Nipsey Hussle’s Final Act Continues: Fighting Gentrification
Illustration: Kingsley Nebechi

Nipsey Hussle’s Final Act Continues: Fighting Gentrification

The marathon continues for the Crenshaw icon’s fight for financial empowerment

Back in 2006, a fresh-faced 21-year-old rapper named Nipsey Hussle, who the year prior had released his first official mixtape, Slauson Boy Vol. 1, spoke with legendary hip-hop journalist Davey D at the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network’s “Get Your Money Right” summit. The conversation lasted only five minutes, but it spoke volumes.

Nip was sporting a small diamond stud in each earlobe and a Cuban link chain draped over his oversized white T-shirt. Still, the look struck Davey D as understated, at least for an up-and-coming rapper of the day. “How come you not blingin’ and havin’ all kind of crazy diamonds and all that?” he asked the rapper. “I guess you here to get your money right, huh?”

“All the time,” young Hussle replied. “You know, all that is cool for the image and all that, but all them is liabilities, you feel me? I’d rather invest in some real estate.”

“Wait, wait,” Davey replied, visibly surprised at the young man’s acumen. “Can you repeat that?”

“I said invest in some assets,” Hussle said, louder this time. “As opposed to trick off my money on some liabilities like diamonds, you know what I’m sayin’? Cars that lose value as soon as you drive ’em off the lot.”

“So you tryin’ to get land?” Davey asked Nip, who at the time was still more than a decade away from purchasing the shopping plaza at West Slauson Avenue and South Crenshaw Boulevard and opening legitimate brick-and-mortar businesses with his older brother, Blacc Sam.

“Exactly, homie,” Hussle said. “A real asset to take care of my peoples.” Jewelry might look good, he reasoned, “but at the end of the day, it’s losin’ value. It ain’t appreciatin’ — it’s depreciatin’.” Although the young rapper was an attendee at the financial literacy summit, he sounded more like a seasoned investment adviser giving out game to anyone prepared to soak it up.

Around the time of that interview, Nipsey founded his own record label, calling it All Money In, No Money Out. It was much more than a pithy name. For Hussle and his team, it was a mission statement — a formula for self-empowerment based on the principle of keeping the dollars they earned circulating in their community, with the larger aim of building generational wealth. In a South Central area like theirs, a once-thriving Black neighborhood blighted by decades of divestment, there weren’t many people espousing such goals.

All Money In was a mantra of self-discipline that saw Nipsey and his associates through countless setbacks and incessant police harassment, allowing them to invest in their human capital and their community, pay their bills and taxes on time, open ancillary businesses, and still have enough left over to turn the AMI logo into gold medallions for the whole team. All Money In was a way of life that kept them in the marathon, a game-changing independent grind that allowed the upstart label to resist early temptation to sign away their rights and instead build enough leverage to negotiate a partnership with Atlantic Records — clearing the way for the 2018 release of Victory Lap, Nipsey Hussle’s long-awaited Grammy-nominated debut album. Adhering to the credo All Money In, No Money Out was ultimately what allowed Nipsey Hussle to proclaim, on the album’s first single, “I ain’t nothin’ like you fuckin’ rap niggas.”

One day before the release of Victory Lap, Hussle and his business partner David A. Gross cut the ribbon on Vector 90, a 4,700-square-foot “co-working space, cultural hub, and incubator” located in a former Wonder Bread factory five minutes away from the Marathon Clothing store. The top floor of the sleek space had a WeWork vibe, offering reasonable rates to paying members, while downstairs was a mixed-use area served multiple community functions, including STEM classes to help prepare residents of the Crenshaw District for science and technology jobs. Lyrics from “Bigger Than Life,” the hidden final track of Hussle’s 2010 mixtape The Marathon, were painted in bold white capitals on the steps connecting the two levels: “So life is what you make it. I hope you make a movement. Hope your opportunity survives the opportunist.”

“In our culture, there’s a narrative that says, ‘Follow the athletes, follow the entertainers,’” Hussle told the Los Angeles Times on opening day. “And that’s cool, but there should be something that says, ‘Follow Elon Musk, follow [Mark] Zuckerberg.’ I think that with me being influential as an artist and young and coming from the inner city, it makes sense for me to be one of the people that’s waving that flag.”

