Guns, drugs, and blood money. The allure of the illicit never dies. Gangsters supplanted the heroes of westerns decades ago. Thank Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Tarantino (who’s moved back to westerns)–the list goes on like award show acceptance speeches. Westside Gunn has a name befitting a bowlegged vigilante, but the 32-year-old Buffalo native would’ve been too cold for for any Eastwood drifter.
Since the release of his 2013 mixtape, Hitler Wears Hermes, Gunn has released increasingly auspicious projects at a prodigious clip. Think early Raekwon and Roc Marciano rolled into one heavily inked individual. Luxurious ends and grimy means are described with the same vivid diction, every stitch and kilo accounted for.
Though he hasn’t been covered by any New York media outlets, his work has received endorsements from Alchemist, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, and more. For quantifiable evidence of his rise, see the last two installments of his Hitler Wears Hermes mixtapes, which were released via Daupe, the UK label curated by The Purist. Multiple vinyl runs of both sold out.
I recently spoke with Gunn over the phone while he was with his family in Atlanta. Our conversation covered everything from Buffalo and his music to Atlanta strip clubs and his time in prison. Throughout, the pistol-grip malice you hear on record was supplanted by a surprising affability. Laughter often accompanied his thick New York accent.
In addition to the interview, we’re premiering the first collaborative project from Purist and Westside Gunn, Roses Are Red… So is Blood. A short, fifteen-minute EP, it’s perhaps the best distillation of Gunn’s abilities to date. The production is minimal yet evocative. Drums are sacrificed for The Purist’s shimmering loops. Lyrically, love is reserved for designer fabrics, foreign frames, and high grossing felonies. There’s also a great Roc Marci feature. A belated happy Valentine’s Day. – Max Bell
Buffalo has been ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Where did you grow up in Buffalo? What was your neighborhood like?
Westside Gunn:I grew up in a part called Central Park. It’s crazy over there right now. It’s like a war zone. It’s nothing to play with. It’s one of those type of situations where if you’re not from there, don’t go over there. Anything can happen. You just never know.
Once I started getting older and moving on my own I started going to different neighborhoods. I really got a taste of every side. I’m cool with every side of Buffalo. It’s love everywhere. To be honest, I’ve lived on every side you can think of, but growing up it was Central Park.
How does Buffalo compare to other parts of New York (e.g. the five boroughs)?
Westside Gunn:We have a higher crime rate than the five boroughs. Buffalo is really the most dangerous city in New York. It’s crazy, though. In the boroughs there are big buildings everywhere, but we don’t have any big buildings at all. There are millions of people in New York, but it’s not like that where I’m from. When you in the urban parts, it’s only so big. It’s very small. Everybody who’s poppin know everybody. Somebody get killed, nine times out of ten you know them or know somebody that’s very close to them. With people dying almost every other day it’s like, “Damn, I just seen him yesterday.” It’s crazy.
Was that environment the reason you moved to Atlanta?
Westside Gunn:Nah. Not at all, man. I moved to Atlanta because I had two kids when I was a teenager. They were living in Atlanta. And back then I was coming back and forth. I was in the streets still, getting money and doing what I do. How I was getting money, it was just better for me to be back and forth. You know what I’m saying? That was a part of my operation back then.
What do you like most about Atlanta?
Westside Gunn:You can kind of be yourself. You can really have fun. You can really go where you want to go. It don’t matter how much money you’re worth. You can go around people and it’s all love. Where I’m from, you can’t go to the club and pop twenty or thirty bottles. As soon as you leave the club, people are going to want to follow you home. Down here you can ride around in a Rolls Royce with $100,000 in jewelry, spend $20,000 at the club, and go home. Where I’m from, you’re never going to see a Rolls Royce. The flashy cars and the jewelry will get you killed quick.
How many times have you been to Magic City? Does it live up to the hype?
Westside Gunn:[Laughs] I’ve been so many times I can’t even count. But nah, it don’t live up to the hype. Of course people hear it in the songs and see it in documentaries and shit like that, so of course they want to go to Magic City Mondays, but once you go it’s like, “Wow. Okay. This is Magic City?” There are tons of strip clubs here better than that. That one is just historic. It’s got the name. It’s like the strip club landmark. But besides that, I could go to five to ten spots better than that. It’s just the hype.
