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Hip-Hop Lost a Limb: A Tribute to Nipsey Hussle

By Akil Pinnock

After two weeks I’m still asking myself why I felt so much grief after the tragic death of Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom who was gunned down on March 31 in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles, California. Before any of his longtime fans bring me up on charges of being a “fake” fan, I will be the first to say that prior to his 2018 debut album Victory Lap, I wasn’t the biggest Hussle fan. I enjoyed his collaborations on his friend and frequent collaborator DOM KENNEDY’s “Pleeze,” on KENNEDY’s Get Home Safely, as well as “Checc Me Out,” on Hussle’s 2013 mixtape Crenshaw.

I slept on Hussle’s music. I remember being in the ninth or tenth grade in 2008 when my brother Jelani, an aspiring rapper himself, brought home a mixtape given to him titled Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 2. Neither one of us listened to the project. We were unfamiliar with the artist and the clichéd mixtape title turned us off. The name of the rapper on the mixtape was Nipsey Hu$$le, and by the time I graduated high school, I couldn’t escape seeing him all over social media, popular hip-hop blogs, and YouTube. Still, I can’t really say I gave him a chance.

Although I didn’t become a fan until listening to Victory Lap, as a hip-hop head who keeps abreast of the cultural happenings, I always supported Hussle from afar. What was unique about Hussle’s career was that he consistently released music independently for over ten years, up until his 2018 major label debut.

In 2010, Hussle alongside current rap success stories Jay Rock, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, and Big Sean were one of ten upcoming artists to make the heavily regarded third annual XXL Magazine Freshmen List. This co-sign, alongside signing with Sony Music subsidiary Epic Records, validated his emergence as one of the new faces of Los Angeles hip-hop.

Like all human beings, particularly those who come from a street lifestyle, Hussle was a complex individual. At age 14, he became involved with the drug trade and joined the Rollin’ 60’s Crips, one of the largest and most notorious Crip sets in Los Angeles. His music reflected the harsh realities of the South Los Angeles streets where he was raised, but at times glorified this same violence and crime his neighborhood was afflicted with. Over time, Hussle’s growth became evident in his music and uplifting songs began to dominate Hussle’s catalog. Hussle was the definition of multifaceted. He possessed the survival tactics to survive in LA’s notorious gang culture, while also having a reputation in his community and industry of being philanthropic, intelligent, and a forward-thinking protector. In 2017, he opened The Marathon Clothing store at the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson, where he sold clothing inspired by the Crenshaw District where he spent his entire life.

This clothing store went from being your typical brick and mortar to becoming the first “smartstore,” with the help of 20-year-old engineer Iddris Sandu. In combination with Hussle’s forward thinking and Sandu’s technological savvy, the smartstore allowed fans to have an interactive experience with Hussle’s Marathon brand that was deeper than going to a store and buying clothes. With the help of the corresponding app of the same name as the store, fans not only had access to purchasing clothing but to exclusive content.

The space is a one of kind experience not only for how innovative it is but for the fact that it’s located in an area synonymous with crime and poverty. Ironically enough, the location of The Marathon Clothing store is in the same strip mall that Hussle began some his earliest entrepreneurial endeavors, and where he would ultimately be killed. On several occasions, Hussle and his older brother Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom were arrested as teenagers for selling CDs in the parking lot of this strip mall. For them to later own property in the same strip mall was a full circle moment for them.

Hussle’s entrepreneurial prowess didn’t stop at the Marathon Clothing Store. From 2013 up until his death, he was involved in roughly 22 business ventures in entertainment, real estate, food, and tech. He was also involved in various philanthropic projects.

But Hussle wasn’t some greedy Scrooge McDuck who believed in hoarding money. He gave back. He hired ex-convicts and felons who had difficulty securing employment, as well as young gang members who were looking for opportunities. On April 13, an Artparty.Space story documented that Hussle had hired, assisted, and impacted personally over 40,000 people and that the projected value of his investments in community, tech, and lifestyle ventures was over $210 million.

A common theme in Hussle’s life was ownership. In a 2017 YouTube documentary detailing the journey to open and own The Marathon Clothing Store, Asghedom recalls how he and Hussle always aspired to own something after seeing that the owner of the gas station across the street from the lot was a Black man. For Hussle, having an ownership mentality didn’t stop at real estate and owning small businesses. He grew up in the 1990s and early aughts being influenced by independent Black music moguls like Master P, Birdman, E40, Too $hort and JAY-Z. All four of these men were able to carve out musical careers while running record successful labels, leaving a legacy young Black men like Hussle could be inspired by.

