Ch. 3

Off-White Bricks:
Cultural Ecology

By: Z. A. Counts

THE Culture

If I asked you what was the most cultural moment of 2019 what would come to mind? What best captured the aura of the entire year within just a moment? An argument can be made that it was when the Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton filmed himself writing the word “BRICK” on three, alleged, bricks of cocaine, and then shipped them to Buffalo, New York. This historic date was December 9th, 2019, the author was Chicago native Virgil Abloh, and this was prompted by lyrics from Griselda’s hit song “DR. Birds” where creative visionary Westside Gunn proclaimed “Told Virgil write “Brick” on my brick”.2 The title is ironic because it plays off the abbreviation of a medical doctor and a common street name for cocaine. Virgil quickly replied on Twitter with “DONE DEAL”.1

While all of these pre-describe ironies alone would create a pretty entertaining moment, the awareness of the stage with which this opera takes place is the true act of artistic exploration and is the reason I argue it as the most cultural moment of the year. While both parties are being surfacely authentic in the publicly framed exchange, in the aforementioned song and then later on Twitter, there’s an obvious awareness to the fact this conversation is public. As the public we were supposed to see those conversations of illegal substances as not reality. Of course those are not real bricks of cocaine. Those are probably just three reams of paper that could be found in any hotel guest office space that Virgil ran down and grabbed and then wrote “BRICK” on them, but obviously that’s not the point either. So what is?

The point is the agency that these artists have over the medium they create. The aforementioned song is the closest thing you could consider as a radio single from the debut commercial album of Griselda Records, but it wasn’t designed to be a hit song. Griselda Records is named after the notorious drug lord Griselda Blanco who was known as the Black Widow, the Cocaine Godmother and the Queen of Narco-Trafficking. She was a Colombian drug lord of the Medellín Cartel and a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine drug trade and underworld during the 1980s through the early 2000s. The core members of Griselda Records include Westside Gunn, his brother Conway The Machine, and his first cousin Benny the Butcher; all of which respectively implore the designer to label their “bricks” of cocaine. This may suggest that Griselda’s supply is so exclusive that it is touched by high-end fashion designers, as well inferring that the trio is bringing high fashion “to the streets”, but there’s no definitive answer. Honestly that’s just the explanation I “copied and pasted” from an online lyrical database located at Genius.com, so who knows if that’s even what they meant. No matter the intended meaning there’s without a doubt an immense amount of irony in the act of publicly requesting and fulfilling the order of a self proclaimed brick of cocaine to one of the most historic ports for illegal drug trafficking. The irony continues at the fact that it is two African American men from communities who’ve historically been affected by the deployment and subsequent war on drugs. A war which wielded racially unequal sentencing as one of its many choices of blunt instruments, which the Griselda Records members have experienced first hand. There is deep irony in men who have served time for distribution of illegal substances to publicly talk about the alleged distribution of illegal substances, and without a doubt this irony is wielded strategically by the rookie season veterans of Buffalo. So how did Griselda become Griselda?

The family had always been into music, and originally had been pursuing separate artistic and business ventures. In the beginning Westside just wanted to creatively and financially support his family member’s artistic endeavors from the sidelines, but started rapping due to his brother MachineGun Black’s tragic passing at the hands of street violence. In my opinion this is what makes Westside’s approach different and allows him to create a more authentic overall aesthetical experience. Originally West just wanted to assist his family members paint as clear of picture as possible, and because of this he approaches the art of music from that of the overall creative direction. He approaches music like an outsider to the music itself. He understands the endless variety of mediums that are available to artists. Many contemporary artists are pushed towards specialization in one medium, or within a specific definition of art itself, but not Westside. In the footsteps of cultural visionaries and collaborators like Virgil Abloh, Kanye West, and Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, Westside mixes art, design, and economics into something that is both reality and theatre.

