For the record, Nipsey Hussle never once said that his ideas weren't wild and crazy. After a brief stint with Epic Records in 2010, Nipsey scoffed at the concept of being on a major label, in hopes of gaining traction as an independent artist on the rap circuit.
While his contemporaries gained immediate success courtesy of their label signings, Hussle faced the arduous task of working backwards in order to gain stardom and liberation, later facing criticism because his debut album, Victory Lap, encountered numerous delays and setbacks. Undeterred, in 2013, the MC laughed straight to the bank after the release of his seminal project, Crenshaw, which birthed his #Proud2Pay marketing campaign. The unprecedented plan allowed Hussle to sell 1,000 copies for $100 a purchase. Not only did he manage to meet his goals, one of his childhood heroes, JAY-Z, saluted his efforts and purchased 100 copies of his own.
Unsatisfied with his impressive success, Hussle tinkered with his concept and stretched the campaign even more with his 2014 release, Mailbox Money. This time, he upped the price from $100 to $1000 and only sold 100 copies. Within the first month of selling, Nipsey managed to sell 60 copies, earning him $60,000 alone. While he could have easily continued on with the #Proud2Pay campaign, instead of exhausting the idea, he brought his label All Money In over to Atlantic Records last year, for the release of his long-awaited official debut album, Victory Lap.
Laced with bombastic production, Nip's swagger on the set is bulletproof. On the opening track, he sets the tempo by telling listeners over the soulful soundscape, "I'm prolific, so gifted/ I'm the type that's gon' go get it, no kiddin'." Even when standing alongside rap behemoth Kendrick Lamar, his level of confidence remains unruffled, as he boldly calls himself the "Tupac of my generation," on the Kendrick-featuring "Dedication."
With his debut album slated to bow in the top five on the Billboard 200, Nipsey Hussle's late arrival to the mainstream world seems to still be right on time. Now, one can only wonder, where will he go from here? Billboard sat down with the West Coast lyricist at Del Frisco Grille in New York City to talk the creation of Victory Lap, Donald Trump, the genius of Master P, his relationship with Rick Ross and MMG, and similarities he sees between himself and Tupac Shakur.
While I was in LA, I went back and I was playing your song “Killer” featuring Drake, and in my head, I started doing a comparison. You and Drake almost came up at the same time, and took very different routes, but y’all are both successful. How did you manage to get to this point where you are today, to be so successful despite any setbacks you had?
I think you said it. I took a different route. I wanted to learn how to do it myself, as an artist and as a company. I built a company at the same time I built a career. I built a label at the same time I built a career. I suffered at times and I benefited at times because of it. There was no infrastructure that I came into. I had to learn through trial and error -- I made a lot of mistakes, and I did a lot of things right. It was the route that I believed in and what was destined for me. I always had faith in my creative capacity. I say that in the most humble way: I always knew that I could perform with the best of ‘em and I could deliver with the best of ‘em.
Let’s say I accept my greatness as an artist, and fast forward to me being acknowledged globally as a great artist. In my perfect dream, how would I want my shit to be situated business-wise? I’d want to be on my own label. I’d want to represent my brothers and my team. So, I worked backwards. I believed I was going to be recognized globally as a great artist one day so I was willing to put the work in. I wanted to make sure that to get there, I didn’t diminish the opportunity to do it as All Money In and do it as my own team. That was the goal coming into it.
That’s why we had to build our value outside of the major labels so we could prove our worth. It was part of a bigger picture. To the public and to the, I guess, the critics, it might have been perceived as, “What’s taking so long?” I was comfortable with that. I never explained it, and I never went into detail about it, because I don’t ever want to make excuses. That was my strategy to get here.
One of the things I’m most proud about is, if you look at the album, it says “All Money In - Atlantic Records.” That’s my debut album. I’m really proud of the music, but I’m proud of the business structure also. That ain’t easy. That ain’t an easy thing to negotiate as an artist.
You could have taken that label route. I remember Rick Ross was looking at you heavy, and he wanted you on Maybach so hard. Though you never signed, do you ever ponder if that Maybach situation could have been something special for your career?