Has your time out in Atlanta affected the sound of your music?
Westside Gunn:Nah. I mean, I love Atlanta music. Don’t get it twisted. But I’m from Buffalo and I grew up on the east coast in the ‘90s. When you grow up with that sound, it never leaves you no matter where you go. Like I said, I love southern artists. When I go to the clubs here, that’s what they play. If you put on the radio, that’s what you’re going to hear. I have nothing against south music at all, but it never really influenced me at all. I stick to my roots when it comes to me making music.
How old were you when you started rapping?
Westside Gunn:I was young when I first started. I was one of those eight/nine-year-old rappers. I always loved hip-hop. I don’t even know my life without hip-hop. I had older uncles and family members that were still in high school when I was young. So that’s all I would listen to all day every day, because that’s what they would play. I had a young mother as well. My mom had me when she was 16. So hip-hop has always been around.
As I got older, I didn’t really want to do it anymore. But I still was around all the rappers and my family was rappers. After my brother got shot I was like, “I’m about to start doing this shit again.” That’s when I started writing again.
What year was that?
Westside Gunn:That was 2012.
So Hitler Wears Hermes was your first mixtape?
Westside Gunn:Yeah. That was my first joint. I went in and knocked that shit out in like a week. That was my first time really testing the waters. I didn’t really have no producers or nothing. It was just like, “Let me hear some shit that’s out right now that Alchemist produced and let me body these joints.” I ended up going in late night and putting on the beat. I wrote the whole thing in the lab. The engineer was going to sleep and everything. I had to wake him up just to record. I went in there and knocked it out and I was like, “Okay, I can do this.” It just started from there.
Who are three of your biggest influences?
Westside Gunn:I always liked Kool G Rap. Jus the street shit. That’s what I love. I love fly street shit. Of course you got your Raekwon and Nas. I would say them are probably really like the top three. And I like Ghost, too. It was always Ghost and Rae. Those two always been my favorite since I could remember. Rae and Ghost were crazy, Kool G Rap was crazy. I don’t really want to say Rae without Ghost. That’s like Peanut Butter and Jelly. Rae and Ghost, Kool G, and Nas. Because Nas was dope with the words. Back in the day when I started to rap, I was real lyrical. That was the age where you keep flipping the words. I used to do all that back in the day, too. I was kid so I was all about rhyming. But once you start doing street shit, your lyrics become more realistic. You kind of dumb it down more because you have to speak a language that the people around you can understand.
Do you think crime/mafioso rap will always be relevant?
Westside Gunn:Always. This is a crooked world. There’s an underworld to this shit. I don’t think that will ever change. Certain people and certain things are always going to run certain shit, no matter what day and age it is. As long as you can remember, there’s always been some gangster shit. There’s always bosses, there’s always crime. That’s never going to change. To be honest, it’s getting worse and worse. I definitely think it’s going to stay relevant, because it’s not going nowhere.
You’ve spent time in prison. Where did you serve your sentence? How long were you inside? What were you booked for?
Westside Gunn:I did little county shits and all of that, but that don’t count. But I served time in USP [United States Penitentiary] Atlanta and I served time in Coleman, Florida. They switch you due to custody levels. But altogether I did three in the Feds. They violated me on some shit. I really can’t talk about that right now, but I pray every day on that, that it will be good.
That’s one of the reasons why I can’t get a passport. I want to go to London. I’ve been invited to festivals. I’ve been invited to shows all over, like Athens, Greece. All types of places I wish I could go right now. I love hip-hop, I want to travel and touch the fans, and it’s money. I got to take care of my family. It hurts to just sit back like, “Damn, I could go over there and get this amount of money, but I can’t because of one little situation.” But it’s about to get handled and everything. That’s what good lawyers and money are for.
Did you write while you were inside?
