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"They Can Make Robots Smart But They Can't Make 'Em Love" - Nipsey Hussle is Ready for the Future

We talked to the Los Angeles MC about industry hacks, branding strategy, and building an "urban Sanrio."

Photos by Bobby Viteri

One thing the keen eye will notice when meeting Nipsey Hussle is how much time and effort must have gone into creating his chain. What's impressive isn't the size so much as it’s intricacy: a fist-sized three quarter profile of Malcolm X rendered in buttery gold, his blazer filigreed in diamonds. It's a provocative, fitting emblem for an artist who priced his recent album Crenshaw $100 just to skeet all over the paradigm. Hackles were raised, ways were felt, thinkpieces were written, and Nip walked off with a cool $100k. The pricing maneuver was more than a gimmick, though. Nipsey's on the warpath, and, like his chain-sake, he has systemic structural inequity in his sights. In last month's explosive interview with Complex, he laid bare his frustration with modern modes of rap coverage and distribution: "We’re at a point where our culture’s getting exploited and it’s looking like they’re trying to do us like they did rock 'n' roll…let’s restart this whole situation." The interview critiques rap industry's slide towards diminishing returns for disposable media, but as the Crenshaw maneuver showed, Nips is more than just a critic—he's an entrepreneur. If the Complex interview was about scorched earth, this one's about building what comes next.

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Noisey: How did you first develop the concept for Crenshaw's $100 price tag?
Nipsey Hussle: One of my mentors schooled me on branding before it was a cliche term in the game. He told me, "Nip, don't ever look at yourself as a rap star. Always look at yourself as a brand, and understand what makes power of a brand, what makes a good brand." He put me on a book of case studies of things that went viral. One of the things was a hundred dollar cheese steak at a restaurant in Philadelphia. When I read the article, man, it started spinning my wheels. I was like, we should do some type of novelty item and we should charge 100$ for it. So we made the package exclusive and we agreed we would sell it for a $100 and hold a concert to go with it. People started reaching out and commenting on it, started a conversation. I heard, "It's not going to work," "Who the hell is going to buy your CD," "You never dropped a real CD and you're charging a hundred? I wouldn't pay a hundred for Madonna or Bob Marley, all these classic artists, who do you think you are?" The concert sold out the same night. Jay-Z reached out and bought 100 copies directly. It was all eye-opening.

Beyond a branding strategy, the price is meant as a statement about the music industry in 2013.
Yeah, absolutely man. We are in the middle of a digital revolution. One day soon, everything is going to be free. It's going to be the value of the brand and the connection between the content-maker and the content experience. I'm like, let's go there now. I'm going to give it to you on the website for free—if you want to buy it, it's because you're proud to pay for it. I had a mixtape I put out in 2011 called The Marathon Continues. The last line on the album was "They tellin me they believe and I got style for days, and when I do drop an album they'll be proud to pay." This was in my lyrics early on. I didn't have the intellectual understanding of what was going on, I just felt it in my experience of the world.

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One thing that you brought up in your interview with Complex was the problematic role of media. In what ways do you take issue with media in the modern rap landscape?
Traditional media is not in a position of power like they think they are. As artists we haven't caught up to this reality, that a blog or a website or anybody with an opinion, an email blast, can reach more people than the subscription base of a magazine. They can operate with less overhead and less pressure from the advertisers and be less political about the opinion and be more organic with the initial reason for the editorials. The artist hasn't caught up to this reality. We don't need these magazine opinions although we are cool with them, as long as they're doing it from a perspective of love. I believe to an extent it's a form of policing artists. You're not going to drop something wack because somebody will write about it and people will value that opinion. However, I believe some publications come from a malicious perspective, a bourgeoisie, holier-than-thou approach. We need to revoke that from the culture. We need to say "We're cool now. Keep y'all opinions and go cover something else. We don't want you to talk about what we're doing anymore." It has everything to do with love. If you're going to write about rap music and hip-hop, and you don't love it, then we don't need your opinion and we revoke your opinion. I think that's what, whether I did a good job or not, was what I was trying to express in the article, that it has to be done from love. Y'all have influence, whether you know it or not. We got to talk about it and it sparked a lot of other conversations and I think it was healthy.

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So it's not an across the board issue that you have, it's specific to certain instances and certain publications?
I think we are going in the right direction, we got blogs that are represented by people that grew up in the culture and love the culture and have personal relationships with artists. You know their background, you know this person has been in the game for 10 years. It's important to love in hip hop. To answer the question, I feel like I saw a trend in traditional media where they just want to strike a nerve more than be honest with their coverage. They want to incite a reaction when they talk about "Oh, this dude is played out like his braids." And for me, it's like damn, braids are indigenous to hip hop culture. When we say it's played out, it's played out; us who live in the culture and wake up and breathe it everyday. Editors that we don't know where they come from or what their background in the game is or why their opinion matters, well I'm offended when I hear stuff like that. Enough is enough, man, we got to bring it back to zero.

