The idea of being self-made and giving back to the community was ingrained in LA rapper Nipsey Hussle – real name Ermias Davidson Asghedom – from the beginning. In an early interview with Hard Knock TV, a fresh-faced Nipsey revealed he’d rather invest in real estate than jewellery. “Invest in some assets rather than liabilities like diamonds and cars!” he urged his fans, looking right down the barrel of the camera. “A real asset should take care of your people. Material things ain’t nothing; they are fuelled by insecurity.”
This level of self-awareness was refreshing, particularly for an artist who grew up amid an L.A. rap scene built on egotistical references to shiny low riders and gold Death Row Records chains. Sure, the raw aesthetic of Nipsey’s music and his gruff vocal delivery both represented West Coast gangster rap at its purest, wearing influences such as Above The Law, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube openly, but while those artists often painted bleak pictures of their communities, Nipsey’s underlying message was always one of hope, and this is what made his voice so powerful.
His death yesterday (March 31) at 33 years of age has sent shockwaves through hip-hop. On the track ‘Love’, from potent early mixtape ‘The Marathon’, he raps: “Showed my mother I’m a gangbang graduate / Pioneered the transition from this crippin’ wasn’t easy / But I mastered it / Built my own lane / Ain’t no nigga ever hand me shit!” This track perhaps best represented Nipsey Hussle’s mission statement as a rapper — his existence was about showing working class black youth that they could grow beyond their area code and achieve enduring success. After all, being a Crip from Crenshaw never held Nipsey back, so why should a humble beginning prevent anyone else from fulfilling their dreams?
The blistering pace at which Nipsey Hussle released this decade’s classic mixtapes – via his All Money In label – has only really been equalled by Future and Gucci Mane. He effortlessly dropped sun-drenched banger after banger, with tracks such as ‘Checc Me Out’, ‘Count Up That Loot; and ‘Forever On Some Fly Shit’ (on the latter he prophetically talks about his own death, rapping, “Murder is a fact when you out here in the field”) becoming anthems in the street even if radio spins eluded them.
He achieved all this with a pioneering understanding of business that showed a whole generation of indie rappers – from Macklemore to Chance The Rapper – that they didn’t necessarily need a label to make money or grow their personal brand. Take the release strategy for his 2013 mixtape ‘Crenshaw’. Nipsey sold a limited run of 1,000 copies at $100, winning admirers such as Jay-Z, another drug dealer turned rap entrepreneur, who was impressed by the rapper’s hustle and subsequently became a close friend. His next mixtape, ‘Mailbox Money’, saw Nipsey release 100 copies, each with a price tag of $1,000. Once again, every single copy sold out.
This business acumen extended beyond music, too, with an entrepreneurial Nipsey owning various shops and restaurants across Los Angeles’ inner city, employing homeless people at many of these establishments in order to give them a second chance. He was famous locally for his generosity, once buying a pair of sneakers for every student at the 59th Street Elementary School and donating money to renovate the school’s playground and basketball courts. The city of Los Angeles hadn’t seen a rapper this generous since Tupac Shakur.
He was shot to death outside his Marathon clothing store in Crenshaw, which is just a stone’s throw from the ‘hood where Nipsey grew up. It’s unclear whether the LAPD have any suspects for the shooting, with Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who represents the southern part of the city, poignantly stating: “Our communities have lost too many young men and bright futures to the scourge of gun violence. For healing to occur, even from this terrible incident, justice must be sought through legal means, and community peace must be found.”
Not even a year has passed since fellow rapper XXXTentacion was also shot to death, with an ugly recklessness creeping back into hip-hop culture, as artists put themselves at risk by riding a wave of violence and controversy to get trending and onto the charts. Nipsey’s murder hurts so much because he was thriving artistically and still had so much more to give to the world; there was a real sense he wanted to help the next Nipsey Hussle find his or her voice, be that through business or music.
Working his way up from the independent scene, Nipsey’s 2018 album ‘Victory Lap’ also marked his studio debut as a rapper, and he didn’t look out of place when nominated for a Grammy alongside heavyweight names such as Cardi B, Travis Scott and Pusha T. It was the most polished album of his career, with a bigger budget allowing the rapper to be more ambitious sonically. The reassuringly human introspection of tracks such as ‘Double Up’ and ‘Dedication’, where Nipsey boldly proclaimed he was the “2Pac of [his] generation”, made us feel like we had a personal stake in his underdog story.
But even when Nipsey was flexing and living the good life on album highlight ‘Grinding All My Life’, he remained fearful of death, seemingly resigned to the fate that often goes with balancing fame and being active in the street (Nipsey was a part of the infamous Rollin’ 60s Crips set). On this track, he eerily raps: “Look, I’m married to this game / that’s who I made my wife / Said I’ll die alone / I told that bitch she prolly right.”
Nipsey was many things to many people. He was a pioneering rapper, entrepreneur, hustler, father, son, partner to actor Lauren London, and anti-Trump activist (his guest verse on YG’s Fuck Donald Trump is pure poetry). We shouldn’t allow his dark, violent death to define a life that was so full of light.
In that early interview with Hard Knock TV, a young Nipsey is asked how he feels about black-on-black violence, and I hope the message of unity in his reply is ultimately what people remember him for: “As black people we have a common enemy; it’s the capitalists who are taking our assets and colonising our rap culture. We haven’t got time to have issues among ourselves.”