Season Nine: The King of Crenshaw Episode 3

Songs in the Key of Life The highs, lows, joys, and pains of Nipsey’s decade-plus-long voyage to his debut album ‘Victory Lap.’ And how that marathon ran parallel with the NBA players who were in awe of his every move.


Adam Silver: With the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select Isaiah Thomas from the University of Washington. Goodnight, New Jersey!]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Isaiah Thomas was the last player selected in the 2011 NBA Draft. Not that it mattered, though. The 5 foot 9 inch guard was ready to prove his worth to a league full of giants.

Analyst: Even though he’s small he plays bigger. He’s a guy that can make a team.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: And he decided to celebrate with a huge party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. His musical guest of choice: Nipsey Hussle

After being put on to his music by a college team mate, IT and Nipsey struck up a friendship — trading tweets and messages on social media. They’d met briefly at one of Nipsey’s concerts in Seattle. They texted each other. They were friends from a distance.

ISAIAH THOMAS: I ended up getting drafted and I was asking if there was any way he could come out and do a little draft party for me. And he was like, “Hell yeah.”

SAM: It wasn’t just business. It wasn’t just like we got booked. Hussle appreciated, you know, that this young Black male made it to the league. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey’s brother Sam was part of the crew that went to the draft party

SAM: And they showed us love. They had hotels, everything  — anything we needed. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Before the party, IT and Nipsey really got a chance to hang out in person for the first time.

ISAIAH THOMAS: We’re chopping it up like a couple hours before the show. I’m kicking it with him. All his homies  —  the All Money In crew’s in there  —  I got a couple of my friends in there. You know, on one of his songs he say, “Sipping hot tea before he hit the stage.” He really had the hot tea in the hotel room sipping it. He was like, “This is my in season. This is how I get right. You know, kind of like whatever you do before your games to get you mentally right.”

JUSTIN TINSLEY:  The two young men hit it off while they pregamed. IT assumed they’d head to the party and Nipsey would perform a few tracks and then just dip.

ISAIAH THOMAS: You know, usually rappers they do a few songs — they probably do five or six songs, maybe, and then they’re out of there, you know. They’re, they’re getting their bread and then they’re out of there. When he get on stage, we’re already on stage waiting on him. One of my homeboys, while he’s going through songs and stuff, he like, “Man, play this song, play this song.” He stops and he like, he’s like, “Hold on, cuz.” He’s like, “Hold on, cuz. We ‘gon play the whole Marathon tape.” And I was like, “He really about to do the whole…? You know, the Marathon…what’s that? 20 songs!” He did every song where everybody was singing. That’s when I knew it was like genuine love. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: From that night forward, Nipsey and IT’s friendship evolved into a brotherhood. It wasn’t lost on them how their lives ran in parallel lanes. 

ISAIAH THOMAS: And we was kind of going through the same stuff, trying to, you know, poke our chest out and be who we always thought we could be to the world.


[Hard Knock TV
Nipsey Hussle: Man, I been knowing IT since he was in college, man. I look at his career, like I look at mine. He made himself valuable, you know what I’m saying? Against a lot of odds. And so I fuck with IT. Heavy.]


JUSTIN TINSLEY: From 30 for 30 Podcasts and The Undefeated, this is The King of Crenshaw. I’m Justin Tinsley. Episode 3: Songs in The Key of Life.


JUSTIN TINSLEY: In the mid and late 2000s, Nipsey Hussle had one foot in the streets. And the other hell bent on kicking in the door in LA’s rap scene. Existing in two worlds isn’t easy — even for somebody as charismatic and dedicated as Nipsey.

DEVI BROWN: He was really reckoning with himself that, “Who am I, based on the sum of experiences I’ve had thus far and who can I be based on all of the unknown circumstances I haven’t walked into yet?” You know, I think there was quite a bit of exploration of his shadows. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Devi Brown was an on-air personality at KDAY in LA. She was also a friend of the young rapper.