It's definitely a challenge. Let's take me, for example: I'm interviewing you, I'm white, and I'm not directly from the culture.
To me, I would argue that you are. If you love it, that's what makes me say you're from it. The reason children accept discipline from their parents is because they know their parents love them. They can get corrected, they can get an ass whoopin'. Because they can say, “I know you love me Mom, you love me Pop.” But you can’t let someone who does not love you discipline you, because the core of discipline is love. They want you to do right. You understand that love and you can think about it, maybe I did do something wrong. So anybody that loves the culture and educates themselves on the culture is a part of it, because it's global. It ain't just for people in the hood. It's not up to any one person to say it's ours, it's just about the love.

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What are some specific moments that led to you wanting to change the industry?
2009, I was signed to Epic Records. We'd done a lot of build up for releasing my solo debut album, South Central State of Mind. I had three albums worth of material but we couldn't get the album out. I ran into a brick wall. We ran into the structure of the company which was preventing us from delivering a piece of art. It was like, "Nip, we have to get you on rhythmic radio, because your home station is Power 106 and they are not an urban radio station, they are a rhythmic radio station." I was like, "I don't know what that means." I was 20 at the time. It just means that the demographic of their listening base is not urban, like Hot 97 is an urban radio station. I'm from the streets, I make urban music, for all intents and purposes of the word urban. The records I grew up loving, these were the records I was trying to create for my generation. I was ready, we had the project, we had the artwork, we had the title of the album. They were like, "It's good man, but Power 106 is not going to play any of these records." I said, "So what, it's good! Put it out and we'll make it, we're connected already." They said no. I'm like, "Why bro? I'm in the water everyday, I know these guys got my words tattooed on their skin. It's real." It was a disconnect between what was happening in the world and what was happening on the 55th floor of 550 Madison. I started to think maybe I'm not making the right songs, maybe what I'm doing doesn't work. I internalized it into my process until a moment came up and I was like, "You know what, fuck that."

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What did you take from the experience?
That success is about commitments, about long-term perseverance. Look at Steve Jobs, look at Jay-Z, look at Reed Hastings from Netflix, those dudes were all denied in the beginning. Reed Hastings was ten years ahead of broadband technology being a household thing. He was trying to figure out how to make this thing work before it was even capable of working. But when the time caught up to his idea, he's a game changer. He shut down an industry. When I dropped The Marathon Continues in 2011 I started to see things change a bit. We started getting real money for shows, we started opening businesses. We started to get phone calls from different labels and I'm like, just let me be involved with the equity. Let me be an owner. The business model of the label is not built to empower artists to be executives involved in the real asset. I'm offended by that. I want market and distribution. I don't want an advance. That's getting paid before you do the job. I get my money after I do my job, I take care of all the overhead, I put it out and reap the benefit after the fact. When it got to the time to draw up the contracts, they always said, "We can't do that. That's not the model of our business. We can get you more money, we can get you a label so you can sign other artists, you can use our resources. But you have to sign to us." I was offended by that. I don't want any of your money, I want to be a boss.

So you consider labels completely irrelevant?
The platforms they consider to validate hotness and success and potential to actually put the album out, that's dying. Those platforms are not the metrics anymore. We understand technology. We are from this era, we grew up with computers. These guys, they were a generation before and they're foreign to it. We are indigenous to this technology. Internet, torrents, napster, that's our generation right? You can't be mad at them but you have to realize that they are arrogant because they get money out of these business models. You can't convince them. The smart ones will listen. Nine out of ten of them aren't smart, they're arrogant. They're in the Hamptons, they're smoking cigars, they got company cards, they're bloated. And they're like, "Shut up lil' boy, you don't know what you're talking about."

It's interesting that you're making music from the perspective of the struggle, the world of the streets, for a consumer base increasingly mediated from tangible reality by technology.
I'm conscious of that same thing. Like you said, everything being sold is intangible, everybody is looking at their computer screens all day. Human things are going to be trendy, that's going to be what we gravitate to. We are going to be in a world where the robot takes you out to the grocery store, bags your groceries. We have a desire for human connection, it's a human need. We got art and music for that. They can make robots smart but they can't make them love. For me, representing the opinion of the streets and the reality of it, those who need it don't care what it costs. As an example—I'm creating a revolutionary store. My primary recording studio is going to be in the store. I'm going to have products around my store, like an urban Sanrio. We're going to have ashtrays, money counters, products that can't go digital. Tangible items. It's going to be surrounded by the experience of coming in the store and seeing me work. I talked to Rick Ross about it and he was like, "Man, I would love to be involved." Imagine the experience of walking in the store and seeing the artists in there, in their element, recording. Working on a song. scratching off their lyrics on a paper, then ballin’ up the paper and throwing the paper away. Drinking champagne, listening to the song back. There is going to be speakers in the store, so when we feel like sharing the experience we just press a button and everyone inside the store gets to hear the raw session. It's going to be like a traditional Japanese restaurant, where you take your shoes off and leave your phone at the front, so that it can't be pirated.

Wow.
Listen, we were making music before there was any business. It was a human thing that happened out of necessity. We base success off of this dude on the radio, he sold this many units. What about the guy that made 15 songs of pure truth? This kid was going to kill himself but he heard his record and he got something from it. What about that, that's got not value? Again, I'm just me and I can't pretend to be anything other than who I am. I'm just a regular person with flaws like everybody else. That calling, that purpose is bigger, so at least I should try.

Ezra Marcus's Twitter is kind of like an urban Sanrio—@ezra_marc