Since rising from Buffalo, New York, Griselda Records has flouted convention. Brothers Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn, who founded the label in 2014, have been flushed with support, by way of critical appreciation and depleting inventory. (For years they’ve had a successful merchandise business, with items selling out in minutes, despite — at times — cryptic sales info.)
The label’s sound zeroes in on a mystic slice of rap’s past — a time when Ghostface Killah splattered imagery with violent aplomb over slow, dark soul. (The Alchemist, an early champion of Griselda, has a song with Conway and Westside Gunn fittingly titled: “’94 Ghost Shit.”) In-house producer Daringer, a master of the mournful soul loop, couches every graphic verse with swelling slow burners. He made the lion’s share of Westside’s official debut studio release, FLYGOD, setting the tone and character for Griselda records thereafter. The label has released over a dozen albums and mixtapes, each project having the gritty New York City street rap sound popularized in the ’90s. In the span of three years, Griselda went from slinging hoodies out of a Buffalo living room to signing a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records in 2017.
Gunn and Conway were the first stars of Griselda. But right behind them came another MC — Benny The Butcher, a rapper who surfaced as an instinctive storyteller; he is less flashy yet able to shoulder posse cuts with intense imagery. His projects, particularly 2016’s My First Brick and 2017’s Butcher On Steroids with Green Lantern, earned him “secret weapon” status within the crew. It was momentum he rode into Tana Talk 3, the steller album he dropped at the end of 2018. Produced entirely by The Alchemist and Daringer, Tana Talk 3 features the bleak soundscape that Griselda has perfected. Lyrically, Benny stepped it up another level: spitting some of the most vivid raps about street life ever put down on wax, rapping with the same matter-of-fact stoicism that made Prodigy great. “Caught my nephew with some work, I guess he caught himself trapping with it. I said, ‘Just know the consequences if they catch you with it,'” he spits on “Broken Bottles.” On the haunting “Rick” he raps: “Plugged in with immigrants who sell bricks and sandals. It’s a difference from risk and gambles. I do this for the five-foot chandelier over the big piano.”
“We’re all those dudes. All real. Guns, bullets, prison, all that is not for show. We have all lived that life,” Benny told me when I spoke with him recently. “There hasn’t been a movement like this in hip-hop since the ‘90s.” Given his penchant for observational lyrics, he might be correct. Copycats, groundswell of support, and time will perhaps prove that Griselda spawned a new sub-genre of rap by cannibalizing specific fragments of it and making it their own. Adjacent acts, collaborators, and co-signs so far include Newark’s Mach-Hommy, Busta Rhymes, Pete Rock, Tha God Fahim, and Hempstead, Long Island hero Roc Marciano.
Authenticity anchors their ethos, and their songs draw from real experience. We recently sat down with Benny, the latest star from Griselda, and candidly talk about his upbringing, how he joined the label, the making of his soon-to-be-classic Tana Talk 3, and more.
Check out the interview below.
What was growing up in Buffalo like?
Buffalo was like any other ghetto. You see things. You have friends and you guys grow up and see the same shit. I’m from Montana Avenue, that’s the Eastside of Buffalo, so like everyone else, I looked up to dope dealers in the hood. The first time I heard “If I Ruled The World” by Nas I was coming home from school and getting off the school bus, walking down the street and seeing hustlers on my block blasting it out of their jeeps.
Was there competition from other crews from the area?
There was no other Buffalo rappers, so no [laughs]. We get a lot of love from the boroughs though so we pay homage to the legends and classics that came from there.
How has the music industry struck you so far? I’ve read you handle a lot of your own business matters.
I’ve been telling a lot of people this: You meet a lot of managers and label people and…a lot of times you know more than these people. Don’t get caught up in their industry talk. I came from a place where my mom was on drugs in the projects and my brother died in state prison. I grind to be where I’m at now. All those execs didn’t’ start where I started, maybe they had a rough life too, but we come from different places. You can’t let anyone invite you to a big office and talk you up.
If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
I’m 34. Look, I talk about my age freely. Doing what I’m doing and coming from where I came from is an accomplishment. This is just another trophy on the mantle. I wear my age like a badge. I know a lot of people who I knew was way stronger and smarter than me and they’re not here.
You’ve mentioned drawing inspiration from classic material. There are a lot of Wu-Tang comparisons for obvious reasons. If Westside is Ghostface, which member are you?
Man, well I can’t be [Raekwon] because [Westside Gunn] and Conway are already like Rae and Ghost [laughs]. Maybe, sometimes, I’m ODB [laughs]. Not really either. That’s a good question, I’m not sure.
Who’s your favorite Wu?
I cannot even separate my personal relationships with these guys anymore because now we’re actually friends. I have a personal relationship with Raekwon. He’s like a mentor to me, like a big brother for real. We have conversations, man. He helps me. Shout out to Rae. He’s my favorite. I love all of those dudes, I don’t want anyone to read this and think I’m hating on anyone[laughs]. I mean I saw RZA in Atlanta recently, and the nigga looked like he was coming fresh from a movie set or something.