DEVI BROWN: I remember specifically there were at least two different times where we were supposed to do something and he just couldn’t be found. Like, just couldn’t be found. Like, I remember one day we were supposed to shoot something together and he just didn’t come to set and he couldn’t be reached and couldn’t be found. And it took like a week to hear from him. And you know, at that time he was just like, “Listen,” like, “Man, I was just, I was just walking through some stuff. And when, you know, whenever that happens, like I just go ghost, like I just have to like completely get away from everything. So, no one heard from me. And I’m sorry, but that’s just it.”

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey was trying to navigate the two big obstacles his Rollin’ 60s affiliation posed: the rules to the street and the police. He and his homeboy J-Stone hit the streets hard, promoting themselves and their music. But they had reached a limit on how far they could go to get the word out. 

J STONE: It was places that we couldn’t go by us being from 60s. Like, we couldn’t go to the Eight Tray Gangsters and, and, uh, put up posters. We couldn’t go to the Hoovers and put up posters. We couldn’t go to Inglewood and put up posters. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: A bad situation suddenly became worse when the police raided Nipsey’s studio.

[Rap Radar
Nipsey Hussle: So when the police came and raided that spot, that was a monkey wrench. That fucked me up.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey, in his own words was “pure”  —  not doing anything illegal at the time. But he had a prior charge and there was a gun in the studio. Nipsey not only got picked up for the presence of the gun. The police seized all of his gear.

[The Next Level Magazine
Nipsey Hussle: They put a new case on me I was just confused about it. And I remember, like, questioning everything. I ain’t had no answer for that one, but it kind of discouraged me for a long time.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: It was a major setback — financially and emotionally — but the music he’d been making when the police raided his studio, it caught the ear of a big wig at Epic Records.

[The Next Level Magazine
Nipsey Hussle: A person named Johnny Shipes — he was an executive at Epic Records. He had a joint venture up there at Epic. Reached out to my people like, “I wanna sign Nip.”]


JUSTIN TINSLEY: All of a sudden, he was back in the game — with a major label record deal in tow.

[The Next Level Magazine
Nipsey Hussle: I remember telling myself, you know, “I must really love rap because every time I quit I always come back to it.” So, I remember, like, “I ain’t gon’ quit no more.”] 


JUSTIN TINSLEY:  He almost immediately released a trio of mixtapes — under the moniker Bullets Ain’t Got No Names. Volume Two featured “Hussle in the House” — the song too full of cripping to keep on the radio. But, still, a track so hard and so catchy, it made people want to learn more about him. He even graced the cover of the hip hop magazine XXL as a member of its prestigious “Freshman Class” of 2010 alongside future stars like Freddie Gibbs, J. Cole, Big Sean, and Wiz Khalifa.

Nipsey was on his way. But then the deal with Epic imploded — just two years after they’d signed him. Call it a casualty of the times. In 2010, the music industry didn’t know how to deal with the proliferation of streaming — legal and illegal. They were losing money. Epic — like most labels — underwent a regime change. Existing talent, like Nipsey, got put on a shelf while the label searched for new blood.

[Power 105.1FM
Nipsey Hussle: You know, you don’t really get credit for what’s already signed and it’s in your interest to bring new talent to the building.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey had enough experience hustling to know a raw deal when he saw one. And he wasn’t in the business of wasting time. For seven years he’d been trying to break out. Instead of sitting around and waiting for something to happen, Nipsey made a move.

[Power 105.1FM
Nipsey Hussle:  I had a convo with the general manager. I’m like, “Bro, I know how to get it out the trunk, you know what I mean. I appreciate what we’ve done  — don’t hold my career up. Let me, let me go back indie.”]

SAM: We was all like, “Man, you know, what are we going to do without the label?”

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey told his brother not to worry, he had a plan.

SAM: He like, “Nah, listen, trust me. We winning. I got all my masters. It’s some shit called streaming, right now. Some shit called Tune Core, iTunes and you know, CD Baby.” And he was lacing us and he’s like, “Man, I’m putting all my shit on there. We gonna market it. And when it start rolling, we gon’ get money coming in every month. Fuck the middle man.”

