California native Nipsey Hussle is prepared for most anything life could throw his way, except, perhaps, Ohio’s frigid January temperatures.
“I don’t think I’m ready for the weather, honestly bro,” said the rapper, born Ermias Asghedom 28 years ago, in a recent phone interview. “But I’ve got hoodies and sweaters and all that, so we’ll see how it goes.”
It appears little else could fluster the resilient MC, who was dubbed a rising star in 2009, landed a deal with Epic Records shortly thereafter and then lingered in major label limbo for nearly two years before being unceremoniously cast aside. In recent years Hussle has gradually rebuilt himself from the ground up, releasing a steady stream of ever-improving mixtapes and preparing for the 2014 release of Victory Lap, an album he considers his proper debut.
“The whole experience [with Epic] was a blessing, and it happened how it was supposed to happen. I got to walk the halls … and see things from the inside,” Hussle said. “I tell people all the time I went to college: I went to the University of Epic Records. It gave me the education and foundation to build a team around myself.”
Hussle undoubtedly takes a business-minded approach to his music career; in a 2013 interview with Complex magazine he cited precise merchandise sales figures in locales as far-flung as New Zealand. It’s a trait he developed largely out of necessity. Growing up in a working class home in South Central, Los Angeles, the rapper couldn’t afford a support team, so he was forced to learn every aspect of the industry himself, from recording (he largely taught himself how to engineer) to promotions (he spent countless hours posting flyers around his neighborhood).
“My lack of access and resources at the beginning gave me an edge, because now I’m well-versed in every aspect of the business,” he said. “I have an opinion about advertising. I have an opinion about the quality of the mix. I have an opinion about design aesthetic and cover design — even down to the color choice. It’s more work, and everything takes a little longer, but that’s why people will spend $100 on a Nipsey Hussle album.”
This final point also illustrates that, like all growing corporations, Hussle is not immune to criticism. In 2013 the rapper received significant flak when he chose to release his latest mixtape, Crenshaw, as a limited-edition CD, pressing 1,000 copies and selling the signed-and-numbered albums for $100 apiece.
Some critics treated the decision like another shot in the ongoing class war, arguing the MC’s blue-collar fan base would be priced out of the market. Hussle, for his part, contends the record — like all the material he has released to date — could still be downloaded for free, adding he was hoping to create both a unique fan experience (the album came packaged with a ticket to a concert) and a conversation piece (mission accomplished).
“I think it’s about distinguishing yourself because the market is so saturated,” he said.
Hussle has further distinguished himself with his fealty to his neighborhood (albums often play like a guided tour of Southern Los Angeles) and his knack for transforming his struggles into compelling musical theater.
“I swore to the world if I made it out,” he spits on one cut, “[I’d tell] the truth about these L.A. streets and all what they about.”
“I wanted to talk about South Central. I didn’t want to rap about the places and lifestyles these other people were rapping about,” said Hussle, who started rhyming at 14, patterning his flow off MCs like Snoop Dogg and Eminem. “I wanted to talk about my personal experience.”
It’s a trend he’ll continue with Victory Lap, the first album the rapper has been able to record entirely free of outside pressure and expectation.
“I’ve already done my introduction project and my proving-them-wrong project and my I’m-still-around project,” Hussle said. “Now it’s really just about speaking to the moment.”
Photo courtesy of Nipsey Hussle