Nipsey Hussle Changed His World and Inspired a Generation That Will Do the Same
Photo illustration. Image source: Prince Williams/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle Changed His World and Inspired a Generation That Will Do the Same

The late Los Angeles rapper’s legacy is undying — and still unfolding

For 25.5 miles, nearly the length of a marathon, the funeral procession somberly wound through the city. All traffic and commerce stopped for an imperial tribute that you’d expect for an 18th-century divine-right monarch or a five-star war hero. But there are no 21-gun salutes in 21st-century Los Angeles, at least not formally. When Nipsey Hussle died last March, a part of the region’s soul was carried off in that silver Escalade hearse. It was a loss of grievous magnitude, one that comes into crystalline focus when you consider the politics of those streets saluting the casket of Neighborhood Nip.

If gangsta rap originated with Philadelphia’s Schoolly D, its ancestral epicenter was destined to become the sun-split metropolis that spawned the Crips and Bloods. Sets started amid the squat bungalows, cracked asphalt, and toothpick palm trees of South Central and franchised themselves across the world. Nip’s Rollin 60s now have branches in Detroit. The Grape Street Crips of 03 Greedo were birthed in the Jordan Downs projects of Watts but run deep in New Jersey. You can find Bounty Hunter Bloods, originally from Nickerson Gardens, all over Atlanta. Ever since Raymond Washington and Stanley “Tookie” Williams formed a loose confederation under the Crips name in 1971, the balkanization of Los Angeles makes the civil wars of Slavic Europe seem quaint.

Nipsey was their ambassador, living proof that those umbilically bound to the streets could still credibly stress peace and unity, entrepreneurialism and local pride. Your birthplace would irrevocably shape you, but it didn’t need to define or consume you.

It’s a block-by-block city where the same geographical term can mean completely different things to longtime natives. Ask someone from Bel-Air to define the Westside, and they’ll probably tell you it starts around UCLA. To someone in Echo Park, the Westside is anywhere from La Brea to the ocean. But if you grow up in South Central, the Westside and Eastside are bisected by Main Street, a gritty thoroughfare that runs from just north of downtown all the way to the port in San Pedro. Nipsey was from that Westside, the 60s, the area that produced Tookie; the Rollin 60s who claim it are one of the largest and most infamous sets in the city. Nipsey was their ambassador, living proof that those umbilically bound to the streets could still credibly stress peace and unity, entrepreneurialism and local pride. Your birthplace would irrevocably shape you, but it didn’t need to define or consume you.

As Sanyika Shakur (formerly Monster Kody from Eight Tray Gangster Crips, the historic rival of the Rollin 60s) once wrote, “There are no gang experts except participants.” And to those outside, the borders are so byzantine that it’s almost impossible to memorize. But to those entrenched in the internecine feuds that often stretch back before the participants were even born, the boundaries adhered to and the baseball hats worn can be the difference between life and death. Los Angeles rap is governed by politics. If your favorite rapper’s neighborhood hates another rapper’s neighborhood, it is practically impossible for them to collaborate or even be on the same show bill. There is fake love and real hatred. To overcome those deeply rooted divides in both life and death is practically unheard of. Nipsey was the only one.

This is why the streets of Los Angeles honored Nipsey’s last ride with unanimous respect. The procession ambled down Vermont, a central artery cleaving neighborhoods claimed by 18th Street and the Westside Fruit Town Brims, the Hoovers, and the myriad splinter sects of the Neighborhood Crips. It slashed to Watts past Grapes and Bounty Hunters, and then looped around the land governed by factions of Inglewood Bloods and Sureños, eventually stopping for good at the spiritual cradle of Crenshaw and Slauson. Nipsey transcended historic enmity.

In the wake of his passing, peace treaties were floated between neighborhoods that hadn’t found common ground in decades. Watch the videos captured that early spring afternoon, and you’ll see admirers of every ethnicity, race, neighborhood affiliation, age, and class divide. They honored a native son who faithfully carried on tradition but attempted to improve upon the failings of the past.

“Nipsey did things on his own terms, and motherfuckers looked up to that. He made it by himself,” says Drakeo the Ruler, who calls me from jail, where he’s awaiting his retrial on gang conspiracy charges connected to a murder.

When Drakeo was first incarcerated, Nipsey sent him an unprompted DM asking about the possibility of bailing him out. They knew each other but weren’t close. The gesture was emblematic of what made Nipsey a legend. He was unfailingly generous, an artist who found the rare balance between staying close to the energy of the streets while still making power moves that allowed him to be an independent, self-made juggernaut. He didn’t give a fuck, but he cared deeply.

Nipsey emerged as an omnivorous inheritor of the styles of Tupac, Kurupt, Cube, and Snoop. Steeped in the West Coast rap lineage, he blended it with the motivational upliftment of Jeezy, the heart-on-sleeve pathos of Boosie, and the street-hustler spirit of Master P.

“We knew he was really from the streets, and even though he made it out, you could still go over there and bump into him,” Drakeo continues. “The type of respect he had just doesn’t come to you. You gotta earn it. He was like the Tupac for our generation.”

Like Tupac Shakur, Nipsey’s importance extended far beyond aesthetics and evanescent sonic trends. They became righteous ideas and noble myths, vessels of possibility and hope stirring the creative imagination — symbols of progress for their communities. The famed Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who influenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s thinking, claimed that “heroes can thrive only where ignorance raises history to mythology. They cannot survive the coldly critical temper of modern thought when it’s functioning normally, nor can they be worshipped by a generation which has every facility for determining their foibles and analyzing their limitations.” This might be true for most figures in the celebrity-industrial complex who are mythologized until brutally dragged back to earth. But Nipsey stayed above the fray, idolized for making heroic acts seem humble and commonplace.