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Fuck the middle man. Nipsey not only saw his potential, but he believed in it. 

Much like his homies in the NBA, Nipsey was a young Black man operating in an industry where the talent was majority Black. But the decision makers were overwhelmingly white. 

He decided he wasn’t going to wait on the power structure or the white man’s money to bring him success. He was not going to play by the rules, or follow the status quo. And a lot like the player empowerment era blossoming at the same time in the NBA — think LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach the same year— Nipsey was going to make it on his own – his way.

He would rely on the survival skills and hustle he’d learned on the streets.

But he also had an example of this independence and self-reliance from his father’s homeland of Eritrea. Nipsey, his brother Sam and their dad had traveled there in 2004. And that trip changed the way Nipsey looked at himself and the world around him.

Nipsey Hussle: I feel a sense of pride, knowing the history of the struggle and just the circumstances that our people overcame.You know from being outnumbered, being against, you know, superpowers and coming out victorious and then being self sufficient after the fact and being independent in a country that believes in self sufficiency, in building from scratch and similar to what I stand for in music, is you know is taking the stairs and doing it the long way based on integrity. So I just feel a sense of pride and also, you know, a little bit obligated to carry that same integrity in my space.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: He negotiated a clean break from Epic while retaining ownership over the music he was recording. And then he doubled down on his own label: All Money In. 

[Big Boy TV
Nipsey Hussle: You know, it was really when I left Epic, a lot of the songs that was going on my album turned up into turned into the Marathon mixtape and then I released it.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: In December 2010, Nipsey released a new mixtape. The title paid homage to his uphill journey he’d been running all these years. He called it: The Marathon.

[Rap Radar
Nipsey Hussle: You know, if you really think about the metaphor of The Marathon, when you look at it as like life it’s about endurance, it’s about preparing, it’s about mentally breaking through your barriers that tell you, “I can’t keep going.” You’re more capable than you think you are and than you’re conscious of.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: It’s the mantra that would stay with Nipsey for the rest of his life. Honestly, mine too. I didn’t know how much Nipsey changed my life with that concept at that time. I just knew I saw parallels to my own journey. 

I graduated college at the height of the recession in 2008. Like so many of my peers, we had to carve out what our own image of success looked like. And that time came with a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of nights where I wouldn’t just second guess myself. It was more like third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh guessing myself. Looking at the ceiling wondering: “Am I really on  the right path?” 

In the years after college, I floated from job to unemployment, back to another job and then back to unemployment. The only thing that kept what little bit of sanity I had left was writing. And to keep it a buck with you, it started out as something to pass the time when I wasn’t applying for jobs. Then it grew into something I couldn’t imagine myself not doing.

So when Nipsey spoke of his life and his career and pursuit of his happiness, I felt parallels to my own journey.  

This is the thing about how Nipsey carried himself and spoke about The Marathon. The concept of running your race; staying on your grind and, most importantly, going at your own pace    well, that applies to everybody. 

Not just gang bangers or hustlers. Everyone. The person in medical school trying to grind it out. The single parent working multiple jobs to keep food on the table. Or the fledgling journalist trying to make flipping these words pay off.

Athletes resonated with — and were inspired by — the concept of The Marathon. Especially players in the NBA, like DeMarcus Cousins. 

DEMARCUS COUSINS: It’s just the fact that he made that a priority for our people. Not only did he make it a priority, but he also put that priority into play. It’s like, “I’m not only talking about it,I’m going to also do it and show you how to do it.” 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: The ability to see and value the long-term especially resonates with a player like DeMarcus.You want to rap about highs and lows? Good laps and bad? Being misunderstood? 

DeMarcus was drafted fifth overall in the 2010 NBA draft — the same year Nipsey broke from Epic and later dropped The Marathon. DeMarcus signed with the Sacramento Kings and made the All Rookie team that first year. And for a good minute, the four-time All Star was a bonafide Top 10 player in the league. I mean fam was a walking 25 points and 10 boards in any arena he stepped in.