Westside Gunn:Yeah. Just because other people were doing it. It wasn’t really like I wanted to be a rapper, though. You do a lot of shit to pass time. You work out, you listen to music. Feds is kind of different. You can go to the movie room and watch some movies. You can listen to some music. You can work out. A lot of people were rapping. It’s crazy. A lot of people were rapping, but they were trash. I was like, “I can beat these fools.” Sometimes I’d get in the battles just to have fun. When I did that, I never lost. I was known, but I didn’t really care. It was just something to pass the time. Even when I came home, I still didn’t want to rap. I wanted to do the business end of it. I wanted to push my brother’s shit and let him get shine. I just really wanted to be the person behind the scenes and get my money that way.
What name does your brother rap under?
Westside Gunn:Conway. He always was the rapper. My brother is literally my favorite rapper. I would bet my last dollar, him vs. anybody. And when I say anybody, I mean anybody. That’s just how it was. But once he got shot, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. That’s when I started rapping again
A lot of your music discusses the violence you’ve witnessed and the people you’ve lost. Do you keep count of how many close friends/relatives who’ve passed away before their time?
Westside Gunn:Nah. Because it’s sad, man. The only thing I can try to do is stay alive as long as I can for my kids. Tomorrow is not promised. People are getting out of here every other day. Either they’re getting locked up being snitched on, or getting killed. To be honest, prison and Atlanta is really what kind of saved my life. I’m not just in the hood, out there in the streets every day like a lot of people. I’m past all that. I know why I’m living and what I have to do. Right now I’m really trying to stay out the way, do this music, put my city on the map, become successful, and be the best father I can.
How did you link up with The Purist?
Westside Gunn:I forgot, man [laughs]. Daupe approached me for doing a vinyl. It was all love. Shout out to Daupe. We just do great business together. And of course Purist does production. We were like, “We should do a whole joint.” He sent me some production and it was crazy and I just got to work. I wish I could go over there, but he sent me some crazy shit and we got busy. We linked maybe like a year and a half ago.
The project you’re talking about is Roses Are Red…So is Blood?
Westside Gunn:Correct. That shit is dope. The beats on it are just so smooth. I put it on and just play it through. I smoke, so it’s kind of like smoker’s music too. You can get high and pop it on and you’re not going to skip nothing. I think it’s just a dope piece of art.
You’ve received co-signs from people like Action Bronson, Danny Brown, and Alchemist. How did they get your music? Have you met them?
Westside Gunn:I was just with Alchemist and Action Bronson for the last week. I just got to Atlanta. I’ve been in New York playing my album and doing sessions with Alchemist and Bronson. Danny Brown and Bruiser Brigade, his crew, they came and showed love at my listening session. I was just with Premo, I did his show. I did Statik Selektah’s show. I ended up going over to his lab at 9 o’clock and we dropped a song at 11:30 with Droog. Shit was quick. I didn’t write a bar. I went on the mic, and me and Conway went back and forth. We just did a song and dropped it. The blog’s have been going crazy for the last few days. The views on it are nuts right now. Everybody’s been co-signing the song. It’s called “The Curve.”
But I think it all technically started when I gave Hitler Wears Hermes 2 to my guy AA Rasheed. He’s real cool with Planet Asia. He gave it to Planet Asia. Planet Asia heard it and reached out to me on Twitter. I actually ended up flying out to L.A. and linked up with him. It was all love. Planet Asia and Alchemist are close, so he played it for Alchemist. Then Alchemist had it and he started playing it for people and people started getting it and spreading it. Premo got it, then, the next thing you know, Bronson got it, Danny Brown started tweeting that I was his favorite rapper, and all the other dope MCs start hitting me left and right. I was on The Purists’ last album. That got a lot of love. It’s been like a domino effect. Once a lot of the top tier producers and MCs started co-signing it was like, “Who is this kid?” I did a song with Skyzoo on Hitler Wears Hermes 3 and he ended up hitting me like, “Yo, we want to put you on the single for my album.” I ended up doing that. We shot the video. The shit was on MTV every day. It’s just been on and on. It’s been non-stop. I haven’t taken a day off in about two years.