THE Music

One of the most immediately noticeable elements of a typical Griselda track is the mixing. The overall atmosphere of the audio feels old, and hyper contemporary. It feels like it is so perfectly aged that it must be fake to some degree. This can be heard prominently on any Westside Gunn album. While one can’t say his animated vocals fade into the background, they do seem to glide into other parts of the beat seamlessly. To a semi untrained ear it sounds like there isn’t a specific range carved out in the overall EQ mix for his vocals to sit untouched. This gives the effect that it was recorded 20 years ago. When everyone didn’t have a digital audio workstation on every laptop and phone in the world to visually see which frequency ranges needed to be moved where. It sounds like an old record that was found in some Smokey New York record shop with half an inch of dust on top that was brought down the street to some basement and chopped up on an MPC-1000, and now his vocals have been placed straight over that raw looped output. This style isn’t new in itself, and has been utilized by Hip-Hop legends like other frequent Griselda collaborators DJ Premier and the Alchemist. The group doesn’t just collaborate with solidified legendary producers, the brand also consists of two up and coming in-house producers, Daringer and Beat Butcha, who help establish a consistent sonic aesthetic for the label.

Another acoustical audity is the expressiveness in Westside’s high pitched voice, eccentric delivery, and consistent flow. The typical Westside Gunn flow has huge gaps in lyrical content for extravagant adlibs. Westside approaches his lyrics and adlibs systematically where every time there’s a car mentioned in the lyrics it’ll be followed by him on a different track yelling “SSSKKKRRRTTT”. This is done in a manner as to emulate the sound of car tires screeching on pavement. Without missing, everytime. If a gun is mentioned within the lyrics you’ll quickly hear an overly enthusiastic high pitched “BOOM BOOM BOOM”; unless the aforementioned gun is over a certain size of caliber or rate of fire, then you might get a “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRR” or one long “BOOOOOOM”. Westside is aware that the full experience of music is only partly within the lyrical content, and really only partly within the music itself.

In both music and marketing the Griselda brand has placed an enormous emphasis on the extremes of exclusivity, and flooding the market. Although just recently garnering substantial attention in music, the Griselda brand has had a successful merchandise business for years, with items selling out in minutes, despite — at times — cryptic sales info. To further confuse the point a large majority of the items sold are vinyls and basic screen printed hoodies and t-shirts depicting mergers of fine art and contemporary cultural references. They look as old as the music feels, but is only limited and on vinyl for artistic purposes. This use of juxtaposition between traditional and modern elements is a theme heavily utilized across the Griselda brand as a whole. The group somehow feels: authoritative but fresh, mass produced but authentic, real and unreal. From the album art, the lyrics, to the sometimes long skits, Westside has a gift for painting clear but surreal experiences that no longer have to just live within the sonic waves of a song but comes alive in a fully aesthetic experience. For example West regularly takes whole sections of old wrestling clips, interviews, and audio clips that give you a vivid image of these classic wrestling moments even if you’ve never actually seen them for yourself. Each Westside body of work feels like revisiting the past in some warped Speculatively Real version of history where everything is blurred together through reality, metaphor and hyperbole. This vision is carried across everything Westside designs. it’s all a self conscious blast from the past. A completely willing suspension of belief, akin to the one a kid experiences watching their favorite wrestler on WWE Monday Night Raw. He composes stories as a constant animated assemblage of current, past and completely made up events. Which leads to another theme highly utilized in all of Westside’s projects, wrestling! It’s obvious that Westside is a fan of the WWE in general, but it’s also obvious that he admires the business behind the entertainment of the sport just as much. Westside showes awareness of how Vince McMahon used the WWE brand as a cultivation ground of brand identities, through a mix of theatre and reality. What’s real at this point?

Embodied by the originally mentioned self labeled bricks scenario, it’s impossible to know for sure where theatre stops and “reality” begins. This assemblage doesn’t stop at the music or the album cover, it translates to interviews, social media, and any other medium the artist chooses. In a time when I don’t know a single person who uses FM/AM radios, the rise of the podcast medium has essentially decentralized the radio program and opened up the opportunity for artists to play a more independent role in using their brand as a creative image. One of the first ways I became aware of Griselda was from Mal from the “Joe Budden Podcast” that didn’t involve a single member of the group or their music. Ironically enough it has nothing to do with the audio of the podcast either, what first caught my attention was a craaazzzzzyyy fire Westside Gunn hoodie that Mal was wearing. The hoodie had been a piece of wrestling themed merchandise from a Westside album rollout, and after that I gave his music a listen and it sounded just like the hoodie looked. I’ve been a huge fan of Westside’s music ever since then.