Then came the obstacles. 

Show Host: Why does the best big man in the game also have to be such a big headache?]

Show Host: Boogie Cousins is uncoachable. Let’s take last night as an example, when he got two technicals and will now be suspended a game ‘cause he has 3000 technicals.]  

JUSTIN TINSLEY: The clashes with coaches, refs, players, and media over his attitude. The suspensions.

Show Host: I’m trying DeMarcus. I’m trying real hard to believe that you’re better than these blowups, but you’ve got to do better.]  

JUSTIN TINSLEY: This guy also survived viral meningitis and a ruptured Achilles that derailed his career.

Show Host: Boogie Cousins is going to be a member of the Golden State Warriors. Coming off a torn Achilles, and heading into free agency, not a single team bit. So, Boogie took matters into his own hands, made a few phone calls, and decided to settle on a one year mid-level exception deal worth a bit more than five million dollars.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: He came hella close to a championship with the Warriors — only to get denied by the Raptors, and find himself once again chasing a contract. In April 2021 — just before the start of the playoffs — DeMarcus signed with the LA Clippers. 

NBA Commentator: Pass inside to Cousins. Cousins… count it and the foul! A chance for a three point play. 15 points in 10 minutes tonight. What a boost for the Clippers.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: DeMar DeRozan — another 4-time All Star — is cut from that same cloth.

The kid from Compton left USC to go pro after just one year — mostly to help take better care of his mom, who lives with lupus. He went ninth in the 2009 draft — behind future stars like Blake Griffin, James Harden, and Steph Curry and ended up with the Toronto Raptors. You can’t get more different from South LA than Canada in the winter. 

DEMAR DEROZAN: I still was wearing Chucks in the middle of December in Toronto in the cold. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Year after year he built up his skills and reputation — eventually becoming the Raptors’ All-Time Leading Scorer. He got the team to the playoffs in 2014, and again in 2015, and 2016. He got them to their first conference finals. And then…

Show Host: Breaking news into SportsCenter.]

Show Host: The deal is done.]

Show Host: Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors in a package deal that includes DeMar DeRozan going to the Spurs.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Kawhi came in and led Toronto to its first franchise title.

NBA Commentator: There’s a new NBA champion and it’s a team from Toronto, Canada.] 

DEMAR DEROZAN: What you going do? You know what I mean? That was always my mindset. Like, what you going do? And that was at my low points and, you know, at your high points, you know, you go through so much at a young age that you scared to accept a lot of high points in your life because you don’t want that, that let down to hit you and knock you down. But, for me, it was just I found something I love in sports and there’s going to be obstacles and as long as you can continue to run, continue to build —  you know, build build build —  ‘cause it’s not gonna stop.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: In October 2013, Nipsey started the next lap in his marathon — and he dropped the Crenshaw mixtape. 

The music was dope as hell, but it was how he made the Crenshaw tape available to the masses that really got people’s attention. Crenshaw was available online to download for free. But if you wanted a physical copy, Nipsey was charging 100 dollars. 

And just where did he get the idea to charge 100 dollars for a CD from?

[HOT 97
Nipsey Hussle: I read a book, man. One of my homies, Big Bob, man. Big Bob Francis. He like one of my mentors. He put me on a book called “Contagious.” The second chapter was talking about this restaurant chain in Philly that started selling a hundred dollar cheesesteak. And it, it made all types of people mad, but it also got all type of press and publicity. You know what I’m saying?
Interviewer: Right. Like, why would it be a hundred dollars? Let me go check it.
Nipsey Hussle: Exactly. You know, and it ended up on Oprah and David Letterman and all these big outlets and stuff. So I was like, the whole book is about like, what make things go viral? You know what I’m saying? So when I read that, I put the book down, I’m like, “We’re going to do physicals and we’re going to sell ‘em for a hundred.”]