I’m MMG still. That’s in my heart. I’m honorary MMG. I rep Rozay shit and I believe in that brand. I think Rozay’s a genius, and I think he’s one of the most prolific artists in this generation. I rep MMG like it's my shit, like I rep All Money In.
Let’s rewind back to 2013 and your song “The Outro," where you rapped: “Peace to the city n---a I'm the hottest/ Even if the OGs don't acknowledge it.” When you walk around Cali today, in contrast to five years ago, do you feel like you finally earned that respect from the OGs, whether it's from music or what you did for the community?
At that time, I was speaking to not being embraced. Not that they owe me that, but I felt at that time in my perspective, to not embrace it was intentional -- because you can't ignore what I'm doing. I was speaking to that reality. Overall, man, I realized it ain't about nobody acknowledging you. It's about working with what you got and executing the greatness. In hindsight, nobody owed me nothing.
On that same song, you kind of spoke things into the universe, when you rapped, “When I drop an album, they’ll be proud to pay" -- which sparked your #Proud2Pay campaign. Are you surprised with how successful the idea became over the years?
I'm surprised to a degree, but I believed in it. I was inspired by a radical concept translating into reality.
You got the concept from a book you read, right?
I got the actual details from a book. The actual terminology "Proud 2 Pay," I was writing a rap. I said: "They telling me they believe and I got style for days/ When I do drop an album, they'll be Proud 2 Pay."
Then, I would start playing with the graphics, and it would be "P2P," and I'm like, that's something. I was inspired, bro, more than surprised. It inspired me to believe in my wild ideas, because that's who I am. I'm a radical thinker, for better or for worse. I don't think on a traditional playing field. Not to say I'm smart or I'm dumb, but I just think untraditionally. I had to embrace that and be who I really am to reach my full potential.
That full potential is going to be embracing your unique qualities and your unique perspective. You'll never reach your full potential until you embrace the unorthodox truths about you. Whether it's being from Africa or the way that I view business. I gotta embrace that shit. That move really gave me confidence to just be me unapologetically.
On "Dedication,” Kendrick pays homage to your business acumen and what you do for the community, rather than you being a crip. I remember when you first came out, people would identify you for your gang relations. Looking at it now, how does it feel that people are realizing you for what you've done on the business front, as opposed to your gang affiliation?
One of the things that's L.A. lingo is: "You a man first." Your big homie from your hood might tell you, "Regardless of what this is, you a man first." You make sure that your principles don't stop at the perception you have of yourself as a gang member. Make sure your principles go beyond that, and reach who you are as a man.
Kendrick said: “My n----a L said, ‘You do a song with Nip, K. Dot, he a better Crip’/ I said, ‘He a man first, you hear the words out his lips?’” That was just L.A. lingo mixed with homage to the business. Kendrick killed that, man. It was dope on a lot of levels, and classy. I was intentional when I came in with what I talked about and just being vocal about the game and the affiliation, because I thought, for my big picture plan to work, it was important that everybody knew it to be authentic. This was me speaking from the core about the gang culture.
I didn’t wanna influence nobody to join a gang, but I wanted to establish that this was one of our voices from gang culture. That way, when I mobilize forward, I got them with me. I ain’t want just the music fans, I ain’t want just the West Coast fans, I wanted the gang members to come with me. I wanted to take them somewhere. I’m gonna go down the list and show you, and tell you that I’ve been there. I’ve been in that county jail. I’ve been in a room full of my enemies. I’ve been through them situations.
You could follow me and you don’t gotta question my strength. You could follow me where I take you. It got misconstrued a little bit and it got misperceived, but I anticipated that. I felt that would pigeonhole me as this gang bang music. I knew what my plan held and my level of understanding and interests of what I wanted to talk about. It was part of the plan honestly. I swear to God it was.
On the same track you said: “I’m the Tupac of my generation.” What does that line mean to you?
I said: “Blue pill in the fuckin' Matrix, red rose in the gray pavement/ Young black n—a trapped and he can't change it/ Know he a genius, he just can't claim it/ 'Cause they left him no platforms to explain it/ He frustrated so he get faded/ But deep down inside he know you can't fade him.”