I knew I would like the music if it was anything like the hoodie, but the hoodie would have come out dramatically different if the process in which it was brought to life was different. If Westside didn’t have direct involvement in the design of the hoodie I can almost guarantee it would have lost some of its authenticity and not been as effective. The decentralization of the production methods available to artists are moving them into a more active role in crafting the complete aesthetic vision of the “work”, foremost being the theatre act of being the “artist”. Their publicly facing personality is more a part of the music now than ever, and is able to further and further take control of the message within the medium.

The CONCLUSION

Shortly after the aforementioned tweets with Virgil Abloh, Westside Gunn took to Twitter again to profess that “2020 my last year rapping I’m going down as one of the Illest Ever.” As someone who lived through Jay-Z’s Black Album rollout(1) I have a justified amount of skepticism in any musician’s proclamation of retirement, especially one managed by Rocnation. The only reason I take this somewhat seriously is because Westside has continually expressed a desire to explore other forms of expression outside of directly creating music. He told Hypebeast in April 2020 that, “I don’t even wanna be considered a rapper. I bring so much more to the game. I love art, fashion, design, executive producing, putting songs together with the skits — all of that sh*t I love more than actually rapping.”

This makes sense considering the fact that his entrance into the music industry was through creating Griselda Records to support his family. The streets affect the music, the topics which guides the overall aesthetic. This is a perfect example of how the parts of society that it would rather not reflect on itself finds a way to critique society only the way living that experience could. I’m of the belief you don’t understand Elizabethan culture to understand Shakespeare , you experience Shakespeare to attempt to understand Elizabethan culture. The culture can better be seen from the greatest art of the time because it critiques the cracks of the culture from within the culture itself. You can take Shakespeare’s work to different countries and it will still make sense because it takes the universal truths and paradoxes from a culture and makes them digestible. As a year of civil unrest, unprecedented labor abuse, and a global pandemic closes out, I’m prepared to argue that the most cultural moment of the year will be the “retirement” of Westside Gunn. I believe it doesn’t even matter if he actually retires, it will still be the most cultural moment of 2020 because in a way, the uncertainty within perception is the most cultural object of 2020 and the aesthetical experience that is Westside Gunn embodies that perfectly.

The CONCLUSION

Shortly after the aforementioned tweets with Virgil Abloh, Westside Gunn took to Twitter again to profess that “2020 my last year rapping I’m going down as one of the Illest Ever.” As someone who lived through Jay-Z’s Black Album rollout(1) I have a justified amount of skepticism in any musician’s proclamation of retirement, especially one managed by Rocnation. The only reason I take this somewhat seriously is because Westside has continually expressed a desire to explore other forms of expression outside of directly creating music. He told Hypebeast in April 2020 that, “I don’t even wanna be considered a rapper. I bring so much more to the game. I love art, fashion, design, executive producing, putting songs together with the skits — all of that sh*t I love more than actually rapping.”

This makes sense considering the fact that his entrance into the music industry was through creating Griselda Records to support his family. The streets affect the music, the topics which guides the overall aesthetic. This is a perfect example of how the parts of society that it would rather not reflect on itself finds a way to critique society only the way living that experience could. I’m of the belief you don’t understand Elizabethan culture to understand Shakespeare , you experience Shakespeare to attempt to understand Elizabethan culture. The culture can better be seen from the greatest art of the time because it critiques the cracks of the culture from within the culture itself. You can take Shakespeare’s work to different countries and it will still make sense because it takes the universal truths and paradoxes from a culture and makes them digestible. As a year of civil unrest, unprecedented labor abuse, and a global pandemic closes out, I’m prepared to argue that the most cultural moment of the year will be the “retirement” of Westside Gunn. I believe it doesn’t even matter if he actually retires, it will still be the most cultural moment of 2020 because in a way, the uncertainty within perception is the most cultural object of 2020 and the aesthetical experience that is Westside Gunn embodies that perfectly.