B. DOT: It still sounds ridiculous. Like, a hundred dollars for a CD?! Nipsey, you’re on drugs. 

GERRICK KENNEDY: I thought the idea was insane. I loved the fact that you were betting on yourself, but I still couldn’t grasp the idea of why anyone would buy a CD for a hundred dollars.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Friends and supporters of Nipsey, like music journalist Brian “B. Dot” Miller and culture critic Gerrick Kennedy, they thought he’d lost his mind charging $100 for a CD — especially during the rise of digital streaming. 

Nip’s brother Sam wasn’t so sure either. 

SAM: He had a lot of crazy ideas, you know, and a lot of them I’m questioning them. This hundred dollar mixtape was definitely one of them.

[HOT 97
Nipsey Hussle: And my team was like, Well, you gotta justify the price.”] 

SAM: I’m like, “Man, we got to give him a shirt, a CD, hoodie. I’m gonna go make all this shit.” He’s like, “No, no, no, we ain’t giving him none of that. You buying a CD for a hundred.” I said, “Bro, you crazy, ain’t nobody gonna buy a CD for 100.” And he said, “Watch.” Til the day it dropped, I was still like, “I don’t know.” But, man, he had it hooked to his phone and every time he would make a sale, he had it bing, bing, bing-ing to his phone. And I remember we was all at the shop and his shit was just going off. For me, at this time, in this age, I’ve never seen no shit like this in my life. I’ve never… it was like a kid in the candy store or for the first time, your eyes being open. Every time I hear this shit, ching-ing it’s a sale. And his shit was going up, going up and now he’s showing me the phone. He’s got, you know, 70,000, 80,000. We lookin’ like we hit the lottery. Niggas high five-in’ and then like, “This nigga’s a genius!”

JUSTIN TINSLEY: With the Crenshaw tape, Nipsey created the concept for a marketing campaign he called “Proud 2 Pay” which was a call back to lyrics from his 2011 mixtape, The Marathon Continues. 

[Rap Radar
Nipsey Hussle: If you listen to TMC on the last song, I was like, one of the lyrics was like, um, “They telling me they believe and I got style for days. And when I do drop an album, they’ll be proud to pay.”]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey knew that he had loyal supporters who understood his vision and would answer the call no matter the cost. 

[Big Boy TV
Interviewer: Yeah, man, and I was proud to pay. That’s why I paid
Nipsey Hussle: Most definitely. But it was by choice. It wasn’t by force. If you wanted to get it for free, you can go online and download it.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Isaiah Thomas understood the vision off-the-rip. 

ISAIAH THOMAS: I didn’t even think twice. I was just like, “Damn, it’s a hundred dollars? Forget it. I’m getting it. I’m getting it.” And then, you know,  He was able to see where his following was really coming from.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: For DeMarcus Cousins, supporting Nip was never in question. 

DEMARCUS COUSINS: For me it’s no different than a clothing brand charging you a thousand for a pair of jeans. Like, it’s really no different. You put what you put into your art, you deserve to put your price point on. So, I respect it.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: DeMar DeRozan thought charging 100 dollars for the Crenshaw mixtape showed Nipsey was thinking on another level. 

DEMAR DEROZAN: I thought it was genius. A lot of people looked at it, like, “Man, I ain’t buying that.” But, it’s the belief in his product that he knew he was putting out what he felt like it was worth. To me, it was one of the dopest moves because it brought attention to it. Like, let me see why it’s this much? Then once you listen to it, it’s no denying it. 

B. DOT: Nipsey reached out to me and said, “Yo, can you post this on Rap Radar?”

JUSTIN TINSLEY: B.Dot invited Nipsey to pen a post for Rap Radar about the message behind “Proud 2 Pay.” He wrote:

“As an artist my goal is to inspire, entertain, motivate, and most importantly INNOVATE,” Nipsey wrote on the Rap Radar post. “And as lovers of art we should base our purchase on the artist’s ability to do so. That being said, if my presence in the game has had any of those effects on you, $100 is your form of saying don’t change.” 

