This past January, Buffalo native Alvin Worthy, known throughout the music world as Westside Gunn, expedited his passport in order to attend Paris Fashion Week. At 37 years old, it was his first time leaving the United States. His Griselda Records collective provided the soundtrack for Virgil Abloh’s Off-White™ Fall 2020 preview and Westside was as at home as ever sitting front-row for the festivities.
He was so inspired by the trip that he booked some extra time in the City of Lights to record a new project, motivated even more once Abloh confirmed that he’d like to create the cover art. What resulted was Pray for Paris, a project that manages to balance the boasts of aspirational opulence attained with some of the grimiest street rap in the industry today.
Westside Gunn has never pursued subtlety, which is more apparent than ever on his latest record. Pray for Paris opens up with a recording of the auction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” painting at Christie’s New York, which sold for a record $450 million USD. As the gavel announces the final sale, it’s clear that Gunn is positioning his latest creation as a rap album of bespoke luxury.
Abloh’s cover art, a photoshopped reworking of Carvvaggio’s 1607 oil on wood painting, “David with the Head of Goliath,” adds the burden of Westside’s three chains around the conqueror’s neck. The aesthetic audacity aligns perfectly with Westside Gunn’s past hand-painted album covers, which alternate between vintage wrestling references, faceless FLYGOD fashion poses in Balenciagas and an unapologetic Hermès-rocking Hitler with his third eye stamped on his furrowed brow.
There’s a moment on last year’s WWCD album where the vision Worthy has been plotting out over the past decade, even before he was Westside Gunn, comes to fruition. Rapping alongside brother Demond “Conway the Machine” Price and cousin Jeremie “Benny the Butcher” Pennick, his voice rings in the “Dr. Bird’s” chorus in an antagonizing echo. “Told Virgil write ‘BRICK’ on my brick,” he yells, essentially speaking their eventual collaboration into existence.
Even years before the “Dr. Bird’s” chorus, before the Shady Records and Roc Nation deals, and before his Griselda crew was captured at Kanye West’s Wyoming ranch, Westside was pulling inspiration from Abloh’s initial foray into fashion, PYREX VISION. “It’s not like I’m just supporting him now because of Off-White™ or Louis Vuitton, like all of a sudden I got a record deal and I can afford it. No, his first shirt was on my back,” he said.
Gunn fights against what he perceives as the limitations of being labeled a rapper. It’s a line straight out of Kanye’s big book of philosophy and even something Tyler, The Creator mirrored in his post-GRAMMYs speech. “I don’t even wanna be considered a rapper. I bring so much more to the game,” he told HYPEBEAST. “I love art, fashion, design, executive producing, putting songs together with the skits — all of that sh*t I love more than actually rapping.”
For someone who doesn’t consider himself a rapper, Westside Gunn managed to curate one of the year’s best rap albums, creating a world where he’s at its very center, surrounded by some of the most talented veterans in the hip-hop world today.
Westside revealed that he had been battling a coronavirus diagnosis shortly after the release of Pray for Paris. He joined HYPEBEAST to talk about his recent recovery following his first time out of the country, maintaining his FLYGOD status and the creativity that sparked his collaboration with Virgil Abloh.
HYPEBEAST: First off, how are you feeling? Where are you in the process of recovering from COVID-19?
Westside Gunn: I’m feeling good, man. There’s people dying from this sh*t and it did its little tornado tear-down but I’m building back up. I’m losing my mind because I ain’t smoke in weeks. But everything is just a process and I’m trying to get strong again.
We’ve been working and honestly I’m more motivated. I needed this project because this sh*t just got me more focused and looking forward. I’m not just sitting here on some pitiful sh*t.
What was the inspiration behind the title Pray for Paris?
Just the way I killed [Paris] Fashion Week. You had to pray for everybody in Paris the way I was doing it, man. People there, especially the paparazzi, they didn’t know who I was, but they knew who I was after Fashion Week. It was a dope experience. It was the first time I ever left the country.
I went out there with all my jewelry on with my big security guard from Buffalo. I had like four or five people out there with me. It was really last minute. Every show I went to I got dressed up in one-of-one pieces, so it was like FLYGOD on steroids. Just pray for that country man.
How do you feel about hip-hop’s cultural influence in the fashion world right now?
I think it’s beautiful. I was actually doing fashion first. Griselda Records came as a spinoff from my fashion line. To see hip-hop being accepted so much in fashion now is great, but I’ve been fly my whole life. I was designing jean suits and sh*t in high school. I always was ahead of the game when it came to fashion. Even when it comes to the Virgil connection.
