Photo Credit: Prince Williams/Wireimage
Mike & Keys, the Masterminds Behind 'Victory Lap,' Tell Nipsey Hussle's Story
Nipsey Hussle's death came as a complete shock for not only Los Angeles but fans all across the world. We talked to Mike & Keys about the legendary rapper's come-up and the legacy he lives behind.
This article has been handpicked from the Okayplayer editorial archives and included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative. The article has been edited for context to ensure its accuracy and relevance.
Money Mike and J-Keys are responsible for the majority of the production on Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap. Mike & Keys, formally known as The Futuristiks, spent two months straight with the late Los Angeles rapper, perfecting his highly-anticipated debut album which was seven years in the making.
Learning on the go, Mike began producing in college out of curiosity after seeing people make music around him. But it wasn’t until he met Keys that he started to become good. What Keys brings to the table is a hard work ethic, describing himself as the “more technical guy” when it comes to the music. While Keys mixes and edits, Mike is out on the streets building relationships with artists and getting them to record.
Mike originally hails from Hammond, Louisiana while Keys is from Sacramento. Both met Nipsey in different scenarios. Keys first met Nipsey at his Marathon store, with one of the rapper's first producers Phonix Beats back in 2007. Mike met Nipsey a year later in 2008, while roaming around Los Angeles. They ended up going to the studio, right around the time Nipsey did “Killa” with Drake. “I thought that was a big look for Nip because Drake was the biggest newest artist at that time," Mike said. "For him to work with someone like Drake — he was always on top of his game as far as knowing which artists were hot.”
Victory Lap stands as Nipsey’s debut and only studio album. The album, arriving in 2018, boasting 16 tracks, showcased his journey from Ermias Asghedom to rap star. The project features Nipsey reuniting hoods in LA — evidenced by “Last Time That I Checc’d” with YG — experimenting with melody and autotune (“Real Big”), while spreading a message of hustle and motivation (“Dedication” featuring Kendrick Lamar). The album was an overwhelming success, getting a well-deserved Best Rap Album nomination at the 61st Grammy Awards.
Mike & Keys were preparing for the next album when the tragedy happened. Nipsey Hussle was Gunned down on March 31st in front of his Marathon Clothing store, in the neighborhood he grew up in. Nipsey’s death came as a complete shock for not only Los Angeles, but fans all across the world. We talked with Mike & Keys the producers who helped guide the legendary rapper's career.
Photo Credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Mike: We were working a lot with [producers] 1500 or Nothin; Larrance [Dopson] would give him our beats. Nipsey, by default, was always picking the beats we did. He’s like, “Man, who’s doing these?” Rance was like “I been tryna tell you, Mike & Keys.” So we got reintroduced. The first song we did was “Checc Me Out.” I remember we were doing Dom Kennedy’s Get Home Safely at the same time. It was getting ready to come out. We all went to the 1500 studio together with Dom to record “Checc Me Out.” When we played the beat — if you hear Dom, the first thing he says is “new Nipsey Hussle!” Because we were going to the studio to work with Nip. We had known Nip since 2007/2008, but that was the first song we ever did.
Keys: I remember Nip performing it when Pusha-T had a concert [in LA]. Push brought Nipsey out and the crowd started going crazy. When he performed “Checc Me Out,” seeing the response from the crowd, they knew all the lyrics. It was amazing to see that.
Mike: But the response in the studio that day was crazy. That energy in the studio was crazy. Everybody was pumped up. Us, Nipsey, Dom Kennedy. Cobby [Supreme] walked in, he didn’t even listen to it. He’s like “oh this is tight,” and did his verse. JP (Jorge Pineche), the whole team. Everybody was there, it was a vibe that day.
THE MAKING OF CRENSHAW — THE $100 ALBUM
Mike: We were with Nip every single day. Literally every day. The dude that walked in [DJ Tech] recorded some of those songs on Crenshaw, like “Summertime in That Cutlass.” Every morning, him and BH would pick us up. Mind you, we live over here in [North Hollywood]. He’s coming from LA in the morning to pick us up, then we’d go to the studio and do our daily routine. Chick-Fil-A breakfast in the studio and smoke weed.
