Henry R. Jones II*
On a recent Spring day, in the back room at lower Manhattan’s Astor Club, Conway The Machine’s team is busy gearing up for the release of Side A of his third studio album, Won’t He Do It. Two of his people are conferring on the side about his album release party, set to take place at Ludlow House. His creative director Jannique and others are in another corner looking over some visuals, likely for Won’t He Do It singles. Conway’s reclined on a couch in the back of the large room with Goose, one of his Drumwork Music Group artists, sitting across from him on the other side of a table. It’s been over a year since Conway dropped God Don’t Make Mistakes, and the stalwart lyricist is eager to re-enter the fray.
Conway The Machine came up in the 2010s as one part of the Buffalo-bred Griselda triumvirate with Westside Gunn and Conway. They’ve since expanded into a mighty crew of the game’s most revered spitters but made their bones as a trio (alongside producers such as Daringer, Conductor Williams, Camouflage Monk, and the late DJ Shay), whose eccentric album covers, warped soul loops, moody piano chops, and indie release model have made them an indelible influence on modern rap. But there’s a downside to forging a new path in rap: the followers. Conway says the swathe of Griselda biters sapped his enthusiasm for his craft.
“Everybody trying to rap over the same type of beats we was rapping on. People was taking our cover art direction, our whole thing that made us us. It seemed it was getting watered down some,” he reflects. “I don’t even like them kind of beats no more. It was boring me. I fell back, but I got that feeling back again like the good old days at Daringer’s house.”
Conway went to Denver last summer to be alone and recharge. In between trips to the mountains and treks through the city, he was in the lab alone for the first time in years, and says he recorded “five to six albums worth of material.” “I would lock myself in the studio down in Denver with my boy, Rocky,” he says. “Just out there having shrooms, and it was a good time. It’s just an unreal magical vibe down in Denver. [Denver] unlocked something inside of me, man. I feel alive.”
Fans are feeling that vigor on Side A of Won’t He Do It, his first album in over a year, and his first post-Shady Records release. Conway sounds as sharp as ever throughout the project, veering from the lyrical exercise that is “Brooklyn Chop House” with Fabolous and Benny The Butcher to the trap vibes of “Super Bowl” with Sauce Walka and Juicy J. As always, he’s out to prove that he’s more than a “boom bap” rapper. He says that he’ll be dropping Side B of the project later this May, before an album with Justice League, his Drumwork Music Group Compilation, and working on Griselda sequels Hall & Nash 2 and WWCD 2.
Conway made waves last spring when he told The Breakfast Club that he didn’t read his Griselda contract, leading many to assume there was a rift between he and Westside Gunn, but he says they’re “great.”
“We’re always seen together,” he says. “Him and my nephew came out there, did some shows. He’s on the album. We talk everyday almost. Talked to him yesterday.” Gunn, who was at the release party last night, told Rolling Stone last year, “that shit got twisted and screwed up…That’s my brother, but he can’t ever say I cheated on him.” And Conway told us the exact same thing: “I wish I ain’t say none of that stuff. I never meant for it to come out like that…It wasn’t nothing in my contract to where I got jerked or nobody steal from me or take my money from me.”
Even with Conway, Benny, and Westside Gunn having their own imprints, Conway says Griselda is all on the same page. His push for Drumwork Music Group, boasting artists like Jae Skeese, Goose, and 7xvethegenius, is simply a chance for him to spread his wings in the industry. As he tells me, he’s also working on a movie script, a The Therapist-like therapy show that he’s shopping to networks, and he’s back to writing rhymes every day now — even after writing a career’s worth of albums last summer.
When asked how big his vault of unreleased music is, he says, “It’s a nice catalog. It’s up there with Pac and Wayne and them. I been sprawled back, I been chilling. Now that I’m back, watch how crazy my shit [get]. Ask me this question next year.”
We talked to Conway about Won’t He Do It, his work in Buffalo, and balancing being a rapper and an executive.