B. DOT: So Jay-Z, you know, he’s always watching. And he’s a fan of Rap Radar and he saw the post and he read what Nipsey wrote and said, “Yo, that makes sense.” And he told Elliot and I like, “Yo, tell Nipsey, I like what he’s doing.” And he said, send like an email or send an address or something like that. Next thing we knew, we saw an image of a hundred CDs of Crenshaw at the Roc Nation office.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: A Jay-Z endorsement helped the Crenshaw tape truly go viral — just like the one hundred dollar cheesesteak. Here’s Gerrick Kennedy:

GERRICK KENNEDY: The shit sold out. You know, it took off in a particular type of way, but it was, again, still one of those things where the story of that traveled really far, right? But it still wasn’t people talking about the music unless you were already really, really, really tapped into like West Coast hip hop. Like, other than that, you weren’t really talking about the music itself. You were talking about the business model, which was a great model. And that headline was very sexy of, you know, “Jay Z bought, you know, a bunch of copies or whatever.” That was a really sexy headline for a lot of people, but they still didn’t take time to explore the music or any of those things. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey had new fans popping up everywhere — genuinely interested in learning what the hype was behind the guy selling the $100 mixtape. 

But Nipsey wanted people to respect his artistic vision just as much as his business vision.He still had work to do. A lot of work actually.

Isaiah Thomas couldn’t help but draw motivation from Nipsey. One good season or one good album doesn’t guarantee longevity. It was all about establishing your worth — and doing so even when it looked like the deck was stacked against you. 

ISAIAH THOMAS: During those years of having to prove ourselves, me being on non-guaranteed contracts, so having to work even harder to get guaranteed. And, me being a 5’9″ guard in the NBA like that, that shit don’t happen. We was both grinding in different fields and, you know, just trying to get to the top with no handouts. It was a surprise to everyone else what I was doing on the court, but I always dreamed of it and I seen it and I visualized it and I know that was the same for him. I think that’s what the definition of The Marathon is. You can see can the light at the end of the tunnel, but nobody else can. You know, like the Bible says, “Walk by faith, not by sight.” You put the work in knowing that, you know, something could possibly happen and believing that something can happen when nobody else other than your team and the people around you believed it could.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: By 2017, both Nipsey and IT were on the verge of realizing their most ambitious dreams. Nipsey was focused on completing his first studio album — Victory Lap. And talk about a marathon.

ISAIAH THOMAS: Dudes was waiting 10 years for Victory Lap. He was talking about Victory Lap in 2011! 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: And after years of working overtime to prove himself, IT had landed with the Boston Celtics in 2015. This was one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. And IT quickly became not just one of their best players, but one of the best players in the entire league.

NBA Commentator: Thomas on the drive. Pull up jumper. It’s good! Isaiah Thomas!]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: He even earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter.”

NBA Commentator: But It’s tough to solve the puzzle that is the fourth quarter of Isaish Thomas scoring.] 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: During the 2017 NBA season, IT was a legit MVP candidate who led the Celtics to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. But it wasn’t just their successes that continued to run in parallel lanes, the two friends were about to experience parallel tragedies.

Show Host: Horrible news surfacing regarding star Isaiah Thomas. His sister, 22 years young, killed in a car crash this evening, reportedly, in the state of Washington. Thomas was told about this after practice today. Obviously, you can just imagine what’s going through his mind with the game tomorrow.] 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: News of his sister Chyna’s death came on the eve of the Celtics opening round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. With game one looming, people weren’t sure whether or not IT would play. But that’s the thing about marathon runners: they don’t quit. 

PA Announcer: 5’9” from Washington, number four… IT…Isaiah Thomassss!]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: IT entered the TD Garden in Boston to a standing ovation before tip off of game one. 

Commentator: And a moment of silence here at The Garden and tears streaming down the face of Isaiah Thomas. He will play.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Surrounded by his teammates at center court, IT summoned immense strength under immense grief.

