It’s mid-February, 2018, in Los Angeles and excitement hangs tangibly in the air. The 67th NBA All-Star Weekend is taking place at the Staples Center and Marvel’s Black Panther is in the midst of a box office crushing opening weekend. Anybody who’s anybody has been drawn to the city, and the soundtrack heard bumping from car speakers all over the busy streets is Nipsey Hussle’s freshly released ‘Victory Lap’.
The Crenshaw native launched his debut album on Thursday night with a star-studded sold out show at the Hollywood Palladium. Opting to release the album at such a busy cultural moment would see most artists buried in the noise, but Nipsey Hussle has studied the zeitgeist enough to engineer things in his favour.
Nipsey is a strategist. He embraces business just as much as he does music, but on both sides is calm, collected and calculated. Everything Nipsey does is with intention: he hunts out knowledge and then employs his findings into steps that draw him closer to his goal, rather than just sloppily saturating the market and waiting to see what sticks.
A year on from its release, and we’re fresh off another All-Star win for Team LeBron. Just shy of ‘Victory Lap’s first birthday Nipsey received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album Of The Year. It’s the oldest record in the category, but managed to retain its value, weathering another incredibly busy year for hip-hop.
Today the album sounds as fresh and motivational as it did during that release week, during which Nipsey took the time to squeeze in a conversation with us while he was running errands around the city. Unfortunately due to deadlines, logistics and time restraints, it never made it into the print magazine.
But, not wanting to let Nipsey Hussle’s profound knowledge, insight and advice go to waste, we’re celebrating a year of ‘Victory Lap’ with this conversation from the vaults...
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How have you been feeling about the way that people have been responding to ‘Victory Lap’ in the past few days?
I’m really excited and a little overwhelmed. Everybody’s been really blown away by the music. I’ve got a tonne of personal feedback from a lot of the people I look up to, just in hip-hop; from legendary MC’s to my peers in the game. So I’ve just been humbled, and honestly a little overwhelmed by everything.
It just charted at number four, were you expecting that level of commercial success?
I try to stay away from sales expectations. I knew that it’s my best work and that we spent a lot of time just trying to elevate the musical value. I was more just being a student and seeing how that translated to sales. I was really confident in the music. I knew that regardless of how it performed, that it was gonna impact people and that people was probably going to be inspired and probably surprised.
What were your personal goals for the album when you were creating it?
It was really to make a great piece of art, to take everything I learned from my mixtape career and build on the successes of what I’ve done in the mixtape space musically. I wanted to add to the tradition of classic hip-hop debuts, and just speak to the love of music: the love of instruments, the love of poetry and great songwriting.
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Your mixtapes have always been such high quality, they’ve always felt good enough to be considered albums - what steps did you take to ensure that this sounded like something more?
One of my priorities too was to make a clear elevation in what they got from a Nipsey Hussle album as opposed to what they got from a Nipsey Hussle street release or a mixtape.
I had recorded a song with Hit-Boy, probably in 2015, and I just loved how his engineer had my vocals sounding, so I called him and I said: “What mic was it that we used? What was the preamp? What was the entire vocal chain?” He sent me a list of equipment and I went and bought it. So I recorded all of the vocals for ‘Victory Lap’ through this vocal chain that Hit-Boy used and actually gave me my best vocal performance to date.
I had a conversation with Lyor Cohen back in 2015 also, and he gave me some insight into what separates success and failure in terms of the music industry. He said, “What’s wrong with the music industry is the good records because they confuse you: you know a great record when you hear one, your know a terrible record, but the good records are confusing.”
So I looked at the records we was considering for the album and I was like, I want a collection of great records on this album. I feel like most of them, if not all of them, are great records in intention. Now whether or not I executed, that’s for people to say.
How would you describe the atmosphere in the studio that you’d built to create the album?
We are students of the game, so I realised that for Motown to go on that run the went on, they needed Hitsville USA. For Death Row you needed the studio they built in Los Angeles. For Roc-A-Fella you needed D&D Studios and then Baseline. For Cash Money you needed Hit Factory. So we built our own version where we had two studio rooms for producers, two studio rooms for vocal recording.
We had two offices, one in the front and one in the back. So again, really intentional and just being [an environment] where everybody could bring their best creativity out. I spent nights there: I didn’t go home because of how comfortable it was.
What’s unfortunate is that halfway through us recording the album, we had signed a lease and we thought we did a deal with the owner, but we did a sublease. So the actual owners evicted the guy we did the lease through. We did this big renovation and ended up taking a complete loss on the studio.
My goal is definitely, I’m buying a building next time and we’re going to renovate the property that we own and rebuild from scratch. But the space we had is not ours anymore.
What do you want people to take away from listening to ‘Victory Lap’?