How are you feeling days away from the album release?
Excited and nervous? I don’t know, feel like it’s been a while since I recorded, made an album. ]I’m just feeling] Nervousness, like, “Damn, is they going to fuck with it? Is they going to love it? Did I miss my shot? Did I miss my window?” I’m getting older. Haven’t had it for a while and sometimes, you know Kanye said, “Don’t leave while you’re hot that’s how Mase screwed up.” It’s exciting and nervous, good nervousness, though.
Do you feel like the nerves are different than for previous albums? Like you said, it’s your first solo album in a minute.
Yeah, it feels different but it kind of, for me, feel like we going back to it, you know what I mean, back to the basics. Back to the shit that people love me for. The mils that people know me for making, know me for creating. You know what I’m saying? It’s a lot of Daringer beats on there. You know what I’m saying? It’s like I’m trying to take it back to the essence again and just get back to having fun with it again.
What were the aspects that made it feel less fun over these years?
The business side of it. The stuff you go through outside the booth, in your personal life. Sometimes, you could be chasing something so long and then when you finally get it, that shit come with a lot of stuff that you didn’t see, that you weren’t prepared for. A lot of the jealousy and all that stuff. The ups and downs. It became a business, like a job, instead of us having fun in the studio with Daringer and recording without a care in the world. [Back then music making] wasn’t for no album or for no deal or obligation, we was just cooking, you know what I mean? That’s why it wasn’t fun for a while for me. That’s why I ain’t drop nothing in so long. It wasn’t really fun no more, you know what I mean?
What re-motivated you?
Skeese. You know? Seeing how hungry he is and how sharp he is with his pen. The music he making, [and his labelmates being] guys that no matter what they going through, they just got a positive vibe and positive outlook, head up high, they ain’t tripping over nothing that they can’t control. I also was down in Denver for a couple of months and recorded the majority of this album, really all of it down there. I spent the entire summer down there. Yeah, it was crazy. I ain’t seen snowy Denver. It was, like 98 degrees every day. With good food, great people. Love it down there.
What made you go to Denver?
I mean, outside of the vibe and the mountains, and the magic of the city, which I didn’t know of until I went down there, it was just to get away, try to hide from everybody. I wanted to be somewhere where that wasn’t really attractive to a lot of people. People will be in Vegas or Miami, stuff like that. I wanted to go somewhere where I could just be alone. I had nobody. Ain’t nobody really want to come. People would be calling my phone, like, ‘Where you at?’ I’m, like, ‘Denver.’ [They’re like] ‘What? Man, hit me when you back around.’ It was really that part of it, man. Just getting away from people.
When was the last time you had a process like that where you were alone creating?
Before I started, yeah, before I started. Before I got on. Before any of this shit happened. I’m not sure if even I had it then. I don’t think I never had it, man. I just was down there. I was just down there. Booz was down there with me for a minute. I don’t know, I’m not sure if I ever had it like that. Maybe that’s why it feels so different to me. It feels so real to me because I never experienced that feeling of being locked there and just free. Nobody calling my phone, nobody bothering me, nobody around me. Just me, you know what I’m saying?
Do you tend to have a lot of people around you during the recording process? How different was it then creating alone?
A lot of time we recorded a lot of stuff early at Daringer house, it would be like that. We all would be in the room just bouncing ideas but, you know, I feel like the more [success] we got, the more everybody went they own way. Just growing and having families, and rings and kids, and other business stuff they got to do. That’s probably why we ain’t really did it for so long like that. I don’t mind either way but I prefer the way I did it in Denver. If I do want to lock in a room, I want to lock in with producers and stuff, you know what I mean? I was down there for three months, I recorded about five albums. Five or six albums. In the studio every day from 12:00 to 12:00. Every day. I got a lot of stuff coming.
What made you feel like “The Chosen” was the best single to drop for the project?
