“Black people don’t see the American dream!” said Malcolm X during his famous Ballot or Bullet speech at Cleveland’s Cory Methodist Church on April 3, 1964. “We’ve only experienced the American nightmare.” For the revolutionary activist, the American Dream was pure fallacy – a concept created by white people for white people.
Yet for Buffalo, New York’s Conway the Machine (real name Demond Price), being seen as an example of the American Dream carries a priceless symbolism. ”I’ve been through shit that would make the average motherfucker want to kill themselves!” the rapper tells Huck while taking a rare breather backstage at Austin’s SXSW. “There’s been so many obstacles to overcome to make it to the top. Shit, maybe I really am an example of the American Dream? Yeah, that’s 100 per cent what this is.”
The 40-year-old has made his name thanks to a cinematic take on street rap, creating shivery hood anthems for people with “a brick and a pistol instead of a cap and a gown” (1000 Corpses), and balancing it all with a wicked sense of humour (he once hilariously rapped: “I’m getting that white money like Whole Foods”). Thanks to gruff, tobacco-chewing vocals and a flawless multisyllabic flow, you wouldn’t be surprised if Conway was rap legend Kool G Rap’s secret son.
As a former drug dealer, Conway wants to take the shame out of the profession altogether, showing outsiders “the strength of character” it takes to do a night shift selling heroin, especially when you’re part of a community that’s been left behind by the rest of America. According to the U.S. census, Buffalo’s poverty rate is 30 per cent, compared to a national average of 13 per cent. Somehow it’s remained the same way for 15-plus years.
Where Conway grew up on the city’s East Side, the unemployment rate is more than 20 per cent, while Black families earn an average of $24,700 a year, which is half the average ($44,000) of their white neighbours. Conway says Covid-19 has only widened the gap between the city’s rich and poor. “There really isn’t much you can do here but sell drugs,” he says. “Look, if you can make it where I’m from then you can make it anywhere.”
Make it, Conway certainly has. Signing to Eminem’s Shady Records; taking business meetings with Jay Z and Kanye West; rapping to the masses about selling bricks on Jimmy Fallon – he’s practically performed open-heart surgery to hardcore hip hop, repositioning it at the epicentre of American rap via future classics like 2016’s Reject 2 and 2020’s LULU.
Conway, alongside his surrealist half-brother Westside Gunn and street smart first cousin Benny the Butcher, is the foundation of the influential Griselda crew. Each member makes gutter rap urgent enough to inspire the Dalai Lama to do gun symbols with his fingers, creating a preciousness around their art you only usually see in the fashion world (there are independently released Griselda-affiliated vinyls currently selling for upwards of $1,000 on Discogs). It’s no surprise that the late legendary designer Virgil Abloh was among their biggest fans.
“Griselda has created something important in hip hop,” Conway explains, carefully considering his words. “Okay, we didn’t create it, but we made it cool again! A lot of motherfuckers in the mainstream right now be rapping about importing heroin over grimey piano loops and those alchemist or daringer-type beats. Everybody is running in our lane; humanising the dealers. That’s why it was important that I created something that ni**as couldn’t steal. At the end of the day, no one else has lived my life.”
Conway is referring to his excellent Shady Records’s solo debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes, which was finally released back in February after much anticipation. While you could argue that previous Conway the Machine records were, at times, preoccupied with conjuring up a larger-than-life persona and firing off ricochets of cartoonish imagery, this collection of soul-baring songs intentionally shows the human being behind the bravado.
In 2012, before Conway started his rap career, he was shot in the neck, the shoulder, and the back of the head, leaving him with Bell’s palsy and the right side of his face completely paralysed. This slightly slurred his speech, meaning Conway must make every word count in his raps. It’s a miracle he even survived.
Photo credit: Robert Le Blanc
When some rappers talk about violence, it can feel hollow, but when Conway admits to “crying in the mirror while I look at my face” on the poignant album highlight ‘Stressed’, you feel every single word. It feels like you’re listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’ reimagined for gangsters. “This is how real ni**as are supposed to look!” he reaffirms on gloomy posse cut ‘Drum Work’, trying to turn being a victim of gun violence into a trophy. He even admits to holding a dead son – who didn’t survive childbirth – in his arms, rapping powerfully about the subsequent grief and depression. “With God Don’t Make Mistakes, I wanted to share the shit I usually keep bottled up or compartmentalised in my brain,” he concludes.
“This was a way to let people in for a change. It felt weird to me. I was nervous and exposed. But I just said ‘fuck it’ and trusted my gut. This is more Donnie Brasco than Goodfellas. It’s an album about facing up to the man in the mirror.”
Huck spoke to Conway the Machine about his friendship with Jay Z, horror villains, and why America needs to re-write its laws.
