What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle
The L.A. rap veteran talks about his trying journey to an unexpected Grammy nomination.
Photographer Kayla Reefer
What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle

Rap, as an art form, has been commodified since its underground genesis and, in turn, it has fueled generations of youths from breezed-over environments to try fulfilling dreams of catapulting themselves into a life of comfort and luxury. But, now, as hip-hop has become one of the most lucrative genres of music and the language of American pop culture, the journey to riches and self-sufficiency is often blurred out, or so distant that it feels unreal. Some of our biggest beacons of hope like The Carters, in recent memory, have been taken to literary task for effectively laying musical guilt trips on listeners for being employees and not accumulating generational wealth. On the other end of the spectrum, some of today’s newcomers reminisce about becoming rich and leaving behind a life of struggle in such a hollow manner that it feels like they’re either faking the funk for their audience or holding out the journey that helped them escape. So, for the everyday fan, the question becomes: how does one draw inspiration from a path that doesn’t seem to have tangible steps?

Much of Nipsey Hussle’s career addresses those questions head on. The L.A. rapper made most of his decade-long impact as an independent act who had the wherewithal to look beyond the immediate spoils of rap stardom. In 2013, he made a move that will excite hip-hop nerds and entrepreneurs alike for years to come, when he priced his eighth mixtape Crenshaw at $100 per copy. JAY-Z bought 100 copies and Nipsey’s legend started to form for people outside of the West Coast and corners of the rap internet. The move gave him the space to build out a sturdy plan for his 2018 debut album, Victory Lap, and the result was Nipsey’s first critically acclaimed body of work, comprised of stories on how to become as self-reliant and financially-stable as possible. The difference between Nip and many of his contemporaries is that his story has the potential to penetrate more hearts: for the past ten years, he's been living out his step-by-step instructions for the world to see. And throughout Victory Lap, he reminds us of what it felt like to be a child growing up in L.A.’s Crenshaw District, fully aware of his own ability, but lost on how to best exhibit them to the outside world.

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Unexpected to most, Nipsey’s debut received a nomination for Best Rap Album at next month’s Grammys, and it teases a potential shift in what award shows may look like going forward (Tierra Whack’s “Mumbo Jumbo” is also nominated for Best Music Video). But Nipsey isn’t quite sure if him making it on the list signals any real change outside of his personal legacy. During a recent phone conversation, the L.A. rapper talked about award shows, the hip-hop community needing more organization, how he became aware of his gifts as a child, and what emotional space he’s in after releasing his debut album.

In recent memory, The Grammys has been labeled as an institution that doesn’t get to the heart of hip-hop culture, or maybe any culture actually. Does your nomination feel like progress in that arena?

From my understanding of how The Grammys go, it’s a collective of musicians, business people in the music industry, writers, producers, performers — so I think the album, for it to impact creatives and impact people who make music, that’s what really influences it. Obviously, it has to impact the people in general, but more specifically, the people that make music. I didn’t know that until this past year. From that point of view, I don’t think the commercial impact is the end-all. It’s definitely a factor. In this year’s selection of nominees, I think it was about the quality of music. And 2018 too, was like a renaissance year, in my opinion, for hip-hop. I feel like it was a music statement. But then again, I don’t wanna be one of those artists who change their statement when it’s convenient. I still think all accolades and metric houses, they gotta factor in a term that people are over-using: the culture, or the cultural impact of things. When you walk in those barbershops or you in a city and you hear those songs everywhere, or you see the conversation that exists around a certain project, everybody gotta consider that.

When you say rap had a renaissance year in 2018, what does that mean for you? For me as a fan, I think it was one of those years where rap provided a healthy balance of whatever sub-genre you like. But for you, what does it mean?

I agree about the eclectic offering of different styles of hip-hop, and just black music in general. What I meant is that you got a moment right now that, you got artists in the age group I’m in myself where, we been in the game for a minute. We were in an establishing ourselves era but now, where we standing, the artists that’s been here since I been here, we kinda figured out why the people fuck with us and you’re getting a refined, concentrated version of that in the albums. Then you got these new artists that are ushering in a new era of art and creativity. That’s always dope. I remember 2008 and 2009 was like that — just new energy. We hadn’t made our statements yet, but you started seeing the flashes of genius and the potential of what that generation had. I love what Kodak did, I feel like his album is crazy. Artists like A Boogie, Roddy Ricch. It’s a gang of authenticity coming through the music. That’s exciting to me. Then you got the artists we grew up loving: Nas dropped this year, Jay and Bey dropped together. Even the Black Panther soundtrack. It was all next level. Even looking at what Cardi did. It was like a Lauryn Hill moment to me. She came through on some female power.

