In the aftermath of Nipsey Hussle’s murder in early 2019, something occurred within Los Angeles gang life that had rarely happened since the early ’90s. The untimely loss of the rap legend triggered a wave of truce talks between Blood and Crips. Sets riven by historical rivalries attempted to find common ground to honor the spirit of Hussle, the unanimously respected, Grammy Award-winning affiliate of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, who frequently reached across enemy lines to help foster peace.
The impromptu negotiations harkened back to the tense and flammable hours shortly before the Los Angeles Uprising of 1992, when the late Tupac Shakur helped organize a Truce Picnic in Watts, attempting to unite rival factions under a 26-point “Thug Life” manifesto. In this charter, the progeny of Black Panthers enumerated a more righteous path for those in the streets; it empowered the hustlers to both enrich themselves and empower their community but outlined a strict code of honor. This unofficial constitution of the concrete condemned snitching, attacking “civilians,” the police, slinging drugs to children or pregnant women, and advocated for a professional code of ethics to create a safer and more prosperous L.A. Alongside the work of other neighborhood activists, many gave it credit for helping reduce the violence between warring gangs over the next several years.
At the time of these negotiations, the late Hussle was just 6 years old, living roughly eight miles away in South Los Angeles. He would be murdered just over 27 years later, March 31, 2019, in front of the strip mall that he owned at the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson, the blocks that he made internationally renowned. In these intervening decades, the rapper born Ermias Joseph Asghedom would come the closest to realizing 2Pac’s unrealized vision for community upliftment and unity.
As he declared on his song “Dedication,” Hussle was the “2Pac of his generation,” and he will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug. 15. The rightful L.A. heir to the late great Makaveli was a platinum-certified entrepreneur who espoused a Buy Back the Block philosophy to ward off gentrification. His reputation remained unblemished in the streets, but he could also talk eloquently about using Opportunity Zone tax breaks. He nurtured the next generation of local rappers and looked past gang schisms, while donating to nearby schools in the hopes that the neighborhood youth could escape generational poverty. To understand the importance of Nipsey Hussle is not merely to understand the influence of his songs, philanthropy and philosophy; it’s to reckon with the history of the city of Los Angeles and the power of symbolism.
Hussle was raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood, the son of an Eritrean immigrant father and a mother whose family left Louisiana during the great migration. In his pre-adolescence, he was a straight-A student who loved poetry and hip-hop — to the point where he built himself a computer from scratch in order to record music himself. At Hamilton High in West Los Angeles, Hussle was flipping burned CDs in the hallways for $5 a piece, working at his stepfather’s Inglewood seafood restaurant and catching trains and buses to participate in a musical education program at the Watts Towers. Around the same time, he joined his brother Sam in moneymaking schemes near Crenshaw and Slauson, where they’d sell everything from weed to bootleg DVDs to socks and T-shirts.
Leaving high school at 15, Hussle enrolled at West Los Angeles community college, where psychology and English classes vied for his focus against his rap dreams and hustling realities. There were countless recording sessions at makeshift home studios in unfriendly hoods. One early song managed to reach the ears of 2Pac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who invited him and his collaborators to Georgia to perform at the 2002 release party of 2Pac’s posthumous album, “Better Dayz.”
But the early success turned out to be one of several false starts. Legitimate national ascension wouldn’t arrive for another half dozen years, during which he’d rename himself Nipsey Hussle and embark on a three-month trip to Eritrea that altered the trajectory of his life. In an interview with the filmmaker Tariq Nasheed, Hussle described the trip as bringing him into being, “more conscious of [my] decisions. I couldn’t embrace the narrative of ‘This how shit go’ and ‘That’s what it is.’ That wasn’t really it to me no more.”
Imbued with a deeper sense of family and connection to his African and Black American heritage, Hussle returned home with an enhanced clarity. This new lens toward his hometown eventually led to his breakthrough 2008 mixtape, the regionally canonized, “Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 1.” Expanding upon L.A.’s pistols-and-palm trees gangsta rap tradition, his flow and cadences bounced with the drowsy-but-never-slipping menace of a young Snoop Dogg, and the unvarnished soul of 2Pac. He became the nexus between the 1990s’ Death Row/Aftermath empire and the Kendrick Lamar-led Top Dawg Entertainment domination that would soon define the next wave of West Coast hip-hop.
