Few emcees have mastered the ability to clearly translate the relationship between culture and commerce. This rare breed of rappers share a powerful perspective, delivering coded messages for hustlers looking to step off the corner and young execs set on taking over the boardroom.
Their unique outlook is shaped by lived experiences, telling stories with authenticated references that unlock a deeper level of connectivity with listeners. By understanding the needs, struggles and values that connect communities on both sides of the class system, these artists contextualize rhymes in a way that optimizes the impact of each line.
More than serving as a source of insight, these rappers also represent the pursuit of a vision. Using the music as a platform to vocalize the trials and triumphs that accompany building their own empires, every album adds a page to the blueprint, turning discographies into detailed roadmaps for fans to follow.
As seen with rap stars like Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar, both emphasizing the importance of financial freedom and economic mobility, such impactful storytellers often rise to become authoritative voices for a generation. For Los Angeles native Nipsey Hussle, taking control of his career and becoming self-made embodied more than being your own boss. Instead, his success story stands as a call to action for the masses to move smart, go after what you want, and set your own price.
In the latest installment of Luc Belaire’s Self-Made series, Nipsey discusses how he developed an entrepreneurial spirit, the vision behind All Money In, and the evolution that inspired his recently released album Victory Lap. Tapping into the spirit of independence, Self-Made Tastes Better celebrates artists and entertainers who have boldly paved their own path to success.
You’ve become a champion of independence and example for artists designing their own rules — How do you define being self-made?
Nipsey Hussle: Being self-made means never making an excuse as to why you can’t take steps toward whatever your goal is. There’s always something you can do. You may not always have the necessary tools and resources, but you always have something. Being self-made also means being comfortable working with what you have. It’s about realizing there are different levels throughout your journey, and you have to be patient. Most people want to skip the process, not knowing that when you skip steps, you miss the lessons. If you start small and build on what you have, you can continue to multiply that into something greater, while picking up all of the valuable lessons along the way. You learn all of the secrets to the game on your way up. If you’re not willing to embrace getting it off the curb, you’re going to fumble anyway once you get your hands on something substantial. You will mishandle it, because you missed all of necessary the steps. Being self-made is about embracing the process, knowing that you’re going to get all of the valuable jewels that you can’t teach someone — wisdom only the game and experience can teach you.
People speak a bout putting in 10,000 hours to master a craft, or taking 10 years to truly establish yourself in an industry — How important is paying your dues and what does it take to develop the stamina needed for longevity?
Nipsey Hussle: It’s easier said than done. It sounds simple telling people to work hard and never quit, but to really execute and demonstrate those principles takes discipline and faith. Those are the two factors that I believe separate the good from the great; the successes from the failures. The difference is measured by how much you can walk in faith, and how much you can exercise discipline. With new levels, there’s new devils. Even as you make progress, you need the discipline to keep from backtracking and sabotaging the success as its happening. You need faith to make it through the dark spots, when what you see in front of you doesn’t represent what you believe is going to happen. It may be completely opposite, but you have to keep walking forward, because you have faith. Without those two qualities, you’re going to fold. Even if you have the best intentions, without discipline and faith, it’s next to impossible to reach your ultimate goal.
As someone who takes pride in leading by example — Describe what makes a great leader and what principles you stand on that shape your leadership style?
Nipsey Hussle: There are a couple important principles that I lead by. First, you have to be willing to do every job. I think that’s really important, even if you’re considered the boss or the leader. I take the trash out, I sweep the floor, and I’m always willing to. Not just hypothetically or figuratively, but in real life I do that — at my office, and at my studio. I’ll engineer and record myself if I have to, and everything in between it. I’ll lead the marketing meeting, or map out the stage design for my show. I do this, not because it’s my specialty, but because I think it’s just something you have to do in order to fill in the blanks while you’re in guerrilla mode. The second principle is honesty. Be truthful with yourself and other people, and try your best to make decisions outside of your ego.That way, when you’re wrong, you can take accountability for making the wrong decision. You don’t need to rationalize it or explain it, you just own up to it and acknowledge that you fucked up. You aren’t a true leader without the ability to be honest and take responsibility for your actions. If you want to hold your team accountable, you have to be accountable as well.
The most powerful people have the ability to bridge the gap between access and lack of access — How important is being in a position to have influential conversations on both sides?