What kind of stuff does Raekwon tell you?
To keep doing what I’m doing, to stay sharp. Keep people’s attention. Do it for the culture. All the pointers and you’d think an OG would want to teach you. He keeps me on point. He’s been in this game for so fucking long. He also tells me to always keep being a bull.
Was there a specific moment when you decided you wanted to get into music?
I decided early. I knew when I was 10 because I was always a fan of music. I was a fan of ABC, Another Bad Creation, you remember them? It kind of changed my life because I remember watching and mimicking them and wanting to showcase my talent. And I knew then that I should do music.
Daringer handles the majority of Griselda’s production and is largely responsible for your overall sound. How do you two work together?
Let me give you the process. He’ll cook something up that I can check out and he’ll play the beat, and I’ll write it right there. It’s straightforward. At least 90% of the beats I do with Daringer I did it right in front of him or with him right beside me. And not just me and him and others. I mean just me and him — us by ourselves.
Talk about Griselda and how it functions not just as a label but as an overall company and concept.
Griselda is Westside’s baby. Conway and I have helped him build it to what it is today but it all comes from his brain. Before Griselda was a record label, it was a clothing brand. He was already doing clothes and thinking of getting back into again. He had done some music before too. Everything is built on authenticity. Griselda is a movement. It’s cultural, it’s raw, and hard music. It’s also lyricism. We glorify lyrics. Yeah, we glorify money, too but it’s the lyrics. Daringer’s been around for years too. We’re all family.
How far back do you go with Westside?
Not sure how long but for sure there was a time before I was even part of the label,, and I was just a fan myself. I remember when Westside first got the hoodies and spent like $400, and I wasn’t even signed to Griselda yet [laughs]. He’s a stubborn motherfucker, but he’s a genius. He’s wry, stuck in his ways. But that’s probably because he’s not wrong often.
Do you guys have an office?
We have a crib we meet up at.
No, in Atlanta. That’s pretty much like the Griselda headquarters. We call it the Five. That’s what we call it. “You going to the Five? ‘When you going to the Five?”
Alchemist is a big collaborator on the album and works with Griselda a lot in general. How’d you guys meet?
I met Alchemist at his house, going thru there with West and Conway and Daringer; they introduced him to me. I already knew who he was. We met and chopped it up and I was there again the next day. The first day we met we actually recorded some stuff. He’s a humble dude. We both smoke and talk shit [laughs]. He’s great to work with.
How long does it take for you from start to finish to complete a song?
I would say an hour.
Walk us through your writing process and how you approach a beat once you’ve committed to it.
I haven’t had a pen and pad since the ‘90s, and if you play me a beat I will know after a minute if I like it and can run with it or not. It’s like a puzzle and I put the pieces together in my head. But then I repeat it, and go over it, and go over it, to memorize them. The key to that is just repetition and saying the verse over and over. I can almost see the verse written in my head after doing that.
How long did Tana Talk 3 take to make?
It took two weeks, but we were working on [Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes 6] and working on a whole bunch of other shit so we were just setting songs aside for Tana. Alchemist would hear me do a song and say, “Yeah we need to set that one aside.” A few months before the album dropped I went to LA to meet with Alchemist to wrap it up. He’d say “Let’s go!” and that’s how some other later pieces ended up as full tracks.
What are you listening to currently?
Speaking of Conway, how is he as a label mate.
People see me and think I’m keeping it moving and working but Conway — that dude is for real a machine. He always has a bunch of projects ongoing. Me and Conway gonna drop some shit this year.
Of your career so far, is there a personal favorite song, one that is particularly meaningful?
It’d probably be “Prayer Hands.” A couple years ago I wrote that verse when I was in prison, and when I hear these verses I hear myself and get taken back to that time again. It’s off my earlier stuff so many people probably haven’t heard it. I’m talking about my life a lot in that shit. I mention prison a lot in my songs because it’s affected me a lot.
What did you go away for?
I caught a federal charge for an attempt to distribute a kilo. Imagine being in prison when you were eighteen, that will forever change you. I was in prison and all that shit happened and that was before I even had children. It taught me how to be a man. When you’re a young nigga you gotta learn.
That seems behind you now. A couple of weeks ago you tweeted about racing Porsches in Vegas.
Hell yeah. We had Jags, Porsches, four-wheelers. Where we were there was no way cops would ever find us [laughs]. It was my first time in Vegas too. We just wanted to get toys and fuck around. It was wild.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, Benny listed himself as 36. This was a transcribing error. He said 34.
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in The Source, Wax Poetics, The Guardian, Red Bull Music Academy, Passion of the Weiss, Nerdtorious and others. You can follow him at @_davidma.
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