In August 2013 Complex ran an article that listed 10 rappers we felt were underachieving, which included Nipsey Hussle. In October of that same year, he dropped Crenshaw, releasing it as a free download and slapping 1,000 physical, mastered copies with a $100 price tag. He had taken a two-year hiatus from releasing music (The Marathon Continues was released in November 2011), and we were impressed by not only the songs on Crenshaw, but by the way in which he was rolling it out, so we requested an interview.
Still sore from being mentioned on our list of underachievers, Nipsey refused to speak to us at first, but after a brief back-and-forth, he agreed. In that interview, Nipsey criticized our rap coverage and took shots at major labels by proudly stating, "Fuck the middleman." And he proved that he could it without them by selling every last copy of Crenshaw, with the help of Jay Z who purchased 100 copies, and in turn became an important voice in rap's growing digital independent movement.
A year later, Nipsey is making waves again. While he puts the finishing touches on the long-awaited Victory Lap, he decided to employ the same strategy he used for 2013's Crenshaw for his new project Mailbox Money, only with a slight twist. The "album before the album" will be available as a free download like its predecessor, however, this time around he's pressing up only 100 copies and charging $1,000 each. We talked to Nip about this new strategy, the power of the Internet, and the meaning behind Mailbox Money.
You've got people in a frenzy about this $1,000 album.
Yeah, I guess so. I don't feed into doubt and negativity. There's a method to the madness. I tune it out. Gotta have tunnel vision.
Mailbox Money is going to be available for free like Crenshaw, right?
Yup. I look at Proud 2 Pay like another retail outlet. You go to iTunes to buy music, traditional retail like Best Buy and Target, you go to Spotify to listen to music. If you want to release something on Google Play or at Walmart those outlets all have price points and business models. I choose to release mine on my Proud 2 Pay outlet. It's just another retail platform to release it through. It's about engagement. It's about people that are into collector's items. Like when someone buys a signed Michael Jordan jersey. The physical is for those types of people.
And the physical copy comes with some perks too.
We have a secret store that we've been building. So we're going to open it once the copies are sold, and we're going to let those that bought it hear Victory Lap. I'm also working on a new technology with Ryan Leslie that'll help bridge the gap between the artist and the consumer. It's about serving your core, serving the people that believe in you.
I don't feed into doubt and negativity. There's a method to the madness.
Cutting out the middle man.
Period. Fuck the middle man. That's the way to go. The industry is changing, and it's not gonna make sense to do it any other way.
The New York Times ran an article recently saying that the Internet, not record labels, is hurting the music industry. What do you think of that?
I don't agree. I think the Internet empowered the creators. It hurt the monopoly, and I think that's good. I'm not saying that in a destructive way. I think it's a good thing that the people that make the art that the people love have the opportunity to distribute it to a global audience on the Internet. We have access to owning what we make. That's why my project is called Mailbox Money. At the highest level of business, their model is equity, mailbox money. They're going to give you a percentage of what you're going to make and then catch that check in the back end.
Right. You also linked to an article on Twitter that spoke of passive income. It's about receiving checks from investments and whatnot without having to do a lot of work.
Exactly. Hip-hop is inspired by the hustler. It's hip-hop to do it this way. The model is switching. What's your bragging right? You're going platinum? That used to be the metric of success. But to me it's like what do you own? What's your position? Can you make shit move? Do you have power? Do you have control of your destiny? Do you have to jump through hoops? Do you have to play games and appeal to people whose interest isn't about making quality products? This is how a real hustler hustles. It's like a nigga that don't take consignment, he's gonna get it off the curb.
The Internet puts the power in the artist's hands. You can see which artists have the hustle in them. It separates the real from the fake.
You can look a gift horse in the face and not know what you're looking at. I'm just one of the ones that knows what I'm looking at. I feel like this is an incredible time, it's like the Gold Rush when everybody moved to California. This is the Gold Rush of our generation. This technology has empowered everybody. Giants crumble. Big companies have crumbled before.
