By: Devin O'Neill.
5 Ways the Entrepreneurial Rapper Is Preparing Us for the Future of Culture
Nipsey Hussle is an inspiration to our generation in the realm of success and impact. Today’s landscape often feels bleak for content creators—streaming doesn’t seem to pay enough, 360 deals and race-to-the-bottom marketplaces are eating creatives alive, and the culture is so crowded it can be hard to break through.
But Nip offers us a different story. A self-made entrepreneurial rapper from the Crenshaw hood, he hacks the cultural rat-race to focus on his roots and his community, and to funnel resources back home. As a result, he’s built a solid foundation for his brand that will outlast the hype cycle. He’s an emissary from the future, time-traveling back with tips to make it in the new economy. Here are five of them.
1. THINK LOCAL, ACT GLOBAL
In the age of the internet, it’s tempting to want to go global immediately. We see enormous potential in the idea of virality, and we feel like we’re always watching people blow up. But Gary Vaynerchuk, successful hustler in his own right, says this kind of thinking is a trap.
“A lot of people are treating their business the way the treat a casino. Yeah, you could have one night where you took five thousand from the casino. But why don’t you keep going every night and tell me how it works out. They don’t build Vegas on us winning. And everybody’s treating their business that way right now. Everybody’s jumping from trend to trend; they have no foundation of what they’re actually doing.”
Gary emphasizes concrete fundamentals: Make quality products and experiences that come from your unique roots. Human relationships over tech and trends. This stuff is slow, and it takes patience. Nipsey is the living proof of the efficacy of Gary’s approach. He built his foundational business on a very simple work ethic with physical product, starting from the street and building his way up. The plaza he used to hustle in front of is now his ground-zero retail outlet; he bought the block. It’s hard to get more local than that. In his Rap Radar interview, he says:
“This is where, really, the Nip Hussle story, as far as doing music, started. Just as far as, me selling my mixtapes out the trunk in that parking lot. And even before the music, just hustling out the parking lot, and then making the transition to selling my music, you know what I mean, to my clientele. And becoming known as an artist, you know, just a young up-and-coming street artist. And then all of the levels that we went up, and all the transitions since then.
So there’s a story connected to this space, even before the store. Just the actual geography, the parking lot. We’ve been on many levels in this parking lot. It’s always been pull up at eight o’clock, leave at ten, you know. It’s just been for different reasons.”
As the brand grew, Nipsey re-invested his new resources right back into that same community. He describes the purpose of his 2 Big 2 Fail project this way:
“It’s basically a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) compound that we built in the hood. It’s a 5000 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.”
Nipsey is building a foundation that will outlast the highs and lows of both internet fame and music stardom.
By grounding himself in the physical—by solving real, local, material economic problems—Nipsey is building a foundation that will outlast the highs and lows of both internet fame and music stardom, both shaky bets in the coming post-ad economy. Plus, his involvement in the community is a constant source for his unique online story– he’s got more to offer than the same ten game-the-algorithm techniques every other wanna-be-viral content producer has. By doing something real that comes from his home and his heart, he’s giving the world something unique and authentic—so he has an advantage no one else can easily replicate.
Start from your center, from your local realities and your own base of experiences, and build something out of that. Pace yourself. That’s how you find your unique advantage.
2. CONTENT IS FREE
If you are going to deal in media products, you have to be realistic about how they work. If you have a banana, and you have a button you can press to make an infinite number of copies of that banana and send them all over the world at zero cost, according to the laws of supply and demand, how much is that banana worth?
Zero dollars. It’s a free banana.
So many grassroots content companies try to fight that reality with paywalls, digital rights management, overpriced funnels, and lame, shrill advertising to force you to pay big bucks for access to digital material. Nipsey does none of this, because the foundation of his business was never music, never just selling bits of data for dollars.
Instead, he builds a foundation of fan relationships with streetwear, underground cultural cache, and community projects, and he gives the music away for free as a loss-leader. Content is only ever one piece of a larger puzzle that includes culture, connection, emotional buy-in, and physical merchandise. Nip says:
“We feel like what’s happening with music is that the cash register is at the wrong part of the process. It’s still on music. Music is abundant. Once things are abundant, they’re free. There’s no tangible way to control it. Scarcity is what the value is from. If it’s abundant, then there’s no scarcity model and you can’t charge for it. Music is free—it’s in the cloud. Services are there to curate all of the music, that’s what we are paying for—but the music is intangible.
Nipsey is banking on people getting caught up in the cultural experience, and he puts all his energy into making that experience amazing.
So we move the cash register to products. Tangible products that can’t be a victim to the digital revolution. That’s the whole basis of what we’re doing. You can’t bootleg a hat yet. Might have digital clothes coming soon, but not right now. You can’t bootleg a #Proud2Pay version of the CD. You can’t bootleg an authentic signed picture. You can’t bootleg a sweater, jumpsuit, lighter, ashtray. And we are going to evolve the product line. We are going to keep the focus narrow but be consistent in products.”
“But Devin,” you say. “He charged $100 a copy for the Crenshaw album, and $1000 for Mailbox Money after that. That’s charging for music.”
You’re right—superficially. But that music’s always been available on Spotify. So with those physical releases, there’s something else going on. Nipsey is banking on people getting caught up in the cultural experience, and he puts all his energy into making that experience amazing. Then he gives people the opportunity to support: to participate in something big. And they take it, and pay big, because they want the experience to continue.
