AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Grammy-nominated rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed yesterday in Los Angeles. Law enforcement suspect it was a gang-related shooting. If confirmed, it would be a tragic twist. Nipsey Hussle was supposed to meet today with the Los Angeles police chief and commissioner about addressing gang violence in the city. He was famous in south LA for that kind of community engagement, known as a self-made star committed to giving back to the community he came from.
NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael is here to talk about Hussle's legacy and his music. Welcome to the program.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: Nipsey Hussle had been rapping for many years. And yet, his breakout album, in a way, came just last year. Where was he in the arc of his career?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. "Victory Lap" is his first major-label release. But he'd really been putting in work for more than a decade, releasing music independently and really showing just a lot of marketing savvy.
I mean, his first label deal with Epic Records - it went sour in 2010. And, you know, this was really on the cusp of the streaming revolution, right? Artists were being told to release their music for free. But Nipsey - he went and did the total opposite. He released a mixtape called "Crenshaw," and he sold 1,000 CDs for $100 apiece. Now, he sold out in a day. And he had the whole industry buzzing. It was a real power play. And it was really moves like that that gave him a lot of leverage when he came back to the major label system.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTORY LAP")
NIPSEY HUSSLE: (Rapping) I'm an urban legend, South Central in a certain section. Can't express how I curbed detectives. Guess it's evidence of a divine presence. Blessings, help me out at times I seem reckless.
CORNISH: The shooting happened right outside a clothing store that he owned. I understand this was part of a stretch of businesses he had bought to redevelop. What's significant about this location, though?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah, this is the same strip mall where Nipsey and his brother used to hustle illegally back in the day. He'd grown up in the infamous Rollin' 60's, which is a notorious Crip neighborhood in south LA. And he was a member of the gang, but he's also really an example of what happens when leaders like himself mature and begin to become a positive force in their community.
He recently purchased the strip mall where he used to sell mixtapes out of the trunk. And he was planning to redevelop it with some low-income housing and his Marathon Clothing store as a retail anchor.
CORNISH: Right. I mean, he was supposed to meet with LAPD police chief - right? - to talk about curbing gang violence in the city. But he had a long legacy when it comes to economic development, right?
CARMICHAEL: Exactly. I mean, this guy was really a hometown hero. And that story of the rapper who makes it big and escapes the hood - that was not Nipsey's story at all. I mean, he was really putting back into the hood and using his own success to reinvest in the community.
He opened a co-working space recently and a STEM center called Vector90 in the Crenshaw district. And he was an investor in this huge permanent public art project. He was basically known for creating a lot of jobs, paying for funerals of other victims of gun violence. He renovated a local roller rink and an elementary school basketball court. He was really a guy who didn't just rap about loving his neighborhood, but he really showed it in a lot of ways.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATION")
HUSSLE: (Rapping) To make it happen, you got to have it - dedication, hard work plus patience. The sum of all my sacrifice, I'm done waiting. I'm done waiting.
CORNISH: You had a long interview with Nipsey Hussle last year. He walked you through the meanings behind the songs on "Victory Lap." What do you think his music says about his legacy when it comes to economic empowerment?
CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, the word self-made is thrown around a lot nowadays, especially by people that are, you know, often born into privilege in this country. But Nipsey - he really was somebody who lived that story. And it made him something of a hood motivational speaker in his raps. You know, he's someone who was always spitting game about how to bootstrap your way up from nothing and not to escape the hood, but so you can really bring the hood, and really black America, with you along the way.
CORNISH: That's Rodney Carmichael, writer for NPR Music. Thanks so much.
CARMICHAEL: Thanks a lot, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.