Really just watching the playoffs right now, like, “This will fit good on some NBA TV shit.” And with Skeese just dropping his album, Abolished Uncertainties, I just thought it’d be ill hyping his [music] up while I’m still doing mine, you know what I’m saying?
Yeah. It’s cool that, like you said earlier, they helped rekindle your creative inspiration. And that happened because you’re giving them the opportunity. Like you try to help somebody and then help yourself in the same time.
Yeah, it’s amazing, man. Times when I be ready to quit and hang it up, where I’m down on myself or whatever about shit that ain’t happening for me yet, I look at these guys and, man, these boys, they looking at it, like, ‘Man, we got a chance to do something great here. We doing it.’ Sometimes I be the negative one, like, ‘Man, I don’t know. I’m done with this shit.’ Just being around them and just being in the studio and hearing their music and just seeing how much, how bad they want it, that shit woke me up, you know what I mean?
How much does your love for your craft make you always come back to it?
Lately, it’s been my love for it been, kind of, it’s been dwindling. Just being honest, man. Before this album, I fell out of love with the whole rap shit. For them reasons I said before, like, it just started to become, you know, shit was just starting to feel corny. No creativity no more, it’s like a job now. It wasn’t enjoyable until I did this album.
What’s the learning curve been like for you as an executive and a label head?
It’s been tough. Sometimes I feel like I bit off more than I can chew. I don’t want to feel like I’m holding nobody up, or none of that. When you’re responsible for other people, especially with something, with creativity, people is particular about their art and how they want it packaged up and put in an album and all that stuff. You’ve got to monitor and be responsible for people’s lives. It’s a big burden. You’ve got to hold it down. That’s what I’m trying to do, just hold it down and make sure everybody get what they trying to get with it.
At this point, would you say that you’re primarily focused on building up the artists you have or are you still looking for new artists?
I’m not looking for no more artists. I just want to make sure [I get] Jae Skeese in position. He just dropped his tape. We got another album coming right back to back on him. I’m trying to get Goose situated with his album. Just the artists I got, I want to get them off and running. And still put out my albums and stuff, too. I don’t really have the time right now and the energy to invest in no new artists right now.
How much does feeling overlooked and underappreciated fueled your creative process?
For me, that’s what it’s for. That’s why I be saying that shit. It’s really me telling myself that. I’m held in a high regard by a lot of my peers and a lot of fans of this shit. You a hip hop fan, nine times out of ten, I’m one of the ones that’s [named as] one of the best out here. I don’t really see that and I just be, I have to tell myself that because I need challenges, I need a challenge. I need something, I need a spark, you know what I’m saying? That’s really what it be for. It’s just me on some Micheal Jordan shit. Making up narratives in my mind so I can go out and drop 70.
You reference that you picked “The Chosen” because you thought it’d sound good on an NBA telecast. How much is shit like that a goal for you, the commercial looks and the big hits?
It’s a goal for me now because I got the homies, I got the team to get right and get in position. Shit, we got to pipe up and we got to take this Drum Work shit to the top of the mountain, but it never really was a personal goal. I never wanted to be famous. I wanted to be able to take care of my family, obviously. Of course it’s why I made it as a rapper, but I just wanted to be respected as an elite MC. That was always my goal, and I feel I accomplished that early. But now, we need resources, and we got to make a bigger impact, we got artists, and we got a company to usher to the top, man. So it’s a different challenge now. I want to my company respected now as an elite record company. It ain’t about me being the best rapper no more. Now, I want to have all the best companies. You know what I’m saying?
Can you take me into the how the Drum Work Festival feeds into that goal?
Drum Work Fest is a platform for my city, man. I wanted to bring the Rolling Loud type festival, the Coachella, those type of outdoor fests. I wanted to bring that type of vibe to my city. We never really had no shit like that. I wanted to do that and through my charity, I wanted to be the guy to bringing something that is just fly and ill for the city that we can look forward to every year. A nice, fun day. We get to see artists we might not have had the opportunity to go see. We might not [have] went to Coachella this year. And I like that we can bring it downtown in our city and I feel like that’s dope.