By 2009, Hussle received his first taste of mainstream recognition for his Kris Kross-sampling debut single, “Hussle in the House.” It failed to crack the Billboard charts, but introduced a broader audience to the next contender for the throne of L.A. street rap, a vacancy unclaimed for most of the previous decade. He made it clear that he was from the soil, starting his introductory anthem by interpolating N.W.A (“Comin’ straight out of Slauson, a crazy motherfucker named Nipsey / I’m turfed up cause I grew up in the Sixties!”) without succumbing to revivalist nostalgia.
Unlike many of his unremembered ’00s peers who flatly mimicked West Coast gangsta rap tropes, Hussle’s three-dimensional storytelling turned his vignettes of street life into timeless anthems. If the plots largely revolved around familiar themes of relentless grinding, bewildering pain and constantly encroaching enemies, his literary detail allowed listeners to feel the trickling sweat, the exhausting paranoia and the doubt embedded in the prayers for safe passage through enemy hoods. Over the past three decades, there have been innumerable rap songs about paying dues, but on Hussle’s 2008 “Paid My Dues,” the listener is transported to vanished Christmas mornings when Nipsey and his brother were so broke that the closest they came to celebrating the holiday was watching a friend open presents.
His raw talent and deafening buzz won him a deal with Epic Records, but things quickly went awry. Hussle hit all the quintessential benchmarks of a rising rap star: the XXL “Freshmen” cover, a Drake co-sign and feature and the respect and admiration from two of L.A.’s biggest artists at the time, Snoop Dogg and the Game. But his timing couldn’t have been worse. CD sales had plummeted. The streaming era remained over a half-decade away, and mixtapes were rarely monetizable. Unless you had Dr. Dre’s imprimatur, West Coast gangsta rap was seen as a nearly extinct sub-genre. And after a corporate reshuffling at Epic ushered in a CEO who wanted Hussle to collaborate with the EDM producers du jour, he and the label parted ways.
What happened next might as well have come straight out of “The Hero’s Journey.” For the next three years, Hussle struggled to sustain equilibrium — at least that’s how it appeared to outsiders. If the Bay Area sustained a vibrant ecosystem for independent rappers, Los Angeles’ proximity to the major labels made them seem necessary for any rapper aiming for seismic cultural impact.
Hussle was left for dead by the industry. If respect for him remained unimpeachable, the hype dwindled. Odd Future, YG, Kendrick Lamar and TDE became the new standard-bearers from the West. Were it not for Hussle’s stereoscopic vision, creativity and indefatigable drive, he could have become a minor late ’00s footnote. Defiantly forging a self-sustaining redoubt, Hussle redoubled his dedication to his craft, living in the studio, building up the roster of his All Money In imprint, and consecrating his philosophy of life as a marathon.
His first release after going independent, appropriately titled “The Marathon,” was accompanied by a digital booklet featuring a new manifesto:
“I am driven by both financial and creative motives,” Hussle wrote. “The decision I had to make recently is which motive I would give priority to in my career.”
Hussle knew that his long-lasting impact would come not in making ephemeral hits for terrestrial radio, but soundtracks for the L.A. streets south of Interstate 10. In his essay, Hussle explained his dissatisfaction with the label, and how the convoluted web of constantly shifting executives, A&Rs and middle management meddled in the art, thereby creating confusion in consumers, which paradoxically diluted the authenticity that made them want to sign him in the first place.
“I will never say something I don’t agree with or believe in — even if the reward is massive,” Hussle wrote. “I always told myself that if I make it here I would keep it true to my heart and soul. I will not break my word for anyone.”
It was only right that his true rebirth began with a mixtape named after one of L.A.’s central arteries, “Crenshaw.” Upon its 2013 release, the value of music had never felt more disposable. Determined to reaffirm its value as art, Hussle announced that physical copies would be sold for $100 apiece. Impressed by the bold gambit, Jay-Z publicly purchased 100 copies for $10,000, earning Hussle international headlines and an unmatched co-sign for his business and branding ingenuity.