Unlike Tupac — who was MC New York in Baltimore, then repped the Bay before writing “To Live and Die in L.A.” — Nipsey was really from the land. His biography couldn’t be fabricated or misinterpreted. As he said on “Last Time That I Checc’d,” no smut on his rep. And while critics might scoff at notions of realness and authenticity, these things unequivocally matter to both the artists and their fans.

Nipsey’s most powerful song is “Crenshaw and Slauson (True Story),” which starts with “Relate to you, I can’t if you’s a fake nigga.” He was plainspoken and unpretentious, steeped in the vernacular but a masterful blunt-force storyteller. Tupac is a natural comparison, but so is Bruce Springsteen; Nipsey was dedicated to telling those working-class, street-level stories about the place that raised him. The embodiment of real recognize real. He stressed the desperation of circumstance not to glamorize, but rather to explain why the choices were made. A three-part odyssey, “Crenshaw and Slauson” chronicles his rise from flipping mixtapes in the parking lot to stardom. His confessional writing gets all the details right: the grocery bag of dirty money turned into a Sam Ash microphone and Pro Tools, the Mac 11s hidden in the safe under the floor, and the half-joke that he’s not telling the rest until the statute of limitations is up.

A Nipsey song exists for every emotion. “FDT” is the best political rap polemic of the Trump era. “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is a ratchet-era strip club classic. “Go Long” is a swangin’ and bangin’ Houston anthem with Z-Ro and Slim Thug. “Grindin’ All My Life” is an adrenaline shot destined to eternally boom from basketball arena loudspeakers and help sluggish nine-to-fivers withstand Monday morning commutes.

In Los Angeles, our neighborhood heroes have historically gone national so quickly that the city immediately shares them with the rest of the world. N.W.A, Dr. Dre and Cube, Snoop, Warren G, Tha Dogg Pound, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar all became immediate sensations. Quik and Suga Free are among the greatest artists in hip-hop history, but their strengths weren’t hard-boiled, low-to-the-concrete street rap. (Plus, Free was from Pomona — but that’s a different story altogether.) Nipsey emerged as an omnivorous inheritor of the styles of Tupac, Kurupt, Cube, and Snoop. Steeped in the West Coast rap lineage, he blended it with the motivational upliftment of Jeezy, the heart-on-sleeve pathos of Boosie, and the street-hustler spirit of Master P. So it made perfect sense when he teased a never-released remix of “Rap Niggas” featuring all three of them.

Upon his death, the entire city convulsed with grief. YG turned his Coachella performance into a Nipsey memorial. Kendrick paid tribute at Lollapalooza Argentina. Snoop gave a tearful eulogy at the homegoing service. The Game made a song that eerily sounded like Nipsey, which was the most Game thing he could possibly do. 03 Greedo recalled all the wisdom absorbed from Nipsey. In an interview with XXL, the now-incarcerated rapper said, “Nipsey gave me the light in the city, [like,] ‘This is the new thing that’s going on.’ Without him, I don’t think that the rest of the city would embrace me like that. He from the Westside, I’m from the Eastside, and there’s a separation.” Over the past year, the L.A. streets have similarly embraced two of Nipsey’s closest collaborators, J Stone and Bino Rideaux.

In January, I interviewed Hit-Boy, the producer behind “Racks in the Middle,” which posthumously became Hussle’s biggest hit. “His legacy was bigger than the music,” Hit-Boy told me. “People see how he stuck with his community and died right there. Artists are trying to really apply his message: Let’s be better. Let’s level up. Let’s show people that you can make real music with real sonics.”

The mentality applies to Compton’s Roddy Ricch, who recently got a Nipsey face tattoo and has repeatedly stated how Hussle was the first and only West Coast artist to offer an early co-sign. At the Grammys, Ricch and Meek Mill performed their “Letter to Nipsey,” which balanced tearful anguish with the desire to inflict revenge on Hussle’s killer. They were joined by John Legend, YG, Kirk Franklin, and DJ Khaled — a quartet no algorithm could muster, yet more evidence of Nip’s organic reach. In the past year, tributes have poured in from international pop juggernauts like Drake and Rihanna and Brainfeeder jazz-funk fusionist Thundercat.

Beyond the lingering devastation, Hussle’s indomitable spirit and sense of possibility has continued to flourish. It’s evident at G Perico’s So Way Out retail store, a community hub just off Broadway and Main. You see it in North Inglewood at 2Eleven’s Level Up, which is modeled after the Marathon Store and has filled a similar void. In nearby Leimert Park, 23-year old designer and rapper Six Sev applied lessons learned while working with Hussle to boost his community through DIY shows, the planting of community gardens, and his own line of “Make Crenshaw Great Again” hats — one of which Jay-Z was recently spotted wearing. Watts-raised rapper and codeine cowboy Desto Dubb soaked up Hussle’s entrepreneurial wisdom to help build an online phenomenon with the clothing brand That’s A Awful Lot of Cough Syrup.

If this all feels like it’s only the beginning, that was always the plan. From the marathon metaphor to his eerily prophetic final tweet (“Having strong enemies is a blessing”), Hussle entered the game with a long-term plan but remained aware that it could abruptly end at any moment. As he said on “Crenshaw and Slauson,” there are “no guarantees, you gotta live for today.”

And now that it’s tomorrow, his impact is clarion. In every neighborhood across Los Angeles, someone aspires to be the next Nip.