It’s easy to forget you’re talking to an accomplished artist who’s collaborated with Kanye West, The Roots’ Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and a slew of other notable hip-hop heavyweights, but that’s just who Westside Gunn is. He’s the kid from Buffalo, New York who made it. Despite all odds being stacked against him, he’s the one who escaped the perils of the streets and, in the words of Outkast, got up, got out, and got something. Along with his brother Conway the Machine and cousin Benny the Butcher, the Flygod took Griselda Records from a tiny, homegrown label to a partnership with Eminem and manager Paul Rosenberg’s imprint, Shady Records. Even with all of his success, his respect for hip-hop’s architects and pioneers shines through, while his humble demeanor and relatability remain intact.
Case in point, Westside Gunn just returned to Buffalo after a whirlwind trip to New York City and Philadelphia where he was shooting a music video for his final installment of the Hitler Wears Hermes series, 10. His plans are to take his nieces and nephews to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, eat a lot of good food, and check in with his people. Clearly, Gunn isn’t like other rappers. He didn’t get his start at age 20 and have to go through the growing pains of becoming an adult in front of an audience nor did he struggle with any kind of identity crisis as he encountered fame—he already knew who he was. Having just turned 40 in July, he was able to look at the music business with a different lens.
“I don’t have to go through the problems of being young Westside Gunn and being immature,” he said. “Not only just being mature, but you also gotta think, being at this age, I’ve been in every phase of hip-hop. So I was there in the Run-DMC days, the Slick Rick days, Ice-T, and N.W.A, all the way back as far as I can remember—LL COOL J, Salt-N-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee. I was there for MC Hammer, I was there for Kool G Rap, then Nas and Wu-Tang. I’ve been through every phrase. I’m really a student of the game. I’m born in 1982, so my whole life has been hip-hop.”
Westside Gunn has been on a creative high for years now, releasing several projects back-to-back, including Pray for Paris and Who Made the Sunshine, both released in 2020. But interestingly enough, Gunn never set out to rap.
“I still don’t want to rap,” he said with a laugh. “But the thing about it is, every year I give ‘em another classic. That’s me not wanting to rap.”
He’d tried before. In 2005, he released his first mixtape, but legal troubles kept him from seriously pursuing it. When Conway got shot in 2012, everything changed. That was the moment he decided to pick up the mic again.
“We was already living like rappers,” he explained. “I tried to rap in ’04. I tried once. It wasn’t like I tried all the time. I didn’t rap again from 2005 to 2012, but I knew how to rap. My style was the exact same. When I started back in 2012, I kept my same style and went big. I was trying to get Conway on and we was working. Once he got shot, I still knew people in offices and I was still getting my feet wet. If anybody’s going to bet on me, it’s going to be me. So I went extra hard and did something nobody else is doing. In 2012, Atlanta was heavy. There was a big Southern influence and I came out of nowhere with just the raw boom bap shit.”
Gunn wanted to make an immediate impact—and he did. As he admitted, he was looking for “shock value” and chose to put Adolf Hitler, one of history’s most controversial figures, on the cover of his mixtape.
“The title at first was Devil Wears Prada and I switched it because I was like, ‘I’m not going to keep the same name, so let me think of some crazy shit,’” he recalled. “Hitler Wears Hermes was what came to my mind first. It wasn’t like I thought of no other name. I didn’t want nobody to know who I was, so I put out this mix CD with Hitler on the cover to see what would happen. Mind you, I hadn’t rapped in seven years, and I made this project in like five days. I was on some fly shit though, and that was the first Hitler Loves Hermes. I wanted to see their reaction and what people were thinking. That’s how it all started.”
Ten years later, Westside Gunn has closed the door on the popular series but said he feels “good” about it.
“A lot of people in this game, they come and go,” he continued. “For me to be able to say I did it 10 times is legendary in itself. That’s just [to] let you know that I’ve been putting in work for a decade, and a lot people can’t say that. Even after a decade, I’m just now starting to get certain looks after 10 years of working. That just lets you know you just gotta work hard, stay consistent and don’t give up ‘cause there’s always another level. I carved my own lane, so I’m already happy. I don’t care if I don’t get no bigger than what I am now, for what I’ve done in these 10 years, I done carved my own lane, I did it my own way and I’m super happy.”
And it shows. Granted, it could be the weed. Gunn smokes an astonishing 28 blunts from sunrise to sunset, equating to about an ounce per day. In fact, he was rolling one up during the conversation. And like Snoop Dogg, he has a professional blunt roller on his payroll.
“I have some rolled up for me every day,” he said. “I got a professional blunt roller last month. I got ‘em on salary to do other things as well, so that’s not the only thing they do. They just get that part out of the way, but they’re definitely on salary. I might do two gram blunts or I might just do one gram blunts ‘cause I like chain-smoking. After a while, when you smoke blunts, you get used to it like smoking a cigarette. I smoke so much I like the one gram blunts but just back-to-back. But I’m trying to break out of smoking ‘cause I smoke so much, I wanna try to get cleaner. I smoke too much.”
Together with Chauncey Leopardi, who played Squints in the film The Sandlot in 1993 and is the owner of the cannabis and lifestyle brand Squintz, Westside Gunn took his love of weed and turned it into a business. The strain he was smoking is called “The Liz,” which was named after The Liz 2 album by Armani Caesar, one of Griselda’s artists, and inspired by Leopardi’s signature strain, “The Wendy.” (Wendy was the girl Squints had a crush on in the movie.)
“Squints is the mastermind,” he explained. “I’m just the good guy that markets the smoke well. Me and him grew a relationship and I said, ‘Hey, I wanna come with it, too. I just want something special.’ He had that one and he had four others just in case. I picked ‘The Liz’ and we got the bags together.”
If anything, the new business venture is yet another testament to Gunn’s unrelenting work ethic. Armed with a seemingly endless reservoir of self-motivation and determination, he’s created his own empire. Speaking to The Joe Budden Podcast in 2021, Gunn announced he’d severed ties with Shady Records, a bold move considering the weight Eminem’s name holds in the industry. But Gunn knew it was the right decision.
“I’m always going to be thankful for Paul [Rosenberg] and Marshall [Mathers],” he said. “I was with Shady Records and I dropped Who Made the Sunshine and What Would Chine Gun Do. It’s all love. We made our history together. It’s different chapters in life. It’s not one of those things to be upset or cry about or nothing. It’s chapters. It was just time for me to move on.”
For now, Gunn is focused on his pending projects, one of which is Michelle, named after his late Aunt Chelle who passed away in November 2021. As he explained in an Instagram post at the time, Chelle was like a mother to him and her death hit him hard, but he has a plan to continue honoring her.
“I’m doing a lot of things to keep her name alive,” he said. “Right now, I’m staying working, staying ahead. She was my biggest fan. She wanted me to turn up, so I’m going to keep turning up.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was published in the February 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.