The approach of Westside Gunn and his crew offers valuable wisdom for not only music, but business, writing, and even life
“I really like that whole, like, cliquing up, Griselda shit. It’s just ill to me…I think what they’re doing is great. It just reminds me of a different time and it’s not easy to do. To make that music and just come off wavy and be interesting.”
The 2010s was a decade in which the line between rap and other genres became not only blurred, but largely nonexistent. Referred to by some as the “melodic era,” it was no longer a rarity or even a surprise to see a hip-hop artist transition into harmonizing, and while that had certainly been done in the past, it now became de rigueur as Drake, Young Thug, and many others rode that wave to stardom.
At the same time, some dudes stepped onto the scene and began flooding the market with their own music that sounded fresh but at the same time reminiscent of projects that had been released in the mid-’90s. No singing, no theatrics, just grim street tales of drugs and violence delivered over grimy, pounding basslines, creating a “gnarly sound inspired by the slimy criminal underbelly of Buffalo, New York.”
In the process, the members of Griselda have moved beyond the traditional way of evaluating hip-hop artists: “Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher are what some call your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers — a title that implies that beyond the charts and the awards there’s a more meaningful ranking system.”
With Westside Gunn as the general and Conway and Benny the Butcher as his lyrical lieutenants, they have amassed an army of rabid fans by constantly putting out work and never compromising their approach or aesthetic.
Here are thirteen lessons I’ve learned from the Buffalo boys after ten years and more than fifty projects.
1. Put in the work, the results will take care of themselves
When was the first time you heard something from a Griselda member? Chances are it was probably long after 2012, the year the label was founded with the release of Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes, which itself came after a seven year hiatus from recording. Once Gunn decided to concentrate on music, though, he never stopped to worry about results or accolades, focusing instead of the work. If one project doesn’t hit, maybe the next one will. They never slow down. The members of Griselda are like an army marching through the streets where every step is another album or mixtape, continuously attracting fans and followers but never once breaking stride to worry about what is happening behind them.
2. Don’t chase trends
In many ways, the dudes from Griselda sound like they stepped through a portal from an alternate reality version of 1995. They know they sound best over production from the likes of Daringer, Beat Butcha, and Alchemist. They love wrestling, fashion, and contemporary art, and never hesitate to proclaim their love for all of it, even naming their songs and mixtapes after such things, not even worrying about what is a trending topic or considered hot at the moment: “By refusing to pander to radio or follow the dictates of major label release schedules, the members of Griselda argue they’ve safeguarded their integrity. They continue to make music about their own lives, documenting in real time their processing and their growth.”
3. Develop a trademark
In addition to their look and rhymes, Griselda separates itself from the rest of the rap world with their distinctive ad-libs, from Gunn’s gun sounds of “boom boom boom boom” and “doot doot doot doot” to Benny’s “The butcher comin’!” and Conway’s laugh, that are both unique and fun to imitate.
When you hear any of those, as well as the female voice saying “Griselda” at the start of many songs, there’s no doubt what you’re about to hear.
4. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing
It’s easier to avoid following the crowd if you simply ignore the noise from that crowd. The sound of hip-hop is always evolving, but Griselda’s music hits like no one in the creative process is aware of anything happening outside their studio: “If there is something that is most conspicuous about him, it’s the way his music sounds, in this era of rap…As the genre has zigged toward the eeriest drill and trap sounds, Gunn is part of a small cadre of artists who got famous for zagging.”
5. Be unapologetically you
Embrace who you are. Griselda is from Buffalo, but rather than reach to claim New York City or try to sound like other parts of the country, they continued to be true to themselves and, in the process, put their city on the hip-hop map. They’re far from typical rap stars — Conway has Bell’s Palsy after being shot in the face and Westside Gunn is unlike any rapper ever, from his look to his delivery to his entire approach — but instead of compromising themselves, they forced the public to adapt to them, as Gunn explains: “‘Everybody from New York sounding like they’re from the South…I was like, I’m about to just do me. I’m realer than these dudes. I’m already flyer than these dudes.’” Conway puts it in even simpler terms: “We comfortable being ourselves.”
6. Be patient
Jeff Bezos said, “All overnight success takes about 10 years.” If you’re trying anything, particularly something new or, at the very least, different or untraditional, then you must be prepared for people not to embrace or understand at first. Benny the Butcher’s Tana Talk 4 was released in 2022, eighteen years after the original Tana Talk dropped in 2004. That mixtape is such a rarity that supposedly even Benny himself doesn’t own a copy of it. That is a long time to wait for recognition, but if you’re coming from a place outside the normal points of entry, you’ll need to be patient and trust yourself and your work: “It might took us a longer time to get to put on the scene so people can realize and see it like, ‘Oh, that’s Buffalo.’”
