Feature Photo by Augustus Clarke
For any artist, signing to Eminem’s Shady Records is a major accomplishment, but it was a particularly special moment for Buffalo rapper Conway. The move happened in March as part of a deal with Griselda Records, an independent label owned by his brother, Westside Gunn. It made them the first rappers from their city to sign a deal with major label distribution.
During the course of a nearly hour-long conversation, Conway spoke appreciatively about the impact of the signing on his career, but was most passionate when explaining what it meant for Buffalo. Perhaps this was because Conway and Westside Gunn — both as solo acts and part of their duo, Hall N’ Nash — had already built a foundation for their burgeoning careers with a series of mixtapes and steady flow of SoundCloud releases over the past several years. Before joining Shady, the rappers were their own entities and had already collaborated with hip-hop legends like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Alchemist, and Prodigy despite living in what Conway calls a “forgotten city.”
Buffalo is best known for the chicken wings and the Bills losing four Super Bowls in a row, but it’s also the second most populous city in New York state and has one of the highest crime rates in the country. In 2012, it came in 10th on the Forbes List of America’s Most Dangerous Cities with a violent crime rate of 1,238 per 100,000 residents. During the same year the report was published, Conway was shot in the back of the head and the neck. Doctors initially said he was going to be paralyzed from the neck down. The only visible reminder today is the Bell’s Palsy permanently freezing the right side of his face. As a result, Conway has a mush-mouthed, yet visceral flow reflecting the sheer force of will needed to overcome the incident that could have easily ended his career.
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Nearly losing the ability to rap made Conway step away from the streets and take music on as a full-time endeavor. In 2015, he started making noise alongside Westside Gunn, who had drawn attention with his Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series, by forming the pro wrestling inspired duo Hall N’ Nash. Together, they released a pair of EPs that drew comparisons to the ’90s-era Mafioso raps of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Conway then struck out on his own with The Devils Reject and Reject 2, earning praise for his menacing, yet somehow funny punchlines and tales of crime. Griselda Records had an even more prolific 2016, leaving no choice but for the hip-hop industry to take notice.
Despite signing with Eminem, going on his first headlining tour, and participating in a BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher with the Shady Records roster, Conway isn’t content with his place in rap. “[Before] I just wanted to be the best,” he says. “After that, I wanted to be the best in the world. Now, I just want to be the best ever. I feel like I’m the best ever in the world; now my challenge is to be the best ever. Of all time, to ever breathe oxygen.”
On how getting shot led him to focus on music
[Buffalo is] a forgotten city that nobody checks for. You don’t have A&Rs at the open mics or execs looking for new talent or new artists. It’s just a bunch of young hot head dudes with a chip on they shoulder and a small city where everybody’s angry. It’s just a different dynamic here. So I never really took it serious as far as “this shit going to make it.” But once I realized how good I was — I’m Hip-Hop Verse of the Month material — [I thought to myself] I’m about to tear this shit up. Then I went to jail when I was probably about 23, and then when I came home, I started taking it serious. But I still had one foot in, one foot out of the street. Right when things was starting to go good for my career is when I got shot. That was like 2012. That’s when I got shot. After that, some other shit happened, and that’s when I woke up like: “Yo, I’m wasting years of my life and my talent.” That’s when I got serious about the business side of it and making sure everything works out the way I planned. I always knew we was going to be here, but it wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t smarten up and stop fucking around. Stop being immature, gotta level up, gotta boss up. And that’s what we did. But I didn’t do that at first, so that’s why I got shot.
On almost losing the ability to rap after the shooting
I thought I was going to be paralyzed from the neck down, according to the doctor. I was told I wasn’t going to walk again, that I was going to be paralyzed from the neck down. That’s the first thing I thought and was crying about. Like, “Fuck, [I] did all this fucking work. [There are] all these people counting on me and depending me. Telling me I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna be the one to finally put the city on the map and these niggas gonna put me out, man.” That shit was the frustrating and depressing. I cried a lot. But, you know, I don’t know how … God, man. That’s all I can think of. For some reason, I was just blessed to get out of that wheelchair. And here I am today. I immediately thought, “It’s over for me rapping again. I’ll never rap again.”
On how being from Buffalo serves as motivation
We come from the bottom up in here in Buffalo. No one ever gave us the opportunity; not even our local radio stations play our local music. The newspaper and the local publications don’t even talk about local up-and-coming artists. People don’t even dream here. People don’t even have a dream here. We just want to get it how we can, get it now. Everybody do. Everybody is frustrated with their own situation and their own shit they going through. So that’s why [my music] come off aggressive. ‘Cause I don’t want to lose … I don’t want this opportunity to slip. Nobody ever came from Buffalo, New York, musically and made it where he had a distribution deal or even any type of deal. It’s like Rick James — that was 30 something years ago. People go through nothing.
