When Griselda Records announced that they added rapper Armani Caesar to their roster, some fans assumed that her roots in Buffalo may have had something to do with her becoming a new member of the gritty rap crew. But few knew exactly how deep the connection went.
Towards the end of the aughts, Armani met Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine at Buff City Studios in Buffalo as a teenager. She was checking the place out, and wrote a verse while waiting for the owner to show up. That verse impressed Benny enough to land her a place alongside him and Conway—then rapping as “Jimmy Conway”—in the Buff City Records family. Westside Gunn, on a hiatus from rapping that would last another few years, was nonetheless “always around” at the time, Armani remembers, and she formed a lasting connection with him as well. She released her debut mixtape Bath & Body Work in early 2009, with features from both Benny and Conway.
Following Armani’s move from Buffalo to North Carolina to attend college at North Carolina Central University, the crew gradually split apart, but they never fully lost touch. And when Benny, Conway, and Westside Gunn became rap powerhouses as Griselda, bringing their old friend back into the fold was a natural next step.
She’s already had a great 2020, releasing one of the best rap verses of the year so far, and now Armani Caesar’s debut project with Griselda, The Liz, comes out on Friday. We hopped on the phone with her to hear all about the past, present, and future of Griselda’s First Lady.
Let’s start at the beginning in Buffalo. How did you meet Jimmy Conway and 2 Chain Benny Mane, as they were calling themselves back then?
They were a part of a group called Buff City, and that was the biggest studio in Buffalo at the time. I was like 16 years old, and I went in there to inquire about studio time. While I was waiting for the owner to come out of the back, Benny was writing to this song that kept playing. So as time went on and the guy in the back was taking forever, I ended up just writing to the beat, just playing around. One of the guys in the studio was like, “Yo, let me hear what you spit.” So I spit for him, and he was like, “You’re dead nice.”
He brought Benny over, and he was like, “Yo, listen to this.” Then the owner came out. I ended up in the group like a week later, and I ended up laying that song. From that song, we ended up doing probably 10 more songs, within a week’s time. And I dropped my first mixtape a couple weeks after that. Things happened really fast.
“I was battling against all of these dudes, so I would just say the craziest stuff to make sure that I stood out. It ended up working.”
It was a group of guys, and they had already had a first lady, but I think Benny was writing for her at the time. So they looked at me like, she’s dope, she’s got her own stuff, and she’s cute. She needs to be part of the gang. So I was in that group for like a year or two. I dropped two mixtapes under Buff City. Then I ended up going away for college, and everybody kind of went their own ways. I think Conway had moved to Atlanta, West ended up going to jail. He wasn’t in the group, but he was Conway’s brother, so he was always around the studio. 38 Fresh used to come down from Rochester and record there. Everybody that was nice from New York would record at that studio. It was always so many dope lyricists. And I knew being a female, I had to push my pen. I couldn’t come half-assed with it. I was battling against all of these dudes, so I would just say the craziest stuff to make sure that I stood out. It ended up working. That’s pretty much how we all started.
What was that like for you? I’m sure the age difference between you guys now doesn’t mean anything, but when you’re 16 and they’re in their early 20s…
I remember Shay, who I think is Benny’s road manager now [Buff City boss DJ Shay, who continued to work with and produce for Benny the Butcher even after the Buff City period ended, died shortly after this interview was conducted], would be like, “Nobody talk to Armani. Don’t be trying to speak to her.” I was always like little sis to them. It wasn’t like a thing where I had a crush on anybody. I really was like one of the guys. Even though I still carried myself feminine, like a girly girl, I still was hood. It was Buffalo, New York, so everything up there is really gritty. That’s why you can hear it so authentically in the music, because that’s the environment. You have to be tough. You have to be on point at all times. It’s just a lot of street stuff going on.
What did you learn during that year or two of hanging with them? What do you think they learned from you?
They definitely learned being around a female is way different, even though they would forget I was around sometimes and be doing guy stuff. And I was cool. I’m not no hater, so if they bring girls around or anything like that, I’m not going to be like, ew.
But females, they pay attention to the particulars. They knew that I’m going hard, and I also made sure that I was going hard with my appearance, my social media presence, and stuff like that. They were hood dudes from the streets of Buffalo, New York. They didn’t care nothing about social media back then. Now they see how important it is, and how much bigger it makes everything. Of course you have your street cred, but the internet is just as important, getting those numbers up and stuff like that. So I think that’s what they got from me.
As far as what I learned from them, it taught me how to be around men, and how to carry myself and make sure that I held myself to a higher standard. Because a lot of females get wrapped up in it. Guys don’t respect females a lot of the times, or they’ll try to lure them in and try to sweet talk them and stuff like that. But with me being around, when I moved to North Carolina and started going to those studios, I would walk in like I owned it. I would make sure nobody was talking to me crazy. I shut down the whole studio. I would make sure that I lock it down, like no random dudes popping in my sessions. They knew that I was serious, and I was not to be played with. So it was a respect thing, but you have to make that known up front. Otherwise, if they know that they can play with you, they will play with you.