Keys: The biscuit breakfast, the tater tots, all that. [chuckles]
Mike: The funny thing is we were with Nip every day and we never knew he was gonna sell the CD for $100. That came out of nowhere. But the honest truth is we were with him every day creating. Nip started seeing the type of people we were, he’s like “oh yeah, I can be around y’all every day and just be cool.” That’s how we really built our relationship. We seen how Nip treated us. As producers, he treated us like we were with him. “These are my guys.” When we seen Nip treat us like that, we’re like “whatever you want, we got you.” Because everybody started saying Nip’s music sounded different then.
Keys: I think he just felt comfortable rapping on our sound. He told us he knew. “You guys are officially my sound,” just organically. Like how he said he picked the music off default, it organically happened.
GETTING KICKED OUT OF STUDIOS WHILE CRAFTING MAILBOX MONEY
Mike: Probably a year later , we ended up getting a studio with Nipsey in Hollywood. Now, we’d been in the vibe. We had a studio with TeeFLii and DJ Quik. TeeFLii’s career got built right there altogether. Nipsey and Dom were coming like “oh yeah, it’s a vibe here.” He always talks about the studio we got kicked out of. We had built the studio from scratch, it looked like [our Noho studio]. We only had it for one year, but the majority of the songs from Mailbox Money came from that studio.
We had got a studio in Burbank with four rooms, Nipsey had two. Two All Money In rooms, two Mike N Keys rooms. The plan was to make it the new Bad Boy, from how it looked to how we’re gonna run it. We had 10 TVs up, cameras, everything. Nip writes everything down. He started being there every day like “I’m not leaving!” Then we found out we had did a sublease. We were planning on owning the spot so the owner kicked us out randomly.
Keys: Out of nowhere.
Mike: We got a call Friday. They said, “You guys gotta be out Monday.” I’ll never forget because when the police made us get out — we bought the floors bro. Everything we paid for, from the floors to the grounds. Everybody was in there taking everything down. All the lights, we were peeling the floors. If we gonna get kicked out, we taking all our shit. That’s the first time I seen Nip kind of sad. Because damn, we finally got a real vibe going and that shit literally wiped away.
Keys: Nip’s a real intelligent person. He’s always reading books and educating himself, so that grew on us. Everything he was saying, we’d follow his lead because he had that natural leadership quality. When we did music, it always felt organic. It always felt real. It was fun working with him period.
Mike: [When we moved to our Noho studio] we had two rooms. We’re in here, Nip was in the room across. We convinced Nipsey to move here because he was recording at the Atlantic studios down the street. It wasn’t no vibe there. We’re like “man you should move over here where we’re at. Mars [from 1500 or Nothin'] is about to move here. BJ the Chicago Kid’s about to move here, so just move here.” He’s like “hell yeah.” When he moved here, that’s when we did Slauson Boy 2.
THE MARATHON SLAUSON BOY 2 SESSIONS.
Photo courtesy of Mike and Keys
Keys: That was probably one of the hardest things we’ve ever done [chuckles]. Because if you’re familiar with Marathon Monday’s, all those songs formed into Slauson Boy 2. Every Sunday, we’d be nervous like “OK, what’re we putting out for Monday?” [Editors note: Over a span of a couple of months, Nipsey Hussle dropped a new song every Monday.]
Mike: We’d put pressure on ourselves: “we gotta put out a song.” Nip literally put that shit in our hands.
Keys: The funny thing is, he’d only give us one verse. That’s why the songs are so short.
Mike: If you listen to a lot of the songs, it’s only one verse on them. People would be mad but the verses Nip did were so good, it’s like just leave it. He’d add verses to certain songs, but he’s like “I’m keeping the verse how it is.”
THE CLASSIC VICTORY LAP — AN ALBUM ALMOST A DECADE IN THE MAKING.