On gravitating toward darker sounds and themes like early Prodigy and DMX
Maybe our lives reflect maybe the same shit; we went through the same shit. The environment is crazy out here. I’ve been shot at, and I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been popped off on. I’ve seen niggas die in front of my eyes, my friends. I’ve seen niggas bleeding on the ground, getting hit with an AK in the stomach. I’ve lost people dear to me, friends dear to me. My cousin committed suicide. I’ve experienced all types of different pain. So, that’s where the emotion comes from, the pain. The griminess comes from the experience of my life, the shit I did and have been through. So that’s why you can identify a Hell on Earth Prodigy or a DMX [in my music]. The anger, the aggression, comes from anger and frustration. It’s just a lot of frustration, man; that’s all people from Buffalo. I’m speaking for myself, me — that makes my music sound the way I sound.
On meeting Prodigy and becoming collaborators
I was in Buffalo, and I saw this flyer for a show with Smith-N-Wessun and Mobb Deep. It was in Niagara Falls, and I’m like wait a minute: “Niagara Falls, there’s nothing there. This can’t be true.” So, I called Tek [of Smith-N-Wessun] ’cause me and Tek cool. That’s my homeboy; that’s my big brother. So, I called the nigga and said, “Y’all niggas gonna be in the town?” He said, “Yeah, we heading out. Pull up, be there.” So, I pulled up with him and was kicking it with him and [the other Smith-N-Wessun rapper] Steele until it was time to go to the show. I actually went to the show with them.
When we was outside, just smoking a cigarette and shit, smoking a blunt, waiting to go onstage, Mobb Deep pulls up, and Tek is like, “Yeah, that’s P and them right there.” After they park, a few minutes later, Prodigy hops out smoking a cigarette like, “Yo, yeah, I fuck with your shit. Your shit fire.” I didn’t really hear what he was saying. I was in awe, on some starstruck shit, like, “Yo, that’s Prodigy.” So, I didn’t really hear what he said … I’m like, “What you talking bout?” He was like, “Nah nigga, I’m talking bout your shit. Nigga, like you’re fire, we gotta work.” This was like the most unbelievable moment in my life at that point. Prodigy? I almost fainted. I laugh about that shit all the time. I ain’t even almost know what to say.
On signing to Shady Records and using it to further his career
Everything that we doing and getting accomplished, we are making a lot of people proud out there [in Buffalo]. This is like winning the Super Bowl for Buffalo right now. Me and Westside Gunn signing to Shady. I’m just going to continue to do what got me here. With Paul and Em, you know, behind me — shit, the sky’s the limit I believe. That’s why I did the deal. I feel like niggas was already off and running. I was my own entity, and I really laid my ground, paved my way with my bars, with the shit I’m spitting, the music I’m putting out, a lot of freestyles I’ve been killing and all that. My mind state going into it was I’m just going to keep doing what got me to this point. And to let them work they magic and do what they do best.
On what to expect from his debut album, Grimiest of All Time
This is shoot-you-in-your-face rap. Shoot niggas in the face with this one. I got other records that’s like you said, on some introspective, deep shit, but I gotta let niggas know I’m here. That’s what I’m doing. Grimiest of All Time is exactly what it is, the grimiest of all time. Grimiest album ever. The darkest, spooky beats [Griselda in-house producer] Daringer could make and the hardest bars that I could think of, the most disrespectful lines that I could muster.
[There’s a] record we got with Ninth [Wonder]. Definitely Statik [Selektah]. I got a couple tracks with [Alchemist] on there. But [it’s] mostly [produced by] Daringer. Like I said, our energy and our vibe is rare; it’s rare to find that. We on some motherfucking Guru and Primo shit right now. I don’t want to fuck up the formula. I got Styles [P. of the Lox] on there. I got Royce [Da 5’9”] on there. And I got more that I could confirm, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I want them to see the tracklist and just lose they minds. But I kept it mostly me on this album. I don’t really like to do a bunch of features and stuff. I don’t need no help, I can handle it. I can do a classic on my own.
On the best wing spots in Buffalo
It’s a little spot in North Buffalo called Kelly’s Corner. [It’s a] little Irish bar, a little pub. They got the best wings, hot wings. You can go to Bada Bing [Bar & Grill] for sure; they got good pizza and wings, good food all around. My top three are Bada Bing’s, Kelly’s, and La Nova’s.
On why Ric Flair is his favorite WWE wrestler
He was the best. I mean he’s a 16-, 17-time champion. He was the flyest nigga to do it. One of my next shows, I might come out with robes on like that. Crazy robes on like Ric Flair. He got the ladies, kinda like myself. Money, he pulling up hopping out, Rollie on. Hoppin’ out the limo, hoppin’ out the private jets, sippin’ champagne. I love that, I love everything about that. [His promos] inspire me to just talk shit, you know? Can’t nobody stop me, ’cause I’m the best. That’s the thing about Ric Flair: he talks crazy. And ruffles a lot of feathers. Which I’m doing with my raps and my music. I’m also the champion.