7. If you’re influential and make an impact, prepare to be copied
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be highly irritating to the originators. Griselda’s approach to the rap game, particularly in this era, has made such an impact that it’s only natural that others would copy it. To hear Westside Gunn tell it, it’s been happening from the beginning: “Ever since Hitler 1 I had the flair on it. I remember Ross putting that shit on after I did and it got popular when Ross did it.” And while Benny the Butcher is certainly not the first person to utilize bars over the eyes as a part of artistic expression, it’s difficult to see things like the cover for Joell Ortiz and KXNG Crooked’s H.A.R.D. or the “Shoot First Mafia” t-shirts and not think that they were inspired, even subconsciously, by The Plugs I Met artwork. Conway puts it even more succinctly in his song “Spurs 3”: “Griselda, bitch, we the inspiration/You can see me and Gunn influencin’ all the music these n — s makin’”
8. Expand but don’t forget what led to your success
Although they have moved into other areas like fashion (remember that Griselda was actually a clothing line first) and films (the Benny-starring Conflicted was released in 2021), they have never abandoned the main thing that gained them a following in the first place: music, specifically that street shit. It’s important to expand and diversify, of course, but too much of that can actually pull you away from what you do best and ultimately lead to failure. Westside Gunn and the crew have been careful not to venture too far out of the realm that fits them best. For their major label debut, WWCD, they didn’t abandon or even try to alter their approach, but rather leaned into what made them fan-favorites in the first place: “Griselda keep the same grim soundbeds from Daringer and Beat Butcha that fueled their rise, and all three core MCs supply more of the witty gun-toting, drug-pushing, WWE-referencing raps they’ve relied on since the early days.” They don’t appear to be stopping anytime soon — even Gunn couldn’t stay away from the microphone for very long — because they realize that the music is still the foundation for everything else.
9. Don’t be afraid to go back to the well
Far too often, people are afraid to repeat themselves. It’s understandable that individuals don’t want to be confined to doing the same thing, but one must be careful not to close yourself off from possible success. After all, sequels exist for a reason. There are eight entries in Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes series; Benny has released four Tana Talk mixtapes; and Conway has made three Reject projects. Very few (if any) Griselda fans have complained about these follow-ups that “serve the same dependable meal again and again, never offering a twist,” particularly as the quality as remained high. If something works, don’t be afraid to keep doing it.
10. Learn from those that came before you
Just because you’re fresh and unique doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons from the past that you can teach and guide you and it’s clear that Griselda has learned from — and positioned itself as an updated version of — the Wu-Tang Clan. There’s a reason the opening track of WWCD features a spoken word introduction from Raekwon, who definitely sees the Buffalo crew as continuing their tradition: “Griselda did something that was special because they keeping alive what [Wu-Tang] created. Not taking away from other guys that are superstars… But I just felt closer to what they were doing, because I knew they were a reflection of us. It clicked.” While they are certainly not the same, there are many similarities between the two crews: the rabid fanbase that is always eager to show their loyalty (“Hoodies with their faces on them are coveted, and tattoos of their logo are spreading across middle America”); the ability to create a buzz without commercial airplay; branching out to different labels; and being overseen and masterminded by a single individual (RZA calls himself the “abbot” of Wu-Tang; Westside Gunn has referred to himself as the “mastermind” of Griselda). Thirty years after they burst on the scene, Wu-Tang still has legions of superfans and Griselda appears to be cultivating the same sort of undying love. As Westside Gunn himself said, “That Wu-Tang cloth? We’re cut from it.”
11. Create multiple lanes
Griselda is both a crew and a label with artists like Armani Caesar and Boldy James on the roster, but it can be confusing to remember what other labels each member is attached to. While Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny the Butcher released WWCD under the moniker of Griselda on Eminem’s Shady Records, they each have their own solo deals: Gunn is signed to Shady Records; Benny is now signed to Def Jam; and as of this writing, Conway is a “free agent,” able to so sign anywhere. Additionally, Gunn and Benny have also inked management deals with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. All of this means that they have multiple lanes and outlets through which they can supply product and attract fans and customers.
12. Your simple idea could actually turn into a movement
Except in rare instances, you can’t plan or predict how things will turn out. Sometimes a can’t-miss idea actually results in total failure; other times a dismissed notion can make an entire career. Griselda didn’t start as a movement that was destined to alter the rap game, but that’s what it became. Even if you have modest goals — Griselda was created as a way to get Conway and Westside Gunn’s music out to the public — it could turn into something enormous. Gunn attributes their success to authenticity: “Me being a real individual, people love that. It’s enough to build a cult following.” Their fans can never get enough —their clothing, their physical albums, everything sells out within minutes and there are websites and Reddit threads dedicated to it all. Benny put it best: “There hasn’t been a movement like this in hip-hop since the ‘90s.” That wasn’t the plan, but it is the reality.
13. Be as prolific as possible
Ask ten Griselda fans for their favorite project from the crew and it’s very likely that there will be ten different answers, because “seemingly every week, there’s a new game-changing release from the Buffalo powerhouse Griselda Records.” Arguably the most important aspect of Griselda’s cult following and grassroots success is their output that has been described as “confrontationally prolific” whose work “comes as steadily as an IV drip.” It always feels as if new music just dropped or is about to — between albums, mixtapes, EPs, and soundtracks, there have been more than fifty releases with the Griselda stamp from current or former members, with sixteen coming since 2020, and that’s not even including all of the various features and freestyles that keep them from being forgotten for even a moment. This mentality was learned from their pre-music endeavors: “The mentality necessary to be a successful drug dealer is a relentless one. Without product, there is no money. Therefore, one has to either endlessly source product or make it themselves. Drug dealing is a massive part of what makes Griselda’s members so prolific. In their rhymes, they speak of the necessity to always have ‘product.’”
Once someone discovers Griselda, there is already a large and established body of work for them to sink their teeth into and retroactively experience the growth and evolution of the music while also anticipating the next project…which is undoubtedly right around the corner.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing on Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.