An artist who sells 100K and tours independently can make more money off one project than an artist who goes platinum on a major.
Most definitely. We're in business to make money. There's a looming question over Hollywood and the music industry: what's the new business model? The creators have a chance to be titans of industry. That's what we're trying to do with Proud 2 Pay and this Disruptive Multimedia collab I'm doing with Ryan Leslie.
You were originally going to drop Victory Lap after Crenshaw. Why did you switch the strategy up?
I'm still working on Victory Lap, so I felt like I had to give my fans some new music. I wanna keep talking to people. We could've pushed to get the album out this year but I feel like the people expect a certain quality of music from me. So I wanted to update them with my state of mind and things like that. And I look back at 2014 and it was Mailbox Money for me. The smartest thing to do was to have an independent catalog. It was one of the smartest things I've done. I caught back-end checks from my old tapes, off my features. It opened my eyes to the structure of the game. It's a gamble, but it worked out for me.
Was "50 Niggaz" inspired by what's been going on in the country as of late?
It's crazy because that record is a year and a half old. I was going to hold it but felt like it made sense with everything that's going on. We've seen this before, especially in L.A., where we felt like we didn't get any justice. I was a little kid during the Rodney King riots. I remember it. There were tanks on Crenshaw and Slauson. The grocery store my grandparents shopped at was burned down. It seemed familiar, and I have a voice now. I didn't want to take to Twitter and all that. I did feel a way about it and wanted to say something.
Vince Staples' "Hands Up" song was recorded before all the madness, as well. It's sad that these songs can be released whenever. The police and the inner city have always had a rocky relationship in America.
We're always being mishandled and disrespected by police. L.A. has a distinct relationship with the police. We've been there before. I was just speaking on it. And speaking on my homies. Niggas out here slinging rocks for a flatscreen TV and a Benz, risking their life. I know their intention, I know their goals. Looking back, the risk versus the reward doesn't make sense. That shit doesn't add up. Niggas weren't out there really getting bread. We were out there crumb snatchin', honestly.
It depends on who you run with too, because at first you start out hustlin' to eat, but when that money starts coming in the material things begin to give you meaning.
You feel like you did something. You don't feel worthless. You get you a Roley or a lil Benz or something, and the world starts treating you different.
Hip-hop is inspired by the hustler. It's hip-hop to do it this way. The model is switching.
You also released "1 Hunnit a Show" featuring Rick Ross. You have anymore Hit-Boy tracks on there?
We worked a lot last year and towards the end of this year. We're working on some new stuff together.
You have to talk him out of retiring from producing. He's crazy.
[Laughs.] I don't think he should retire from producing. But what can I say? When you start achieving shit that was crazy to you and you start doing that shit, it gives you a different type of confidence. You start believing you can do anything. He probably has a reason behind it.
Crenshaw was about where you grew up and where you're going. What's Mailbox Money's theme?
My labor of love right now is how can I position myself in the best way to benefit from my work. I feel like in a chess match with the rap game. Niggas had to work hard to get the deals they got. Look at our generation. Who got the Roc-a-Fella, the Cash Money, Ruff Ryders, No Limit, Murder Inc.'s of our generation? Who innovated in this current business structure? I don't really see anybody that did.
We came after them niggas. Our shit should be better. And we have the Internet. The labels don't have the same power that they did back then. Hip-hop is bigger now than it was then. It's global.
Artists today can learn from their mistakes and their successes.
You learn more from your mistakes. I learned from mine. I've been in those shoes before. I knew I had the talent, and I knew there was a demand for my music, but I did not have the power to put it out. Before I went into business with a label, I had the power to put my shit out. I'm a nigga that used to sell his music out the trunk on Crenshaw and Slauson, so I couldn't comprehend how I couldn't drop music. That's how you can figure out what's working, it's like research and development. They tell you: "No, we can't put any music out." What? That doesn't make sense to me.
