January 20, 2009. Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, and I have an interview with Nipsey Hussle, a rapper from South Central Los Angeles who is fresh off the release of his acclaimed mixtape Bullets Ain't Got No Name Vol. 2, and signing a record deal with Cinematic Music Group and Epic Records.
At the time, Nipsey was planning a summer release for his formal debut, South Central State of Mind, with "Hussle In The House" serving as the lead single. Instead of delivering an album that August, however, Nipsey would deliver the third volume in his Bullets Ain't Got No Name mixtape series.
The following year, Nipsey released another mixtape, The Marathon, which would house several records, including the Mr. Lee-produced "Blue Laces," which were originally earmarked for his formal debut—a debut that finally arrived nine years later in the form of the GRAMMY-nominated album Victory Lap.
Two months after our interview that January, Nipsey was in Chicago for a show at the House of Blues; he and Jay Rock—with K. Dot as his hypeman—were opening for The Game. Before he arrived in town, Nipsey called me and asked me to come out to the show so we could meet in person. We sat in the green room for an hour and talked about life, goals, dreams, and the future. Our talk was so delightful, I wasn't even mad I missed Jay Rock's entire performance.
In hip-hop, the word "real" is often thrown around very loosely, but that is really the best way to describe Nipsey Hussle: real. Nipsey would tell you what he thought; he bit his tongue for no man.
Nipsey and I spoke several more times over the next 10 years. While we didn't always see eye-to-eye, I watched him from afar, impressed as he patiently built an independent empire and eventually signed a partnership with Atlantic Records.
While we won't be able to have another conversation, we'll always have our first conversation, which you can find below, lightly edited for content and clarity.
DJBooth: Barack Obama is our president. Is this what Cube was talkin’ about when he said: “Today was a good day”?
Nipsey Hussle: Most definitely, most definitely. I think that should be the theme song for today, ‘cause it sure was a good day. I never thought my granny, somebody that was born down South, who witnessed America when it was segregated, would see, in her lifetime, an African-American in office as the President of the United States. It’s major, it’s a real historic day.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, as a member of the Crips street gang, you’ve had to bear witness to a lot of violence and bloodshed. If President Obama looked to pass zero-tolerance laws against all gang activity, where would you stand?
I feel zero tolerance anything, it don’t really work, ‘cause you’ve always got unique situations. It’s not just a cut and dry situation, where if you lock up everybody who’s a gang member you’re going to get rid of the problem. What they don’t understand is the gang mentality; if you lock motherfuckers up, they’ve still got contact with the outside world, they’re still gonna be able to talk to their kids and talk to their homies who are out on the street, and it’s gonna continue on, ‘cause it’s the mentality that’s passed on.
If Barack did want to solve the gang problem, number one would be to work with people from the inside out, people who can actually give him an accurate analysis of the problem in L.A., because they’re in it or at one point were a part of it, and now they’re workin’ to change it, and redirect the energy and the focus of it. And then consciously take steps to solve the problem. But I don’t feel like zero tolerance, strict laws, locking everybody up is a viable means to stop that problem.
By the time you reached the age of 13, you were enthralled with the possibility of a career in the music industry. Had you not discovered a love for hip-hop, where would you be today?
In all honesty, based on the direction my life was heading in before I got a real break in the music shit, I’m not gonna say I would be one hundred percent in a negative direction, but I know that I would still be in the streets, so if it wasn’t for the music bein’ my outlet, I’d probably be hustlin’, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go and get a nine-to-five, I never finished high school or none of that. So if I wasn’t involved in this hip-hop shit, I’d probably be breakin’ the law to eat and feed my family and maintain the lifestyle that I’m used to.
Some artists believe their success is based solely on skill, while others admit they’ve been lucky. Are you good, lucky, or both?
I feel that luck is a product of hard work. Luck is just bein’ prepared at all times, so when the door opens you’re ready. I feel that puttin’ in the hours and years in the studio, honing my craft, definitely played a part, me consciously networking and presenting myself as an artist that’s commercially sellable led to me meeting the right people, which in turn led to them givin’ me positive referrals to other people, which in turn led to me signin’ a deal. All of that played a key part in it. You have the X factor, whether a motherfucker wants to say it’s luck, whether somebody wants to say it’s God, whether somebody wants to say it’s hard work payin’ off, it was just the X factor, all the stars aligned.
Since signing a record deal with Cinematic Music Group, have your relationships with friends and family changed?
I’m a full-time businessman first. If I’m not in the studio I’m gonna be networking, or I’m gonna be tryin’ to make plans to get to the next level of this game, so anybody who didn’t have the same mentality as me, if I felt I valued them to the point where I wanted them to move forward with me to this next level, I sat them down and I talked to them like, “Look, I’m tellin’ myself the same thing I’m tellin’ you right now, but we all gotta be focused on bein’ professional and movin’ forward, so if you’re not with that, we’re gonna stop the relationship right here.”
And the ones that was with it, that’s my team, that’s the “All Money In,” that’s the Slauson Boys. The ones that wasn’t, they couldn’t really be mad at me, ‘cause they didn’t prepare themselves. The ones that do have a little ill will toward me, or feel a certain way about me, they’re really discreet about it, they don’t put it out there, and everybody else is happy to see somebody they’ve seen from day one pursuin’ this shit, really really achievin’ what they were hopin’ for and gettin’ to their dream.
The title of your debut album, which is set to drop this summer, is South Central State of Mind. From childhood to your teenage years, to now, adulthood, how has your mindset changed?