Hussle learned from the foundation of Black independent music professionals before him, and through his Proud2Pay campaign sold 1,000 physical copies of his mixtape Crenshaw for $100 apiece, despite the fact that the mixtape was available for free download on all mixtape platforms. This campaign was the first of its kind and caught the attention of JAY-Z, who showed his support by purchasing 100 copies. Later, he continued the Proud2Pay campaign with his Mailbox Money mixtape, where instead of selling 1,000 copies for $100, he sold 100 copies for $1,000 apiece, with the mixtape also being free to download on all mixtape platforms as well. In addition to these initiatives, Hussle started his own record label in 2010 called All Money In No Money Out, giving him control over his career and artistry.

Releasing free music grew Hussle’s fanbase, which in turn gave him the leverage to sign a partnership with Atlantic Records in 2017 that suited him best. Hussle never sacrificed his integrity as an artist or business man in exchange for an advance from a record company. He was in it for the long haul, no matter how long it took for him to get what he deserved. This explains why ‘marathon’ was incorporated into the name of Hussle’s clothing brand, branding, marketing, and mixtape series. There were even rumblings on social media that he owned all of his master recordings, which is rare among artists.

With all of Hussle’s creative and savvy business moves, Vector 90, his two-story space in collaboration with real estate developer David Gross set him apart from hip-hop entrepreneurs of the past and present. Located in the heart of Hussle’s Southwestern Los Angeles, Vector 90’s goal is to build a bridge between the inner city and Silicon Valley. The bottom level of this space is occupied by a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program. Vector 90 provides families and local children’s organizations with the same technological resources that more affluent communities have access to, to broaden competition in the in a tech world, which typically excludes people from neighborhoods like Hussle’s. The second story of Vector 90 operates as a co-working space for entrepreneurs.

During Hussle’s ‘Celebration of Life’ funeral service at the Staples Center, his older brother told a story about a twelve-year-old Hussle bringing home a different computer part daily, adamant about building a computer from scratch. For Asghedom, the idea of building a computer from scratch at the time was a foreign concept, so it was easy for him to dismiss his younger brother’s ambitions. Day after day, Hussle would bring home more computer parts, and with the help of different computer magazines was able to build a working computer.

This anecdote posed an important question for me. What if Hussle had been able to develop this natural technological ability in an environment where it was valued? Maybe this would’ve had a positive influence on him in his early teens, possibly deterring him dropping out of high school at 14. At the same time, if Hussle was never lured by the fast money of the streets as a teen, would we have a Nipsey Hussle? We wouldn’t have the vivid cautionary tales of “Blues Laces 2” or the second verse of “Loaded Bases,” that two days after his death made me burst into tears in the bathroom on the University of Massachusetts campus.

Hussle may not have been the most technical lyricist but his words were always clear, sincere, and passionate, similar to that of 2Pac. Hussle’s subject matter resonated with the streets and those who’ve grown up under similar circumstances as him, and themes in his music of motivation, determination, and ownership was something that was applicable to anyone from any walk of life.

I was personally hurt after Hussle’s murder. I grieved as if he was family, something I’d never previously felt when a celebrity passed away. It’s because I knew what he meant to his community, his fans, and how profound his words were on Victory Lap. He didn’t take a bar off or tell a lie. And it showed.

While grieving the loss of Hussle, I felt selfish; after only a year of truly appreciating him as an artist and for his story, I lost him. Listening to Victory Lap and watching interviews, I feel like I lost an older sibling. During his ‘Celebration of Life,’ Hussle’s mother Angelique Smith’s words about how we grieve for selfish reasons because we’re no longer in our loved one’s “electromagnetic sphere” spoke to me. She said,“the ego is what hurts us. So, when we can get can me, my, I, and mine out of our thinking, and think about what is the other person feeling, what is the other person thinking, what is the other person experiencing? What is the situation about in its fuller spiritual context? Then it makes the pains that we experience as human beings on the road of life that we travel a lot easier to handle.”

These words gave me closure on my grief as if she was personally speaking to me. If his own mother, who truly knows him, felt that his transition was all in divine order, then as fans, we shouldn’t selfishly mourn without considering that the person we mourn for may be at peace with how their life turned out.

On May 1, 2016, Hussle tweeted “The highest human act is to inspire…,” and that’s exactly how he lived his life. The way he was inspired by Black music moguls who came before him to own something and to never settle for less than what he deserved will hopefully translate to generations of young people from South Los Angeles and internationally. Hip-Hop lost a forward-thinking visionary in Hussle.

On “Million While You Young” featuring The-Dream, Hussle asks, “Where you ever represented hope where the hopeless at?” in a verse where he’s pushing artists who portray a particular image in their music to be who they say they are. For Hussle, authenticity and integrity were never in question, and his homegrown business ventures were a beacon of light for young people in his community and the hip-hop community. We cannot let him die in vain. We have to pick up where he left off. The marathon continues…

A version of this piece was previously published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian​. 

Akil Pinnock is a writer and senior journalism major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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