The story of how Ermias Asghedom, Los Angeles-born, former gang-affiliated high school dropout, transformed himself into Nipsey Hussle, a pioneering rapper and visionary urban entrepreneur, is one of most triumphant, as well as deeply tragic, rap-to-riches stories in hip-hop.
The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle by Rob Kenner, an acclaimed music journalist and founding editor of Vibe magazine, tells that story—The Marathon is a series of Hussle’s mixtapes as well as a metaphor for the struggle to achieve—and is out now from Atria Books. Hussle, who rose to stardom rapping about life in the Crenshaw neighborhood of South L.A. where he grew up, was shot and killed in that same neighborhood, in the parking lot of his store, Marathon Clothing, on March 31, 2019.
PW spoke with Kenner about the new biography which chronicles Hussle’s life and musical career from his early days selling mixtapes on the street to his triumphant 2018 Grammy-nominated album Victory Lap and his inspirational rise to hip-hop stardom and worldwide acclaim.
Publishers Weekly: You met Nipsey Hussle two decades ago. What was it like meeting him?
Rob Kenner: He came to our Vibe office with his Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Volume 2 Mixtape, and what I was struck by right away was his demeanor and his physical energy. His braids were immaculate. He had the Cuban links, and the hip-hop attire straight off the block, proudly representing his neighborhood, with a force of will that was just bursting out of him. I spoke with him after he had talked to the editorial staff. And I just told him to keep doing what he was doing. And we did give him a page in one of the last print issues of Vibe before we went out of business. So that first meeting really impressed me, and I paid attention to him after that.
Who were his musical influences?
He always cited Tupac, Snoop, Biggie and Jay-Z as his guiding lights stylistically. The connection to Pac is very hard to overstate, in terms of the way he puts emotion into his music. Pac was kind of a blues singer, and Biggie [was] more like a jazz horn player. Nip was very melodic. And, as with Pac, he tried very hard to put real facts and real experiences from his life into the bars. Nipsey was very rigorous about always living his truth and speaking his music. There was no exaggeration on Victory Lap. And that’s something that he stuck to throughout his whole catalogue.
Hussle was known as a bibliophile. Who were his literary influences?
He was reading everything from Milton William Cooper's 1991 novel Behold a Pale Horse, to books about entrepreneurial ideas, like The Twenty-two Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries, which was a huge influence on how he approached his whole career. He read Jonah Berger's Contagious: Why Things Catch On, another business book, which had a story about a restaurant in Philadelphia which came up with the idea of selling cheesesteak for $100 that inspired [him] to do something similar with his Crenshaw mixtape. He read Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. He read literature and history. He had a wide-ranging, omnivorous intellect, and he put the knowledge from the books into his raps. It’s also important to remember that he sampled Steve Jobs’ Stanford University commencement speech. This is someone who did not finish high school, but educated himself, and educated the world through his music, and by his example.
Hussle’s mother was from Louisiana. His father was from East Africa. How did their backgrounds shape him?
Nip’s mom, Angelique Smith, and her family came from down south, and that southern hospitality and grace is very much seen through his mother and his grandmother. They were a very spiritual family that tapped into their ancestors’ African, as well as Southern American traditions, which was hugely important in shaping young Ermias Asghedom. His father was a freedom fighter from Eritrea, who came to America seeking asylum.
Hussle’s father, Dawit Asghedom, took Nipsey and his brother, Samiel (aka Blacc Sam) back to his East African homeland for three months. How influential was that trip for Nipsey?
It changed everything for him. He connected with family members who were living in a completely different culture. He talked about the respect for women in that society, and the importance of stopping everything to have a family meal. He talked about the power of living in a country where the government was controlled by Black people. There were so many aspects of that trip that showed him other possibilities. He really gained knowledge of himself on that journey. And he came back to Los Angeles a changed person, with a new sense of purpose.
He came back from Africa, and began to open businesses in his Crenshaw hood. But this noble commitment to his community had fatal consequences. In Hussle's last tweet, he wrote, "having strong enemies is a blessing,” as evidenced by his alleged killer, Eric Holder, a rapper and acquaintance of Hussle's.
From what I learned, there's more to Holder's story than has been put in the press. As far as I know, there haven’t been more than a few preliminary hearings, and it is possible that the case won't fully be tried; that some kind of a plea deal will be worked out, and the whole situation will just kind of get swept under the rug. But The Marathon Don’t Stop, is about the life and times of Nipsey Hussle, and about his place in hip-hop history, American history, and his role as a guiding light for humanity. We can't say that about Eric Holder.
What were the challenges involved in writing this book?
I've been in a lot of difficult environments working on stories, and I don't think anything has been as hard as speaking about Nipsey after his passing. This book was not put together through corporations, public relations, or any kind of industrial links. It was put together by people that knew Nip from day one: people like his fellow rappers Cuzzy Capone, J Stone, and Killa Twan. Everybody who spoke about him did so with a desire to honor his memory. I'm proud of this book, because I believe that it's a contribution to understanding Ermias Asghedom as a man, and Nipsey Hussle as an artist.