There’s an easy chemistry on LULU, the seven song EP by Conway the Machine produced entirely by Alchemist, out Monday (March 30). The project taps into the spirit of a bygone era, when Ghostface was obliterating RZA soul loops.
The resurgence and interest in what’s considered underground rap is noticeable but not solely based on nostalgia — it’s more of a mood, says Alchemist: “The feeling of what Conway and Griselda have been doing reminds me of that ‘90s era we all love, but let me be clear: I think this music is 2020 as f–k.”
Griselda, out of Buffalo, has had a ferocious ascendant, signing with Shady Records and becoming a top draft on Eminem’s roster. They later inked a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Conway, brother of the crew’s founder Westside Gunn, is bonafide as they come, marked by Bell’s palsy from gunshots to the back of his head. His scars aren’t exploited as gimmicks, but are rough, physical trademarks of the stories he tells.
On “They Got Sonny” (a track with Cormega), he recalls: “I’m from where the kids don’t get a new jacket in the fall, roach in the cereal, and every spoon black in the drawer. Mama used crack and pops shoot smack in his arm.” Later in song, over its mournful backdrop, he reveals his impetus: “Drive and ambition, I’m focused on the goal like Kawhi in transition.”
He’s not only the best pure rapper of his crew, but is one of the most lethal ones in recent memory. At 38, Conway’s ascendance is later compared to the genre’s celebrated prodigies. That’s why pairing with Alchemist couldn’t have come at a better time. Alchemist has had a long rise, releasing his first record as part of The Whooliganz in 1991. As a teenager, he joined the now fabled Soul Assassins collective under the tutelage of Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs. In the decades since, he’s cornered the market on crafting moods for swaths of MCs, evidenced by glowing works with Action Bronson and legendary Prodigy of Mobb Deep.
Like Conway, he also has a Shady connection, touring as Eminem’s DJ in the early 2000s. Alchemist’s production spurts have spearheaded an indie groundswell that includes Roc Marciano, KA, Boldy James, Mach Hommy, Benny The Butcher (also of Griselda) and others. And Conway is set to detonate 2020 with three more projects that he lovingly calls “nuclear missiles.”
Billboard spoke with Conway and Alchemist about independent rap, their working processes, quarantining, and much more.
Tell us what you two have been doing during this crazy time.
Conway: I’ve been pretty much recording and working on new music, at home in Buffalo with the family, that’s all. Trying to stay healthy and away from everything and pray for the best.
Alchemist: I never realized until now, but basically the life I live was and is already very quarantined. [laughs] I just miss my friends. I live this way every day anyways, and the work doesn’t stop. We’re just keeping extra natural with the ginger, oregano oil, and vitamin C, you know?
It seems like there has been a re-emergence of interest in indie-rap within the last couple of years. Tell us how that experience has been for independent artists and why you think that is.
Conway: It’s bubbling because we made it cool again. I knew it’d only be a matter of time before the world caught wind of Westside and the ideas he had. Quality music comes from the streets and that’s something that will never change. I’m not gonna throw Auto-Tune on my shit and make corny a– s–t.
Alchemist: People also get the misconception sometimes that we make “underground” [music] and want to stay underground. At the end of the day, we’re just stubborn as f–k and will just make what we make hoping the whole world hears it and enjoys it. We think what we do should be the biggest thing, so we keep that in mind as we create the music.
Listeners have labeled this era as having a drumless sound to it, which isn’t entirely true, but does speak to a certain aesthetic. Al, what’s your take on that?
Alchemist: It’s just popping up the hood of a car and looking at all the wires and trying to describe what you see. I don’t care or take offense to it if people call it “drumless.” I just don’t think it’s accurate because I do all kinds of styles. It’s about blurring the lines. It only bothers me when people will only listen to this or that because of what people say the sound of it is. That’s for kids who just need to have more sex. If you had a girl and just enjoyed the music, you wouldn’t care if a song had drums or not.
Who of your current peers do you talk to, and what’s the general response to all the recent successes?
Alchemist: I talk to Roc [Marciano] and [Westside] Gunn all the time about what we’re doing and how to keep it going. I think we’re giving you a full aura. The minute you hear Conway’s voice, it automatically puts you in a certain feeling; you want to put your hoodie on and rob your own house. [laughs] For me, the feeling I get is like hearing certain groups from the late ‘90s.
Conway, share with us some artists you grew up listening to during that ‘90s era Al mentioned.
Conway: All the Wu [Tang] n—as. Redman too. I was into a lot of West Coast artists actually, like [Ice] Cube, MC Eight, Ice-T, Spice 1. I was a fan of all hip-hop. There wasn’t a cassette that I didn’t have; I tried to listen to everybody’s s–t. Geto Boys of course. I was really into The Diary by Scarface. Prayers up and shouts to ‘Face for what he’s going through right now. It sounds like some s–t and we’re praying for you, OG.
Talk a bit about Jay-Z and your relationship. A lot of people recently shared that clip of him speaking to you about something seemingly very serious at a recent show.
Conway: Every time we see each other, he goes out of his way to show me love, and I of course do the same. He’s just real and shows more love than a lot of these industry cats. At that recent show you mentioned when he was backstage, he just said some of the realest s–t to me. Some of it was just letting me know that the emotion I be showing on stage is a beautiful thing and to never stray away from that.
You both have worked with each other prior, but this is the first straight collaboration. Let’s touch on LULU. What’s your favorite cut off the project?
Alchemist: For me, like most projects, it changes every day and that’s a good thing. I’ve been listening to this EP backwards, actually, and the first two songs are crazy to me. You just left wanting more, but that’s a good thing.
Conway: “Contract” is my favorite track on here.
What was the process for you both on this? Al, do you still dig for samples?
Alchemist: I don’t look for samples, the samples find me. [laughs] But when I hear the right loop or sound, it’s almost an out-of-body type experience. Look, these days I don’t even sample as much as people think. But when I do, I show up to record shops with a f–king shovel.
Conway, you have another project dropping on Shady Records this year. Talk about Eminem’s reaction to your work as you look toward the rest of 2020.
Conway: It’s called God Don’t Make Mistakes. Em is a super creative artist, so for me to play my project for him and for him to not have any issues with it was a really good feeling. He was into it! He was snapping his neck the whole time! To get that support is incredible and lets me know I’m doing something right. It’s also great for my confidence. Having Jay, Em, and Al in my corner? Who gonna stop me?