Hip-Hop

'He Would Want Us To Pick Our Head Up': TeeFlii Remembers Nipsey Hussle

Nipsey Hussle
Norberto Garcia

Nipsey Hussle

The last time TeeFlii saw Nipsey Hussle, they told each other they loved each other, like they always did.

It was right before the Grammy Awards, in February, and the 33-year-old Crenshaw rapper's Victory Lap was up for best rap album, his first Grammy nod. TeeFlii, the R&B singer known for hits like “24 Hours” and “This D” (with DJ Mustard), had known Hussle since the early 2010s and had first worked with him in 2012. They stayed good friends and collaborators over the years; Flii wrote a verse and the hook for the triumphant “Keyz 2 the City 2,” on Victory Lap.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 31, Hussle was shot to death outside the clothing store he owned. Their last meeting has changed in TeeFlii’s memory -- it looms larger now, he tells Billboard over the phone on Monday night, a day after Nip’s passing. Like so many of the friends and family who have spoken about Nipsey, discussing his mourning automatically becomes communal: “We have to deal with the loss,” TeeFlii says.

The rapper and entrepreneur invested in the neighborhood he came from to an unusual degree. Others rep their block with songs, but Nip invested in his. The store was just the beginning: he launched a shared work space and STEM center last year and had plans for a residential complex, too.

During the conversation, Tee reenacted entire back-and-forths between Hussle and himself, like he was reliving those moments. His voice became ragged at times, but he was adamant about moving forward with positivity, to best honor the friend whom he calls his big bro.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you first meet Nipsey?

I first met Nip through my big brother Kay Ess in probably 2011. He had a great rapport with Nip as a friend, and he introduced me. The first time Nip heard my songs, he came to the studio and wanted to hear more. It went on from there. A lot of people, if they know Nip, [they know] he rarely gets in the studio and just raps right there. It take Nip some time, he gotta be in that moment, he gotta be feeling it. When he started linking with me, he would get on the track and rap it out right there, freestyling. That became his thing when we were working together: dedicating time to the freestyles, getting better at that, and testing his mind. He was a thinker, a positive leader and he wanted to influence everybody.

What was it about your relationship that made Nip feel comfortable to try freestyling and writing on the spot with you?

I’m from the same district that Nipsey is from -- we’re not too far from the streets. My brother had been telling him about me for about a year-and-a-half. Then Nip meeting me and doing the music, [seeing that he could] trust me with engineering and mixing, making sure his vocals were sounding right. Nipsey didn’t allow a lot of people to walk into the studio and touch the board. I was one of those guys blessed enough to be able to walk into the studio and twinkle it up, make it pop out to where it was what he needed at that moment.

How did it feel when he finally put out Victory Lap and you got to be part of that?

“Get down here, man. Where the fuck you at? I want you on this album,” is what he told me. “I was on yo’  album, right Flii?” “Yeah.” “All right, so you on my album.”

We linked up for about three, four days and he ain’t even go home. We just stayed in the studio, locked in. We still got records right now that I could put out to keep his legacy going, but I want to give those to his sister, mom, dad.

I remember he was sleeping on the couch -- we all had fell out; we was popping champagne bottles, [and] fell out watching movies and talking about life. I was working on Victory Lap, trying to come up with the hook for the album and I did six joints that night to finally get to “Keyz 2 the City 2.” That was the last record I did. When he woke up, he went to the bathroom, came out the bathroom, turned up “Keyz 2 the City 2” and he went into the booth. That was our energy. That was what we did. He already knew. “Let me get Flii over here, get three days, he probably be a little rusty, we’ll have to break in to it. But we gon get one up out of Flii.” That was what he always wanted me to do: make hot shit. A lot of my projects, before I would put them out I would grab his ear for his opinions, where he felt like I should go.

One of the things I love about Victory Lap is how precise it sounds, how much care went into the sound. Was Nipsey a perfectionist in the studio?

He wanted it to be organic. I don’t think he wanted to be a super-duper perfectionist. All the music that y’all received, he wanted to be organic. He got his energy out of each individual that he worked with through the process of Victory Lap. He pulled energy out of every artist on that album and let artists pull energy out of him. When you leave Nip, you more than just feel better -- when you leave Nip your consciousness is better. You think about things that really matter.

Is there a piece of advice Nip gave you that’s stuck with you?