Mike: Nip was working on Victory Lap before he even met us. They’re talking about Victory Lap and promo for Victory Lap in 2010. We didn’t start building a relationship with Nip until late 2012, but we did the majority of Victory Lap.
Keys: Nip was like, “You guys are my sound, so I’m gonna have you guys finish Victory Lap. Finish my album.” That was a big process too because a lot of those songs when we first met him, like “Real Big” and “Right Hand to God,” those were made during Crenshaw [sessions] in 2012. He knew he wanted to keep those for Victory Lap for sure.
Mike: We’d play them, people would be like “yeah don’t give those songs.” We always knew Marsha [Ambrosius] was gonna be on ["Real Big."] Nip already wanted her to be on there. When we heard it in 2013, we’re like “yeah this is a good song.” Because Nip has a little autotune on his vocals. He’s singing a little bit. He has a better tone than people think.
We did other projects between that time. [There was] Slauson Boy 2, then this project called Famous Lies and Unpopular Truths that no one really knows about. He just put it out on Datpiff, it’s a good one. Some really good songs and lyrics on there that no one really knows about, they’re out there in the world. Then we did No Pressure with him and Bino [Rideaux.]
Keys: We did that after Victory Lap was done.
Mike: But it came out before Victory Lap. We had our own single we put out with Nip called “Cartier Frames” with Bino on it.
[During the Victory Lap sessions] We had real rules in there. Our shit was like the mob.
Keys: It was a real militant vibe.
Mike: You were either in or out. It wasn’t no coming in and out seeing what the vibe was, what’s going on, what the guys are doing. Nothing like that. If you’re here, you better be with somebody who’s important. Nip would have rules on the door like “Do not walk in here, Nipsey Hussle sessions. Recording for Nipsey Hussle.” Let it be clear. One time, a couple NBA players came. We had to tell them to leave because they had too many people with them. We didn’t wanna mess up the vibe.
We took over Paramount for two months. We lived there, Paramount was our studio. Nipsey used to park right in front of the building. No one else did that. Literally, the police would come like “move the car.” He never moved it, left it right there. I’m talking in front of Paramount, parked on the sidewalk. We were there that long, we didn’t leave. Nipsey’s dad would come and cook food for us on Fridays. Real Eritrean food. We’d pull up to the lab and eat every Friday. We went to Paramount in late May and didn’t get out until July.
Keys: We went to Buddy’s after, did his album Harlan & Alondra right after Victory Lap.
Mike: We were doing Buddy’s album. Nipsey was like, “What’s ya’ll vibe is?” We’re like “we here at this studio called EastWest,” a famous studio in Hollywood. Nip got off the plane like “well shit, I’m coming where y’all at.” He seen the vibe: “alright well I’ma get the room next door.” He stayed there, we did a couple songs. We ended up going to get No Name studios for two months and just stayed there.
Nipsey’s whole theory and our theory together collectively as a group was if we’re not together, it’s not gonna work. Nipsey was always the person saying “we can’t lose the synergy. The love, the food, we eat together.” We did everything together. Only thing we didn’t do is share the weed. Keys don’t smoke, but I could smoke with Nipsey. Because I understand the artist. I’m gonna always play the role of whatever it takes for him to record, so I rolled blunts for Nip when somebody else should be doing it. I’ll do it because I understand that might enhance him to go and record. That’s part of being a producer, knowing when to talk, etc. I’m a Leo, he’s a Leo. I comprehend Nip to the highest degree, how he is. Part of being a leader is understanding how a leader moves.
But we never shared the weed. There’d be notes on the door: “bring your own weed.”
GOING BACK HOME FOR "RAP NIGGAS"
Nipsey Hussle - Rap Niggas (Official Video)www.youtube.com
Mike: We had to do a lot of versions of “Rap Niggas” to show Nip we really wanted to do that song. The lyrics were so fire, we had to do this. He’s like “alright if y’all really wanna do this, let’s see.” We sent so many versions, he’d be like “nah, nah.” If you really listen to “Rap Niggas,” the beat sounds very very mad and aggressive. Because that’s how we felt, intensified with gunshot sounds in the beat. It’s a very detailed beat because we’re tryna show Nip we can make a hard rap beat. He’s like “can you guys do it?” When he really liked it, that made us feel so good. Finally! Out of all the songs, that’s the one we got off our chest.