That’s my life story. That’s every young n---a's life story out here, and I know it is. I don’t gotta meet you to know. In the streets, that’s your story, and we’re geniuses. We gifted. How can we show it? All they respect is violence. All they respect is not giving a fuck. What do you do with your gift? What do you do with your talent?
We knew what we was worth. We knew what we could do. I’m one of the ones that got blessed, man. I’m in the position to actually do it. So many individuals weren’t able to, like from the Rollin 60s. They call home from jail. They’re poets. They’re gifted, bro, they got talent. What could they do with it? Where can they put it?
That’s why I said I’m the Tupac of my generation, because I follow the red roses in the grey pavements. The rose that grew from the concrete. I know what Pac was trying to do. Pac was like, "I know if I tell y’all the shit I know, y’all will call me smart. In our culture, smart is weak. So, I’ma show y’all I’m a rider first. I’ma show y’all I’m not afraid to fight, I’m not afraid to shoot and I’m not afraid to be with my n—s in the worst of the worst. I am not afraid of my people..." Listen to “White Man’z World” and listen to [his 1997 album as] Makaveli. He was trying to take n----s there, and they got killed.
That’s why I say that. God bless Pac and his spirit. I’m not Tupac, I’m Nipsey Hussle. That’s why I said Tupac of my generation. It’s my intention.
The intro and the outro are the most important parts of an album. How many times did you go in on the opening track “Victory Lap” before you knew it was going to be the intro?
That was a last-minute call. It wasn’t even titled “Victory Lap,” it was titled “Mean Streets.” I had a record called “Perfect Timing” as the first song. My homie Cobby Supreme -- who was on “Checc Me Out” with me and Dom Kennedy -- finished the master and the mix and we’re doing the sequencing, he’s listening and he’s like, “That’s the intro, Nip. Don’t make ‘em wait for that. Put that first, bro. When they press play, after the first four bars and beat...”
And he don’t make a lot of suggestions, but when he do, it’s like a bullseye. He’s real economical with his suggestions. He’s never suggested something to me in all the years that I knew him that was wrong. When he said that, I was like, “You right, bro.” I changed the order.
You just had to talk back to that beat.
It was talking, and I had to talk back. It was like crying, you know what I’m saying? It was passionate, man. It was pulling a real emotion up out of me.
I spoke to Jeezy a couple months ago and he said that the last thing he wants to be remembered as is the greatest trapper in rap history. What are you aiming for in terms of legacy?
I’m an artist, right? As an artist, nothing inspires me more than to be appreciated for my art. Me being a human comes before me being an artist. I want to affect change and I want to impact the communities that I grew up in, and the ones like it, that create the type of challenges that I felt. Whether it’s inspiring people, or it’s actually having feet on the ground, or having resources made available.
I just want to impact the next 12-year-old Nip Hussle. I want to impact the young dudes and young girls and give them the gems I’ve learned on my path. I’ll let ‘em know, and confirm their little gut feelings they got. Everybody got that gut feeling, that “I might be special. I might have something in me.” But then the world tells you so much of the opposite of that. I want to be one of the the voices or one of the stories that say, “Nah, you right.You are unbelievably powerful. You’re potential is the illest...” I want to be one of the people that not only say that, but live that as an example. Through music, through business and through conversation,
Look at these buildings. That’s a human’s creation. Somebody said they’d build a skyscraper, and they did it. Somebody said they’d build an airplane, and they did it. It hadn’t been done yet, until somebody did it. I just want to inspire that type of thinking. Believe in yourself and dream big. Reverse-engineer that shit. Work backwards.
On “Rap N----as,” you rapped, “We the No Limit of the West, n---a.” No Limit had hip-hop by the neck in the 90s and the 2000s. What did Master P and No Limit’s movement do for you as an artist coming up?
They were dropping every week. You didn’t have to see the back and see the logo -- you could see the artwork and know it’s a No Limit release. They branded an image. Master P was an innovator in so many different ways. Puff gets his credit. Dame and Jay get their credit. Ruff Ryders, Irv Gotti and Chris Gotti, they get their credit. P don’t get his credit, man.
Why do you think that is?
This is my opinion and I could be dead wrong: He got so successful in music. He was the first to do it the way he did it. He put his kids on -- he put Romeo on. He turned into a businessman. He did films. He burned the game out. He maxed out.