First off I want them to be inspired. The highest human act is to inspire, so that’s definitely a priority. Outside of that I want to let them know a little bit more about me as a human being and as an artist. I want them to be a little bit more inspired to reach into their greatness and to pursue whatever their passions are. That’s what the album is about: it’s about taking the stairs and walking uphill but ending up there anyway.
My scenario is being from the inner city of Los Angeles, being involved with gang culture, dealing with that and then dealing with the music industry as a first generation learning curve. I never signed ton a platinum artist. I never had anybody in my immediate circle that was successful in music.
So it was something we had to learn through trial and error, and we figure it out. That’s something I’m really proud and excited about. I just want [listeners] to take a level of resilience from the narrative that Nipsey Hussle represents, and a level of “if he can do it, I can do it.”
When did you first develop an interest in business?
That’s something I think we’ve grown up trying to close the gap, being in the situation where we had to fend for ourselves at times. Just figuring out that the best way to do that was to be somebody that didn’t wait and didn’t depend on people. Because your expectation of your living standards is, the majority of the time, going to be above what the traditional platforms present you, whether it’s working a nine to five or going to school and finding a job.
Not to discredit that for anybody, because everybody has their own path, but me, I’m first generation wealth. I figured if I ever became successful I was going to be the first in my immediate family to achieve at that level, so it was about being aggressive.
It was about being resilient and being creative with ways to make money. So when I look at examples of people that came from similar situations, they were all entrepreneurs and they put it together in one generation by being really aggressive and creating it.
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How important do you think it is for artists to have their own understanding of the music industry rather than relying on other people to guide them?
If you’ve got somebody in your circle that could provide insight, you gotta embrace it. But just in my case it was about figuring it out, because in my experience people gave me advice that was in the interest of them using me for their cause. So I recognised that if I really wanted to empower myself as a boss in the game, I was going to have to come up with a strategy in order to do that - I had to educate myself.
When talking about business I’ve seen you referencing everything from business to Philly cheesesteaks and video games: what are your preferred ways to learn new things, and why do you think it’s important to explore other industries outside of the one you operate in?
I think it has to do with a few factors: number one, my mom. She raised me in a house full of books. No matter what my mom was going through financially, if I said, “I want to get a book,” she’d take me to the book store. She had a lot to do with me embracing books early.
Then, I came up in the information age. I came up in the era of the Internet becoming a thing, and Google becoming a thing, us being exposed to the world. As a kid I would spend my lunch money on buying tapes, I’d go to the Warehouse Records and spend my last $10 on ‘Life After Death’, I did that. Or The Source magazine, because I wanted that information and it was behind a paywall, but when the Internet came you could search all day and get this information.
I went to the University of YouTube or the University of Google. I started to see different categories of information overlap. I don’t think they may naturally intersect, but when I can pay attention to, for example, astronomy and see how that connects and relates to music somehow, or math, I became like “Nah, you can learn from all categories of info.”
You don’t just study music to understand music. You start to see the little nuances and the little fibres that connect everything, and I just became really inspired by just seeking out truth. So I just became really hungry for information, not to be no smart ass that considers myself super intelligent but just to have a practical reservoir to draw from, in terms of forming my opinion and how to deal with people.
If you had to choose one book that really changed your life, what would it be?
The most powerful book I’ve read in the last ten years is a book called Power Vs Force. There’s a chapter called the Levels of Human Consciousness and what the whole premise is that basically the power of frequency of your action is informed by the intention, and there’s a chart of all these different intentions that you can have.
If you create any action from an intention of shame or fear or pride, all these lower level frequencies, there’s no way it’ll have any value. I started applying that and looking at where shame informed my decisions or motivated my thought and actions, or fear, regret, pride or anger.
I started trying to operate from a place of being neutral and above. Above neutrality is love or enlightenment. I just saw a complete 180 degree turn in my experience, and it was a powerful perspective.
Reading that just gave me a completely different view and even when I deal with people and we’re having a disagreement, I question myself like, “Are you arguing this to be right? Or are you really trying to reveal the truth here?” Anybody that I meet that we start having a real conversation, I always tell them, “Man go get that book, Power Vs Force. It’s an incredible read.”
Outside of music, what inspired ‘Victory Lap’ and the way that you rolled it out?
I’m a student of marketing. When I think about marketing, I think it’s about communicating the value of a product in the simplest, most effective way. Not saying what’s the same about it, but saying what’s different about it. That’s why my first single is ‘Rap N***as’, because I was like, in the truest form of branding, this is to say what’s different about it, here’s where I stand out from my peers and contemporaries.
I do own my rights to all my raps. Just the key point that I hit on in that record, I was like, “This is going to be the first statement to the album.” I knew it wasn’t going to be a huge record, because I’m saying “fuck” and “n***a” every other line on the hook. But I knew that for branding purposes, it was going to be incredibly important that it was first.