But Nipsey never assumes he’s going to butter his bread by putting all his shit behind a paywall and treating digital content like physical gold. Instead he understands the market realities and the advantages of digital, and adapts to them. He tries to create classic tracks so they’ll have replay value on Spotify. He rethinks the obvious. He knows that he’s got to approach things differently, to offer something more, if he wants to beat the content crash and ride the new wave. Which leads us to:
3. GO BEYOND MONEY
Nipsey’s plans for 2 Big 2 Fail, his STEM work-and-education center in his native hood, are very instructive with respect to his values and market perspective. The center will have WeWork-style rentable startup space upstairs, but there’s a catch: you can pay for space and services up there by volunteering downstairs, and teaching locals the skills they need to make headway in places like Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach.
Douglas Rushkoff hinted at this concept when he talked about Time Dollars: the idea that communities can bypass some of the bullshit attendant to banks and fickle currencies, and create strong local development by paying each other with their time. Rushkoff writes:
“The Japanese recession gave rise to one of the most successful time exchanges yet, called Fureai Kippu, or ‘Caring Relationship Tickets.’ People no longer had enough cash to pay for their parents’ or grandparents’ health-care services—but because they had moved far away from home to find jobs, they couldn’t take care of their relatives themselves either. The Fureai Kippu exchange gave people the ability to bank hours of eldercare by taking care of old people in their communities, which they could then spend to get care for their own relatives far away.
Time-dollars systems, and those like them, don’t encourage extractive profiteering because they are really only good for exchanging labor and services with other people.”
The wealth stays in the community, and recirculates—and this is inflation-proof, government-proof, and exploitation-proof. Nipsey sees the value inherent in what he’s creating first. How that value is exchanged is secondary; it’s about bringing that value to the people.
Value-beyond-money isn’t just about community service, though. Imbuing your brand with energy and purpose beyond profit is considered central and crucial by the world’s biggest companies. Nipsey’s mentioned Sanrio with admiration—saying he wants to have his projects be the “urban Sanrio”—and the iconic Japanese lifestyle brand’s founder has spoken endlessly about the values of friendship and love that fuels his company’s iconic, branded characters and the products they adorn:
“I wanted to think of a business that would promote friendship. That led to the idea of a gifts business—gifts make people happy. Even after I pass away, I hope that the values of friendship, cuteness and caring for each other will endure and appeal all around the world.”
Sanrio’s “small gift, big smile” ethos and emphasis on communication and connection—many of their gifts and products are stationary, pens, cards—echoes Nipsey’s plan to make branded physical products that communicate a culture and a feeling. He told Complex in their interview late last year:
“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?”
4. CULTURE AS A SERVICE
This perspective of culture-over-numbers extends beyond South Central into how Nipsey deals with all of his fans. His goal, instead of prioritizing broadcasting and collecting random eyeballs, is to narrowcast to the small group of people that love him most and to turn those into meaningful relationships. Nip argues:
“…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.”
Nipsey truly believes he’s providing fans with something of value; that they’ll benefit from consuming his work—so his strategy reflects that. He doesn’t waste time following received marketing advice about how to capture as many eyeballs as possible. The product is refined, elevated. Not-for-everybody, but specifically designed to improve the experience of those that love it.
Like Nipsey, if your vision is already independently proven, your ideas will be respected, and you can negotiate with more authority.
He frees himself from the pressure of selling large quantities of cheap product to everyone on the planet with high price-point, so that he can focus on tailoring his work to the people who care and invest most deeply in his empire. He builds from his core followers outward.
Nipsey’s instinctive ethic is remarkably close to the “1000 true fans” strategy, widely lauded by people like Tim Ferriss– to succeed as a creator, you don’t need millions of fans. You just need 1000 people who will buy literally everything you put out.
This emphasizes that quality and depth of relationships are more important that quantity of relationships, and it provides an antidote to the social media “as many friends as possible” rush. Nipsey still wants to go global, but his biggest allies in that process are the true, deep fans—they’ll rave to everybody about Nipsey, because they’re getting the rush of a bespoke experience they can’t get anywhere else.
5. GO BIG ON YOUR TERMS
By now it should be clear that Nipsey’s strategy involves a weird sort of market introversion. He focuses his energy inward, on his community and his truest fans, and builds solid business models on the realities of the evolving marketplace. It’s all about blocking out distractions and avoiding blow-up-quick mentality to grow outward from the middle, patiently and properly.
But there’s only so much you can do on your own if you want global distribution and recognition, especially for physical products like apparel. At some point in your scaling process, either you’re going to build all that infrastructure and ship things yourself, or you’re going to take on partners. This is why Nipsey partnered with Atlantic Records via All Money In—but he waited until he could do it on his terms. During his Rap Radar interview, he talked about his decision-making process after the release of Crenshaw, his $100 album:
“Is this the moment to sit back down and leverage the situation? My main mental exercise while I was on tour, was just: what’s the next move, you know what I mean? And I knew I was going back in the studio quick. But I knew… I’m like… Your value goes up the more you don’t sit down at the table, when you just work. I ain’t really wanna sit down like that. I was like, you gonna get it cheap ‘cause I’m in a rhythm right now. Y’all gonna get it cheap. I don’t wanna open up the phone right now. I wanna just keep working.
I wanted to just utilize all the new resources we was getting off the Crenshaw success to buil