By Rick Hazell
Recently, Westside Gunn was in New York City as part of a discussion moderated by Vladimir Bautista of HappyMunkey cannabis and produced by event planner Covert Operations. The affair was as intimate as one could possibly expect in the modern Hip-Hop lexicon. The crowd of about 40 people packed into the event space at the trendy Soho House, and Gunn didn’t disappoint. Unlike many, Westside Gunn is less likely to appear in blogs and tabloids than your average microphone controller. Those of both equal and lesser repute flock to whatever the newest shiny thing is.
While listening to the earnest and reflective musings of the CEO of Griselda Records and self-styled Fly God, the audience got the East Buffalo native’s honest take on his personal relationship with Louis Vuitton artistic director Virgil Abloh, who recently died of cancer in November of last year.
The underlying theme of the discussion was growth, maturity and changing lanes when the time is right.
“To be honest, Virgil changed my life. He was the turning point for me. I’m going to be honest, and for many reasons. I was f###### with Virgil since the Pyrex days,” he told the gathering. “It’s like we came up in the game at the same time. So, I watched him go from Pyrex to Louis Vuitton. Like, right in front of my f#####’ eyes! I always name drop all the hot s### before it comes out or before it becomes popular. When HOV came out with the Tom Ford song, I was talking about Tom Ford three years before that. I always stayed ahead of the game when it comes to fashion talk and all of that stuff.”
Fans are familiar with Gunn’s piano-powered, melodic track that he and Conway the Machine rocked the mic to back in 2015. Here Westside recalls how that song got the attention of the late designer.
“I was name dropping on “Off-White,” and Virgil heard it early,” the Fly God told the those in attendance. “When I dropped the video for “Mr. T,” he reposted it. I said, “I got my troops in off-white boots.” And he felt that line and we became cool. The thing about it is, I was a rapper, but I was a designer at heart. I was always coming through on a fashion wave. Like, ‘One of these brands is going to f### with me.’ That’s why, when you hear my music, you hear so much about fashion. Because I’m a designer. This is my life. All I talk about his fashion and street s###. I might hear some people say, ‘Why don’t you talk about something positive?’ And I’m like, ‘Why? What you mean? That’s not what I do.’
“It was time to do the What Would Chine Gun Do album. “Dr. Bird” was the first song that he did. It was the first beat I heard. That’s my job as far as curator for Griselda is concerned. It starts with me picking the beat first, then it goes from that point. When I first heard the beat, I thought it was crazy. Daringa and Beat Butcha did it. I wrote the line, ‘Tell Virgil write Brick on my brick.’ At the time, Virgil would just write ‘shoe’ on a shoe. That was his style. And I was just thinking, ‘What could I have Virgil write on that would be crazy?’ When he heard it, he just went crazy.”
“He was like, ‘What’re you doing in January?’ And I was like, I’m around. Then he was like, ‘Yo, come to Paris with me.’ And I was like, I don’t know about all that, man. The thing is, back in the day, I was a hustler. And a lot of things I did in the past, honestly, I was scared to even apply for a passport. I thought if I went to the passport office, they were going to come out the backdoor like, ‘We’ve been waiting for your ass for six years. You stupid m###########.’ I’m deadass. I was paranoid to get a passport. Then, I started calling the different cities I used to hustle in like, ‘Yo, do I got a warrant?’ I’m deadass. It was like that. Everybody was like, ‘Nah, you ain’t got no warrants.’ And I was like, you know what? I’m just gonna give it a shot. Virgil wound up writing up all the paperwork for me to get a passport.”
“At this time, I already had murals of me painted overseas. I had so many fans overseas, but I just had never been. I would have rather had been free in the United States than get locked up because I was trying to go to Paris. I prayed on it and thought, if something does happen, it was meant for it to go down like that. But if I do get this passport then there’s no turning back. That’s going to change my life.”
“So, Virgil wrote what he wrote, and we ended up getting the passport. I ended up going to Paris two days later. I had never met him in person. It was always through texts. We texted a lot before we even met. We were just inspiring each other. That was my guy. I sent him the music early and everything.”
Westside Gunn waxed nostalgic about his first time overseas, the love he had been getting from lovers of rugged rhyme sayers and the impression he made upon pulling up the Off-White Fashion show.
“I met him backstage at the Off-White show. I’m never going to forget, man. I sat down, Takeoff was next to me. Rest in peace. Two people down from him was Pop Smoke, rest in peace. It was me, Migos and Pop Smoke. We’re just sitting there, and the music comes on for the show and it’s my music. The s### blew my mind. Virgil really wanted me there because my song was the song playing for the Off-White show. When that happened, I was like, ‘He f### with me for real. They’re playing my s### in Paris! Hold on!’ Then I got to the Louis Vuitton show, then I started going to this show and that show. Just started rubbing elbows and I met (fashion designer) Julia Lane.”
“She became instrumental in my life as far as fashion is concerned. That’s my partner in crime right there. She was front row that day, too. But she was scared of me. The thing is, I was still on…I was still on that type of time. If you don’t know me, you don’t know if I’m going to bust your s### or if I’m a nice guy. You don’t know what’s going to happen. She was like, ‘Nah, when I first me you, you looked crazy.’
“After all that, I made “Pray for Paris,” in Paris. After the fashion shows, I’m like, ‘Yo, I need a studio.’ I went to Red Bull Studio in Paris for a couple days and was cooking. It started off as an EP, and when I came back to the states, I went to LA. All the songs were similar to “French Toast”, and you could hear certain Paris-inspired lines in a few of those records.”
“When I got to LA, I went to Alchemist’s house, Benny and Conway were in town. It was during the Grammys. I finished the rest at Alchemist’s house, Tyler the Creator came over. He had just won a Grammy. He just won the s### two days earlier. And he was over cooking for my s###. I was like, ‘Yo, this s### is surreal.’ Then I hit Virgil, and he was like, ‘Yo, I gotta do the cover. I just wanted something elegant. I had Cartier A Williams tapdancing on it. That was the start to who I am now. All my best works came after that energy.”
“Pray for Paris 2” is coming out soon, by the way. I just started that (recently) when I was in Paris. What people don’t know is, quiet as it’s kept, that Virgil was so ahead of his time that he had already designed s### for two to three years ahead of time. There’s still collections of s### that Virgil designed before he passed. What people don’t know about me, and Virgil is, he already designed four album covers for me. Pray for Paris was the first one. There’s still more that we got coming.
As was mentioned, Westside Gunn is currently working on “Pray for Paris 2” as well as growing his skills in the fashion industry. In January, it was widely reported that 2023 will be the last year that Westside Gunn will releasing music. Though one cannot question an artist’s desire to put down his proverbial paint brush, other creatives can likely relate at how weighty a task being an artist, in the truest sense of the word, can be.
Rest Well, Virgil.