But none of it would’ve mattered without the product itself. The “Crenshaw” mixtape was made a classic by “Crenshaw and Slauson (A True Story),” an autobiography in 11 1⁄2 minutes that would’ve defined any artist’s career. A visceral testament to the sacrifices and storms weathered, Hussle evokes the childhood rooster that used to wake him up, and the blue Cutlass he drove without a license (.380 pistol tucked into his pants). He compares himself to 2Pac, eerily prophesizes his early demise and concludes it with samples of Jay-Z and Suge Knight exhorting young artists to own their own publishing and catalog.
With his career once again ascendent, he inked a partnership with Atlantic Records for “Victory Lap,” his eventual platinum-certified major label debut (and magnum opus), which was released after a series of delays in early 2018. It debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album charts and spawned “Last Time That I Checc’d,” his first single to land on the Hot 100.
But like 2Pac, the music worked in tandem with how Hussle existed as a cultural north star. He exuded dignity, a royal bearing and a generous heart that allowed him to transcend historical enmities. A proud Rollin’ 60s Crip, Hussle famously collaborated with members of the Bloods, and quietly worked behind the scenes to diffuse violence. Shortly before his death, he had set up a meeting with the Los Angeles chief of police to work on ways to stop gang violence and improve the lives of local children.
Aware of the dangers that gentrification posed to historically Black neighborhoods, Hussle established his Marathon Clothing store in the same Crenshaw and Slauson strip mall where he once handed out his mixtapes to anyone who would take one. Whereas many rappers only used their fame to promote close friends or those in whom they had a financial stake, Hussle mentored and helped introduce the new class of local superstars in 03 Greedo, Bino Rideaux and G Perico. When the late South Central rapper Drakeo the Ruler was incarcerated on murder charges (for which he was later acquitted), Hussle messaged him to pay for his bail — even though they barely knew each other. And during the rise of Donald Trump, it was Hussle who stole the show with his verse on YG’s “FDT,” the defining political diatribe of the era.
Hussle’s hyper-regional dedication fostered a level of fan appreciation that went far beyond a casual appreciation. If 2Pac pledged his undying loyalty to Los Angeles late in life, Hussle’s devotion to his city was unwavering since birth. He was a people’s champ who was revered because the residents saw themselves in his Dodgers fitted and sense of tradition, his shout-outs to Mexican people and culture, and in his understated integrity that directly contradicted the Hollywood myth that most homegrown residents always blanched at.
The tragedy of 2Pac’s life was that he was murdered at just 25, leaving behind dozens of notebooks filled with his entrepreneurial dreams, movie scripts that went unmade and plans to empower the Black community. In Hussle, who would meet a similarly tragic demise in 2019 at the messianic age of 33, Shakur’s vision would begin to be achieved. By operating the Marathon store and eventually buying the lot on which it stood, Hussle offered a sense of hope for the historically dispossessed. He employed local designers and other people from the surrounding blocks. It was not only that Hussle endured intense hardships to triumph, but also that he refused to abandon the place that had nurtured his gifts. This desire to give back, this wealth of spirit, would hauntingly lead to his death in early 2019, when Eric Holder shot him in front of his Marathon store. He was later convicted. Hussle was only there that afternoon to give free clothing to an acquaintance recently released from prison and in dire need of assistance.
2Pac once said, “People die but legends live forever.” Hussle embodied this idea, and sustained his ideas about social justice, Black empowerment and sense of artistic fearlessness. Hussle was not a substitute, but a new link added to the tradition. Their legacies now exist as an eternal form of native myth. In the firmament of hip-hop culture and Los Angeles life, they remain undying symbols of possibility, courage and resistance. Those who fought for something much greater than themselves that would never be realized in their lifetimes, but who could inspire their spiritual kinsmen to refuse to accept the status quo, to resist conventional wisdom and deep-rooted cynicism, and to understand that this is a long race.
WHAT: Nipsey Hussle to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 10 a.m. Aug. 15
WHERE: 6212 Hollywood Blvd.