Amid a microwaved media cycle and dwindling attention spans, Nipsey Hussle took the long route to success. A year after his tragic death, we examine the workman-like legacy he built.
Music manager Wack100 attracted heat — and apparently, a punch in the face — for surmising that the late Nipsey Hussle, who was killed one year ago today, was not a “legend.” But he’s not the only person who gripes with Nipsey’s legacy. There are hoards of protective fans (or contrarians) on social media who spout variations of “y’all didn’t even listen to Nipsey” to people just getting accustomed to his community work, insightful interviews, and self-determined catalog.
What the praise police don’t realize is that his legacy transcends personal accolades. It’s not mere respect for the dead that transforms a rapper who never went platinum into a folk hero. There are too many rappers who’ve passed in the past several years, and none have inspired peace rallies from rival gangs or had NBA all-stars putting up historic statlines or had an entire Grammy tribute done for them despite only having only one nomination while they were alive.
Nipsey’s long grind to commercial success shouldn’t be perceived as a negative. It’s what makes him so worthy of reverence. That Marathon grind is why longtime supporters were so happy to see him take his Victory Lap in 2018, and why people just getting acquainted with him were so captivated as supporters and allies told his story in the months after he was allegedly shot by Eric Holder in front of a shopping center he built.
Amid a microwaved media cycle and ever-dwindling attention spans and artists risking their lives and freedom as a marketing plan, Nipsey took the long route to success, “at peace” with the grind. His business model was based on physical CD sales at a time when MP3s — and later streaming services — were booming. He and his brother Blacc Sam took their own money and invested in a store and, later, the rest of their community. Without a Billboard-charting single, he ended up getting a favorable major label deal during the era of the 360. And he did it right under the proverbial nose of the masses, leaving behind motivational gems for others to take inspiration from. In the words of The Wire’s Lt. Jay Landsman about a deceased Colonel, “that’s not a career, that’s a miracle.”
After Game’s commercial peak, and before Kendrick Lamar’s emergence, the Los Angeles rap scene was longing for a flagship star. Nipsey’s Crenshaw-bred, Rolling 60 Crip-approved authenticity and work ethic likely resulted in numerous label offers to be that star — but he wanted to go about it on his terms.
He released several free mixtapes online before stoking national attention with the ingenuity of the rollout to his Crenshaw album in 2013. The project was available for free online, but he also sold 1,000 physical CDs for $100 apiece. He told XXL that he and his team came up with the idea after, “he had been reading a book about what makes people talk about things.” Even when seeking viral attention, he did it in a thoughtful manner. JAY-Z famously bought 100 of the CDs. There were skeptics who questioned the audacity of charging $100 for a dying medium, but as he told Rap Radar, “it isn’t the price of the plastic case and polyurethane disc…it’s the price of Revolution! The price of Rebellion against an industry that has tricked us all into making products that have no soul for fear of not being heard if we don’t.”
That statement, as well as sharp comments about the vessels of American colonialism, exemplified that he wasn’t simply trying to “get on” and be another cog in an exploitative system, he wanted to build an empire and make music that imparted his blueprint. He told XXL that the thought process with the Crenshaw project had “the future” in mind. For Nipsey, the slow grind wouldn’t be an easy one, but as he rhymed on “Victory Lap,” “I say it’s worth it, I won’t say it’s fair.” There aren’t many high-powered connections to mainstream media outlets, late-night TV shows, film roles or any of the other visibility-boosting opportunities that beget high sales and award show recognition.
To this day, the headlines are filled with talented artists who took bad deals in order to gain notoriety. But Nipsey was resolute on his mission and executed with workman-like efficiency. He cultivated a loyal fanbase not only with gripping narratives of the LA streets — like in the stunning “Blue Laces 2” — but by motivating his fans to invest in their own grind. He held a concert for buyers of the Crenshaw CD called Proud2Pay concerts, giving his fans the opportunity to affirm their integrity and cash in on it with an exclusive concert. The lesson of his transaction was simple: doing the right thing does come with benefits.
Stan culture, where fans view their “faves” as gods and viciously attack on their behalf, is as rancid as ever. It’s refreshing to have seen a successful artist level the playing field.
Those fans helped him become “a product of my grind,” as he noted on “Gangsta’s Life.” Eventually, he was earning monthly royalties in the “low six figures” off of TuneCore as an independent artist. Those numbers gave him the leverage to sign a favorable deal as a “partner” with Atlantic Records.
By the time he released Victory Lap in 2018, he was reaching more people than ever. That new visibility came at the same time he was investing in STEM programs and telling LA residents to fight off gentrification by refusing to sell their homes. And even as the Marathon had earned him his hard-fought mainstream recognition, he stayed true to himself. He would have been the perfect antithesis for 6ix9ine’s prolonged method act, but he actually left an episode of Complex’s Everyday Struggle because he didn’t want to talk about the Brooklyn rapper. He later surmised, “the public should not even react to clown shit” and urged people to ignore the Brooklyn rapper until he “self-destructed.” He once again spoke the truth. While Nipsey’s name is protected with respect because of his actions, 6ix9ine’s have made him a punchline who will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.
The juxtaposition is important for aspiring artists to tap into. A long road is harder, but it’s worth it to make the system work in your favor. There’s value in sidestepping the noise of the zeitgeist and staying resolute with a methodical grind. That’s why those relegating his legacy to a musical discussion are sadly reductive. His legacy isn’t explained in accolades, it’s exemplified by him inspiring Mozzy to buy an apartment building in Sacramento. Nipsey fans don’t have to feel pressured to put him in their top five to celebrate his legacy, but they should feel some impetus to be a positive figure in their community and advocate for self-reliance.
People don’t love him because he was a rapper who died prematurely. Despite not growing out of outdated views on homosexuality, he was a community-minded entrepreneur who showed the possibility of using hip-hop as a springboard to his dream of seeing “our people step into their greatness collectively.” For him, having money was a tool, not a trait. If JAY-Z is Wal-Mart, a representation of commercial ubiquity and big business, Nipsey was the small business that his community faithfully supported out of a responsibility to reciprocate his humility.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.