Obviously, from childhood to my teenage years, I really came into my own. I left the house early; I was on the streets when I was, like, 15. I’ve been holdin’ my own since that age. I kinda came into my manhood, or what I thought was my adulthood, early. I had to show up, and I had to make sure I had gas money, food money, rent money, clothes money—everything was on me, startin’ at that age, so that’s what led me to start hustlin’, that’s what led me to start to try to find ways to fend for myself.
That wasn’t necessarily my mentality comin’ out the house, ‘cause my mom taught me the difference between right and wrong off the top, since day one, but when I was in the street daily, full-time, 24/7, it’s the standard that we follow, and I had to adopt that in order to hold my own. At that point, I kinda went through my struggle. A lot of people get stuck in that zone right there and never transcend to the next stage, which was realizing who I am, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and makin’ decisions based on that instead of bein’ like a leaf on a tree, gettin’ blown whichever way.
Are you thankful for being thrust into independent adulthood at an early age, or are you bitter you had to be so responsible at 15?
Nah, I don’t have no regrets, ‘cause if I had been goin’ to school, takin’ care of business, I wouldn’t've had to be on my own, but my mom, she was a single mom doin’ it on her own, and she couldn’t see herself workin’ so hard, sacrificing everything for me to be a fuckup under her roof. Basically, you gotta man up and do your own thing if you feel like you’ve got it like that, so that was basically a product of my decisions.
How does your mom feel now that you’ve secured a major label record deal?
I told her when I was 14, “I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna be on, watch.” She was tellin’ me what was right. When I became a man, and I started to understand the difference between the truth and what your parents are supposed to tell you, there’s a difference, know what I mean? Your parents are supposed to tell you to make decisions that are gonna help you and that’ll have a positive effect on your life and your well-being.
Your current single, “Hussle in the House,” is the essence of what made so many people fall in love with West Coast hip-hop. How do you take that record and turn it into a cohesive full-length album that stands the test of time?
That was the whole mission statement of my project, goin’ into it: like, “We gotta give ‘em a classic hip-hop album from the West Coast, from the beat selection down to the hooks down to the songwriting, down to the features, down to everything I said on my project. It’s gotta be a real representation of our environment and our lifestyle and our state of mind.”
I feel like we outdid ourselves—like, you can really play this project from number one to number 17 and not skip a record. I know every artist’s gonna say this about their shit, but if you’re a real hip-hop fan and a real street music fan, and you just love good music, you’re gonna play it from top to bottom, and you’re gonna get the concept, you’re gonna get the story of my life, you’re gonna be entertained, you’re gonna dance. you’re gonna feel emotion, you’re gonna get the truth, whether you like it or hate it. “Hussle in the House” is a perfect representation of what the album’s gonna be.
Like, I got a record on there called “Blue Laces,” that we’re also doin’ a movie of the same title through Sony Pictures and Codeblack, Jeff Clanagan’s company, and that’s gonna be a full feature film that we’re gonna put out. It’s got a million-dollar budget, we’re gonna drop that a couple months after we drop the project.
You’ve got a million-dollar budget. Are you lookin’ for a 6’1”, 175-pound white guy from Chicago to star in it?
Hey man, we’ve got a spot for you. You already know; I got a role for you, man.
I won’t take up much of that budget. I’ll only charge you like $25 an hour for my services; it’ll be really cheap.
That ain’t too much. All I’m gonna want in return, I just need the front page of DJBooth for like two months straight, you feel me?
Seriously, though, I do appreciate how y’all been posting my records. Every time we’d [do] something y’all would review it, we’d get fan feedback. That really helped me pick what records to put out and what direction to take, so that’s a good look, my n*gga.
On “Bullets Ain’t Go No Name,” you touch on the impact of gang violence on the community. Do you envision a challenge ahead of you trying to market your music to a mainstream audience that has always been uncomfortable supporting this narrative?
The aim of that record was kinda to reach my region, and also speak on reality. That was more expression than it was a sales point of my project. Like, I got records I’m aiming at the radio, I’ve got records I’m aimin’ at the clubs, I’ve got records I’m aiming at the charts, and when they hear those records, they’re gonna be what they’re gonna be. And the West Coast that I know, that’s what I wanted to hear as a fan; that’s why I bought The Game’s album, that’s why I bought Snoop’s shit. I love the old Dre shit, ‘cause that’s what they’re givin’ us: a real perspective on the streets that we couldn’t get from CNN, or we couldn’t get off YouTube.
What is the biggest misconception about gang life?
The number one misconception is that everybody in a gang is a mindless killer, just an ignorant, self-hatin’ n*gga with an uzi runnin’ around killin’ motherfuckers all day. I’m not gonna sit here defendin’ what’s wrong—killing and gangbanging, that’s just wrong. But at the same time, the way that adolescent teenagers get done in these courtrooms, based on, “Oh, he’s a gang member,” so he gets a trial like a terrorist. We’re not the cause, we’re the effect. As gang members, as young dudes in the streets, especially in L.A., we’re the effect of a situation. We didn’t wake up and create our own mindstate and our environment; we adapted our survival instincts. Gangbanging is a survival instinct, regardless of how anybody tries to paint it. It’s a lot of, like you said, sensationalized conceptions of what it’s about—lowridin’, fuckin’ bitches, runnin’ amok—but at the same time, it’s a survival instinct first.
I appreciate your candidness. I wish you the very best of luck. Sincerely.
Likewise, homie. That’s what it is, man. I really mean what I said: out of all the websites that host my shit, I get the best feedback off y’all, y’all folks comment on everything. It’s a good look. You already know—it’s home team, my n*gga.