Commentator: And Bradly had Lopez closing out. Oh! Isaiah Thomas! He’s in the game now!] 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: IT turned in a 33-point, six-rebound and six-assist performance. It wasn’t enough to win that night, but Thomas would ultimately lead Boston to a series victory. 

NBA Commentator: And the Celtics can dribble it out as they defeat the Chicago Bulls four games to two.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: In the Eastern Conference finals IT aggravated a hip injury and was shut down for the remainder of the playoffs.

Commentator Isaiah’s limping. Something’s wrong with him. His ankle or something or his hip.] 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: IT had to draw deep on Nipsey’s message of The Marathon to help push him through the pain, both on and off the court. And in that darkest of times, his friend reached out.

ISAIAH THOMAS: When it happened, you know, he sent me a text. You know, “If you need an ear, if you need somebody to vent to, if you need anything from my end, I’m here for you.” Just knowing that somebody like himself, saying something like that, like, that meant everything to me. A little bit around that time, you know, one of his friends had passed, too.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Five months after IT’s sister died, Nipsey lost one of his closest friends — Stephen “Fatts” Donelson.

ISAIAH THOMAS: That was somebody that you know, he grew up with. That was a business partner, you know, family, everything.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Not even blood could’ve made “Fatts” and Nipsey any closer. Fatts was a co-founder and part owner of All Money In Records and he had his hand in several other businesses with Nipsey. 

Fatts is the reason I even knew about Nipsey in the first place — through our mutual friend, Bryan Robinson. And I’ll be honest with you, Fatts is the reason you’re even listening to this podcast right now. 

Nipsey Hustle: Fatts, you know, that’s one of my best friends. We just had a genuine friendship, you know what I mean? And also, one of the people that really believed that we could do something else beside gangbang.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: In September 2017, Fatts was gunned down outside a store in South LA. He was 30 years old. Nipsey and the entire team were gutted. Here’s Cobby Supreme.

COBBY SUPREME: Man, that shit fucked shit up. Put us in a bad space and, and we were trying to like get out of that space. We came this far from 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old to where the time where you were supposed to probably die and it didn’t happen. We make it all the way past that point for that shit to happen and it was just … we all was hurt off that. We still hurt

SAM: Felt like the Twilight Zone, man. I couldn’t believe it. You know, we have been through so much. And, you know, I thought we was invincible up to this point.

ISAIAH THOMAS: He was a little different in his energy. That shit hurt him. That shit hurt him.

[Big Boy TV
Interviewer: Did you ever get down where it was like, “Man, this ain’t going to work?”
Nipsey Hussle: That’s why I called my thing The Marathon because I’m not gonna lie and portray this ultimate poise, like I been had it figured out. No, I just didn’t quit. That’s the only distinguishing quality from me and probably whoever else is going through this or went through this or is going to go through this is that I ain’t quit. I went through every emotion. I went through every emotion with trying to pursue what I’m doing. You know what I mean? And I think that what, what gon’ separate whoever’s gon’ try to go for something is that you ain’t gonna quit. And you know, you’re going to really take the stance of I’m gonna die behind what I’m getting at right now.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Losing Fatts was another reason why Nipsey could’ve walked away from everything. But he stayed. And the whole crew got to work. 

SAM: I think it just motivated everybody to get this, get this album out. Victory Lap. Definitely put more pressure on Hussle to put out what we started with bro. Cause that’s, that’s the main focus, you know, after everything. We wanted to put the real album out. We gotta do this for bro.

COBBY SUPREME: When you go through shit like that it almost, it almost seemed like for nothing. And I know bro felt that way, like, “Damn we done did all this shit and now bro gone.” And then that was another reason for him to keep going. For all of us to keep going.

[“Racks in the Middle” Lyrics
Nipsey Hussle: Damn I wish my nigga Fatts was here/ How you die at 30 after bangin’ all them years?/ GRAMMY-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear/ But I don’t wipe them, though/ We just embrace the only life we know/ If it was me I’d tell you, ‘Nigga live your life and grow’/ I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know’/ And gas the V-12 ‘till the pipe is smoked.] 

