest. How important was it to be vocal about that stuff and do you think of your city when dropping a song like that?
Conway: I always think about it - I’m blessed to be in this position, to have this platform, to have this voice, so I don’t want to not use it in the right way. I gotta’ speak on shit, you know what I’m saying? I inspire a lot of people, I know it’s a lot of people who look at my own ups and downs in life and all that shit. It’s my duty to use my voice and the fact that I inspire and [can] spread the awareness and use my platform to speak about the injustice.
We just seen it with the Breonna Taylor shit. This thing is never gonna’ stop… [I don’t want to] just talk about the money I make, the bitches I’m fuckin’, the houses I’m buying, the shoes. That’s corny to me.
You gotta’ uplift the people. Right now, it ain’t the time for that. All the clubs and shit is closed anyway. We don’t wanna’ party, we don’t wanna dance right now. We have to speak about what’s going on. This shit gonna’ separate the men from the boys.
This record has been out for a few weeks now - what is its legacy already? I know somebody on your Twitter feed already labeled it a classic.
Conway: Take this as my entry into the upper-echelon selection of emcees. This is my entry, this is my introduction. Just timeless, timeless music. The records, the feeling of it, everything, it’s just incredible. I had no idea it would have the kind of impact that it’s having… Sometimes you just gotta’ take lemons and make lemonade.
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The reviews have been incredibly favorable. You know, you're definitely getting your flowers for this one. Do you ever pay attention to stuff like that?
Conway on FKTG: A lot of it is the shit that put the battery in my back for music. I was always the type of person who never rejected constructive criticism. My whole team, we do not mind. We don’t hesitate to tell eachother, ‘Nah, you should do something else. That ain’t that.’ We accept it, it just makes us better and makes us grow.
That’s what inspired this 'From King to a God' shit. I’ve been left off a lot of lists. A lot of people think of me as like the ‘third member’ or the ‘weakest link’ of Griselda. And I notice that. And with this project - even God gon’ make mistakes. But it’s gonna’ be clear, it’s gonna’ be etched in concrete. There’s nobody alive that breathes oxygen that’s fuckin’ with me.
Armani on The Liz: It’s definitely put me in my bag. It more-so was like an ‘I told you so’ moment for me. But I don’t really get into feeding that kind of praise too heavily just because I know that as quickly as they love you, they can turn on you. And that can be dangerous for a lot of people. And some people, you know, that can be almost like a drug.
And if you don't have a healthy source of where you get that positive reinforcement from, and leave it in the hands of people, you give them the power to tear you down as well.
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Armani, the tracks that really stand out for me, the stuff I can ride around in my car blasting like you said, would be 'Mac 10s' and 'Countdown'. What feeling do you get seeing this release out in the world, with it being a week out now and with all the response you’ve gotten?
Armani: I'm still kind of excited. You know, like I said, about the guys, their music has been fired since I met them , since before I met them. I’ve been pushing my pen since I was 17 years old. So essentially, the praise that I got just from the people that hurt me was the same, but it wasn't on that larger scale. But to see people like the Rolling Stone’s, or the Complex’s giving me praise is just kind of, ‘Thank you finally.’
Growing up in Buffalo, you have to learn to believe in yourself. You can't just sit around and wait for people to motivate you. Because everybody's kind of in survival-mode. You know, there isn't really like a dream-chasing spirit there, because you know, Buffalo is not one of those big cities where dreams come true. So I have to learn to be my own cheerleader.
What kind of energy do you think a “first lady” in a rap collective can offer that that wasn't there before? What do you bring that really makes Griselda?
Armani: Trying to be the female breakout, you know, starting off within an all-guy group, I just needed to make sure that I have bars. We started off in a group of like, five, six different people. So everybody wasn't getting on the song. We had to make sure that you had the hottest bars…
I think that I'm able to give them a glimpse of the gritty lifestyle from a female perspective. I talk about, you know, the same struggles and stuff, but just from a female view. A lot of times people like to demonize women for using sex or stripping and stuff like that. And I talk about it in the way that a man would talk about selling drugs, in the way that is glorified, that people are starting to humanize more females for doing, you know, because it's explained to them in that way.
Conway, I saw you donated jerseys to a Western New York baseball team a couple years back and you did some stuff in June for the City Mission. Talk to me about giving back to the community.
Conway: I came from nothing. We had some people who may have made it from my area and nobody came back or gave a fuck about us. I’m from the hood. I feel like, ‘Man, I’m in this position, I ain’t get here by myself.’ This city made me the man I am today. I feel like I was blessed to be a blessing for others. I don’t care about money, none of that shit. I’m all about just giving back. Getting the young boys on the right path.
The thing about entrepreneurship, being about business, we did street shit, we did whatever. Now it’s time to boss up. That’s just what I’m on right now. When I make a bag, my city makes a bag.
Finally, it’s been eight years since Griselda started and 10 since the two of you first linked. Where do you see yourselves in eight-or-10-years time?
Armani: Definitely as an icon, as a trailblazer. And to actually push a pin and, you know, still be able to look sexy. In this game nowadays, it's like you need to look sexy, and rap one way or you have to look tomboyish to rap, you know, with bars. And I think that I’m both and I'm able to have girls that look like me be able to aspire to not just be someone's baby mama, but to actually boss up and get her own.
Conway: I want to be on the Mount Rushmore of elite lyricism of hip-hop history. Remembered as one of the illest to ever do it. I see myself getting there. This is only the beginning. I have a lot more work to do.
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Words: Brenton Blanchet
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