For Gross, who grew up in South Central until age 10 and went on to become a successful investment banker in New York City, the vision for Vector 90 became a passion project, his way of giving back to a community that had not progressed much during the 20 years he’d been away. “I knew I’d need a partner from the neighborhood,” he says now. “Someone that was closely connected to it, that was authentic, that the community would embrace and trust.” Gross and Hussle finally met in 2016 at a Lakers game, getting to know each other over tequila shots. “Literally the next day he came to my office,” Gross recalls. “I showed him the deck for Vector90, and he said, ‘I’m all in.’”

While some celebrities turn out to be different than their public persona when you meet them, Hussle was even more genuine than Gross expected. Not only did he help fund the project, but he also began spending time at Vector 90, working on his own projects, meeting with Gross every Wednesday. “His commitment to this, and to his people, and to making a radical change was such that he actually did a launch party for Victory Lap at a co-working space in the heart of the hood, when typically someone would do it at some fancy spot,” Gross recalled during a conversation with Van Lathan that was filmed in the Vector 90 offices. “He took away from his moment… from that energy, which was the perfect All-Star Weekend in L.A., his debut album finally coming. He came and spent half the day here. That’s one of those things that kind of defines who he was.”

On the Victory Lap track “Dedication,” Nipsey Hussle poses a poignant question: “How long till opportunity meets preparation?” The line was inspired by a quote attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the importance of preparation in his book Outliers, formulating the famous 10,000-hour rule, which Gladwell considers the key to success in any given field. A voracious reader, Hussle studied all of Gladwell’s work. But all the preparation in the world won’t help if opportunity never knocks at your door.

The ultimate aim of Vector 90 is to maximize opportunity by all means necessary, providing educational programs, networking, mentorship, resources, and platforms, as well as direct investment. In aeronautics, “vector” is a verb meaning to guide an object, such as a plane or a missile, toward a particular destination. When used in physics and mathematics, “vector” refers to a quantity that has both direction and magnitude. A 90-degree vector points straight up.

“You need a home base,” Hussle told me soon after the space opened. “You need a space to work and take your meetings in and have Wi-Fi and have a trademark lawyer in the building. And have a synergy that you can bounce off each other.”

Among the young entrepreneurs who began working in the space early on was Hussle’s younger sister Samantha Smith, who was developing her own business, a therapeutic spa service called Glo. “Vector 90 is a place where you know you can come and there’s like-minded people,” she says. “There’s people on a similar path as you. And there’s people that can help catapult your career or whatever it is you wanna do for yourself.” Smith believes that Vector 90 is big for her community. “When it comes to minorities, we don’t have anything like this,” she adds. “We often get slipped through the cracks.”

Hussle and Gross planned to expand the Vector 90 network from Crenshaw all across the United States. Both were motivated by the idea of what such a place might have meant to them when they were just getting started. “I wanted to impact someone who was a younger version of me,” Gross said in his dialogue with Van Lathan. “It took a really stark transition for me to move from South Central Los Angeles to a really small town in Texas, where some of the issues around poverty and money were the same for me, but just the chaos of being in a large inner city in the ’80s, it wasn’t there. And so that forced kind of calm that I went into. It let me learn things about myself.”

“He could be with Jay and Puff and relate to them and be respected as a peer. And then he could be on Slauson and Crenshaw and be embraced over here as someone still accessible and someone relatable.”

Having grown up knee-deep in the chaos that prevailed in Rollin 60s territory and all across South Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. uprising, Hussle would likewise reflect on how things might have been different had he been able to make other choices. “My trajectory I’m sure would’ve been different,” he told me at the time. “I can’t be specific on what, but I know I was curious and passionate early about just creativity and being productive. And out of frustration, I fell into the streets. But if I’d have been able to catch a few of these opportunities early, for sure it would’ve had a different effect.”

Hussle and Gross would collaborate on other ventures as well. In 2018, Hussle, DJ Khaled, and Luol Deng invested in Gross’ bid to purchase the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, along with self-made Black billionaire Don Peebles, who serves on Vector 90’s board. Although the Viceroy deal didn’t work out, Gross was able to help Hussle and his brother literally “buy back the block” in January 2019, partnering with them to purchase the shopping plaza at Slauson and Crenshaw where the Marathon Clothing store is located — and where Hussle first came up hustling. Their moment of triumph turned to tragedy on March 31, but Hussle’s passing has only strengthened Gross’ resolve to carry on their mission.