When you come from nothing, you’re expected to always be strong, but on God Don’t Make Mistakes you show real weakness. My mother always told me real men aren’t afraid to cry. Would you agree?
With this album, I wanted to show there’s more to my story than just street life tales, shootouts, coke sales, and being in and out of jail. Yes, there is that side to my story, but I’m much more than that as a human being. These songs felt like therapy. It felt good to get all that shit off my chest.
Real men definitely aren’t afraid to cry! It is just emotion, and we are all humans. We get angry, we get upset, we get mad, we get happy, we get sad, we cry, and we laugh. As a Black man, it is important to have a moment to yourself and just let all that shit out. You can’t keep it bottled in, as that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to fuck with your head and harden your heart.
Why is it important to maintain your sense of humour in your raps?
Cos you gotta laugh to keep from crying. I don’t want to portray myself to be this hardcore gangster. I only did what I had to do to make it in the hood I am from, you know? That’s all it is. Other than that, I’ve got a big heart, I am a great guy, I am fun to be around, I laugh, I joke with the ladies. I like all that. I am not one of these ni**as who are super tough guys and want everyone to know they are a gangster. I am advocating to check on your mental health, take care of your family, keep it real with your brothers, and just try to do historic shit for your community.
We’ve seen a lot of U.S. rappers stay connected to their hometowns and end up getting killed in places where they felt like they were safe. Does that worry you?
Yeah of course, but I also try not to worry about it too much either. I stay out the way and only do positive shit for the hood and the community. But at the same time, hell yeah I think about that shit! It is really important in the back of my brain. Shit, remember: I almost died trying to get to this point. I’ve been shot three times chasing this rap shit! I’ve been through everything. I am definitely aware, and have a heightened sense of urgency, whenever I am moving around.
Death could happen at any time, anywhere, but it usually happens in a rapper’s hometown. With that being known, a ni**a got to still keep his head on the swivel, you feel me? The reality is I’ve got extra paranoia from being shot. There’s paranoia, there’s PTSD, and I don’t know if I will ever fully find that place of peace [because of it]. But I am going to try.
It’s crazy because I would have thought Griselda would be treated like role models by the people in charge in Buffalo, but Benny the Butcher told me the authorities aren’t like that at all…
Buffalo already has an extra racist dynamic. It is segregated and racially driven with the shit. The police got a lot of shit going on with racism, so they don’t fuck with us. They know a lot of us. They know our friends, and they want to ruffle our feathers and make things difficult for us. I’ve been beaten by police, beaten up by correctional officers in jail, and I’ve had cops draw on me with firearms. I’ve been harassed and literally strip-searched in public! Pulled over by a cop and thrown in the back of a car just for standing outside a store, drinking a Coke.
Hold on a second bro, let me light up this joint.
Light it up. You know, I guess it’s a lot like on ‘Front Lines’, when you rapped: “Crackers invented the law, that’s why the system is flawed”. Starting again could be the only way to fix America, right?
Of course. We need to start again and make sure the laws are more of a universal fit. They’ve got to be in everyone’s favour. Remember, all the laws here in America were written and passed by people who literally had slaves! How is that shit ever going to be in black people’s favour?
I’ve always got this feeling you’re a massive horror fan, because those eerie synths in your songs make me feel just like golden era John Carpenter’ music. Do you feel an affinity with horror?
Absolutely. Horror is part of the sound that I felt fit my character and my persona and all the shit that I’ve been through. With my face being half-paralysed and all that from the shooting, having an affinity for those misunderstood horror villains just goes hand-in-hand. I am definitely the one to slow down my beats and make it more horror-sounding and creepy. My hero was always Captain Spaulding, who is this disfigured clown from the movie The Devil’s Rejects. That movie right there got me in my bag. I drew so much inspiration from it.
In the future, my game plan is to get behind the camera or even in front of it to do some acting. I want people to look at me as Buffalo’s Alfred Hitchcock. It would be great if we could do a Griselda TV show, too, just like they did with the Wu-Tang Clan. Our story needs to be told!
What does success look like for Conway the Machine, say, five years from now?
Making my label a success. I got some dope artists and I want to be the guy who changes their lives. I’ve sat in meetings with Jay Z, just soaking up how he moves. I would love to be that guy too, you know? To be that business savvy. But it is a slow process and I am still on my trajectory.
I’m still thinking about what you said earlier about me being the definition of the American Dream. That shit really hit me. I’ve been through so much and I am still here? It is like wow. Bottom line, I just want a motherfucker to admire and applaud how strong and resilient I’ve been in the face of all this adversity and pain. If that happens then I did my job.
God Don’t Make Mistakes is available on most major streaming platforms.