Westside Gunn Is Bringing Balance to the Rap Game

Eight years ago, Buffalo native Alvin Worthy made it his personal mission to bring balance to the rap game. A modern-day renaissance man, he’d already dabbled in rhyming with a 2005 mixtape, and he’d been designing clothes since his early teens, before becoming unavoidably immersed in the street life and serving some jail time as a consequence. Concerned with the economic disparity between the underground and the mainstream, he took it upon himself to gain wider recognition for traditional East Coast-inspired rap music. Despite the respect that he demanded of his peers, his objective wasn’t necessarily met with enthusiasm. When he pitched the music as a business opportunity to street corner investors, many expressed concerns about its danceability. Luckily, setting trends wasn’t new to Worthy, and the doubts of others weren’t about to sway him.

When we connect with him over the phone from his home in Atlanta, where he is currently in quarantine, Worthy — known to the world as Westside Gunn — has already done more than enough to prove those early skeptics wrong. “The underground raw boom bap, it hasn’t been this respected in two decades,” he states, without exaggeration. His particular blend of rap is a connoisseur-approved concoction of coded street tales, ‘fit checks and gunfire ad-libs, decanted over sampled-based beats. In 2017, his label, Griselda Records — home to himself, his brother Conway The Machine, and cousin Benny The Butcher — signed a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records, dropping their major label debut WWCD last year, as well as inking a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. “Five years ago, you wouldn’t have had a Drake talking about Griselda, or LeBron James playing Griselda publicly. Now it’s the cool thing to do.”

Released in April, Wes’ latest solo album, Pray For Paris, completed in solitary while he quietly recovered from Covid-19, is his most accomplished to date. Inspired by a last minute trip to the French capital at the invite of Virgil Abloh, it sees Westside Gunn opening up to a new audience, without compromising the essence of what core fans already love about him. Unsurprisingly, it’s being discussed on social media alongside albums that span all genres, and no longer reserved for conversations amongst hardcore rap fans. “That’s the first time I’ve had that, and that’s the dope thing about it,” he says. “That’s just the elevation right now. I wanted to have a point to prove when I painted this one in particular. I wanted to spread my wings more on this and just show people what else I could do, and I accomplished that with this project.”

Wes had never left the country when he received the fashion week invitation, which required him to get a passport and be in Paris within three days. He admits he was initially uncomfortable with traveling overseas, and has been turning down booking requests since the release of his 2016 cult classic FLYGOD: “I thought some old legal shit was gon’ pop up!” When he took his front row seat at the Off-White™ show, he was surprised to hear “Perfect-Plex” from his 2016 album Roses Are Red… So Is Blood (with UK producer The Purist) soundtracking the runway. “I was shocked,” he admits. “Just seeing everybody bopping they head, really zoning to it. And I’m paying attention. I’m looking at the Migos next to me, bouncing they head. The music was dope, man, it went perfect.” Wanting to bottle the experience into his next masterpiece, he extended his trip and began work on what would become Pray For Paris.

Westside Gunn’s obsession with fashion traces back to his childhood, looking up to his teenage aunt and uncle for style inspiration. “I was actually privileged to be fly early,” he says, recalling brands like Air Jordan, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, Polo, and Guess, that they’d secure him for school. “I always stood out. Even as a young boy.” At 10 years old, he and his friend Victor Orozco — who shot Griselda’s WWCD album artwork last year — would create comic books that they’d distribute to other kids at school. By 12, they’d advanced to graphic tees; Wes would come up with the ideas and storylines which Victor would draw. “I called up the screen printing places. Then the money I would make off my side hustles, I’d flip that money to get the shirts; my crew wearing it and next thing you know, family wearing it. Once you getting known and people wearing your clothes, it starts getting addictive.”

His burgeoning fashion empire extended to rhinestone jean suits and patches for letterman jackets. He was accepted into a number of design colleges, but as a father of two at the age of 19, he needed a way to provide for his family, and turned to the streets rather than paying tuition fees. “Being from Eastside Buffalo, you just in the streets. It’s sad,” he explains. “There’s really no way around it when you end up in those environments. Instead of going to college when that’s what I should have did, I was so focused on making money that I didn’t actually go to school.”

With his street money, high-end brands became accessible to Wes, and he fell back on designing clothes for himself in favor of wearing Iceberg, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. “I’m 19 years old in Versace silks, wearing Versace glasses, feeling like I’m Master P and shit,” he remembers. However, the lifestyle caught up to him, and he ended up serving time. “I just started designing crazy when I was in prison. Just looking at GQ magazines, and Robb Report magazines, getting subscriptions to all the fly shit so that I can still kinda be on the street. Before then, I didn’t even have time to look at a magazine or what other people was doing. I don’t regret nothing. Me even going to prison is what changed my life. Because now I have time to actually sit down and focus and design.”

The brands Wes followed in the magazines became embedded in his rhymes, creating an “if you know you know” mentality amongst his fanbase, drawing them closer and documenting his ahead-of-the-curve taste. “Yesterday I made a new rhyme, and I said something about We11done, and people might think I’m talking about cooked, but I’m talking about the brand,” he explains. “People don’t even know what the brand We11done is right now. So me mentioning it now, it just sounds cool, and next year when people wearing We11done, they’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute, FLYGOD said that last year!’ And it’s been like that forever.” He recently re-released his debut mixtape Flyest Nigga In Charge, Vol. 1, as a reminder: “If you look at the back cover, I had a Louis Vuitton scarf over my face, I showed Virgil that shit like, ‘Bruh, I’ve been wearing Louis Vuitton since early 2000s.’ There’s people just catching on to shit I’m saying years ago, today. That’s just the whole style of the FLYGOD.”