You see that frustration in artists like Lupe, and even Lil Wayne. You mentioned Cash Money. They're under the umbrella of a major label, and he doesn't have the power to put his album out.
I know how frustrating that is because I've been there. The most important thing to an artist isn't fame. The labels offer you fame. They have million-dollar marketing budgets that can make you a household name. An artist wants to get their music out, an artist wants to get better, an artist wants to tap in to his creativity. We want to feed our fans. That's the most important thing to an artist. The money is a by-product of that. You don't put the wagon before the horse, you put the horse before the wagon.
I want to succeed at the highest level, but the way my situation is set up? I'm good with a successful album. I'll be straight because I'm going to see all the money.
You're still riding that Crenshaw wave.
Yeah, and it's not like we're trying to milk it. We have new music in the pipeline, right now. I have an iPod full of music. Victory Lap is on my iPod. I want to achieve things that I haven't achieved. I want to take my craft and business to the next level. I want to take my fans places I haven't took them. I want to deliver some classic music, I want to receive recognition for what I do. When I feel like I'm satisfied with the statement we're gonna make, we're gonna move on to the next, and it's gonna be sooner rather than later.
I never spent so much time and energy on a project than I have with Victory Lap. One thing that Crenshaw didn't do was get on the radio. I want this new music to end up on the radio organically.
That Ross joint might be it. That beat is stupid.
I've been getting a lot of that. Even the stations have been hitting us up about it. That might be one of the ones. Hit-Boy went in. It didn't sound like that at first, it was just a loop. So I sent it back to him with Ross' verse, and Hit added shit to it. When Mailbox Money comes out it'll sound different from the leaked version.
So the physical copy is going to be a little different from the free version?
You're not going to notice it at first, but the beat might be a little different and maybe [have] a feature that's not on the free version. It's going to be some surprises.
As much as I like rapping, I like innovating and shaking s**t up more.
When can we expect Mailbox Money? I've seen places say Dec. 20. I also heard that it's coming on Jan. 1.
It was the way I tweeted it that made people think Dec. 20, so they ran with it. I never set a date. I'm going to tweet out the link when it's done and everybody can go get it. As soon as I get the last mix in, I'll hit everybody with a link and they can get it for free, spend $10 on iTunes, or be part of the Proud 2 Pay movement and spend $1,000.
I don't get people that were complaining about the $1,000 price tag. Like motherfucker, you could just get it for free. Why does it matter? If you ain't got the bread, you ain't got the bread.
And it's cool, I ain't mad. I get the majority of my music for free. But I subscribe to Spotify, and I buy albums from artists that inspire me and that have been consistent, and that I respect. If you respect me and I've been consistent, fuck with it. If you're still on the fence about Nip, download it for free. It's all good.
The surprise drops have been working too. D'Angelo just dropped some shit, and J. Cole is at 300K with no single.
It's the sign of the times. That means everything that a nigga comes out with no radio, no nothing, and do 300K? That means a lot.
Cole knows his audience.
Profit is a by-product of serving your consumer. You can't trick niggas. You have to serve your consumers. If you serve your fans dope shit, they're going to pay for it, they're going to support it because they're proud to pay. He's not serving them one dope single and 16 other weak songs on the album. He's not robbing them. People have disposable income, man. Niggas ain't short for $10, $100, even $1,000. I'm a mad scientist, I see the world changing, and it's exciting. When I first came into the game it was like a science project to me.
I was true and authentic to who I am and where I came from, and I got in the game being nothing but myself. Niggas told me back then: "You can't rap about the hood, you can't rap about gangbanging, you can't rap about the streets of L.A." When I first came out L.A. niggas weren't sounding L.A., it sounded like some Down South shit. As much as I like rapping, I like innovating and shaking shit up more.
Angel Diaz is a staff writer for Complex Media. Follow him @ADiaz456.