Hardly a day goes by when Gross doesn’t reflect on how irreplaceable his business partner was. “The range of his reach is what’s unique about him,” Gross says. “He could be at the Roc Nation Brunch with Jay and Puff and relate to them and be respected as a peer. And then he could be on Slauson and Crenshaw and be embraced over here as someone still accessible and someone relatable. That’s a very unique thing. He made a lot of people want to be entrepreneurs, want to be bosses, want to start businesses — and do it with their own people.”

The tragic events of March 31, 2019, destroyed countless hopes and dreams and deferred others. At the time of Hussle’s murder, he and Gross were in the process of raising a massive real estate fund focused on inner-city investment and redevelopment. “We were headed to D.C. to speak before the Ways and Means Committee,” Gross says. “We were going as a coalition — myself, Nipsey, and T.I. — for this broad agreement that we were working on called Our Opportunity.” They hoped to build it into a bulwark against gentrification — “the economic version of Black Lives Matter,” as Gross once described it.

One of the lesser-known details tucked into Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul provided lucrative tax incentives for investing in so-called Opportunity Zones. These were sold as a way to develop underprivileged neighborhoods, but the benefits were limited to wealthy investors who could afford to redirect capital gains into areas that were handpicked by state governors in a behind-closed-doors process that led to some highly questionable choices. Trump touted Opportunity Zones as the “hottest thing going”—but predictably enough, members of his own inner circle, including son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family, were first in line to reap the benefits, building luxury developments that would provide few jobs and accelerate the rate of gentrification, potentially displacing longtime residents.

It seemed appropriate for the artist who collaborated with YG on “FDT” to play a key role in subverting what might otherwise function as a Trojan horse for Trump’s cronies.

Our Opportunity was designed to put the power of Opportunity Zones into the hands of people who cared about the well-being of folks in the neighborhoods in which they were investing. It seemed appropriate for the artist who collaborated with YG on “FDT” to play a key role in subverting what might otherwise function as a Trojan horse for Trump’s cronies.

The meeting in Washington, D.C., went on as planned on May 27, 2019. Gross traveled to Capitol Hill, along with Charlamagne Tha God and T.I., while Nipsey was present in spirit. “Ironically, this is an event that Nipsey invited me to,” Tip told TMZ that day. “I’m here on his behalf and my own. I have interest in Atlanta as he does in South Central. We’re here discussing legislation that we can use to benefit places like Crenshaw and Bankhead and other underserved areas of the community where we come from.” Asked if he would be willing to work with Republicans to accomplish his goals, Tip didn’t hesitate. “It’s not about Black or White, Democrat or Republican,” he said. “It’s about decent and indecent. I don’t have a problem working with decent people.”

Would that include working with Trump?

“I said decent people,” T.I. repeated. “I said decent people… I said decent… people.”

A year after Hussle’s passing, Gross has not given up on their goals, but his vision has broadened over time. “I do want to get Tip, and I do want to get 2 Chainz and Meek and [Allen Iverson],” he said during his conversation with Van Lathan at Vector 90. “I wanna get all these people who are the hometown heroes, and let’s go and buy up their cities, ’cause they have the capital gains… But it would not be true to my initial concept that me and Nip had to always do things kind of shoulder-to-shoulder with the community.”

Gross says he would like to see the Opportunity Zone legislation revised so that residents of the 8,700 designated areas can receive tax incentives for investing in their own neighborhoods, but until that happens, he’s working with the tools available right now. With the aim of “awakening people who never invested before,” Gross has launched an Investor Challenge, offering to seed new accounts with $100 grants. Houston rapper and activist Trae the Truth was one of the first to reach out to offer support, and others have latched onto the idea, which continues rippling across the country. Meanwhile, Gross is establishing fundamental lessons on economics and finance on the ground floor of Vector 90. Another initiative called #OwnOurOwn allows people from the neighborhood to invest $1,000 into a real estate investment fund.

“The same diligence I’ll put into it for something that me and Nip would do, I’m putting into those deals,” Gross says. The ultimate goal is to “harness as much capital that is community-aligned, that’s in the hands of people who care, who come from these neighborhoods, so we can retain the culture, so we don’t displace. So we do make sure that this investment, the money gets recycled into businesses in our community. So that people can stay and live in homes as the amenities and the services change.”

It’s a former Wall Street guy’s way of staying “10 toes down” and doing finance The Hussle Way. If all goes as planned, the work Gross is doing may turn out to be one of Hussle’s most enduring legacies. “I’m not doing this for the community,” he says. “I’m doing this with the community.”