What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle

When you came in around ‘09, something similar between then and now is the shift in how people put music out. Around that time, with artists like Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y, and K.R.I.T., that’s when the mixtapes had to be like albums because you didn’t know if you were gonna get signed. And now, what’s different is that the younger artists have to give you their life story in frequent 25 to 40-minute spurts multiple times a year.

I think also, the similarity between now and ‘09 in hindsight, we had to fix our engines while the plane was in the air. Because you gotta think, we came up looking at all the artists that succeeded in ‘06, ‘04, ‘03: 50, T.I., Jeezy, The Game. That model of making a big single, putting out an album and going platinum, that shit was over. And that was the only formula we knew. I remember thinking, this is different. Blogs became a thing, mixtapes became a thing, and the streetwear movement where the fashion was part of the music and you had to be at fashion events.

The brands started attaching themselves to the artists more.

Yeah, and the artists that embraced it and learned how to ride that wave creatively, they had breakthroughs.

You mentioned liking Roddy Ricch, who’s from Compton. What is it about him that speaks to you?

A few things. I’ma go straight music. He got incredible control of his tone. That mean you seasoned. You listen to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane before they found their voice, they sounded different. And when you listen to them after they found their voice on their instruments, they sound more confident and in control. Artists have that too. Roddy, to be as young as he is, and to be early in his process, to have that kind of control over his tone is impressive. What is that gonna blow into? That’s why Thug is incredible. And then, I’m a street nigga from L.A. I know it when I hear it, you just know it. But I hear the art. It’s just a dope blend of texture. It’s gonna represent well for the West Coast in general.

Going back to the award shows being ran by institutions, what do you think is the best approach to an award show for hip-hop culture in 2019? Do the people get to choose? Or should it be broken down regionally? Which is something I think we should focus more on too — how much of a hold an artist has on their home region.

Just in the community and the streets, we judge albums by a different standard. If you go outside and niggas is driving by playing that album — all them Pac and Death Row albums I’ve known since a kid, I never bought none of those albums. They was just played all through LA where I knew every song. We were surrounded by it because the people chose it. What I think about all things and not just award shows, it gotta be by us and for us. We gonna always have critiques, but it has to be by us. Even when we think about the music business, it wasn’t built by artists. That’s why it’s not geared towards artists. It’s built by businessmen so it’s geared towards businessmen. But if we built it, I bet you producers would get paid, I bet you people would get credit, I bet you artists wouldn’t end up broke, still on tour, not because they wanna be on tour but because they got to.

I’ve seen this discussion online a few times, but do you think with how expansive rap is at this point, that it’s possible to have something like a player’s association in the NBA, but for artists where they’d have a certain group of people looking out for their best interest? And would you wanna be a part of something like that?

Yeah, I think I am a part of that without it being named or having a title. I think it’s a group of artists in hip-hop. I was having this convo recently with somebody that’s been successful in rap in every generation and they were talking about Jack Johnson, the boxer. We celebrate Jack Johnson ‘cause he knocked out the great white hype but the reality is that nobody would give Jack Johnson a fight because it would be a black heavyweight champion if we give him a fight. So he started antagonizing all of the boxers and finally they gave him a fight. He knocked out the boxer and knocked out the heavyweight champ. Then he said, “I ain’t fightin’ none of you niggas” and wouldn’t fight no other black boxers. So I think that is what we gotta get away from. When somebody get in, we gotta leave the door open.

We gotta carry this shit the right way. That’s why me and YG — we saw what happened with Death Row out here. The street politics wasn’t all the way sustainable so it crumbled. So with YG being a Blood and me being on the Crip side, we had to make sure, as leaders, it was the right way to do it, from an L.A. perspective. And with hip-hop in general, I fuck with Meek Mill. We was just at the table yesterday. That’s the type of conversations we having — Drake was at the table, Meek was at the table, T.I. was at the table, J Prince was at the table, Mustard was at the table. It’s almost like some Corleone, Five Families shit if niggas really do it the right way. We can definitely come at it like a player’s association and make sure that it’s fair.

Would you say working on Victory Lap was your freest moment as an artist?

It was a lot of layers to that process where I had just met my girl — now my son’s mom — so my life was changing in that way. I was in a real relationship. That felt different for me. I had been on rap time ever since I been in the game and committed to the grind. I wasn’t a person that even considered another person’s feelings on how I move. And then my brother went to jail and that’s my business partner. We got a lot of employees, like 20 people that get paid every Friday and multiple businesses that my brother handle. So when he go to jail, it’s slack that gotta be picked up and that really put a lot of pressure not only on the music, but on the enterprises we have. Then it’s the emotional part; my brother fighting for his life again. But then on the other side, I’m just coming off the Crenshaw release and got positive feedback. We had a great pool of resources. But that’s how life is: you’ll have a ton of this shit going and then big challenges at the same time, so I was just torn. But I knew I could pay my producers at the highest level, I knew that I could clear samples, I knew that i could really mix and master, go into the big studio. I knew Crenshaw had elevated me and distinguished me.