It’s big for my Conway Cares Foundation. This year we dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at the Topps supermarket, coming up on the anniversary of that and we’re going to use the Drum Work Fest platform to acknowledge and recognize the victims that unfortunately lost their lives, their families, just the city that had to endure that tragedy and try to push through man. Bring back some positive feeling, a positive vibe in everybody. So we wanted to take our mind off the bullshit sometimes.
What’s the feedback been like for you from people in the community?
I’m getting good feedback. I received some proclamations from the Erie County Legislator, Mrs. April Baskin. I’ve got my own day in the city. Mayor Byron Brown honored me with my own day, my own Conway the Machine Day (August 14th), and so they love me. They love what I’m doing. I’ve got full support from everybody in the city and I’m just thankful to be the one to hold the torch man. I’m just ready to pass it now, pass it off.
How did you feel about the reception to God Don’t Make Mistakes?
In what aspect?
I thought it should be ranked higher or just fucked with more. I felt like with that album I knocked it out the park. I felt like I gave the fans everything they wanted in the album that an artist could give you. But sometimes we don’t work out like that. I get it. Everything ain’t for everybody. I mean, it was love. It wasn’t like they was “Oh, it was wack. It was wack.” But I personally thought it was one of my best albums I’d ever made, the stuff I’m talking about on there, some of the other stuff that we done heard in the industry since like Tupac. We ain’t heard this type of feeling in rap music. This type of emotions, this type of transparency, this type of realness. You know what I’m saying? We ain’t heard this since, maybe Kendrick. That was the most transparent and impactful album since Me Against the World Tupac [and it] got slighted.
What drove you to want to be so vulnerable on that project?
When I’m exploring or doing my music and getting deep into what I’ve been through and all that, it’s not just for me to be just crying and complaining on a record and shit, you know what I mean? Looking for sympathy over nothing I been through. It’s really just to kind of inspire. Like “Man, I went through all this but the main thing is I never gave up.” That’s why it means so much to me to do that type of record, to do an album like that. You know what I mean? I’ll probably never do another album like that ever again.
The motivation is for people that “Yo, no matter how tough it gets.” I had every reason to quit. I had every reason to quit. Shot in my head, shot in my neck. An older dude in the studio. I’m in my 30s, shit like that. I’m from Buffalo, don’t nobody ever really make it. I have every reason to hang it up and quit, but I’m going to push through. Half my face paralyzed. I pushed through. I’m still going crazy. I think that message kind of gets lost in it all and that’s what’s so corny about this rap game and this music shit. Now, it’s like everything is about clout and who’s got the views. Who got the followers. Who got the viral moment. Can we just skip over? Like the music part don’t matter as much no more like it used to. It’s about everything else, like the clout, your fans, who are you, what celebrity you’re dating, who you was court side sitting with. Who cares? Who cares how my face looks? Listen to my music. That’s all I ever wanted people to do.
What did that process look like? What are some of the things that you did to rebuild yourself and get away from the stresses?
I went to Denver. I distanced myself. I got a therapist. I’m just trying to stay to myself. Just some self refinement. Stop tripping so much over the stuff I can’t control, Stop taking everything personally and being so negative about things that was a blessing in my life. I would take a ride out [to the mountains] every day, every morning I would go out there before I got to school. And you can just see it all day anyway. They look like they as close as that TV [gestures toward TV in room]. I would go to ride on the train.
I was watching your “Breakfast Club” interview last year, and you referenced doing a series with Dr. Sirianni. Is that the therapy you’re referring to?
Yeah, that too. Doing that with Dr. Sirianni and other people in my corner too just helping me. Just helping me get through. I don’t really put it on display, it’s just something that I need to get through. That is something there that I carry myself and I don’t really wear it on my sleeve. But I take in games when they don’t even be knowing. Like, Jay-Z helped me a lot. He probably don’t even know just like, you know, I text him all the time asking questions about stuff, Picking his brain about his own stuff. Just trying to learn, see what he did, how he did it. Watching Puffy, being at Puffy, being at Diddy’s house showed me a lot of stuff too. Just soaking up things, being a fly on the wall, just quiet in a room and just listening and watching.
