Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage
How Nipsey Hussle Transcended Hip-Hop, Starting In The Los Angeles Streets
On March 31, 2019 Ermias Asghedom—better known to the world as Nipsey Hussle—was assassinated at 33 years old. He was standing in front of The Marathon Clothing, one of his many business endeavors, located on the corner of West Slauson and Crenshaw Boulevard in the heart of South Los Angeles.
To hip-hop, he was a celebrated rapper, but to Los Angeles he was an agent for change—something that echoed from his city streets into the Black community and beyond. It’s hard to really comprehend just what exactly the man affectionately known as "Naybahood Nip" truly meant to the world.
Prior to his meteoric rise to fame, Nipsey was interviewed by renowned journalist Davey D about his potential career trajectory. In the interview (now circulating through social media), Nipsey tells Davey D what his plans are. "You’re not blinging and having all kinds of crazy diamonds and all that. I guess you’re here to get your money right," Davey D says.
"All the time," young Nipsey replies. "You know, all that is cool for the image and all that, but all that’s not business. I'd rather invest in some real estate." Shocked, Davey asks him to repeat himself. "Invest in some assets, as opposed to trick off my money on some liabilities like diamonds or cars that lose value as soon as you drive them off the lot," Nipsey continues. "[Get] some assets to take care of my people." He made good on that promise.
In 2005, Nipsey Hussle first entered the rap game by way of the mixtape circuit. His debut Slauson Boy Volume 1 became the catalyst for his movement, as comparisons soon circulated that a new West Coast artist with the finesse of Snoop Dogg yet the charisma of Tupac Shakur was about to make waves. By 2008, he had already inked a deal with Cinematic Music Group in conjunction with Epic Records, dropping two more mixtapes Bullets Ain’t Got No Name, Volume 1 and Volume 2, along with Volume 3 at the close of 2009. Things moved quickly for Nipsey.
Early collaborations with both Drake and Snoop Dogg showed how the young artist stood in between two different worlds within hip-hop: the classically trained-by-the-streets legends and the soon-to-be legends looking toward the future. “I think Nipsey Hussle represented a new type of artist from Los Angeles," says Soren Baker, author of The History of Gangster Rap: From Schoolly D to Kendrick Lamar, the Rise of a Great American Art Form. "A lot of the older generation of artists—the Ice-Ts, the Ice Cubes, and the Dr. Dres—have earned that respect over time. But I think Nipsey Hussle, because of how he approached things, was able to command that respect of the newer generation of artists. As his career progressed. He continued solidifying himself both musically and on the business side."
2010 was a monumental year, to say the least. Soon after he parted ways with Epic Records, Nipsey dropped his independent project The Marathon, participated in Haiti's "We Are The World 25," as well as entered into the coveted XXL Freshman Class. With every move, it became clear that Nipsey was a different breed of artist with a razor sharp focus on his community. In 2013, his Crenshaw initiative went viral, when he announced he would be selling 1,000 hard copies of the project for $100 each, making $100,000 in less than a day and pouring it right back into his community business ventures.
"Nipsey was the epitome of everything you want an individual to embody," says Karen Civil, one of four cofounders of the Marathon Agency with Nipsey, Steven Carless and Jorge Peniche. "He cared for his community, he was a businessman, he gave opportunities to people who lost hope. Crenshaw and Slauson is a dark place. Nipsey was the light. When he said he was gonna buy the block, he did."
"Being from New Jersey, I wondered, was this what it felt like when they killed Tupac?"
Through tears, Civil recalls a decade ago, her first meeting with Nipsey. "When I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, most people go to the Walk of Fame, they go to Disneyland, all these places. I went to Crenshaw and Slauson because I wanted to meet him," she remembers. "I remembered seeing him perform in New York and I just wanted a T-shirt. When I got there, Nipsey was behind the counter feeding his daughter. I remember saying, 'Hey, can I get a picture?' He was like, 'Are you from here?' I was like, 'No, I just moved here with Beats By Dre.' He had a whole conversation with me. Nipsey was the type of individual where when I started doing philanthropy. I said, 'I want to build a playground in Haiti. He gave me $5,000 and said, 'Go ahead.'"
In addition to the Marathon Agency, Nipsey built his now-famed The Marathon Clothing store, the unfortunate location of his untimely death. Per Civil, he had over 14 businesses. His Vector90 tech venture offered co-working space to local residents as well as STEM programs for the youth, while he also teamed with Fatburger for special run Crenshaw jerseys. Then of course there’s Destination Crenshaw, his community-driven initiative that not only changed the perception of South Los Angeles, but gave the youth an opportunity to harness their own powers as change agents. "Destination Crenshaw showed it was much more than music for Nipsey," says Soren Baker. "That was something that developed; it wasn’t instantaneous. That’s a testament to his evolution as both an artist and businessman."
While Nipsey continued to secure wins with his music, including the GRAMMY-nominated Victory Lap in 2018, it was uplifting Los Angeles that remained his main mission. "He was a husband, he was a father, he was an entrepreneur," says Civil. "He was somebody that invoked change." His loss is felt on a number of levels, hip-hop just merely being one of them. "Being from New Jersey, I wondered, was this what it felt like when they killed Tupac?" she continues. “The air has been sucked out of Los Angeles.”
Above all, Nipsey Hussle was a visionary. Not many individuals can start in gang-affiliated streets, make music that the entire world felt, and take those wins and pour them right back into the city that raised him. He was one of a kind, and his inspiration will live on.
"The Marathon continues and will continue," Civil says. "His message will not die in vain."