How Nipsey Hussle Achieved Success on His Own Terms

Nipsey Hussle, respectfully, was not like his peers. When they sought major label deals, he preferred playing the long game, betting on himself and his community. Rather than sprint his way to an easy finish line, Ermias Asghedom treated his life as a marathon, traversing the muddy terrain of the music industry through sheer conviction and trust in his abilities. Faith accelerated Hussle. Confidence served as his compass. These things make it especially hard to digest his death at age 33, shot to death on Sunday (March 31) outside of his Marathon Clothing store.  

Initially, though, the rapper and entrepreneur attempted to follow the same blueprint as many of his contemporaries. He signed to Epic Records in 2008. He posed alongside J. Cole, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa for the XXL Freshman cover in 2010. That same year, he also aimed for radio success, penning light-hearted singles like "Feeling Myself," featuring R&B crooner Lloyd, to catch mainstream buzz. But ultimately it wasn’t right.

"I took a different route. I wanted to learn how to do it myself, as an artist and as a company," he told me over dinner in February of last year. "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."

In 2010, Nipsey left Epic and founded his label All Money In in the neighborhood he grew up in, Crenshaw. Three years later, he bucked convention with his Proud 2 Pay campaign and his mixtape Crenshaw. Instead of selling the project digitally for a flimsy $9.99, Nipsey hard-pressed 1,000 copies and sold those CDs for $100 a piece. Anyone could download the project for free -- but Nipsey wanted to make a different point. Hip-hop's biggest hustler, Jay-Z, caught wind of Nip's strategy and purchased 100 copies of his own, tipping his hat to Hussle's brilliant idea. He cut out the middle man to market, distribute and sell his project at the price he deemed fair. The real fans would pay it, he trusted. 

When he released Mailbox Money the following year, again, he emerged victorious. This time, he pressed 60 copies and sold each for $1000. His bold business model inspired others -- you can see echoes of his decision in the moves made by artists like Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean.

Nip's all-on-me demeanor bled through his music too. Yes, his L.A. drawl and ear for trunk-rattling production were elite, but it was his thoughts on entrepreneurialism, black excellence, and self-efficiency that spoke to the souls of his listeners. Tracks like "Real Big" and "A Million While Your Young" gave hope to the hapless and clarity to the uncertain. “I knew one day I would do it real big,” is simple lyric sung by Nipsey on the former, but useful in teaching those to believe in themselves despite life’s hurdles. On “Right Hand to God,” he speaks about the importance of faith and how it helped him, rapping: "Put my right hand to Jesus, fly like a eagle/ Fight with these demons, shine light on my people." 

As much as Nip repped the streets and his gang ties on wax, he also schooled his listeners on the business acumen of Steve Jobs and the legacy of Master P. Nipsey was the perfect medley of swagger, determination and selflessness, especially when it came to his community.

That's why the last two years were such a blessing, not only for Nipsey, but for Crenshaw. In June 2017, he opened a flagship store in the heart of his neighborhood. The block he used to hustle on was now a haven for those looking for job opportunities. Earlier this year, Nipsey alongside his business partner, Dave Gloss, purchased the entire shopping center that housed his Marathon Store in hopes of constructing a six-story residential building.

"Nipsey is the reason many people know me today,” says 22 year-old engineer Iddris Sandu, who helped build Nipsey's flagship smart store two years ago. “To hear that his life was taken in front of the very store we built together is truly a full circle moment, which aches for me personally as well as for the culture."

Before he released his Grammy-nominated album Victory Lap in 2018, he decided to return to a major label -- but on his terms, inking a partnership deal he felt comfortable with with Atlantic Records. The results were golden, as he notched a top five debut on the Billboard 200, landing at No. 4.

Even a month after he released his magnum opus, Nipsey's humility remained intact. The word classic had already been thrown around and Victory Lap was an early candidate for rap album of the year among many hip-hop circles. Still, he remained unfazed.

I remember telling him how high Victory Lap ranked in his catalog during our dinner. He simply smiled and remained quiet. After knifing his way through a piece of steak, he leaned over and said, "That's cool and all, but we still have more work to do."