How did Buff City end? Was there a definitive moment?
Benny went through a period where he lost his voice. I think he had to have surgery on his vocal chords. So that slowed things down a lot. Conway had other things that he was going through, and I was in school, so my first year I was coming back-and-forth a lot. But then as time went on, I got more comfortable, so I found studios down here and started making it my home. We just drifted apart. There was never no fallout or bad blood. We just decided to do other things. My focus was on school for a second, too, so I had to slow down on the rap.
Was having 9th Wonder at NCCU a selling point for you? Was he teaching when you were there?
He was teaching there, but I didn’t realize that they even had a Hip-Hop in Context class until my second semester, when I heard everybody talking about it. Because they had Play from Kid ’N Play, 9th Wonder, and another guy that wrote a book on hip-hop. I can’t remember his name. That was my favorite class. When we walked in class, 9th would do this thing where they’ll play a song, and then they play the newer song that samples that song, and we would have to guess it. Or they would do cyphers, and I was maybe one of two females that would ever have the courage to do it, even though I wasn’t strong at freestyling. When I first got in the class, I gave 9th Wonder one of my mixtapes, it was called Bath & Body Work. I was on some straight Lil Kim Hard Core nasty lyrics.
So I gave it to him, he listened to it, and I seen him the next day leaving class. I was like, “So what did you think?” He was just like, “You know, you can definitely spit. But the lyrics, as a professor, I can’t.” What I was talking about wasn’t really his lane, and I appreciated that because it helped me realize that even though I can still stay me, I have to diversify myself and be able to talk about and learn about different things. That Hip-Hop In Context class taught me so much. We had real homework, we had to buy real books. It wasn’t like we just talked about hip-hop all day—we actually studied it. It taught me to love the culture even more, do my research, and really know what I’m talking about when I say that I do this.
Who was an artist you discovered in that class who you ended up really liking?
It was so many. I would say definitely KRS-One. He was before my time, but I’ve always had an old soul. Public Enemy, Kool G. Rap, all of those people who kind of laid the foundation. Even Roxanne Shante, stuff like that. [9th] would always tell me, “You can spit, you remind me of Pep [Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton of Salt-N-Pepa].” He used to say that all the time, him and Play. I would be like, “Do I?”
Play actually knew her very well, so that’s quite a compliment!
Right. I appreciated that. It forced me to do my homework and my research, and know that none of this is new. A lot of artists, especially in our generation, they don’t play homage to the people that came before us.
That reminds me of something else. As someone who’s studied hip-hop, tell me your reaction to being on a DJ Premier beat. [Premier produced the Armani and Benny collaboration “Simply Done”].
I screamed so loud. Here’s why I screamed: West[side Gunn] didn’t even tell me who did the beat when we first did the song. He didn’t tell me until after I was done. I knew the sound was so familiar, but I just didn’t know for sure. So when he told me it was a Preemo beat, I was like, this is crazy. He’s like, “I’m going to send it to him, and have him do the scratches on it.” I’m just sitting here trying to be cool, but in the back of my mind I’m like, “Oh shit, this is really going to happen.”
He sent it and showed me the text messages, and Preemo sent mad fire emojis. I was like, “Oh my God, he liked it.” I forgot about that record until he said that I was going to be on a project. So when I actually heard the scratches and stuff, I probably screamed for like five minutes. A lot of people do things as favors, but he genuinely liked the record. That meant so much to me, because I studied him as well in my class. Even before that, just knowing that he was a part of Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt, and working with Jay and all the people that I look up to as lyricists. It made me think, wow, it came full circle. These are people that are on my vision board. So it was an amazing feeling.
“I always knew that they were the most talented lyricists I’ve ever heard, in my generation. I felt like if anybody deserved it, we did.”
Going back to your story: you knew all the Griselda guys when you’re 16, 17, 18. Then you gradually fall out of touch. How does the reconnection happen?
Well, we always stayed in touch. We’d hit each other up on text or social media and be like, I see what you doing. They were always congratulating me, and I would see what they were doing and congratulate them. West started Griselda. He’s like, we all have to do something. I’m thinking he’s not talking about a record, because at first, it really wasn’t my sound. I didn’t see me rapping over those beats. Because I had been down here [in North Carolina] for a minute, so I was used to rapping over a different style.
When he came to me about the idea of signing, it was like, okay. I had deals on the table, but I always loved what they were doing. I think more than anything, I felt comfortable going with them, because I believed in the vision. I wanted to be a part of something that was new and fresh, instead of going to a label that already had something going on. I like to be the first to do things, and it was just like family. He’s like, “I need a first lady over here, and I don’t feel comfortable with anybody else. I don’t see anybody else better than Armani. I think that you should just come on home.” It was all she wrote from there.
Now that you’re back in regular touch and working with them, how are things different than when you, and Benny, and Conway were the new Fugees back in ’09?
Benny called me the other day, and he was just like, “Wow, can you believe we started from Buff City, and we’re here now?” They were just nominated for a BET Award, and at Roc Nation brunches and stuff like that. And with me getting my flowers after grinding for 10 years, it’s amazing. I always knew that they were the most talented lyricists I’ve ever heard, in my generation. I felt like if anybody deserved it, we did, because we work hard. We put in the work and we’ve always been known as rappers, but timing is everything. It was our time.