How did “Brooklyn Chop House” with Fabolous and Benny come together?
I just I had a raw ass beat from Daringer. That was one of the shits I did in Denver. Nobody never was on it and I was going to leave it like that with just me and, then I was like it would be ill to have Fab on it. Fab my homeboy. It would’ve been easy to have him a rap for like a radio or a song for the ladies. I’m like ‘No, I want to put in something grimy like a Daringer.’ Bring back that rapping Fab that I love. Mixtape Fab. And then when I heard what Fab came and did I just thought it would be ill [if it were] me and Fab and Benny, some back in the day mixtape shit. It’s one of them type of vibes. It was easy, nothing but shoot a couple text messages. Shout out to Fab and Benny, they got up there right away and it’s love.
Was it a similar process for “Super Bowl” with Juicy J and Sauce Walka?
No, “Super Bowl” I did and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to keep that record or do nothing with that record, you feel me. I been had that beat for like a year maybe. Juicy J sends me beats all the time, you know what I mean? And I just always had that beat. One day I’m just in the lab
combing through beats [and picked that one.] And I did my first verse and the hook. Then I got stuck, and I couldn’t think of nothing else. Fast forward a few months, [I thought, ‘it’d be ill to have Sauce on there’]. And then once Sauce [did his verse], I send it to Juicy J to let him hear what we had did, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fire.’ Then I’m like, ‘Yo, you know what bro? You might as well throw you a 16 on that shit too..” They knocked it out the same day. And I had that shit that same night.
You mentioned how you’re known for “The Griselda sound.” How often do producers send you beats outside of that aesthetic?
Very seldom.I just look at it like, if I reach out to a producer, if I want to work with a producer, I want to work with you for what you’re bringing in the game, your style, yo, I don’t need you to make me what you think I would sound ill on, like an Alchemist beat or a Daringer beat. I need the something I can rap on, man. Send me the shit. I’m nice. Send me everything. So I get a little frustrated. They just think I’m stuck in that basket, I like what I like, I like a lot of different shit. I’m a outside the box person.
What are your feelings toward your experience at Shady?
It was great. I have nothing bad to say at all, about Shady. I was blessed and I’m thankful for that whole chapter. And I don’t think that’s the end of the Conway The Machine, and Shady Records. I’m sure, down the line, we’re going do some more stuff and link up with Shady. And I’m thankful for Paul. Thankful for Mike H. Thankful for Em, I just owe them my gratitude. They didn’t have to take a chance, gamble and give us a penny. We didn’t have no views. We didn’t have no followers. We ain’t even have blue checks. We ain’t have no streaming history. We was dropping songs on SoundCloud, we were just some old street dudes from Buffalo. And for them to go out their way and give us that type of a shot, man. I have nothing bad to say about Shady Records, straight up.
So you’re open to signing with another major if it makes sense?
Yeah. I’m all in. I’m open to doing everything. I’m only on those partnerships now. I’m open to that, for sure, because the MC in me, I just want to make history. I want to do fly, historic shit because I’ll build my legacy. I’d probably do something with Diddy. [If he was] like, “Yeah, let’s do a album, man. Come on. Come over here to Bad Boy, let’s do a album. I’m open to it. If Hov want to do something, whoever, Empire, right now. I’m in a great space, but I’m open to all that, I’m about partnership.
I got an album with Justice League that’s next. So I’m doing Won’t He Do It Side A, then Side B, and then after that, I’m doing an album with Justice League. They did “The Chosen,” and they’re on this record called “Kanye” with Goose, Dreya and Zoro.
Have you thought about the rollout of your next upcoming projects?