You’ve got market share and you’ve got mind share, and I think market share always follows mind share. So people have to be affected first, and then the market gets affected after. So with ‘Rap N***as’, I think that people was really affected first and thence could go into making our pursuits on the charts or the radio - that’s really the psychology behind some of what that record does.
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Releasing the album this past weekend - the opening weekend for Black Panther and with the NBA All-Star Game taking place in L.A - felt like a a big cultural moment. How did you come up with a strategy that ensured ‘Victory Lap’ didn’t get lost in all of that?
One of the executives at Atlantic, her name is Julie Greenwald, we was having a marketing meeting and my goal was to come December 2017 and she was like, “You know that All-Star Weekend is in February in L.A.? I think it would just have a much more powerful release. You could take over the whole city.”
Immediately, I knew that was the move. So from there it was just about working from that day backwards. I just really think we did a great execution, the whole team was so focussed. We had the Global Spin awards the same day as my Palladium concert, we shot videos that same week. We were doing radio press all week, but man we had a great plan. We didn’t miss one event, we wasn’t late for nothing.
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You also opened Vector 9 - a co-working space in Crenshaw - on the same weekend, what inspired that?
I got a great business partner [David Gross] who’s a real estate developer. He grew up in the inner city L.A. and gang controlled neighbourhoods too and he was just fortunate enough to go to New York and pursue finance early, and he was just a smart person that excelled and became really successful, graduated Columbia and then went to work on Wall Street.
He left his firm, became a real estate developer and as soon as he accumulated resources to start making moves he came back to L.A. We was sitting next to each other at a Lakers game and we just started having a convo. He was like, “Man, I got an idea for this compound in L.A. I want you to take a look at the thought process behind it.” So I went to his office and he showed it to me, and I was on board since then. I brought basically the location in my area, like “This is where it should be.”
We exchanged ideas on the aesthetic of the build and what we really wanted to impact. So part of it is a co-work, inner city, entrepreneurial incubator space. The other part is the science, technology, engineering and math centre. So the bottom level is not for profit, the top level is for profit, but it’s an example of conscious capitalism if you will. We’re going to make money, but it’s going to have positive impact while we make money.
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It feels like you draw a lot of inspiration from conversations that you have first hand with people - I’ve heard you reference conversations you’ve had with people like Diddy, Marc Ecko, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and YG. How important is it to converse with people and learn from them?
I’m privileged to be able to have those type of people in my circle, and for [us] to be able to sharpen each other and have a convo. I’ve got two ears and one mouth, so we gotta listen twice as much as we talk. And I’m around people that have succeeded in the space that I want to succeed, so I listen, I ask questions and vice versa when somebody come to me with open ears like, “Hussle, I want to hear your perspective.” I’ll talk to them.
From early on, just people that I considered to be important to what we doing, we’d always have real convos. Me and Drake had a convo early on when we did our record together and it was basically like, it’s a lot of people in the game but we both believe that we’ll both be around. So that was the convo; let’s do a record early because 10 years from now I think you’re still gonna be here. So let’s lock in early and knock something out.
From Puff, just having convos about ‘Ready To Die’, ‘Life After Death’ and how he was able to communicate B.I.G to the masses as somebody that’s a straight Brooklyn goon that ended up being a pop star. It just boil down to authenticity, understanding your core and operating as close to your core truth as you can.
If you could go back to the beginning of your rap career is there anything you’d do differently?
Nah man, I wouldn’t do anything different. I think everything happens for as reason and I think that to do things different impacts the overall, like Back To The Future. I think that I’ve learned from everything and I’m proud of my past.
A lot of the decisions I’ve made was hard decisions, but they ended up panning out and it just spoke to the integrity of the thing. I think we get a lot of respect for the route we took, to now be at a multi-level partnership, having a top 5 charting debut that people are really loving. I’m proud of that, how we got there. I look at it as a great foundation to build [upon].
Lastly, what does success look like to you?
Being able to get paid off doing what you love to do. I had to define success to myself, because I was just wanting to be successful, but I was like well what does success to me look like? I remember thinking, it’s just being able to do what you love to do every day and get paid for it, and then the level of your success is based on how disciplined you are, how hard you work, how much of a visionary you are, how much you can take your fear and your own self-doubt and just execute.
I have a tonne of goals, I keep rewriting my list. From being a young teenager to now, I checked off everything. So I had to make a new list. It’s a process and I embrace the process. I feel like just everyday we wake up, I get to talk to people like you about music, go to clubs and perform my songs, go on tour and do concerts, shoot music videos, go to the studio. I’m blessed man. This is all success to me.
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Words: Grant Brydon
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