I don’t know if he just got tired of the game. It’s like Jordan, like a “I’ve done everything, so what else I’ma do?” You know the accolades. He was worth a hundred mil in his 20s. He broke the bank. I think maybe he needed to take a breath, but when he took a breath, somebody else stepped into the forefront.
You know, we got short memories, man. All of us do. Puff figured out how to keep going without making music. I think P was grinding on his investments and put his kids on. Romeo came and popped. Then, Master P’s brother went to jail for a long time, and that affects you, when somebody that close to you catches a case. I respect what he did, man. He put his family on. He did everything like a boss. You gotta salute Master P.
You mentioned Puff, who’s on the “Young N----s” track. How did that session with him come about?
I went to go play the album for Puff, and I wanted him to get on “Rap N----s” because my vision for that was like, [Nas’ 1999 hit] “Hate Me Now.” Remember him and Nas? He was just behind Nas, talking his shit. But when he heard, “Young N----s,” he was like, “”This is the one I wanna get on.” I was like, “Oh, aight. I’m talking some shit on here.”
Like, “You gotta catch up.”
Not even catch up. I was like, “Oh, you listening to lyrics, huh? All right, Puff. I see you.” This is one of the songs I’m going in on my rap shit, you know? He just got in the booth, man. Every time he came out of the booth, I made everybody clap. It’s Puff and he’s going in the booth for my album, for me. It’s not regular. Puff don’t gotta do that, so we’re going to show the appreciation. I appreciate you tapping into my sonics, my frequency, my narrative and my story. It came out fire.
Nobody talks shit better than Puff. He was like my trainer in the corner. Like, "Keep going, keep rising, get your money, because it’s your time." I got love and respect for Puff.
Let’s speak about your love for the East Coast. I was listening to a snippet of your HipHopDX interview and you were saying you got into Nas and JAY-Z by their second or third album in. Why so late?
We had Death Row, bro. I thought that was the end-all of rap music. Everything else didn’t count. One day, my homeboy was crossing the street from his house to my momma’s house and we watched this tape. I’m like, “I like this n---a, man. Who is this JAY-Z?” I heard “Ain’t No N---a” and that was a hit to me, a classic record. I was a kid and we didn’t have iTunes and all that. I watched the movie and understood JAY-Z. I was into this dude I respected what I was looking at. You knew he was from the streets. You knew that he was a hustler. You knew that he was a successful hustler.
When Nas made “If I Ruled the World," I became a Nas fan. I was like “Nah, he different. He talkin’.” When I heard “Juicy,” I was a B.I.G. fan. He said: “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/ When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this.” I used to go down the street to play my homie’s Nintendo. I felt that line in my heart. I was like, “He feels me.” That’s a kid’s struggle.
It took a while, but once I tuned in, I became a fan of lyricism. Obviously, I was a fan of Snoop and Pac, they’re lyricists, but I became unbiased. If you deliver, I’m going to support you and be a fan. I got into Nas heavy. He’s one of my favorite rappers ever. I got into Jay heavy. One of my favorite rappers ever.
It’s one thing when you get to listen to Hov, but then to actually meet him had to be an experience. What was that like?
It’s like meeting Denzel or meeting Michael Jordan. It made me realize he’s human. I don’t like to fan too much, but I was clear, like, “I was inspired and you did a lot for me, homie. I was raised off of some of them lyrics. Thank you for certain lyrics and certain songs.” I wrote a personal note and I thanked him for certain lyrics that sunk in when I was going through it in the streets.
I heard “Come and Get Me” [from 1999's Vol. 3] and I was like, “Man, what? JAY-Z went through the same shit.” I personally made sure I was like, “Thank you for that.” I put it in a box and sent the CDs over there. Since then, JAY-Z’s demonstrations speak volumes. You don’t have to speak to Jay personally. We got a mutual respect, as a legend in the game and me as an up and coming future legend, God willing, I got the ultimate respect for Jay.
You just said “future legend,” but on the album you made claims about you being one right now. Do you not think you're one at this present moment?