Yeah, well, so we got Won’t He Do It Friday. I want to do Side B end of May, then Love The Genius’ album, then the Drum Work compilation in June. So by the end of the June, all the albums would be out, and then July or August, the Justice League album will be out.
What made you decide to do two sides for Won’t He Do It?
I just had so many songs. Like I said, I was down in Denver going crazy and I got two albums worth of shit.
Did you give any consideration to doing a 40-song project or something crazy like that?
[Laughs] No, not yet. But I won’t rule it out. I get in those type of zones. I have 40 songs, if I wanted to do that, I could just put out. I’ll release them. But one day, I’ll give something like that. Maybe when I’m about to check out, I’ll give them the Kobe, the Mamba out game.
How big would you say your vault is of unreleased music?
It’s a nice size. It’s a nice catalog. It’s up there with Pac and Wayne and them. And I been sprawled back, I been chilling. Now that I’m back, watch how crazy my shit [get]. Ask me this question next year.
That’s interesting because you said you did five or six albums of material last summer. How often are you creating these days?
Not as much as I want. Some days I do four or five joints. Some days I do one work. Yeah, still getting there. I want to get back to doing 8 or 10.
You referenced Griselda being 30+ when y’all had your breakout success. Can you speak to how your career path could inspire other artists who are still trying make that breakthrough when they might be 30+?
All I can tell them is just don’t quit. Don’t give up. That’s all we did. Even though when we had every reason to give up. There were obstacles in front of us, we had every challenge in front of us. And that’s all we did. We just didn’t give up. That’s the best advice I can give because it’s been many a times that I just wanted to give up. Still to this day, I fight through battles, man. We gotta get that out of our mind. We creatives, we got to create. That’s what we were put here for, to create and inspire. And giving up is not a story of inspiration. That’s the story of defeat. We need stories of triumph when it’s all said and done.
How are things between you and Westside Gunn?
Great. We’re always seen together. Eatin’ good. Him and my nephew came out there, did some shows. He’s on the album. We talk everyday almost. Talked to him yesterday.
So how do you feel about the hysteria that happened based on your comments about your contract?
I wish I ain’t say none of that shit. I never meant for it to come out like that. And he know that. With me doing separate stuff, it just looks on the optics like ‘something ain’t right with them boys.’ But I promise you we good. It’s just a situation of when I signed with my contracts it’s all with Shady Records and Griselda Records at the same time. But I’m no longer in contractual obligations. That’s what I was saying.
It wasn’t nothing in my contract to where I got jerked or nobody steal from me or take my money from me. There was no money that I didn’t get. I got everything I was supposed to get on my album. Everything was on the up and up. It’s no issues, you know what I’m saying. That man ain’t did nothing to me that’s my brother. I’mma rock with him and hold him down regardless, just like he held me down. He still hold me down. He’ll still pull up to Drum Work fest. Still [will be like] ‘bro, you good?’ Still come out with me in Athens drinking red wine, you know what I’m saying? It’s love. I apologize too.
I saw that y’all are working on What Would Chine Gun Do. What can you say about that project?
We doing that, we going to do Hall & Nash 2, we going to be doing that first. We started Griselda records with the Hall & Nash tape. So it’s only right that we end it off with a Hall & Nash 2. And What Would Chine Do 2, I’m excited for that too. It’s nice to get back up and link up with the bros and come out with something, I know it’s going to be crazy.
Are y’all going to record it together?
Yeah, that’s how we do it. We do them type of tapes we’re in that studio together. We pick everything right on the spot. Daringer will make the beats on the spot. We write while Daringer making the beat. Load it up, we record it. While we’re recording it, Daringer’s making our other beat. We bounce some lines and ideas off each other and it’d be that type of [atmosphere]. So that’s why I said it’s going to be fun. Probably need it man, none of us really recorded like that in a while. Rap stuff take you so many places. So far with it, can also take you away from your day ones where you started from. It’s part of willing to go back to that.