Interview: Nipsey Hussle Talks African Roots, Snoop Dogg Co-Sign, and Rappers Reppin' Gangs

Meet the heir to the West Coast Gangsta Rap Throne

nip hussle

Image via Getty/Matt Winkelmeyer/Staff

nip hussle

The influx of new rap talent over the last couple of years might have you thinking every new rapper is a tight jeans-wearing hipster. Luckily for those of you that just want some gangsta shit, there's Ermias "Nipsey Hussle" Asghedom, who, as anyone that's peeped the video for "Hussle In The House" knows, is a Rollin 60s Crip. However, even while embracing the uglier aspects of growing up in Los Angeles, Nipsey continued to put time and money into building his music career. But simply being a thug on the microphone won't inspire much of a following. It's his intricate flows and stellar Bullets Ain't Got No Name mixtape series that have earned him heavy co-signs from Snoop Dogg and Game, as well as a spot on XXL's prestigious "2010 Freshmen Class" cover for best new rap artists.

While in New York working on his highly anticipated debut, South Central State Of Mind, which features production from DJ Khalil, The Runners, Scott Storch, Play-N-Skillz, Mr. Lee, and J.R. Rotem. Nipsey spoke to Complex about visiting Eritrea, why radio wouldn't play "Hussle In The House," and how he feels about rappers reppin' gangs.



Nipsey Hussle "Hussle In The House"

Interview By Toshitaka Kondo

Complex: What was it like of being put on the XXL "2010 Freshman" cover?

Nipsey Hussle: That was big. That was my first major cover. Really my first cover. But especially for a publication that got so much exposure and reach, I just feel like another milestone, another goal accomplished, and we just gon' keep rollin' and pressin'. I wasn't mad or bitter [about not getting the cover last time], but I just felt like we were making a lotta noise last year, especially as a L.A. artist. If you just pay attention to the region, there wasn't too many artists making as much noise and who were as visible as us, but it's cool, they got their mind right in '10.

Complex: You're half Eritrean, right?

Nipsey Hussle: Yeah, it's a country in East Africa. My mom is American, so I was raised in her household in my formative years. But as I got older, my pops tried to keep me involved with the culture by telling me the stories of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, how he came to America, and about our family back home, because all that side of my family, my aunties, grandparents, is in Africa. When I went back home in 2004, I went for three months. That was my first time in Africa at all. My first time meeting my Granny, aunties, and cousins. It was me, my brother, and my pops.

Complex: What was that experience like?

Nipsey Hussle: It was A1. At first, I experienced culture shock. The shit that we rely on day-to-day out here, your cell phone, Internet, e-mail, and your females, [laughs] and your daily movement, it's all cut off once you get out there. It's more about the interaction with people.

Complex: What was it like being somewhere where gang culture wasn't such an integral part of everyday life?

Nipsey Hussle: It wasn't as dominant. That wasn't the culture. You had your fake little pop-up gangs, but that wasn't the culture of that place. It was an actual conflict over land, over the border. A generational, decades old conflict. That was more or less the culture of the young people. It was like, "I'mma go to war, fight, and go to the frontlines for my country." But it was a good experience. It put me in touch with my roots. If you don't know your full-throttle history, the whole story of how you came to where you are, it's kind of hard to put things together. That filled in a blank spot for me, as far as understanding myself.

Complex: Was it weird to be in a place where you actually weren't a minority?

Nipsey Hussle: For sure. You saw that in key positions; president, government, police, everybody's the same [color]. It's a country run by its people. No racial class, everybody feels a part of it.

Complex: Did you attend college for a bit?

Nipsey Hussle: When I first stopped going to high school, I was about 15, 16. It had to be like 2000, 2001. I got put out and went to boot camp for a little bit. They tried to say that I was involved in a robbery at the school. There was a computer lab that was broken into, and all the computers got stolen. I didn't do it. [Laughs.] I went to this little program through the Lennox Sheriff department. It was a juvenile [program], so if you fucking up in school, you get put out. My mom went to my court date and expressed her frustration, and they were like, "We got a place for him, don't trip." [Laughs.] It wasn't no penitentiary. From there, I didn't wanna be looked at as no idiot, and I didn't wanna feel like I was uneducated, because I really stopped going to school at 15. I was never ignorant, as far as being experienced in classrooms and learning about different subjects and actually soaking it up, so I checked into college for a little bit. I took classes at a community college in West L.A. I took psychology, English, and philosophy.

Complex: Oh, ok. Why'd you stop going?

Nipsey Hussle: I was trying to get money, and get back into the music. Once I passed the classes with As and Bs, even my English teacher got at me and was like, "Are you plagiarizing this shit? You're 15 and quoting Plato in your essays, what's going on?" and I was like, "Nah, I'm just into it." I was taking an English class and a philosophy class. We were learning about all the different philosophers in the world.

Complex: Do you still read philosophy at all?

Nipsey Hussle: Well, right now it's kind of hard to, because I'm focusing on the music, but I still got a cold library of books that I've either read or I plan on getting to. I done read damn near on every topic, from history, the black experience in America, the old Greek philosophy, the conflict in Egypt, and all that.

