Inside the Inspiring Life and Tragic Death of Nipsey Hussle

In just three decades of living, rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle managed to inspire countless teens who came up in the same South L.A. neighborhood he's always called home.

By Sarah Grossbart Mar 31, 2020 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Inside the Inspiring Life of Nipsey Hussle

Just a couple of months ahead of his death, the attention directed toward rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle was for his Grammy-nominated debut disc, Victory Lap, a full-length album some four years in the making that earned the musician raves from his contemporaries. 

But exactly one year ago today, the tributes pouring in were decidedly different. Unable to believe that the 33-year-old West Coast artist was really gone, music's biggest names took to social media to express their dismay

"This doesn't make any sense! My spirit is shaken by this!" wrote Rihanna

Echoed Drake, "You were having the best run and I was so happy watching from distance fam. Nobody ever talks down on your name you were a real one to your people and to the rest of us." 

But perhaps the most jarring words came from the musician himself, who tweeted less than an hour before he was gunned down, "Having strong enemies is a blessing." 

With a spray of bullets a shooter, now imprisoned awaiting trial, snuffed out a man not only renowned for his musical prowess, but a dedicated philanthropist, committed to turning around the lives of those who grew up in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood he called home for three-plus decades. 

The shooting itself, which also injured two other men, took place outside Marathon Clothing. A so-called "smart store" he opened in L.A.'s Crenshaw district that allowed visitors to enhance their shopping experience by using an app, it was just one of the many ventures the father of two launched in his hometown. With a successful music career already in place (his loss at the 2019 Grammys came to Cardi B's equally anticipated Invasion of Privacy, but he won a posthumous award this past January) Hussle had turned his focus to helping develop his community, serving as an inspiration to those who came up in the same ruthless environment. 

Los Angeles Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff revealed the night he was killed that he and Police Chief Michael Moore were actually set to meet with the songwriter and representatives from Roc Nation the next day to "talk about ways he could helps stop gang violence and help us help kids." 

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Raised in the Crenshaw neighborhood of L.A., Hussle, born Ermias Asghedom, felt he was dealt a hand with few options. Leaving his parents' home at 14, he moved in with his grandmother and found a different family of sorts, joining the Rollin' 60s, a subset of the notorious L.A. gang the Crips. 

"If you check the stats, the murder rates and incarceration rates in the years I was a teenager in L.A., in my section of the Crenshaw District in the Rollin' 60s, none of my peers survived. None of my peers avoided prison. None of 'em. Everybody got bullet wounds and felonies and strikes," he told NPR Music in 2018. "So to make it out mentally stable and not in prison and not on drugs, that's a win. That's a victory in itself. Then to be in the position I find myself in as an artist and entrepreneur who has respect around the world; that's legendary. And I say it in the most humble way. When I reflect on it, it's unbelievable. It's gotta be evidence of a divine presence, because it wasn't that I'm just the smartest dude or just wiggled my way through. It had to be a calling on my life." 
Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for Warner Music

Though as his chosen moniker would suggest, he was quite the hustler even as a teen. In between taking psychology and philosophy classes at a local community college ("Even my English teacher got at me and was like, 'Are you plagiarizing this s--t? You're 15 and quoting Plato in your essays, what's going on?' and I was like, 'Nah, I'm just into it,'" he told Complex in 2010), he developed a love of technology, collecting computer parts and eventually building his own PC.

"I had to learn how to use software early because I wanted to record myself," he explained to the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't have a budget to pay engineers, so I had to learn how to use software myself. Just growing up, being an '80s baby that grew up in the '90s, technology was a part of culture, so I was always interested in it."

The Eritrean American rapper (he visited his father's home country for the first time in 2004) released his first mixtape, Slauson Boy Volume 1, in 2005, followed by two others—Bullets Ain't Got No Name, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2—three years later after he signed a deal with Cinematic Music Group and Epic.

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The following year brought his debut single, "Hussle in the House" and a third edition of his Bullets Ain't Got No Name mixtape, as well as collaborations with Drake and Snoop Dogg, their track, "Upside Down" featured on the legendary rapper's Malice n Wonderland album. 

"I was trying to make progress with every release," he explained to Rolling Stone

By 2010 he was being hailed as part of XXL Magazine's "Annual Freshman Top Ten" list (his superlative: Most Determined) alongside J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean with LA Weekly called him the "next big L.A. MC", but then his debut release, South Central State of Mind, was postponed indefinitely following a management change and his deal with Epic went belly up. 

Undeterred, he struck out under his own label, All Money In, partnering with and signing artists that he'd grown up with. Their mantra: "All money in, no money out." He released more mix tapes, a collaborative album with rapper Blanco and other works with the likes of YG and Rick Ross, all the while shrugging off critiques about why it was taking so long for him to put out a full-length disc.

Larry Busacca/PW18/Getty Images for Parkwood Entertainment

But it was a unique marketing move he made in 2013 that truly set him apart from his contemporaries. He announced he'd be selling just 1,000 copies of his latest mixtape, Crenshaw, at the unprecedented price point of $100 each. "It was a scarcity model," he explained to GQ of his Proud 2 Pay campaign, a way for artists to get paid directly by their consumers, circumventing the entire record label system. 