Keys: Nip already wanted that to be the first song for his album. He was already set. “Yeah, this the song I’ma roll with.” He put it out, did a full-fledged video. We went to the hood with him, it was crazy.
Mike: What was dope was to see all his homies he grew up with all in the video and really supporting him. To see everybody be like “yeah, Nip is the shit.” You could see it in their faces, they’re like “we want Nip to win.”
Keys: They were proud of him.
Mike: Feeling that energy was dope. We felt a lot of pressure having to do the music. Everybody was talking shit to us saying the music for Victory Lap was never coming out. “You guys don’t have this, you guys don’t have that.” We ignored everybody, that’s what made us be closer with Nip because he seen that in us. We don’t care what nobody thinks. If you ask anybody who was around, they felt that energy about us. We don’t care what y’all think, this shit fire. We felt that in our heart from the jump, nobody could tell us nothing. When the album got nominated for a Grammy, we already knew that. Literally, we knew. I remember when Keys called me “bro it got nominated,” I’m like “I’m not surprised.”
Keys: I first heard it from Mike. He called me. Then I saw it on Twitter when he was laying on the ground. It was everywhere. I was actually thinking he’s gonna come back from this. He’s strong, he was a strong person. I didn’t believe it the day it happened. The next day, when I woke up, that’s when it hit me.
Mike: I was [in the studio]. Reason from TDE called me like “I don’t believe it, but they saying Nip got shot.” I’m like “OK whatever, I don’t believe that. It sounds fake.” [My manager] called me right after like “man, it’s not looking good.” We got the call 20 minutes later.
We were with Nip that Wednesday. The funny thing is Nip had just got a studio downtown built. For him to come over here, that meant something. Because he doesn’t have to come out his way to come over here, he’s on the other side. He waited in the car. We smoked, rolled up, listened to some music. We were playing him the new stuff we’re doing with Reo Cragun — on our regular vibe preparing for the next album.
It was all getting started, we started writing everything down. The [DJ] Khaled songs, he’d already been working on those songs. Already in progress. But the actual album, he had a plan. He knew “Racks in the Middle” was gonna be his first song. He’s like “we gonna go Gold.” Hitboy did “Racks in the Middle,” Nip had a plan for how he was gonna do everything with the music. It was a whole new plan because [us, Hitboy, Sap] had all sat together to plan the next album.
THE MARATHON CONTINUES
Photo by gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
Mike: I always gotta give love to YG because he was really always around us supporting Nip. Even when we finished Victory Lap, we all went to the Roosevelt because we were tired. We stayed there for two weeks and YG was there in the vibe. “Bro whatever you need, I’m happy your album’s getting ready to come out.” He was positive energy and I seen that. I’m like “man YG’s 100% authentic.”
There wasn’t a lot of people around thuggin’ it. We didn’t see people who cared how you’re always supposed to care. It’s a lot of fake love [after he died], but you have to expect that from people. Nip always told us “I love ya’ll,” and we loved him back. We don’t have to portray that to people, it was something you just knew. We know you care about us. You know because of how you get treated.
Keys: [We're going to carry his legacy by doing what] Nip did when it comes to having a business mindset. To be smart about everything. He used to lecture us about handling your money, doing your taxes, real estate. When he says The Marathon Continues, basically do what Nipsey did. Take care of his family and do the right things business-wise.
Mike: One thing that Nipsey did that we’ve been doing is you gotta be able to give back. Giving back doesn’t always mean financial. Giving back can be knowledge. A lot of the time, people only tell you about how talented you are. They don’t show you how to take care of your business in this music industry. One of our goals is to do that. I know that’s something Nipsey was gonna do. He was doing it without doing it, showing you “hey, there’s another side to the music business.” We wanna show that to young producers, young artists. When you do have talent, you have to be more on your business because you have talent.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.editsharetrending_up