Nipsey Hussle: I think it’s a unique space to be in. What I’ve learned is that you’re put in that space because you have the potential to do something, and if you don’t do something, you’re going to get moved out of that space. A huge part of being in that position is understanding why you’re there. No matter who you believe put you there, you’re in that position for a reason. That means it’s a responsibility. If you’re a Center on the basketball team, you’re in the middle of the court to get rebounds, make layups and dunk. That’s why you play that position. If you’re the Point Guard, your role is to run the plays and pass the ball. If you’re in a position where the streets will listen to you and respect you, and the boardroom will also listen and respect you — you’ve got a job to do. You have an obligation to your position. After spending time reflecting, meditating, and being honest with myself — I realized it was an obligation for me. I have a responsibility to bridge that gap in all of the ways I know how.
You speak a lot about the power of purpose and intention — Describe your mission and the impact you aspire to make on the culture?
Nipsey Hussle: At the core, one of my original goals is to redefine what the streets expect, and amplify the pressure we put on these young people once they step into decision-making mode. There was a level of ignorance and self-destructiveness in the narrative that was pushed on us through music in our generation. I see how damaging that was, for myself included, and we’re all subject to the social pressure. I wasn’t above it. Each of us are impacted by what’s going on around us. For me, understanding the platform I have and who it speaks to, it’s about being strategic. We can’t stand on the corner with the bull horn and preach, that isn’t going to work. We have to be strategic and make an impact through influence. I wanted to redefine the lifestyle and what we view as important. When you hear ‘buy back the block’ as the narrative, that’s powerful. That’s a step towards redefining the expectation. It isn’t cool to be in the club spending all of this money, or having cars and jewelry — but you don’t own any real estate? You don’t own a fourplex? If the answer is no, you’re not a real hustler. When we can move people’s minds into that space, then we can be effective. You don’t care about your kids? It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you don’t care about your kids. You’re doing what drug? No, that’s not cool over here. All we demanded in our generation was that you be violent. If you’re violent, you’re respected. You can be everything else in the book, but if you’re a shooter or a fighter, you’re respected. In this era, we have to demand more.
How do we start to change the narrative on a larger scale and shift the way people understand both the music and culture it represents?
Nipsey Hussle: People want to be successful, and people want to be respected. When you start seeing the most successful people and the most respected people, the next step is figuring out how they became that. A lot of people hide their footsteps and don’t share the game, but the few that do, you have to compare that narrative next to the ones who aren’t successful. More than anything, people want to get out of their struggle. If you can lead them to the lake, they’re going to listen. Once they see the game you’re giving is authentic and it works, they will follow you. As far as respect goes, we have to stop respecting dumb shit. We have to return to old school principles. There is honor amongst all levels. There was once a wave of older people who gave young men the game. Now, everybody is gone, and there’s no older guidance outside. All that’s left is the surface level of the game, so you don’t have the details. The surface tells you to go crazy, but you don’t understand the right way versus the wrong way. You don’t understand the reasoning, or know that there are rules to everything. The old school principles made younger people have to be more mature earlier. There aren’t any OG’s or big homies around. Today, you’re big homie is only a few years older than you. How much more life experience can he have over you to learn from if you’re so close in age? Everybody has to embrace their position
Cultural capital is becoming more valuable than a dollar — Speak to the importance of owning of your influence and expanding your enterprise?
Nipsey Hussle: You’re absolutely right. I will give you an example. I was at a Laker game, and I was sitting next to the owner of Tinder. As we were talking, I asked him what’s his business model? He said, ‘it’s simple — distribution. Just like every other industry.’ I told him I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that, so he explained. He told me that to make Tinder valuable, he had to get influential people to use Tinder. Once influential people started using Tinder, the app became valuable. Then, he went into more detail. He said, every user is worth $21 to him, as the owner of the company. Meaning, when he went to get a valuation from venture capitalists and other investors, they take the total number of people who use Tinder, and multiply that total by $21 to measure its worth. So, when you say own your influence, you have to be clear about what that really means.
This is a business model used by every third-party platform to leverage influence and drive revenue — How should creators be thinking about this?
