Nobody saw Nipsey Hussle coming. Not just in the sense of his being a “slept-on rapper,” although he was that too—especially outside of Los Angeles. The whole world slept on Nipsey. The rap game slept. The media slept. Even his own neighborhood slept on that man. He deserved more support than he got. More airplay. More respect. Less police harassment. Less hate—and more life. Most of all, he deserved more life.
Few recognized the audacity of his vision until it began to unfold. Blinded by low expectations, many mistook this tatted-up Slauson Boy, who repped East Africa as hard as he did the Rollin’ 60s Neighborhood Crips, for your average aspirational street entrepreneur. They overlooked his discipline, underestimated his focus, miscalculated his capacity to hustle and motivate, to study and model self-empowerment and “get it straight up out the mud.” Even though it was written right there on his face: prolific. And just below that, by his right temple: god will rise. That the man born Ermias Asghedom possessed the resilience to overcome the post-traumatic stress of urban warfare and build a positive, productive life is a blessing. That he would go on to disrupt not just music-industry business models but long-standing cycles of racial and economic oppression—and share his process step by step so that others might replicate it—is truly remarkable. That anyone could do all of that without turning his back on his neighborhood, or his set, would seem pretty much impossible, until Nipsey Hussle showed and proved that it could be done.
There’s really no other rapper, dead or alive, who accomplished the things that he did. When Nipsey decided to sell physical copies of his Crenshaw mixtape for $100 each, people said he was crazy. Impressed by the brilliance and the arrogance of this move, Jay-Z bought 100 copies for a total of $10,000 and instructed his Life&Times blog to report on the purchase. “When Jay tapped into the wave, everybody became a believer,” Nipsey told me with a smile. The two had their first conversation not long after that. “He told me, ‘I just bought a streaming company,’ ” Nipsey recalled. “And that became Tidal.” It made sense that Jay would be one of the first to recognize Nipsey’s business acumen. Like Jay before him, Nipsey was a student of the rap game—not just how to make powerful music but how to extract wealth from a system that was designed to exploit content creators. He’d soaked up the case studies of other hip-hop executives who built independent empires from the streets—James Prince’s Rap-A-Lot, E-40’s Sick Wid It, Master P’s No Limit, and, yes, Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella. He’d drawn inspiration from Puffy and Dr. Dre’s entrepreneurial achievements beyond music, watching both men diversify their portfolios. He’d followed the astute investments of artists like 50 Cent, whose Vitamin Water deal made him tens of millions overnight, and Chamillionaire, who’s now a full-time venture capitalist. But even as he borrowed pages from all of their playbooks, Nipsey did something nobody had done before. True to his slogan “All Money In,” he became the first hip-hop entrepreneur to reinvest 100 percent of his business interests back into the streets that raised him. He was unrepentantly gangster, all about his paper and utterly committed to his ’hood.
More than a rapper, more than a businessman, Hussle was a cultural activist, a philanthropist, a role model and leader for young Black men seeking to overcome a troubled past and achieve greatness.
Applying lessons learned from the corner of South Crenshaw Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue, from his family in Eritrea and from a lifetime of voracious reading. Nip set up a comprehensive strategy, developing an infrastructure to build generational wealth for himself, his family and eventually the whole -Crenshaw District. The all-too-familiar rap-star narrative of pursuing new business ventures while turning your back on the streets that raised you did not apply to Nipsey. His was a vision that went way beyond handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving.
“He said he was the people’s champ,” Blacc Sam told me. “The people in the area were the first people who supported him, so he was very prideful, and he just wanted to always be around and inspire. As a youngster he never respected people that made it and left…. It was much bigger for him. It wasn’t, ‘I’ma get some money and leave.’ It was, ‘I’ma achieve my goals and bring things that’s bigger than music. I’m gonna be at the forefront of a movement.’ ”
The businesses and organizations Hussle and his partners established changed countless lives, providing jobs and opportunities for many residents of South L.A., including people with criminal records who would have found it hard to secure employment elsewhere. Through his support of the Our Opportunity economic-stimulus program, he opened a state-of-the-art co-working space that included a business incubator and classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), giving bright kids in the area a chance he never had, to develop their talents. Hussle also supported social-justice initiatives like Time Done, a program to assist ex-convicts rebuilding their lives, as well as civic programs such as the public art installation and cultural awareness project Destination Crenshaw. In short, Hussle put on for his city like few other rappers in history. “You can divide hip-hop entrepreneurship into a bunch of different categories,” says Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “You have the homegrown capitalists like Master P and J. Prince, who start with a record store and then fold it into a personal company and then broaden horizontally. You have the super-capitalists like Jay-Z, Puffy and 50, who do all their deals upward. They’re trying to do joint ventures with the capitalistic cloud, and they stay in those clouds. What’s interesting about Nipsey Hussle is that his capitalism was activism. He was doing redevelopment, and that’s very, very different from a Jay-Z on the one hand and a Master P on the other. Nipsey was an interesting combination of capitalist and activist, on a scale that I don’t think hip-hop has ever produced before. But you shine too bright, you see what they do to you.”
Much of the world wouldn’t catch on until it was too late. Then they all lined up to light a candle, lay a rose at the altar or post a photo with a checkered-flag emoji.
Excerpted from THE MARATHON DON’T STOP: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle. Copyright © 2021 by Rob Kenner. From the forthcoming book THE MARATHON DON’T STOP by Rob Kenner, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.