I sent him pictures of me in 2013 when he did PYREX VISION — his first introduction to the fashion world and I was supporting him then. I always say, it don’t matter what you buy, it’s gotta be in you. I love looking on Instagram and seeing what everyone’s doing with their style because at a point in time, it felt like I was the only person doing that type of sh*t. So now that the hip-hop community is accepted by certain brands, it’s pushing the culture forward.
Virgil created the cover art for this project, too. How’d that collaboration happen?
When I was out in Paris, after all the fashion shows and all the partying was over, I still had three days left. I was so influenced by everything that took place that I went into the studio. I was with Virgil the night after I first recorded and I was like, “I already knocked out three, tomorrow I’m gonna finish the rest.” Virgil told me, “This sh*t is crazy. If you do that, I want to do the cover.” So of course, who would say no to that? It actually inspired me to record more because if he did the cover, it’s gonna be a different kind of crowd that actually listens to this.
This is gonna gain more fans for Westside Gunn on a fashion tip. It’s like I’m not even a rapper, I’m an artist. I don’t even wanna be considered a rapper. I bring so much more to the game. I have an ear for production. Some people are just rappers. That’s what they do: they’re good at rap. But I love art, fashion, design, executive producing, putting songs together with the skits — all of that sh*t I love more than actually rapping.
“I always been a supply and demand guy. I was in the streets, I lived by it.”
There’s no mysterious book of rhymes of Westside Gunn or a file of 10 unreleased Westside Gunn songs. Everything I’ve ever recorded is out. You can be like, “Yo, let me hear some new sh*t.” My new sh*t is Pray for Paris. There’s no song that’s just sitting in the computer, bro. Rapping is like the tenth thing on my list I do. But it’s important because everything else that I do before I rap inspires those raps.
You’ve always made sure that your Griselda merch and vinyl releases have incredibly limited runs. Have you looked to any brands for inspiration on keeping supply vastly lower than the current demand for what you create?
Even when I was doing clothing and I wasn’t rapping, I knew that I was doper than the majority of the game. There was a void and I wanted to fill it and bring a balance of the underground culture, the boom-bap culture, people say “backpack rap” or whatever you want to call it — I knew there was something missing.
Everyone wanted to be more from the south, or like Chicago drill music when that became big. People in my lane weren’t popular, they weren’t getting those looks. People always wanted to push forward the popular sound, what’s in the clubs and what’s on the radio. I always been a supply and demand guy. I was in the streets, I lived by it.
You gotta think like a street corner hustler back in the day. Like six, seven people be on one corner or in the projects and they gone fight for the same fiend. And I was like, “Why do that? I can go to a whole other city with no competition and make triple.” I applied my street methods to hip-hop and fashion. You give a crackhead free crack, that’s the best crack they ever had. They gone do anything to come back and get that again.
It was like, “Okay, everybody want to listen to this, but I’m about to make this popular.” It’s really like the dope game.
You linked with Tyler, The Creator on this record, both as a producer and as a featured artist. What was it about his energy that you gravitated towards?
Tyler is somebody who I respect because he’s himself. He don’t give a f*ck. A lot of people be scared to be themselves. In this game there’s a lot of make believe bullsh*t, man. A lot of these people that you see, well they not like that in real life.
With Tyler, he’s himself at all times. He don’t care who in the room. It could be the toughest dudes in the room and he might rap some off the wall sh*t and tell another dude that he’ll kiss him. If you know him, you respect it because that’s him. He’s a good dude with good energy.
As you can see, he killed the project on both levels, on rhyming and production. I’m thankful for that. I actually hit him to congratulate him on the GRAMMYs and that’s when he said he was making a beat for me. When he came to bring me the beat, he heard what I was already playing and he started rhyming.
You also connected with The Alchemist and featured veterans like Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano and Boldy James. How competitive were you when trading bars with those guys over The Alchemist’s productions?
Alchemist is Griselda, man. You know how Mobb Deep was always Havoc and Prodigy? The Alchemist was their third unofficial member. Basically what Alchemist was to Mobb Deep is what he is to Griselda right now. He was already a legend before he got with us and now he’s a part of the Griselda sound. Him working with Boldy, now that’s extended family. Because before I was on him, but I wasn’t on him. When I was listening to [The Price of Tea In China] I was like, “Dude is incredible. He remind me of like a Detroit Benny.” It was so vivid.
