Interview: Nipsey Hussle Talks New Partnership With Atlantic and Business Moves Outside of Music

The rapper sat down with Complex to discuss his new partnership with Atlantic Records and his ambitious business plans.

Nipsey Hussle soccer

Nipsey Hussle attends The Eritrean soccer Tournament after party at Medusa on July 9, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Nipsey Hussle soccer

Nipsey Hussle came to hip-hop fans' attention because of his music, but it's his business acumen that has really taken things to the next level. Hussle made headlines back in 2013 for selling 1,000 copies of his Crenshaw project for $100 each. He dubbed the effort #Proud2Pay, and it was so successful that Jay Z himself bought 100 copies. Nipsey followed that up by releasing Mailbox Money in a $1,000 limited edition

Now, the L.A. rapper is readying the release of his true debut album, Victory Lap. He has just announced a partnership with Atlantic Records to help him put out the project. The title continues his streak of racing-related monikers, beginning with Marathon and Marathon Continues. He originally had the title back in 2010, when he was still signed to Epic Records. 

"I seen a lot of artists be hot for a minute and then that's it and somebody else come in," he explains. "To be relevant seven years later, probably more relevant than I was then—to go back into a space with a major label partner to finish what we promised them back then, which was an album; that was important to me. So I just feel like, it's really a victory of doing it our way."

Nipsey Hussle recently stopped by the Complex office to discuss his partnership with Atlantic, his thoughts on Donald Trump a year and change after "FDT," and what he has in store for the future outside of music.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Tell me about the Atlantic partnership.
Basically, it’s a strategic partnership to take the next steps with the Nipsey Hussle story. It’s between the company All Money In, which I’m a part owner in, and Atlantic Records for services of Nipsey Hussle. It’s not a traditional artist to a label signing, you know what I mean? It’s more of us partnering with Atlantic and utilizing their specialties and their strengths to move what we’ve been doing to the next platform in terms of recognition, fan base, access to radio, access to retail, and utilize their staff, and tapping into a specialist.

All Money In is a label best known for scarcity—for this business approach where you have limited numbers of things. And obviously, Atlantic Records is not in the business of scarcity; they’re in the business of selling stuff to whoever wants to have it. How does that meet? 
Well, I wouldn't say that All Money In is in the business of scarcity. I would say that the Nipsey Hussle Crenshaw release was an example of All Money In creating an artificial scarcity campaign for the physical side of Crenshaw. The digital version of it was everywhere; on iTunes, on the pay sites—the same way that Atlantic will have all of our digital stuff on all the pay sites. So the distinguishing part of that campaign was the physical copy was limited, and it wasn't distributed through traditional retail. That was more of a #Proud2Pay approach, more than an All Money In approach. It was a direct-to-consumer strategy for the hard copy, because all the digital versions of the album were released traditionally. 

Are you gonna continue that approach with yourself and other artists on All Money In? 
Yeah. I think that every artist—or anybody that's in business—could benefit from a direct-to-consumer strategy, so I think that that applies to us as artists and content creators, too. So the thing that I've created and we've created was the #Proud2Pay brand. So every time we do a release, we'll have a #Proud2Pay version, which will be a scarce version that has novelty value and something that people wanna collect and hold on to, and majority of the time it'll be some type of experience or event attached to it. 

It's been reported that you own about a quarter of All Money In, and your brother and a couple of friends own the rest. Has that changed with the Atlantic deal? 
Nah, everybody's still involved. This [motions] is one of the partners, Adam Andhban. This [motions] is the other partner, my brother Sam. Our other partner recently passed away on Sept. 29; his name is Fatts [Steven Donelson]. He's still a quarter owner. He would be here but obviously, you know... 

I read a great article in Billboard about Marathon Clothing, and it seemed like you had some pretty big, ambitious plans for it. That was the middle of this year; what's going on with it? 
Basically, we just opened a flagship store, which is our first step toward creating an experiential retail element of what we doin'. Originally the concept was for us to have a retail network that we could deliver our products to, whether it was albums or what artists would call "merch." We wanna elevate it to streetwear, and not just do merch, and then a full line eventually. And then even other stuff outside of the music and merch space, just dope things. [For example,] you might buy Supreme fire extinguisher or an ash tray...