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What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle
What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle

Thinking on the events that led up to Victory Lap being made, what space are you in right now that might show up in your music?

When I think about it now, I never knew what I felt growing up. And what I felt was that it was no generational wealth established. I didn’t understand that and that’s what we all feel. Black people in America, people from the struggle, immigrants, it’s no generational wealth that we are attached to so we are tasked to create — in one generation — closing the gap. That’s why we so Doomsday about getting to the check ‘cause it’s life or death for real. So when I got the information and was able to get access to different worlds, it hit like Wow, look how hard it is for us because we don’t know nobody. We don’t have resources. I heard about taxes my whole life and nobody explained to me what to do. We all learn the hard way.

Victory Lap was talking to whoever was gonna decide to do that next. Don’t think that the pain is a sign that you doing something wrong or that confusion or heartbreak are a sign that you doing something wrong. So when I come into this next album and writing process, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I’m the type person, my safe place to be emotional is the booth.

What you just said about growing up reminds me of my favorite set of bars on the album when on “Dedication,” you talked about being a young kid in a particular environment and knowing that it’s something extraordinary about you, but not really knowing how to best utilize those gifts. So I wonder if Victory Lap was you finally arriving at that place.

It’s complex with me because I was somebody that was touched early by my abilities. I was a little bit struck, in a humble way. Then feeling, because of that, I should be able to use that and be able to express that and be able to embrace that. Then that encounters all the resistance: going outside and seeing that that ain’t celebrated. I’m not being recognized and I became frustrated by that because I’m like, What I do with this? The only thing outside is gangbanging so how do I use this? All I could use with my intelligence was how to go kill a nigga in a smarter way; how we gonna get away with a crime smarter. And I see so much of that. So many geniuses and artists, and greatness but it’s only one place to put it. They put it in they hustle or they put it in violence, and they be the most creatively violent muhfucka you ever seen in your life. The DaVinci of violence. The Basquiat of hustling. And it’s like, Damn, what if they had access to songwriting or film writing, or sculpture, or cooking — all the things I’m around now. I was knee deep. I was mentally immersed in this shit. My heart and my mind was in it completely.

In those early years, was there ever flashes or opportunities for you to exhibit those gifts? Even if it was for a short period of time.

I’ma tell you a story. I’m in elementary school. I always went to school close to my momma job. I lived in the Crenshaw District but she worked in West LA at Kaiser. The school near her job was a more white school basically — I’m not gon’ say white. It was just different races there. So I remember being in third grade, I had a homie that was Korean, super smart. I got another homie who was Jewish. They used to copy off my work and I remember everybody in my class getting tested for the gifted program. They never tested me for Gifted, but these niggas used to copy off my work. I told my teacher to test me and she said you have to be selected, you can’t ask. So I told my momma so she went there and pressed like, “Y’all better test my son.” They tested me and ended up apologizing ‘cause I tested off the charts. She always tells that story. That was an introduction to how the world was for me: people gonna doubt you and that don’t mean that they right. It just mean they don’t understand.

Around the same time Victory Lap dropped last year, you also opened Vector90, your co-working space in Crenshaw? What have been some valuable lessons you’ve learned since opening it?

Honestly, I’m not in the trenches everyday at Vector90 but my partner David Gross is. So he keeps me updated and, obviously, I’m involved and I go through there and am part of it hands on, but I can’t take credit for the day-to-day. But it’s been things like women’s programming where we celebrate all of the female entrepreneurs. We talk to them about their challenges and a lot of it is child care and make sure the kids aren’t neglected while you out here hustling. That’s something that we don’t think about. They have different challenges because men, we have women for the kids when we’re out. So we have to have an institution to support that. Also, just being a source of inspiration and a platform for people to execute. When you have a vision and a plan, you might not have an office or a network of people that’s like-minded. You come to Vector90 and you can meet 15 people that can add value to what you doing naturally. And that’s just something that don’t exist around here. You gotta go to Hollywood or The Valley or something.

Which is more gratifying to you at this stage of your life: being recognized by the masses for your music or being able to see tangible influence in your community?

It’s different parts of a person. We’re all artists in our own way and artists want recognition. Period. That’s what we strive to. And as a human, and someone who was a teenager and a young kid, I remember the stages and challenges and feelings like niggas just forgot us. That makes a person a certain way. It’s like fuck everybody. But then when you got somebody that’s doing something or trying to do something, people will feel a different way. They might feel a little more responsibility toward doing right. In that way, I feel like I’m doing what’s real.

What freedom feels like to Nipsey Hussle