Complex: What's the last good book you've read?

Nipsey Hussle: It's a book called Three Magic Words, about the power of the minds. It's about projection of your thoughts into reality. That's one of the books I read most recently. I done read a gang of shit, man. 48 Laws of Power, Blood In My Eye, which was the George Jonathan Jackson story, and Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.

Complex: You were in a movie with Ving Rhames called The Wrath of Cain. How did you start working with him?

Nipsey Hussle: Ving is a street nigga from New York. He's big now, and obviously a successful actor, but he heard my mixtape on the fluke. He grabbed his stepdaughter's iPod and hopped on a flight to South Africa, and all she had was Lil Wayne and my shit. [Laughs.] He listened to my tape top to bottom, and said he felt my struggle and story. So he wrote a whole concept for a film when he was in South Africa, and when he got back he reached out to my management and we got together. He pitched the concept, and I was like, "Hell yeah, let's do it." Even aside from the movie, I connected with Ving cause he's a sincere, A1 nigga, and the whole concept of the movie is just based on what he heard on my project.

Complex: Another person you collaborated with is Drake. How did that come about?

Nipsey Hussle: That was like, we were both bubbling at the time right after the BET Awards. Right when So Far Gone was taking off. It was a little bit after that shit dropped. Cuz just went on Twitter and said "Nipsey Hussle is the hardest out!" and people just started hitting me, bitches and shit, like, "You see what Drake said about you on Twitter!?" [Laughs.] So I checked on it, and hit Cuz back like "I'm a fan of your shit, my nigga, keep doing your thing." Then Cuz reached out to the label, and they hit me like "Drake's tryna holler at you, we gonna put you on the line with him." So we just chopped it up and had mutual respect for each other's movements. And then he was like "I got a record that's crazy, I'ma shoot it to you." And it didn't have no hook, just a verse. The shit was hot. I locked my verse in, shot it back, and he was like, "Do the hook." And I was like, "Nah, you do the hook my nigga! This what you do! Do the auto-tune shit, make the shit hot, knock it out, cuz!" A week later he sent it back, and I was like, "Yeah, that's on fire."

Complex: Your manager, Big U, has a well-known street rep in L.A. How did you link with him?

Nipsey Hussle: We from the neighborhood, and Big U been locked up since I was a little kid. They gave him 25, and he did 13. So he's been gone since the early '90s. Right when he was about to get out is when my movement was heavy. I was about 16, 17, dropping mixtapes in the 'hood, putting my money into posters, and started saturating the streets. The whole 'hood already knew what was going on with me, and everything trickled up to the jailhouses and the penitentiaries. All the homies on the yard was hearing, "Oh yeah there's a young homie Nipsey doin this thing," and Big U was always plugged in the industry. He used to manage Kurupt, he fucked with Snoop, and had a lot of other relationships. His little brother was killed as a bodyguard for Kurupt in an altercation in early 1999.

Complex: What happened?

Nipsey Hussle: Kurupt, Dogg Pound, and a couple other guys got into an altercation. The niggas they had got into it with had left and then came back shooting. When they started shooting, everybody ran inside and closed the door, and left Draws outside. He was they security. It was on some "close the door" shit. They looked up, asked "Where's Draws at?" Come outside, and he's leaking, shot dead. U was in the pen when his brother got killed, and his brother was heavy in the game on the security tip as well as helping manage artists and get a foot in. So based on Draws' prior experience in the industry and also him being a figure in the hood, when he got home he was like, "Yeah, let's sit down and chop it." Niggas already heard stories about Cuz and how treacherous he was in the streets, but I was like "Yeah, we can sit down and chop it, my nigga." I had never met him or none of that, I had just heard stories.

Complex: When did this happen?

Nipsey Hussle: It had to be like 2004. We just chopped it up, and we started moving as partners. He set up meetings with every major label, they all turned us down at first. A lot of the music on Bullets Ain't Got No Name, Vol. 1 and 2, we went to the meetings with, and they were always excited about the music. They saw the vision, but they'd get a call when we leave, like "Yeah, them is the 60s. That's Big U. That's another Suge. Don't do it." That was the word. The first time I came to New York, took a meeting with Epic, and we got the deal. All the labels in LA turned us down though. They were all like "Yeah," but then we never got the calls from the lawyers. We were supposed to meet with Jimmy Iovine, and they sent [his nephew] DeeJay down, I was like, "Hold on, we already met the A&Rs and played the music, we already had this meeting already." [Laughs.] For whatever reason, we ended up not doing nothing with any of the labels in LA. We met with Jon [Shapiro], and Jon had the situation at Epic. We met with the people at Epic, they believed in it.

Complex: You have had a bit of trouble getting traction with a buzz single for the album. I heard L.A. radio stations wouldn't play "Hussle in the House" because they felt it promoted gangbangin'.