I didn't wanna ever go into a situation where the decision makers believed in me and then they left.

I think they put out a shovel recently. 
You know what I mean? Just dope items that, I think, will add value to the lifestyle of people that connect to the music. So we wanna do a branded money counter. To start with, streetwear, and then build off of that. 

So by saying "retail network," you initially envisioned having more than one physical location? 
Still do. The goal is to have 10 retail spaces in my top 10 markets, where we have the most traction. And then to be able to do what we did with Crenshaw, but in 10 different locations. Instead of doing pop-ups at clothing stores and shoe markets, we got a Marathon retail network across the country or across the world. When I drop my next project with Atlantic involved, we'll do traditional retail—Best Buy, Target, whatever's left. And then we'll do a direct-to-consumer #Proud2Pay campaign, and we'll use our retail spaces as the pop-up shops. So L.A., we'll do the L.A. store. New York, we'll do the New York store. Georgetown, in D.C., we'll do one. Frisco, we'll do one. The original concept was to be able to create a business outside of the traditional ecosystem, because we saw what happened with Crenshaw. We made a lot more money outside of iTunes and Target. 

Right; you don't have to give iTunes the 30 percent or whatever. 
And we was able to set our margin at $100 instead of at $10, so we was making 10x on what we would do traditionally. It was inspiring to people to come deal direct. So it was multiple benefits of us doing that and we ain't wanna go into the next phase of what we do as an artist and raise the profile as an individual artist and not utilize what we learned as a company doing direct-to-consumer. So to answer it, 10 stores in our top 10 markets—imagine if we dropped 1,000 units at $100 to each store. You know what I mean? 

[Laughs.] That's a lot of money. 
In one night. So it's possible. It's still an idea that's developing, but the first step was to open an L.A. store. 

You compared it to Sanrio...
Urban Sanrio, yeah. 

Can you explain that? 
Yeah. I mean, Sanrio do $5 billion a year off novelty items. So if you really think about it, they the biggest branded merch company in the world, for real. And it's not called "merch"—it's just Sanrio products. 

It's just what they do. 
Yeah. It's just Hello Kitty, and it exists in the ecosystem of content, which is like visuals, cartoons; actual experience, which is the theme parks and the stores; and products. So I think, if you look at content creators, we have the same potential. If we could create an infrastructure and operate with the same goal, we could create the same effect of being able to sell a 50-cent item for $12, like a pencil that Hello Kitty charge $10 for. Or even Starbucks, by them giving you free Wi-Fi and creating an experience, they sell you an overpriced Frappucino, 'cause you get to sit here and catch a vibe. Not to say that the goal is selling overpriced things, but I think that with hip-hop, we’re sold pressure by doing mass business, that it influences the integrity of the products, you know what I mean? I think to remove that from the intention, we don't have to worry about doing a million units if we gettin' $100 each, and we can more tailor-make the music to who's listening. 

You have this idea of ultra-servicing a small part of your fan base. Can you expand on that? 
I just think that's how life works; I don't think you get anything to a million people at a time. I think that's unrealistic. I don't think a human being observed that. I think that business introduced that ideology. I think human things happen intimate.

So the goal would be, as a content creator, to create a piece of content that affects one person so much that they gotta go share it, and they become your marketing. They become the legs for what you're doing. Because if you focus and zero in, you can inspire a person to a degree that they work for the movement. That’s not a night and day window. It's not when they check run out, they stop campaignin'. They are inspired, and you planted somethin' in 'em. They walk into a room, and if there's nine people that don't know about you, they feel like they got a dope opportunity to gain currency with nine people by puttin' 'em on somethin' dope. 

That's obviously not something you can pay for. 
Right. When people say shit goes viral, that's what they mean, that people become so interested in it that they start promoting it themselves.

You were at ComplexCon talking about cryptocurrency. What made you decide to get in that field?
A couple things. I just peeped what's goin’ on with bitcoin. I'm interested in other things outside of cryptocurrency that point to the opportunities in cryptocurrency, like even just understanding what happened in '08 with the banks and what happened with fiat currencies in world history. Any time a country transitioned to a fiat currency, they collapsed. That's just world history; you don't have to know about cryptocurrency to know that. So the United States operates off of fiat currency, and we been operating since the '70s—that's something that just happened.

