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Westside Gunn is a survivor. After years of grinding on the gritty, frigid streets of Buffalo, New York, the Griselda Records founder and self-declared Fly God recently found himself facing a battle of a different kind. This enemy wasn’t one he could shoot it out with, make deals with, or even out-rap in a lyrical contest. It was the COVID-19 coronavirus and it laid him low for several weeks as he battled chest pains that felt “like a tornado went through my chest.”
Yet, just like those Buffalo avenues, unforgiving the drug game, the cutthroat rap game, and the stark spotlight of his burgeoning stardom, Gunn “thugged it out,” practically overcoming the virus before he even let his closest associates know he was fighting for his life. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he maintained the insane work ethic that had him pumping out three-to-four projects a year over the past decade, wrapping up work on his latest full-length release, Pray For Paris.
Following up 2019’s Flygod Is An Awesome God, Paris is Gunn’s ode to the finer things in life and showcase of his eclectic tastes, inspired by a recent trip to the titular French capital for Fashion Week — his first trip out of the country. The city’s influence on the project is undeniable; Gunn’s usual heavyweight grit is balanced by the smooth polish of one of the world’s jazz epicenters, with less focus on gunplay and more on the artistic vibes he soaked up on his first trip abroad. Don’t get it twisted, though: There are still plenty of his signature “boom boom boom boom” ad-libs peppered throughout.
Gunn was generous enough to accept an interview by phone — despite still recovering from his respiratory illness — to break down the new album, his artistic growth, and his post-rap plans, including design, film direction, and executive producing many more potential classics.
How are you? I know that you have been going through it and I just want to make sure you’re doing all right.
I’m good. Just maintaining. I didn’t even make the announcement that I already was feeling at least 80% better. I’m not one of those people that want everybody to feel sorry for me and call me a thousand times a day to check on me. I was just thugging it out. It’s been healing in my own kind of way. And I was really focusing on this project and getting love. And everybody that was involved in the project, we’re having conversations on it through text, and just building. Just designing. Shit like that was like my therapy, just getting stronger again.
I got to get my breath back right, of course. Because I’m an asthmatic, too, so it’s taking a little longer to get my breath back 100%, but another week or two I should be back up. I was having bad chest pains for a long time. It was like a tornado went through my chest. So once that pain started subsiding a little bit, I’m like, “Okay.” Eventually I’m like, “Okay, I’m starting to feel a little better.” Because the pain was crazy. It was like, this shit killing people.
With all of that happening, it’s so good to actually hear somebody still being able to work. And that’s what we want to talk about today, is the work. So let’s get into it. What is the concept behind Pray For Paris?
It started off as a EP. I was out in Paris. I had no idea I was even going to record one record, because I went out there for fashion week. Everything was based off of fashion week. And I’m not a guy who just raps all year long. “Hey, I’m a rapper. Let me go in the studio.” Some people, they live in the studio.
When I went out there, all I was focusing on was fashion. Anybody that know me, know I’m a fashion guy. Even if you listen to my lyrics, since Hitler Wears Hermes one, it’s always fashion. So, this was my first Fashion Week in Paris, this was actually my first time leaving the country. So, I went out there and I was just inspired, by the city, by fashion shows, by the parties, the culture out there.
So after like five days, all the shows, and parties, and shit was over. I ended up booking some studio time, because the thing was, I wanted to rap. I wanted to do something in Paris that was special, because I was so inspired. I had never experienced nothing like that in my life. I was just like on a natural high, just being out there. I’m like, okay, I’m going to make a EP, when I get back to the States on Tuesday, and I’m just going to drop it on everybody Friday.
But once I got back, I was just like, yo, I should make an album, man. But like the vibe of this album was just…. I set the tone in Paris. The first six songs was made out there. But just me coming back and working — the fans need more. I need to make it a full length, and let me just go hard. I haven’t dropped nothing since October. The fans need more than just six songs.