Nipsey Hussle: I mean, that was the actual mothers calling the station saying, "Do you know what this record is saying? He's from the 60s. Playing this record is promoting the [gang] stuff going on in L.A." In my eyes, it's like, Nah I'm not promoting it. I'm just speaking on it. The radio people had to heed to that pressure and cut it off a little bit. My homegirl Devi Dev, she works for KDAY [LA radio station, 93.5.], she told me they were getting calls every day over that record. Either they were loving it, or they were like, "How can you play this song on the radio?" But it was a success for me. Any time I do a show, the whole crowd knows the song. Every city I go to, that's what they know me for. So I wouldn't trade it. A lot of artists come into the game with a radio record, but they don't establish the fans as fans of their style of music. It's just that they're a fan of that song, and after that song plays out, it's real hard for 'em.

Complex: How hard is it coming up in the gang culture to switch to the perspective of being an artist?

Nipsey Hussle: I feel like I'm an ambassador. Not just to pump myself or none of that, but nobody ain't, other than Snoop, and Snoop's my homeboy, and he comes from a different era, but as far as my generation and where we came from, I don't know nobody in the streets and was active with this gangbang shit like I was and my homie was. And I ain't the hardest nigga, that ain't what I'm saying. We were just out here with the shit for real. That was our day-to-day. It's hard at the same time, but I know that what I'm doing is a first, so I accept that feeling of being in unfamiliar territory right now. I feel like I'd be spitting on my blessing to go back in, backtracking, and doing some shit that'll risk my freedom. I got a daughter now, so it's a different state of mind.

Complex: Does it bother you at all when certain rappers like Lil Wayne or Jim Jones rep Bloods?

Nipsey Hussle: If you 35, 28, or 30 years old, and you decide you're gonna pick up a rag and start bangin', and you can look yourself in the mirror and you still feel like you're a man? That's cool, do your thing. My concern is the niggas that are really in the shit. I'm more focused on giving solutions and inspiration more than anything. But to answer your question, I feel like it's fraudulent. Straight up. If you ain't put on to this shit, you wasn't courted on, you ain't going to the back of the buildings to fight, your homies didn't get put on, you not from a gang. Not only are you not from a gang, if you ain't press a line and put in work, not necessarily kill nobody but you know, put yours on the line. It ain't just you a Blood when it's convenient, cause you got a camera and it looks cool. When you around 100 Crips, you still a Blood. When 40-Glocc and them run up on you, you still a Blood. And I ain't talking about Wayne. I got respect for they movement and I like the dude as an artist. But I'm just saying on some gangbang shit, when you go to the county jail and you walk in the court tank and it's 50 of your enemies, you still gonna say the 60s (Rollin 60 Neighborhood Crips). Or you not a gangbanger. Your homies gonna hear about it, beat you up, kick you in your ass, and you was for nothin'. I know in the real world in this shit, a lot of niggas wouldn't make it. So like I said, it's an overstanding I got about it. I look at it like these niggas is totally out of character.

Complex: Being a new artist from the West Coast, how important has it been to have established artists such as Game And Snoop Dogg embrace you?

Nipsey Hussle: As far as Snoop, that's the biggest thing to me, as far as like the way he did it. Snoop didn't ask me to sign to him, ask for no percentage, ask for no cut, and he more or less just took his visibility and his celebrity and co-signed and spoke real highly of me as opposed to being like "Oh, fuck this young nigga. They always talkin' about he reminds them of me.'" He didn't take that as a negative. He embraced it, included me in his project, tried to step back, set the stage for me, and put me on the show venues. Every time I see Snoop, he keeps it 100. So I respect Snoop even aside from the music, just as a man, and especially the way he still represents who he is, after being a pop star and an icon. He's done it successfully and has still been able to balance it. I got the utmost respect. And Game, too, him being a Blood from Compton, and right now the biggest nigga from the west since Snoop, he didn't have to fuck with me neither. He embraced what I was doing with open arms. Soon as I got out the county [jail], he brought me in on his studio session when he was working on L.A.X., did a record with me, which became "They Roll," which went on Power 106, spoke highly in city, and kind of just set it off. It's always a question of "Well, you're killin' the streets, but how do these niggas feel about you?" Like if you kill it in New York, they're gonna wanna know how Jay-Z feels about you. It's the same in L.A. They're gonna wanna know how Snoop and Game feel about you, and they were real vocal, like "He the next one."

Complex: Although Snoop has obviously been very supportive of you, Bishop Lamont had spoke last year of doing a mixtape called No Country For Old Men because he felt like older artists like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube weren't supporting the new movement. Do you feel like that was fair?

Nipsey Hussle: The way I was raised, I was a man, even when I was 13, homie. Don't do me no favors. Let me run mine, you feel me? I don't need no help. You signed to Dr. Dre, how can somebody prevent you from doing what you gotta do? You got a record deal, you got a label behind you, money behind you. You have access to a studio. All you have to do is make hot shit. So how can a motherfucker prevent you? At the end of the day, I was doing it by myself in the studio. A lot of niggas did that, created their brand, went out into the world and did what they did without a co-sign. Dre did it by his own. My thing is that I don't give no person that much power over my path that I'm walking. Not one person can make or break what I'm doing, except me or God. Not the label, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Game, and much respect to all them niggas, but as a man, that's not how I was raised.


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