What can we expect out of this project, given the variety of stuff you’ve done over the years?
Well, originally, I wanted to just do something that was just completely Griselda sounding. As I got comfortable in that sound, and even with the beat selection, I started making those beats sound like me. Even though we do have tracks on it that’s gritty, you also have tracks on there that’s maybe a little bit in between. It can go either way. And then we have a song with me and Benny which is more of a bouncier type of beat. It’s a fun song. We did it in Buffalo a couple months ago. Everybody’s been loving it, and I think that it’s a great transition into what I’m doing, as far as just merging the two sounds. Because still in all, I’m very much the grittier side. I’m from Buffalo, New York, but I’ve also been down here long enough to be able to adapt and make that southern sound my own, too.
I never wanted to be in a box. I think that’s why Westside Gunn thought I was such a good addition, because I can rap over both. I can ride a southern beat, and I can still spit when it comes to that gritty sound. I just wanted to shut people up and let them know that I rap-rap. People got it confused: they heard “Big Ole Bag” or “Yum Yum” or “The Nasty Song” and didn’t think that I could actually rap. They just thought I was just one of these regular ABC-type female rappers, and that’s not me. I push my own pen. Nobody’s writing for me, and it shows. It shows in my delivery, my conviction, how I speak, my tone, everything.
You had a pretty interesting producer on your song “Can’t Take Them Back.”
Yes. “Can’t Take Them Back” was produced by Mase. It was a song that I started in California, when I first heard that beat. It almost sounded like an old Neptunes beat to me, like something that Kelis would be on. So I did the hook, and then I left the song alone for a year. I found it in my email and I came back to it, and I was probably going through something at the time, because I did the song, in 15-30 minutes, tops.
How did you connect with Mase?
I met Mase out in L.A. I was about to do a deal with a record company out there, and one of the VPs at the label brought me to his house. They were chatting it up and talking or whatever, and then we ended up just working, listening to beats and stuff like that. Mase is still a person who calls me every now and then. He’s definitely been one of my mentors throughout this whole time, giving me the game, not just about music, but about the business of it all. He’s always been open and honest with me about things like that, so I talk to him a lot when it comes to ideas and stuff.
“I just wanted to shut people up and let them know that I rap-rap.”
Other than the Griselda project, what’s next for you?
I recently was in Miami working with Rico Love, so we have a bunch of songs that we produced together. And I’m still recording. We have so many songs. My work ethic has always been crazy, but at the time ,I didn’t have the means to do things how I wanted to do them. So now with my work ethic, with my knowledge and talent, mixed with having [Griselda] behind me and supporting and helping facilitate things the right way, I think that we’re going to be unstoppable.
I know Rico Love has been a mentor to you, which is interesting, because I think most people associate him with R&B. [Rico has written and produced for Usher, Nelly, Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and many more]. Tell me about working with him?
The one thing I like about him, he’s very much a perfectionist, and he believes in excellence. So anything that I do with him, it can’t be half-assed. He’s going to push you, and he understands the integrity of music, and of the business as well. There’s nothing lazy about it. It’s good being around him. He’s also a great motivator.
He was my first real album placement, back in 2015. He put me on a track with him and Raekwon. We have a mutual respect for each other, because he knows how hard I work. He also knows the plight that I feel about being slept on, because he works with a lot of rappers, but people just don’t know anything outside of the Usher thing. I’ve been working my ass off for the past 10 years, putting out mixtapes on my own—being the makeup artist, the stylist, the manager, everything—up until this point. So it’s a different kind of understanding. He’s always called me a superstar, and I know that once he put the stamp on it, it’s usually right, because he’s been around so many iconic artists.
Was it intimidating working with him at first, because of the caliber of people he’s written and produced for in the past?
I was so hungry. When he called me, he was telling me how he was finishing up his album, and he had a song that he wanted me on. He sent me the song. He said, “I’ve got to turn my album in by Thursday.” I want to say this was maybe a Tuesday. I flew out Wednesday, recorded. I flew myself out there. I was like, I’m not going to wait for him to do nothing. I wanted it that bad.
When I first got in the studio, of course I was nervous. Everybody was looking at me like, “What’s she going to do?” When I did it, it didn’t take me a lot of takes, and he loved it. So after that, my confidence was there. But this is Rico Love. Like you said, he’s worked with Beyoncé, Diddy. So it was just an amazing feeling. I’m a very much a firm believer that your gifts will make room for you. There’s plenty of rooms that I didn’t think that I was qualified to be in, but I was. That’s where my gift has taken me, and it’s going to take me even farther than that.
I have one last question: when do we see the return of the blue teddy bear?
I promise I’ll put him in another video, because I owe a lot to that teddy bear. That teddy bear ran me up at least 100k on Instagram. His name is Bear E. White, and he’ll be in an upcoming video very soon. I have to check with his agent, because he done blew up and got bougie. But he’s definitely around.