I’m being humble. Listen man, that’s for the people to say. On the album, I said: “Lookin’ at the legend I’ve become, n---a/ I can’t help but feel like I am the one, n---a.” I’m speaking to the frequency I get from the people. I would never just call myself a legend. That’s something the people have to crown you with. I know I put my all into it. I know I’ve sacrificed everything for this shit. We’ll see what the people say.
What's your favorite sixteen from the album?
Third verse off of “Blue Laces 2.” That’s a movie in itself. That’s a real memory for me.
It was vivid. I was wondering if it was fact or fiction.
Definitely fact. My whole hood was there. My whole hood know that that’s a true story. My art reflects life. When I look at my mixtape catalog before I started writing Victory Lap, I was like, what did I do to make them connect? I looked at the songs that reconnected, and I referenced real life.
“Rap Music” from Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 3., “The Hussle Way” from Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 3., “Black Ice Freestyle” from Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 2., “It’s Hard Out Here” from Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 1, ”Keys 2 The City” from The Marathon. Even on Crenshaw, “Face the World.”
I reference real life. That’s what Victory Lap is. It’s those songs on a whole playlist. I’m proud of that. I don’t care how it performs. I have no attachment to the business in this album. Unless God sees something different in my cards, the way it’s looking, it looks like it’s going to be good. We put in a lot of work. We’ve been making moves long enough and strong enough that we solidified. It’s art, man, I’m proud of the art.
How do you feel that people are already calling it a classic?
I think it is, man. I was careful with that word. Again, that’s something that the people have to crown you with. My brothers are some of the most honest people in my life. When I was talking about how I feel about the album, I was careful with that word. I was like, “I think this is a classic, bro.” And he was like, “It is, bro. It is a classic.” My brother, he doesn’t throw a cosign around. He’s the opposite of that. I get into it with him so much because he’s the biggest critic.
How did that feel for you, man? Because you already know all the west coast classics has its share of classics like Doggystyle, All Eyez On Me, Good Kid, m.A.A.D. City, The Documentary, The Chronic -- that’s nice company right there.
It’s great company. I did want to create my legacy. I think [YG's] My Krazy Life is a classic. I know I’m capable of it. I really made this album with delivering on that level. We’ll see what the people say, but that was my intention going into it.
You mentioned YG and you guys have proven to have great chemistry, especially on “FDT” and “Last Time That I Check’dd.” Have y’all spoken about possibly doing a joint album together?
Of course. We went in and tried to. “FDT” was for the YG and Nip Hussle album, and you heard how crazy that shit came out? He put that on the album and was like, “Fuck that, I’m done.” And I understand that. Those sessions were sessions for the collab project. We went into Mustard’s studio every day. Young Thug came through. A lot of songs that wound up on different projects happened in there.
Is the idea dead?
Nah, the idea is definitely not dead. Life happens. He got a solo career and I got a solo career. He got a kid and I got kids. That’s something the West wants, and we’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna call it America’s Most Wanted.
With you being active in the community, what advice would you have for an 18-year-old black man growing up in Trump’s America?
It’s the honesty era. Trump is honest about his stance on everything.
I feel like you low-key respect it.
I gotta respect it, even if I don’t like it.
So if he calls you a n---a, you just --
Nah, n---a ain’t calling me a n---a.
But he is that blatant, you see what he did with the “shithole” comments.
I don’t respect disrespect. There’s a difference with saying things about somebody and to somebody. If you’re at arms distance and you call me a n---a, I’ma let the secret service do they job. I’ma activate your security, n---a. What? We died for this shit. We got ancestors that died for this.
Now, years later, we got that fear out of our system. We ain’t afraid. God is in control. There’s nothing stronger than the force of the people. Whenever we get tired enough or feel fed up enough, we could flex our strength and remind the whole political power structure who they work for. The work for the interest of the people. They don’t work for their own personal interests.
If you could pick a song or album as soundtrack to your life right now, what would it be and why?
Rick Ross, “Usual Suspects” with Nas. The words, the hook, the emotion and the frequency of what was being said. The hook represented getting there, taking it there.
One word to describe this chapter of your life, what would it be and why?
Execution. I had big plans my whole life. It takes power to execute, and I’ve accumulate the power to execute. My teenage dream that I had, it’s time now. I’m in the process of executing. Everything I’ve been planning is coming full circle. This is execution.