So when you look at it from that point of view, it's not even a hard decision. The U.S. dollar is gonna lose value and either another central bank and fiat currency is gonna become the leading currency—that's why they worried about China and all these other potentials—or what happened with cryptocurrency was gon' happen, and people create a way to create an un-centralized currency that can exist peer to peer. The natural order of life created that, I think. 

Do you see your cryptocurrency as expanding outside of people who wanna buy Nipsey Hussle-related things? 
I don't even think it's a Nipsey Hussle currency. I haven't branded it like that; I'm a minority owner. The company owns 10 percent of Follow Coin. But Follow Coin is a tech company that operates as a tech company in its own space. And tech and hip-hop, whether we admit it or not, are very, very connected.

It's not branded like that and it's not represented like that, but you go into these companies and they're listening to hip-hop. These people are young, they're 20-year-olds. The culture they grew up in, the music that's most popular in that area is hip-hop. So there's tons of opportunities to get with these tech companies and build; but it wasn't a Nipsey Hussle coin.

I ain't understand that when Snoop and Dre was rappin' in they first single, they was dissin' Eazy. I ain't even know that; I just liked the music.

I wanted to talk about some of your other business ventures. You have something called 2 Big 2 Fail. What is that? 
We are finishing the foundation with that, and we gonna start announcing the initiative end of this year, top of next year. But it's basically a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) compound that we built in the hood. It's a 5,000 square foot compound—[it] used to be the Wonder Bread factory. And us, as All Money In, and our real estate development partner, Dave Gross, partnered up.

It's gonna be two-fold. The bottom level will be a science, technology, engineering, and math resource center. What Silicon Valley is saying to justify that lack of diversity is that there's no pipeline from the inner city to Silicon Valley. The reason that there's no pipeline is that we lack science, technology, engineering, and math skills, and you can't teach a 13-year-old that; it's too late. They gotta be trained in that.

And so that's the bottom level of the compound agenda, is just to have something locally in South Central where these young kids can go get trained in the direction of where the opportunities are. And then the top floor is gonna be our take on WeWork. WeWork is like a rental office space. So [it's] for entrepreneurs in the area that don't have credit, or don't have access to a trademark lawyer, or don't have access to a copyright lawyer or a tax lawyer. There'll be office space for rent that you can rent with no credit. You can pay cash for it, or you can offer hours, where you be like, "I'mma give 10 hours of labor..."

To the programs downstairs? 
Yeah, exactly. Or to the upstairs; it's whatever type of specialty you have, and we got a format to really figure out where we put each type of person, in terms of delivering labor for office spaces. But I think it's a new concept. It'll speak to the point that Silicon Valley is making, of like, "Nobody is creating the pipeline to get here. We would love to employ an ethnically diverse workforce, but the proficient group of people are coming from here." So that's what the intention behind 2 Big 2 Fail is. 

So many of your businesses—the hair store you opened and all this stuff—are in your neighborhood. Why is it important for you to keep everything local? 
That's something my brother spearheaded. I support it, but he's an entrepreneur, and I think that was one of his visions and his dreams, to be saturated in the small business space and then scale it to franchise. We discussed going other places, but it just felt like it made the most sense doing it locally, and being able to employ people that we grew up with, that there's no trust issues with, that there's no ulterior motives, and also be able to improve the area and offer jobs and offer a business in the area that has been traditionally liquor store, church, fried chicken—that's really it. 

You're now about a year and a half, two years into the hair store, how's that going?
That's a business that we are new to, so we goin' through the learning curve right now, but all things considered, it's doing well. It's paying for itself; we makin' profit, it's paying for the employees. We learning. 

So what is going on, music-wise? 
The album done. The first single drop Dec. 1. 

What's the title of the record? 
It's called "Rap Niggas." And the video we just shot out here in L.A. a couple weeks ago. The album is called Victory Lap. It's gonna be the first release through the partnership with Atlantic. 

Back on "Keys 2 the City," you mentioned that Atlantic passed on you early in your career. How does it feel to come back and partner with them now that you're in this position? 
I always respected Atlantic, for a lot of reasons. Craig [Kallman, Atlantic's Chairman/CEO] been there for 15 years, and I think one thing that turned me off about the Epic deal—back then; Epic's a different company now—was that I got signed by Charlie Walk, and then he left in the middle of the rollout. That's how the game go, I understand it, but I didn't like how that felt. So I didn't wanna ever go into a situation where the decision makers believed in me and then they left, and then a new team of decision makers came in that wouldn't get credit for my success, 'cause they didn't sign me. You could fall into politics like that.