Nipsey Hussle: When you say ‘follow me on Twitter’, and you get 10 million people to follow you — you just leveraged your influence to add value to an app that you have no ownership in. Each of those users is worth around $21. When the owners of Twitter go to get their valuation in order to sell 50% of the company at $21 per user, yet you’re the person who added 10 million people to the platform, the owners are the only ones getting a huge payday. We have to be more aware of what’s happening. We should be included, in whatever way we see fit. We don’t want advances, we want equity. We don’t want one-off endorsements, we want ownership. We want backend participation with the acquisition. If not, it’s disrespectful, because the whole model is leveraged off of our influence. It’s like that for all tech companies — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so forth. We celebrate having millions of followers, but they have the concrete numbers that matter and ultimate get to the revenue.
You don’t see these platforms being outspoken about their business model — How did this inspire your thinking and shift the way you manage your brands?
Nipsey Hussle: Corporations are so aware of our influence and the value of cultural currency that they’ve created entire business models built around it. They develop the platform, implement a structure, then bring us in to raise the value, and then they hide that from us. Nobody really knows how they monetize it, until you accidentally sit next to an app owner and he gives you the game for free. That’s why I created Proud 2 Pay. You’re either leveraging, or being leveraged. That’s why I think direct-to-consumer is important, because we’re being leveraged. 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.
Describe your business model and what you’re looking to establish with the different business under your imprint?
Nipsey Hussle: It’s about establishing an ecosystem. One of the best examples of this is Apple. I speak about it on the intro to Victory Lap. I said, ‘my cultural influence even rival Lucian, I’m integrated vertically, you niggas blew it.’ I automatically knew few people would understand that reference. So, I followed up with, ‘they told me Hussle dumb it down, you might confuse ‘em — this ain’t that weirdo rap you motherfuckers used to.’ That reference is what I meant. We’re creating an ecosystem, from production to consumption. Not only do we own the supply chain, but we can curate the experience. From the ownership of the actual master, to the retail experience and marketing the product, to consuming it. That’s the same model as Apple, if you think about it
What examples of vertically integrated brands do you currently see in Hip Hop and how does this give you a real competitive advantage?
Nipsey Hussle: I look at Hip Hop, and I don’t see a vertically integrated brand other than Jay-Z owning Tidal, owning his masters, and owning everything in between it. Jay-Z owning Tidal was ahead of its time, and people still don’t get it. You hear people take shots, saying he only has a few million users, but that’s not even the point. That doesn’t even matter. Even if he only had his fan base on Tidal, he’s still vertically integrated, and he’s the first. That’s the power, being direct-to-consumer. He now exists outside of the current ecosystem, and there are so many revenue streams that these platforms are apart of; the subscription is just one of them. If you judge Jay-Z as a brand alone, technology aside, the ability to deliver within his own ecosystem is powerful. He doesn’t have to play the game, he can be an artist for real. More importantly, it’s already set up for him to succeed in his own space. That’s one of my ultimate goals. If I have 10 Marathon stores in different parts of the globe, and I drop 1,000 units to each store at $100 each, I’ll make $1 million as soon as we sell out the first 10,000. Then, we continue to fulfill orders, which generates cash on the books, with no distribution fee. That’s a different model, and we’re in position to do that.
In the context of growth and message — Describe the evolution from Crenshaw to Mailbox Money and how that sequence set up Victory Lap?
Nipsey Hussle: With Mailbox Money, I was becoming privy to so much new information that I just wanted to share it. I had come to some conclusions about all of this different information I was learning from a lot of different categories, and I wanted to talk about it. Even the success of the Proud 2 Pay campaign with Crenshaw, it just inspired me to believe in my radical hunches. I wanted to go on-record about those hunches, because I felt a lot of things, but didn’t really know how to articulate it. But, after Crenshaw became so successful, I decided fuck it, I’m just going to say it. Even the terminology, calling the project Mailbox Money — that’s about ownership. That’s about getting those backend checks. That’s about getting the residual income. One pillar to wealth is having residual income. The message with Mailbox Money was ownership, being radical, taking your business into your own hands, and creating new models.
Being that it’s your anticipated debut, paired with everything you’ve learned and manifested professionally — What does Victory Lap symbolizes about your path to this point?
Nipsey Hussle: Victory Lap is more personal than business. 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. When LeBron won his first championship in Cleveland, he broke down and cried. Not out of sadness, but because it was a reminder that he wasn’t crazy. They criticized him and ridiculed him, but he broke through when he won that title. I felt that. He is a human being, who stuck to his guns and did it his way. Victory Lap symbolizes that for me