“I don’t ever make moves under pressure,” Nipsey Hussle explained to me back in February 2018. His final album, Victory Lap, had been out for less than a week, and he was stopping by New York City for an on-camera interview. The early numbers were looking good on his latest release. Last time that he checked, the project—which would eventually be nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy—was headed for a top 5 debut.
On one level, the title Victory Lap represented the third installment of his Marathon trilogy. But as he savored the moment, reflecting on his accomplishments to date, Nip unpacked the words more fully. “We was able to become real successful in the mixtape space,” he said, sipping a cup of tea. “And obviously we announced the partnership with Atlantic Records. We established businesses and built an ecosystem around the music with the Marathon Store, with the Marathon Clothing, with the Marathon Agency. One of the things [Victory Lap] means to me now, when I think about it, is being able to stand up in the game. Being clear that Nipsey Hussle has a clear lane in the game, and built it, and took the stairs. We had opportunities to be assisted, but chose to do it on our own.”
In the weeks since Ermias Joseph Asghedom’s senseless murder, his legacy has come into sharper focus. If anything, the man known to many as “Neighborhood Nip” downplayed his impact as an entrepreneur and community leader during our conversation. Any misconceptions have been erased by his memorial service at the Staples Center, not to mention his hearse’s heroic last ride down a street that would soon be renamed in his honor. The intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue—where he came up hustling, invested millions, and ultimately lost his life—will henceforth be known as Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom Square.
The all-too-familiar rap star narrative of diversifying into new business ventures while turning one’s back on the streets that raised him did not apply to Nipsey Hussle. He had a vision that went way beyond handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving. Nipsey was extremely involved in his local community, founding and supporting numerous L.A. businesses and organizations. According to some estimates, the businesses he and his partners built employed over 40,000 people, many of them ex-convicts who might have had difficulty finding a job elsewhere. From the co-working space Vector90 (a business incubator with built-in STEM academy) to local ventures (a FatBurger partnership, Steve’s Barber Shop, Elite Human Hair, the World on Wheels skating rink, and more), Nipsey Hussle put on for his city like no other rapper in history.
Nipsey was just getting started. Plans had been drawn up to open a six-story residential building atop his smart store with a light-rail train connecting the area he dubbed “Destination Crenshaw” to LAX. More than just meeting with LAPD officials to discuss curtailing gang violence, Hussle was also planning to visit Washington D.C. along with T.I. and their business associate Dave Gross for a series of meetings with Congress to discuss the nationwide rollout of Vector90 as part of a larger initiative called Our Opportunity. There was a lot of important work left to be done, which helps explain the widespread sense of outrage at his untimely death.
Back in February 2018, Nipsey spoke about how he dealt with one of the most difficult times in his career, between the end of his deal with Epic Records and the game-changing rollout of his 2013 Crenshaw mixtape, which he famously sold for $100 apiece. “Real-life things,” is what he said he was going through at the time. “Street shit that never really got written about, ’cause it doesn’t belong on the front page. My brother going to jail. Us getting raided. Us having real war in the streets.”
At times like these, this son of an Eritrean immigrant evoked a Red Sea metaphor that may be helpful today. “I tell my daughter don’t let the water in the boat,” Nipsey said. “The boat’ll never go down if you don’t let the water in the boat. And that’s just water—you know what I’m sayin? That’s just rough seas. We got a destination. We trying to get across the ocean to the other country, or to whatever land on the other side of this water. All that other shit, you go straight through the waves. Just don’t let the water in the boat.”
Over the past few weeks, I spoke with some of Nipsey’s family members and inner circle about their plans to carry his legacy forward. Having spent years living and working alongside this visionary artist, thinker, activist and entrepreneur, they were all used to life in Marathon mode. Even as they fought back tears, they all agreed that this particular marathon will continue.