Always! “From the outside looking in, TeeFlii? These n----s bit yo’ fucking style, man. We can’t let n----s take what’s ours. That’s what we on. We on taking our shit back and keeping our shit over here. Long as we keep this shit over here solid, all the rest of the shit gon fall into place.”

I could name a lot more shit, you feel me? I got history with big bro, man. That’s the craziest thing: watching how he dealt with my kids. My first daughter Achalee is nine, and she’s really feeling it right now.

Nip’s been part of her entire life, basically.

Yeah, man. Anytime he would check on me, it was always love with the kids, too. “How is Achalee doing in school?”

This is a big loss for the community. You gotta look at how many other people didn’t do for their area but got more money than Nipsey. It’s a lot more people that got way more millions than Nipsey, and they never even put that much money into they area. You feel me? That’s just the streets, man. It’s a tough game to be in. That’s what we lack in this environment right now, the positivity of seeing one of our young black brothers succeed and become powerful.

I be watching people, how they post like, “He was the Pac of our generation.” He didn’t wanna be Tupac -- he was Nipsey. He wanted to be Hussle. That’s what he banged. And so that’s what we gon' live. Wasn’t no disrespect to Pac but he never wanted to be anybody. He had more ideas, I know, but this is just a life lesson to everybody that God gon' call you when it’s your turn. So be ready.

I think people made the Pac comparison because of the line on “Hustle and Motivate.”

Of course. [But] that’s just him referencing Pac, giving it up and recognizing that Pac was a big youth leader as well. He said “I’m the No Limit of the west” [too]. It’s just paying homage, paying respect. But he never wanted to be Tupac -- or anybody. He hustled and made a way for a lot of these youths. And if they don’t know right now, they’ll know when they get older.

He wanted to leave a legacy of positivity, so how do you think the community and the people around him move in a positive direction after such a senseless act?

His spirit gon' live on, so. If he got some kind of... he’ll touch the people’s minds. This one is kind of crazy, you know? His daughter, his son, [his girlfriend] Lauren. His sister, his mom, his brother, his dad. It’s more people that’s mourning than just the people that he worked with. You gotta think about his kin, his blood, his family -- those are the people that we need to be praying for right now.

What was his relationship with his family?

They were proud of him. His dad was just proud of him. And he followed what his mom taught him, about building and not getting tied to jewelry and all that. Make sure you wealthy before you gon' grab all of that. That’s what his mom put in him. Manners. How to greet people. How to talk. His pops is genuine.

Every day he would write his goals and plans. For a whole year he would have a plan of what he wanted to do, how he wanted to dress, how he wanted to come across to people. And that’s exactly what he did. That discipline that his mother instilled in him. From his mother and father, their roots, where they come from -- he followed that tradition to the max.

Are his parents still together?

Yes sir. I know a lot kids grow up these days and don’t witness both parents being in the household. But like Nip said in one of his videos, his dad has always been there. That’s one of his biggest role models. He looked up to his dad, he loved his dad. He took what his dad did for him -- seeing his dad struggle and work hard to make ends meet, Nip prayed for a blessing to come. And he got blessed with this gift and knowledge, and he gave that back to everybody. It’s easy to be gifted and anointed but if you don’t take that and throw it back out to the people, it’s worth nothing.

Whenever we would go past [his] store, my family would get so much love from Nip and his family. They brought my kids clothes all the time, would take pictures with my kids and family members -- hell, I don’t think they know half my family members like that but still, when they go over there and tell 'em, “We’re TeeFlii’s family,” they show 'em the hospitality that I always got from Nipsey. This is a hurtful thing. Hurtful. This a pain that I’m -- I’m not used to this.

I’m so sorry.

We gon' try and keep our head above water. It’s all right to cry and mourn, but I know now he would want us to pick our head up. And like he said, if these n-----s kill me, then you ride for me. If this generation feel like he Pac or whatever -- you know, every generation is entitled to they own opinion. But I’m TeeFlii, and I worked with him for years. I know what he expected and I know what he wanted.

How are you going to continue to ride for him?

Keep his legacy going, man. Keep his vision for the youth and the community. See his people get out of poverty. Putting back into the city and making sure that you carry yourself as a young black entrepreneur. My dude used to sell incense on Slauson and now he own the whole damn thing. We gotta keep his name alive. He as big as Dr. Martin Luther King, I say.  

Nobody is gonna go through more than his kids and his family. I’m gon' still check on his family just like I always do.