So by Atlantic having one chairman for 15 years, and then the legacy of Atlantic from Ahmet [Ertegun, Atlantic's founder] and what they did, which is that era. And even seeing what they did with Grand Hustle and T.I., and what they did with Wiz [Khalifa] and Bruno Mars. Even the convos I had with Craig and the convos I had with Julie [Greenwald, Chairman/COO] and [Atlantic's President of Black Music, Michael] Kyser; I just felt like they wasn't industry plastic. I thought they was a different texture than the traditional industry operation. They was invested in seeing what happened with Def Jam happen again, as far as Julie's involvement over there and building legacies with Jay Z and with Ruff Ryders and with Ludacris and DTP and all of those successful cases that happened in the past. So I always felt like they was who I wanted to go into business with. I just thought I had more work to do so I could negotiate a little more aggressive. 

A few weeks ago, I talked to Ice-T on the occasion of this big event and concert celebrating Uncle Jamm's Army. It got me thinking about how just in the past couple years, the history of Los Angles rap is being celebrated on a mass platform in a way it never has, going back to the '80s. You have this celebration of Uncle Jamm's Army, you have the N.W.A. movie, the 2Pac biopic, all this kind of stuff. How do you feel about seeing the history of your hometown be taken seriously? 
It's dope to me. I think that that's good that N.W.A.'s story got updated for this generation. 'Cause even me, I was after N.W.A., but I remember everybody loving Eazy-E in L.A. Eazy-E was an icon, but I ain't know why. I ain't understand that when Snoop and Dre was rappin' in they first single, they was dissin' Eazy. I ain't even know that; I just liked the music.

So to get educated, I think that was dope. It was a legendary moment, if you really think about the '90s in L.A., the '80s in L.A.. That was like Motown in the '60s, where you had a homegrown executive tappin' into homegrown talent from homegrown communities and goin' viral and goin' global. That's somethin' incredible. It was all L.A. niggas, it was all California street niggas that made up Death Row. The producer was from Compton, the artist was from Long Beach, the executive from Compton—that's not regular. That's [just like] Stax Records, Motown.

And then for them to be the biggest thing in music, and then the biggest thing in the streets... I got a homie named Keta Roc from my hood that used to pull up in the Death Row G-wagon, with Death Row stitched in the headrest. And I was a young nigga hustlin' on the block, and I remember feelin' Death Row's presence in that direction also. That's not a music stunt; that's like, you got a reputable general from this area wavin' the flag. That wasn't regular. So to see it celebrated, I thought it should be. 

You were featured on [YG's]"FDT." A year and a half later, what are your thoughts on Trump? 
You mean, as in right now, how do I feel about Trump? 

Um, I mean... I don't agree with him. I don't agree with a lot of the shit he says and does. I'm tryna understand it, you know? I don't know if there's a method to the madness. I have no clue; I just don't agree with his way of doin' shit.

My suspicion is that he's just a businessman with more power, and he's operating from his interests. I don't think he even sees himself as president. I think this is part of the business trajectory of Donald Trump, and, "Where else could I go? I could fuck around and be President of the United States and do some big favors to where when I'm done, we got a whole different retirement plan." I don't think he's looking at himself as the President of the country. And people's lives being impacted by his decisions. I can't think he cares or I don't think he see himself like that. 

What else do you want people to know about what you've got going on, business-wise or musically? 
The most important thing right this moment is that we be clear on the partnership—that Nipsey Hussle is signed for life to All Money In, and that Atlantic Records did a partnership with All Money In for the services of Nipsey. That was somethin' that I was really excited about, and I couldn't talk about it for a long time. I had to just be quiet and make music since we made the deal. I'm excited I could go and talk about who we in business with now and actually utilize the partnership in public, because we didn't make the announcement yet. 

When was the deal made? 
A while ago. [Laughs.] I mean, between the last two releases. I haven't released any music since then. I didn't wanna make a big deal announcement until the music was ready. I don't like when artists do that. I don't really care about the business; I wanna hear the music, as a fan.

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