"You're either leveraging, or being leveraged. That's why I think direct-to-consumer is important, because we're being leveraged," he told Forbes. "If I can say that my album isn't exclusive on any of the streaming services, my songs are going to be exclusive at The Marathon store, that's powerful. You can go to The Marathon store for the first week and hear the song or view the video in-store. Then, after a week, it can go live on all other platforms. The exclusivity period belongs to a platform we own and control. All of our influence has been leveraged, but we can't get mad at anyone until we figure out ways to protect it."

His shrewd move worked, with every copy selling out in less than 24 hours—Jay Z even bought 100 discs himself—and he upped the game with his 2014 release Mailbox Money (the name itself a nod to the importance of securing ownership and lucrative backend deals), priced at $1,000. 

David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

By the time he released his first major-label debut album, 2018's Victory Lap, (two years after he gained attention for his Donald Trump protest song, "FDT" with frequent collaborator YG) it was a partnership between his own label and Atlantic Records and boasted an impressive list of guests artists including Cee-Lo Green and other West Coast luminaries Puff Daddy and Kendrick Lamar

"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," he told Billboard in February of the big picture approach he took to putting out that debut disc. "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 s--t 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."

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An unquestioned success reaching number four on the Billboard 200, the disc "is more personal than business," he told Forbes. "As a human, the album was about me looking back and reflecting, appreciating how this journey has been inspiring to me, and I'm standing in my own shoes. As much as I believe in all of these things and went after all of these radical ideas, this actually happened. It's confirmation that we followed the vision, and we delivered."

And Victory Lap was just a sliver of his achievements. He launched his Marathon Clothing label after being inundated with request for the blue-and-yellow Crenshaw shirts featured in his "Hussle in the House" music video. "We saw people coming to all the shows asking for it, and we felt the demand," he told Esquire's Jonathan Evans in 2016. "So we started off just manufacturing that one piece of [what was] basically merch, and it's transformed into an apparel line."

In 2017 he opened a flagship store for the brand in a strip mall on West Slauson Avenue and in early 2019 he and business partner Dave Gross paid several million for the entire plaza, announcing plans to rebuild around his revamped store, adding a six-story residential building above the commercial properties. It was all part of his plan to as he put it "pay taxes to these corners."

He and Gross, who first connected while they were each sitting courtside at an L.A. Lakers game ("We started drinking tequila," he told Forbes. "By the third quarter, we was more friendly,") also teamed up for the 2018 opening of Vector 90, a co-working space Hussle described as a "bridge between Silicon Valley and the inner city" where kids could take classes in science, technology and mathematics. His goal was to expand out to other metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. 

Other Hussle projects included investing in Destination Crenshaw, an open-air museum whose purpose lies in honoring African-American artistic achievement, and helping bring back World on Wheels. A beloved neighborhood roller rink in the '80s and '90s, he envisioned it as a safe space for kids in the gang-ravaged area. "In L.A., you have to grow up fast, and this was one place kids could go to have a party and be safe," he told the L.A. Times during its 2017 reopening. 

"In our culture, there's a narrative that says, 'Follow the athletes, follow the entertainers,'" he told the paper of his focus on STEM projects. "And that's cool but there should be something that says, 'Follow Elon Musk, follow [Mark] Zuckerberg.' I think that with me being influential as an artist and young and coming from the inner city, it makes sense for me to be one of the people that's waving that flag."

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

His goal, he continued, is "to give back in an effective way. I remember being young and really having the best intentions and not being met on my efforts. You're, like, 'I'm going to really lock into my goals and my passion and my talents' but you see no industry support. You see no structures or infrastructure built and you get a little frustrated. I remember feeling, like, No. 1, what's the point and, No. 2, maybe I'm tripping. Maybe I'm not even supposed to be ambitious; maybe I'm not even supposed to be thinking this big and thinking outside the box; maybe I should just follow suit. That's a dangerous thing. I would like to prevent as many kids from feeling like that as possible. Because what follows is self-destructive."

And those were just the biggest ventures. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hussle was known for his frequent acts of largesse: providing shoes to every student at a Hyde Park elementary school, footing the bill to upgrade the campus playground and often chipping in for funeral costs for neighbors who lost a loved one to gun violence. 

"He did so much for our neighborhood," Hyde Park resident Glenn Taylor told the paper, one of hundreds who turned out to mourn the Grammy nominee after his death. "That's why I'm here today. This has to stop." Added community activist Malik Spellman, "The man was instrumental in a lot of stuff. Fighting gentrification, trying to stop gang violence." 

Noting how he "poured positivity into the streets," family friend Anita Hardine told the paper Hussey was a role model for others growing up in the area. "Black kids don't get love, or they're trying to get love from the wrong places," said the local educator. "He was trying to give them the right love at the right time." 

That was his mission at home as well where he was father to daughter Emani from a previous relationship (she was his date to the 2019 Grammy Awards) and 3-year-old son Kross with actress girlfriend Lauren London

He and the actress, known for her work in ATL and on BET's The Game, connected in 2013 when London, 35, was eager to buy Crenshaw as a wrap present for her costars. Having secured the discs, she began following him on Instagram, he followed back and promptly slid into her DMs. Since then, as Hussle put it to GQ, they've been "building." 

John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

But his biggest focus has always been securing his legacy not just as a talented musician, but as a person determined to make a real difference.

"I'm an artist, right? As an artist, nothing inspires me more than to be appreciated for my art," he told Billboard last February. "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." 

His goal is to reach out to the kids just like him, the ones eager to soak up whatever knowledge they can, who feel deep down that maybe they're destined for greatness.

"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," he continued. "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."

(Originally published April 1, 2019, 12 p.m. PT)