How does it feel to receive that kind of endorsement from your peers so early on in your career?
Westside Gunn:The shit’s crazy, man. Just being from where I’m from, this never happened before. I’m doing shit nobody [in Buffalo] has ever seen. It feels great because I’m doing it, but the hate comes with it as well. It’s like, “Why is he able to do all of this shit and we’ve been rapping forever?” You get the hate with the love, but it’s way more love than hate. I’m not worried about the hate. People hate LeBron. People hated Jordan. People hate whoever. I love it, man. You know Roc Marci? That’s my big brother. We talk a lot. All these people that I was listening to a couple years ago are my friends now. They’re like extended family.
Roc is great.
Westside Gunn:Definitely. He’s got some production on my new album and he’s spitting on my new album. He killed the shit on the Roses Are Red… project. Me and Roc cooking.
When you say your new album, which album are you talking about?
Westside Gunn:I’m talking about Fly God. I have two projects dropping a month from each other. Roses Are Red… is the EP with Purist. Then I have my first actual album. The Hitler trilogy, that was like mixtapes. This is my first actual album. It’s crazy. I don’t know if you want me to list people that are on it.
That’s up to you.
Westside Gunn:The album has Roc Marci on it spitting and doing production. I have Statik Selektah, Apollo Brown, and Alchemist. I have Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Meyhem Lauren, Skyzoo, and Your Old Droog. I have DJ QBert on the cuts. Of course I got my crew. I got AA Rasheed kicking knowledge on the outro. It’s just crazy. This is very personal. I think it’s a masterpiece. Hip-hop has dope albums that come out every now and then that’s just like, “Wow, what the fuck is this?” This is one of those. This is one of those that I can put next to anybody’s shit and go toe to toe.
Is the record dropping on a label or are you releasing it independently?
Westside Gunn:I just left New York. I had some meetings. I have a few different situations right now, and I’m really just going to make my final decision by Monday morning… I really want to stay independent, so I might just work with a distribution company. I like staying indie. I really don’t feel that I need to sign to a major. But if it works out that way, business is business.
You make at least one reference to something you’re wearing in every one of your songs. What’s your favorite piece of clothing that you own right now?
Westside Gunn:[Laughs] Right now I got on some Off-White, some Virgil. I love Off-White. I love Supreme shit. That’s really my favorite. I like expensive sneakers. That’s what I really like the most. The denim is always going to always be crispy. I love sneakers and I love my hats to match the sneakers. But I design as well. My jackets that I’ve been promoting and rocking lately is the shit I’ve been designing. So I try to incorporate that with the high-end fashion. So that’s all I’ve really been wearing everyday–a jacket that I designed but with a designer hoodie, a designer jean, and a crazy sneaker.
How many pairs of sneakers do you own?
Westside Gunn:This is weird, but I give a lot of my shit away. My family always gets on my head like, “Why do you do that?” But it’s because I really hate wearing shit two or three times. I wear pieces that, if you see me in them again, you know I had it on before. So it really don’t have the same impact anymore. Instead of the shit just building up in the closet, I might sell it to somebody half-off or I’ll just give that shit away. With sneakers, if I didn’t give them away I wouldn’t be able to count that shit. But my main sneakers that I can just go to right now? I keep it small. Maybe like 30 pair. I got cousins, I got family. It’s to the point now where people are like, “Yo, we know you’re not going to wear them shits no more. Can I have them?”
Are you planning on touring once the album drops?
Westside Gunn:Everything is day by day. If you would’ve told me what I’d be doing six months ago I definitely wouldn’t have said that I’d be in studio sessions with Alchemist and Bronson and this person and that person. You just never know. The shit is just happening so fast with me. I really don’t know. Hopefully I can tour the states and handle everything so I can go overseas. I want to see the world. The love has been crazy. The fans have been showing tremendous love all over the world. They got me spray painted on a train in Romania. I want to go to Romania to see it. The love it like that. They just put up a huge mural of me in Arizona, so I’m going to try to go see that myself. But the shit is huge. It takes up the whole side of a building. It’s dope to me. The fans are respecting the craft and the art.