“They told me I’ll be paralyzed from the neck down,” Conway, born Demond Price, remembered of the doctor’s prognosis. “The bullet was a half-inch away from my carotid artery. The doctor said if it would’ve shifted, I would’ve bled out in six minutes.”
The shooting led to dramatic shifts for him personally and professionally. He endured a grueling rehabilitation; at certain points, he didn’t have the strength to walk to the bathroom or brush his teeth. “I couldn’t even eat nothing, really,” he says. “I had no feeling in my hands.” It left him with Bell’s palsy; half of his face is paralyzed. The case was never solved.
Before the shooting, Conway was considered one of the best rappers in Buffalo, a city more known for its hapless professional football team and proximity to Niagara Falls than as a hip-hop hotbed. When he picked up with his career, Conway had to reconstruct his entire flow, switching from complex, multisyllabic flows to a slower, conversational cadence. That flow is now the cornerstone of Griselda, the Buffalo-based collective he co-founded with rapper and blood brother Westside Gunn, whose retro-centered brand of street rap recalls the “golden era” of ’90s New York City hip-hop, when groups like Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan were at their creative peaks. In recent years, Griselda has amassed a cult following in underground rap circles, with older heads and younger listeners who prefer a grittier strain of revivalist hip-hop. In the streaming era, where some musicians wear Spotify numbers like badges of honor, Conway and Griselda hark back to a bygone period in the music business: They’re selling nostalgia as a way to stand out from the pack.
With the release of Conway’s new full-length album “From King to a GOD,” the group is poised for even greater success. Featuring the likes of Wu-Tang’s Method Man and Mobb Deep’s Havoc, and with production from the Alchemist, Hit-Boy and Erick Sermon, it’s the highest-profile release from the already-prolific crew. On the phone from his hometown, he says the album’s central focus is on lyrical domination. “Just to show people who don’t already know that people can’t f— with me,” he says nonchalantly. “And that I’m probably the illest in the game right now. I just want to showcase top-tier lyricism.”
It’s also a high-stakes album on which Conway assesses how far he’s come in a short period of time. On the surface, he’s rapping about the usual fodder — backstabbing friends, material excess and industry shadiness — but given all that Conway has endured personally, it plays like a testament to perseverance. “And my story is far from finished,” he raps on “From King . . .,” the album’s intro, “I got my shoes off in them offices talking business.”
It’s also a record of the moment. In a time of intense racial reckoning, the song “Front Lines” unpacks the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked a protest movement that has lasted for more than three months: “Cops killing Black people on camera and don’t get charged/ We ain’t taking no more, we ain’t just pressing record.”
“From King to a GOD” also stamps Griselda’s meteoric rise, from an unknown rap group in an obscure city to a breakthrough collective on the verge of mainstream stardom. Long before Conway and Westside Gunn launched Griselda as a record label and clothing brand in 2012, the two were simply trying to survive Buffalo, a faraway place with no music industry.
If there was some semblance of an industry in the city, it boiled down to one guy: Demetrius “DJ Shay” Robinson, the Buff City Records founder who closely mentored the Griselda crew. Robinson died in August of covid-19 complications. He was 48. “He was like a father figure to some of us, a big brother to all of us,” Conway says. “He always opened his doors to everybody in the city. He gave his all to all of us.”
That sort of fellowship is important in Buffalo, a “super-duper segregated” town, Conway says. “Black people pretty much are on the East side. You’ve got to deal with the racism, you’ve got to deal with the police,” he says. “And then when you’re trying to make it out of there, opportunities are few and far between. I can’t get on the train and play my demo for an A&R. They’re not coming to Buffalo. We don’t get these chances. We had to go get ours.”
The social climate and lack of resources encouraged them to start their own company, with Conway as its lead rapper and Westside focused on designing clothes and sneakers. In the early days, Westside didn’t even want to rap; with his high-pitched voice and big personality, he seemed best suited as a hypeman for Conway’s scenic street tales. “He was always thinking long range,” Conway says. “He loved hip-hop and could rap, but he wasn’t rapping. It was always me, but once I got shot, that’s when he jumped in the driver’s seat and put an album out.”
There was no single breakout moment or viral single that led to Griselda’s popularity. Rather, they found their fame the old-fashioned way, by simply putting out records — a lot of them — and having listeners slowly come around to their sound. It’s a traditional approach that matches their creative output. Keeping up with their output can be an arduous tasks, as crew members Westside Gunn and Boldy James have released projects this year in addition to Conway’s latest. Just this week, the group announced the Sept. 18 release of rapper Armani Caesar’s forthcoming album, “The Liz Tape.”
Looking back on things now, rapper Benny the Butcher (Conway and Westside’s cousin and a core member of Griselda) does see three moments as turning points for the group. The first was in 2017, when he, Conway and Westside stood behind rap megastar Eminem during his Donald Trump-bashing cipher at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. (Earlier that year, Griselda signed a distribution deal through Eminem’s Shady Records.) Then two years later, Benny and Westside signed management deals with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, introducing them to an even wider audience. Lastly, in January, Griselda performed the slow-burning “Dr. Birds” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Music like theirs usually doesn’t make it to major late-night shows. To see them spit their menacing brand of hip-hop felt like a crossover moment.
“It symbolizes how far we came, and it symbolizes respect for our music,” Benny says. “That’s almost like an entry to the other world. I know we’ve got a lot of people rooting for us.”
Conway agrees: “That was huge for Buffalo. It was huge for the city and for Griselda, knowing the type of music we make, whether you want to consider it underground or whatever. It was just a dope look for hip-hop and the culture.”
In just six years, Conway, Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher have gone from upstart local heroes to burgeoning industry players. And because they’ve spent much of that time grinding below the surface, the rappers still carry that chip-on-your-shoulder mentality, a feeling that — no matter the deals, sold-out vinyl and national TV appearances — they’re still being underrated. That’s no doubt a rapper’s mentality, but it’s also the byproduct of being from a city that’s often overlooked.
“We got a lot more in store,” Conway asserts. “We’re gonna continue changing the culture and doing what we’ve been doing. I just want everyone to see the growth.”