I always was a fan of Gibbs and I’ve been doing sh*t with Roc Marci for the last five years straight. Benny [The Butcher] went on tour with Gibbs so you build these relationships. Then when it comes time to start painting these pictures, you go to your family and you go to the best. The first time I heard The Alchemist beat [for “$500 Ounces”] the first person I thought of in the world was Gibbs.
“With Tyler, he’s himself at all times. It could be the toughest dudes in the room and he might rap some off the wall sh*t and tell another dude that he’ll kiss him.”
With me, it’s never competitive. I go on the beat and just do me, man. That’s never been my thing to compete. I was the guy who early on pushed Benny to be like, “Yo, I’m about to just sing a little hook that’s catchy that people gone remember from me, but I need you to spit 100 bars straight of the craziest sh*t you can think of.”
You have songs like “Shower Shoe Lords” and things Benny was performing for the first year and I wanted to see him kill it, not see who was better on the mic. I know what he can do and I want him to shine. Now look at Benny today.
There always seems to be a fork in the road when major labels and additional management step in and alter an artist’s course. Even after Shady Records and Roc Nation, that hasn’t happened with Griselda. How have you managed to maintain that vision?
One thing for sure, these guys been around me my whole life. And Daringer been in my life for too many years, man. This is family and family is first. Of course people have their misunderstandings and little arguments but when you a real family, that sh*t don’t mean nothing. Everybody’s grown. At the end of the day, we here for the culture. We know what we signed up for.
This sh*t was all written. We gotta remain strong because what we’re doing is legendary. We from somewhere where nobody ever came from. We also all slept in a cell. We lost key members of our crew. We almost lost Conway. We dealt with the shootings. So now it’s about giving the world some of the illest hip-hop of all time.
Is there any advice you would give to your younger self about maneuvering through the industry?
Don’t rush. Everything’s gonna happen organically. I’m very blessed. Even with a few bumps in the road, I learned from them so it could never happen again. I take the good with the bad. I’d tell myself to let everything happen organically and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.
Four years ago, Griselda was still considered just underground boom-bap and nobody was really listening. Today we’re spoken of from every big name you could possibly think of. There were a few moves I made prematurely around three years ago. Those things can still come back to haunt you to this day but you live and you learn, man. You keep working.
You have your own day in your home city now, too. The Mayor of Buffalo declared August 28 as Alvin “Westside Gunn” Worthy Day. What are your plans for celebrating this year?
I’m trying to put a wrestling ring in the middle of the hood. I might have nWo [New World Order Wrestling] come out. My love for wrestling is next level. I’m not saying I’m the king of the city or any of that sh*t, but I have the most influence and me having my own day makes me want to give back.
Of course I want to do a concert but who knows with what’s going on in the world right now. This corona sh*t got everything backed up. We might still be in the house during my day. But God-willing if everything clears up and I can do something, I wanna do it for the streets because that’s where I’m from. They’ve backed me and showed me love.
How did your love of wrestling help inspire your career as a rapper?
It came natural. One thing about Westside Gunn, since my first project in 2012, Hitler Wears Hermès 1, you always gonna get art, you always gonna get wrestling. It’s the same thing you’re getting in 2020. My first album cover was an art piece, this cover’s an art piece.
“We all slept in a cell… we almost lost Conway. We dealt with the shootings. Now it’s about giving the world some of the illest hip-hop of all time.”
There’s wrestling on the first [album] and there’s wrestling in this one. I can only be me. I’m only giving the world pieces of who I am. I grew up watching wrestling and I just incorporate everything in my life into my music.
Outside of Pray for Paris, there’s been some rumors about you teaming up with Madlib for a collaboration. Any updates?
Only update I have is that it’s still happening. Everything’s just a chapter right now. After the Pray for Paris chapter I need to give the world part eight of the Hitler Wears Hermès series and then I’ll give you the project with ‘lib. That’s a lot for 2020, but you’ll definitely get all of them.
The Griselda Records lore of the past half-decade plays out like a movie. Let’s say a Griselda major motion picture comes out. Who’s directing?
Sh*t, me. (Laughs). I was there. Nobody knows the story more than Westside Gunn. Of course I could easily say Hype Williams because he hasn’t done one since Belly. We could do some sh*t like Belly in 2022 or 2023. I love how Hype did that one, I love how Dame Dash did Paid In Full — that’s one of my top five movies because that story was so incredibly shot.
Especially being from the streets and knowing the story. I’m not gonna say no Scorsese or some sh*t like that. The reason I say me is because I have the confidence. I feel like I’ll be able to capture Griselda like how Dame and Hype captured their’s.