This one is probably your most feature-laden project. So I was wondering about what was the reasoning behind why, especially since some of these names might be unexpected to people. Tyler The Creator, Wale, even Jay Versace got a beat on here. So, what was the reasoning behind putting so many features in, especially so many features that might be considered unusual for a Griselda project?
Well, when I was in Paris, the first six songs, of course, was no features at all. It was just like the Paris vibe. But it was just like when I came back, man, and if I’m going to do it… that’s the one thing about me. If I’m going to do a project, you always going to get the best out of me. Every single time. When I first made Flygod, it was like, “There’s no way he could top Flygod.” Then I dropped Supreme Blientele.
“There’s no way you could top Supreme Blientele.” Then I dropped, Hitler Wears Hermes 7. Then it’s like, “There’s no way you can top Hitler 7. So now it’s this. I love the art, I love pushing the culture forward, I love bringing something new to the table, I love the fact that I can bring certain people into my world. I brought Tyler into my world, I brought Jay Versace into my world. Love just bridging the gap, and bringing the best hip-hop and art to the game as possible.
Yes, sir. Which song from the album can you just not wait for people to hear? Which is the one that you know people are going to go bananas over?
My favorite is “French Toast” with Wale and Joyce Wrice, because it’s a different kind of Westside Gunn. It’s not the shoot-em-up, bang bang Westside Gunn. It’s just kind of just like fly, smooth, you can play it on the radio, you can play it in the club. If it wasn’t for this damn corona, you would have a video.
It would have definitely been something crazy, man. I’m a fly dude, Wale a fly dude. The ladies in it would have been immaculate. And we would have been in Paris. So it would have been like something crazy. I say “French toast.” I also say the “327” with Joey and Tyler.
You guys have been in the game 10 years strong. You guys probably dropped your first joint, what, in 2011, 2012 right?
Yeah. Yep. [Hitler Wears Hermes] Part one was October, 2012.
So, what did it take to remain in the game almost ten years strong, as an independent artist, as an independent label that people might not know?
It’s all art, man. I love it. I love it, man. And it didn’t matter if I was the most popular, or not. You’re going to get two, three projects out of Westside Gunn every single year. Last year alone, I did Flygod Is An Awesome God and Hitler Wears Hermes 7.
Even with the songs that I just was performing on tour like Awesome God is probably — definitely — on my top three projects I ever made. And it was so overlooked at the time it came out. And people just really didn’t even get the lyrics. I was so ahead of my time, talking about shit people still don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s going to be one of them projects that people still won’t get for another two, three years.
But after all of that, what’s going on with all of these retirement announcements? Because you said you were going to retire sometime in 2021 or 2022. And then Conway is talking about he’s going to retire. What’s going on with half of Griselda trying to retire all of a sudden? You guys are just getting started.
I can’t speak on bro. Bro ass probably was drunk and high, and just tweeted some shit. I don’t know. You know how sh*t go. But me, personally, I’ve been saying this sh*t for two years already. And it’s not like I just start saying it. My crew knew, my family knew. In this business, I’m not a rapper. I’m a artist. I love painting pictures. I hate when people call me a rapper. I’m not a rapper at all. I’m a artist, man. I start with that blank canvas, and I get to work. I always said 2020 was going to be my last year because I was going to push a wrestling company and executive produce some of the illest. Just because I’m not rapping, don’t mean I’m not about to executive produce the illest groups people ever heard, still.
I want to go to Milan, and Paris, and Japan and design, and start interning for a major house, things like that. I came into this game knowing I had to do what I had to do to get my team on. Conway was first. Then came Benny. We all came together, and we did what we had to do together. Everybody making noise. And it’s like, okay, what I came to do, I did.
I just want to focus on a lot of other things. I was doing fashion before the rapping. The GxFR brand, the clothing brand, was before Griselda Records. I still want to do film. It’s so much shit I want to do. I’m still going to direct movies and videos. I’m still going to be behind the illest shit you still see in the culture.
Pray For Paris is out now on Griselda Records. Get it here.