Given his history, it’s unsurprising that a trip to Paris Fashion Week would unlock such boundless inspiration for Westside Gunn. “It’s like a dog that’s been in a cage his whole life. Once you open up that door, he’s just running in circles and shit, going crazy. That’s kind of how I am right now,” he explains. He followed up by attending New York Fashion Week in February, and intends to leave the country again as soon as it’s safe to travel. “I was talking to Charaf [Tajer] from Casablanca, and he’s telling me how he goes to Africa to pick out certain silks and material for his brand. I’ve been exposed to things I’ve never [been exposed to] before. So now I’m feeling like I’m next level. I’m ready to do all these but I end up going on tour — and then Corona happened, so I’m on pause. As soon as this world just free up again, I’ll probably go to Japan the next day.”

During the trip, he’d also be introduced to a fellow King of New York, the late Pop Smoke. “I never thought that would be the last time chilling with him,” reflects Wes. “I loved his style, I think he would have went far, man. His style would have took him to another level, not even rap, just him dressing and everybody was already rocking with him that needed to rock with him. He had something special man, at that age.” Wes thought it appropriate to immortalize the meeting on Pray For Paris, titling track 12 “Party wit Pop Smoke.” “I just felt like, on this classic, I wanted to have his name attached to it. We had a dope time, we went to Virgil’s afterparty for Louis Vuitton, then he had an afterparty, I sat next to him while he performed. It was a dope experience.”

One of the keys to Westside Gunn’s success is his openness towards artists that create things that are different to his own work. While many “underground” rappers have intentionally othered themselves from their mainstream counterparts, a scroll through Westside Gunn’s Instagram page shows him flicking up with a broad spectrum of creatives, including JAY-Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Takashi Murakami, Virgil Abloh, Madlib, Julia Lang, Dapper Dan, Don C, A$AP Rocky, Mexican wrestling duo The Lucha Bros, and Tyler The Creator, the latter having produced and featured on Pray For Paris. “I’m pushing the culture forward. I’m pushing fashion forward. I’m pushing art forward. I have my hands tied into all of that. I’ve even been introducing my fanbase to wrestling, people [that] haven’t watched wrestling since the ’90s,” he says. “I don’t know what the ending of this story is going to be. Me building with Kanye, and me building with Just Don and me building with Hov and me building with Virgil. Jerry Lorenzo hit me, ‘Shout out for mentioning Fear Of God,’ and he’s sending me Fear Of God sneakers before everybody. This is just the beginning now. Now I’m sitting at the table with people that influenced me.”

His Pray For Paris T-shirt collab with Virgil Abloh has been spotted on the backs of Jay-Z and Meek Mill and is currently selling on Grailed for $300. Prior to the Covid-19 epidemic, he visited Kanye West’s ranch in Wyoming, and on returning received some unreleased Yeezy Season designs, soliciting his opinion. “This is the things that’s happening now. This time next year who knows what Westside Gunn is going to be doing? After Corona, it’s on, it’s a wrap. Once it’s opened back up, next thing you know you might have the Purple Denim collab, the Just Don collab, me and Virgil might do a part two, I might be helping Yeezy with the next Yeezy Season.”

In music, he believes that the re-popularization of boom bap led by Griselda will inspire others. “People are tapped in, and it’s love,” he says. “I think this is going to bring out better music. This is what’s going to bring out the best Meek now. This is going to bring out the best Drake, because Drake [is] listening to Benny. Now you’re going to have the people like Meek feeling comfortable, Drake feeling comfortable, to rap over this type of music, because that’s where they truly come from, that’s their roots. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I can actually rap over Alchemist and [DJ Premier] and still sit front row at the fashion show? This is opening up people’s eyes, this is the balance.”

On the flip side, you might even get to hear a Westside Gunn trap song in the future. “I like to go to the club and pop bottles and get fly, too,” he declares. “That’s where we come from, I’m a street dude.” Juicy J has been sending him beats; he reveals Memphis rap is his preferred strain, listing Moneybagg Yo, Yo Gotti, Blac Youngsta, Young Dolph, Key Glock, and BlocBoy JB as some of his go-to artists. “Memphis music has inspired me over any music and people would never guess that. You can save the ‘I knew he was gon change when he got a little more popular’ talk,” he laughs. “I’m already gonna nip it in the bud before it even happen. I’m just having fun, it’s a difference.”

Through hard work and resilience, Westside Gunn has accomplished what he set out to do in 2012, but believes that it’s still only the beginning of his story. He’s afforded himself a lifestyle in which he’s comfortable creating for himself, and the sky’s the limit. “The world is finally about to see what Westside Gunn is about,” he warns, preparing to return to work on his already-in-progress new album that he suggests we’ll be back on a call to discuss in a few months. “I’m just going to keep living my life like how I make the music. Do it for me and let the people love it or hate it. That’s the same thing I’m about to do in fashion. As long as I’m satisfied, I’ma remain undefeated.”

Stream Westside Gunn’s ‘Pray For Paris’ right here.