ISAIAH THOMAS: Like, you know, on “Racks in the Middle,” he said, “I wish my nigga Fatts was here.” That was real. Like, he really wished that. And I think that was a missing piece that, you know, really got to him.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Nipsey and IT grieved together — trading text messages and calls, just checking in. IT knew firsthand how bittersweet finishing Victory Lap without Fatts was for Nipsey.

ISAIAH THOMAS: Some of my dopest moments, especially after my sister passed was like, “Damn, I wish she was here to see this.” Even when my daughter was born, it’s like, “Damn, she would have, she would have loved, you know, being around my daughter.” Like, stuff like that. So that … I know, I know he missed that.

Nipsey Hustle: I knew when I was making Victory Lap that at the point I was at in my career, I wasn’t going to do nothing else until I felt that I had an album with 14 or 16 great songs. My whole process was like, when it blow me away, I’m gonna be ready to move.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: He wanted this debut album, some 15 plus years into his career, to launch him to superstardom. Nipsey felt like he was still on the cusp of greatness — because he was.

DJ HED: Greetings and salutations Earth humans. My name is DJ Hed. 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: DJ Hed is a radio personality in LA. He’s somebody that artists trust to critique their music.

DJ HED: I’m going to tell you, honestly, what I think about your music before you even turn it into the label. So that way, the label doesn’t have a chance to fuck you before the public does. I’m that guy.  

JUSTIN TINSLEY: As Nipsey was deep in the creation of Victory Lap, DJ Hed came through the studio and offered his two-cents. 

DJ HED: In a nutshell, what I told Nipsey was, “You make high-brow, high-level boutique rap, which is fine, and we love it. But at the same time you leavin’ all of this over here on the table. The radio station is available to you. You just have to, you have to just make something that they can fuck with. We call it slaps, right? Give the people some slaps! Like, the name Nipsey Hussle is bigger than all your songs” — at that time. This is what I was trying to explain to him. I’m like, “The moment you get a record to match your name. That’s when they, they going to have to put you in those conversations. They’re going to have to give you GRAMMY nominations. They’re going to have to put you on the radio. They’re going to have to give you these awards. Right now, though, you have a brand, but I need some slaps.” And so, I mean, the mood was fucked up. He was smoking this blunt by the stairs. And we were just, we were just about to leave. He pulled me aside and he was like, “Aye, you know, um,  you say crazy shit to niggas. Like, you say wild shit to niggas.” And he was like, he’s like, “But you know why they fuck with you?” And I’m like, “Why bro?” He said, “Because your intentions are pure and that’s why I fuck with you.” 

DJ HED: Because of that conversation he told me, “I got you. Imma get you a record that the DJs can support.” And that ended up being the “Last Time That I Checc’d” record with YG.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: “Last Time That I Checc’d” most definitely — as DJ Hed would say — slaps. Victory Lap had its fair share of bangers, but this one was undeniable. Not even six months after losing his best friend, Nipsey Hussle was ready to put out his debut studio album. And the team was confident — and proud.

SAM: Every time Nip record, every time I hear something, I tell him the test is if I get goosebumps. Every record on Victory Lap I got goosebumps when I first heard it. It gave me the chills. 

B. DOT: You know, when I first heard it, I was like, “Yo, this joint is classic.” I said it off bass, like, “This joint is fire!” 

JUSTIN TINSLEY: For B. Dot and Gerrick Kennedy, Victory Lap was the Nipsey project they had been waiting for. 

GERRICK KENNEDY: It wasn’t until Victory Lap where I felt like I was listening to someone who was so firmly stepping into their voice as an MC, who was so firmly stepping into what they were as an artist, who they were in terms of like, this is what I want the public to understand about me. And there was something about it. Yeah, the whole album it slapped, but he made lots of music that slapped. He made lots of music that, that hit really hard, but there was something about this project. We had heard about this record coming for years, you know, but then it happens and it’s exquisite.

JUSTIN TINSLEY:  Devi Brown is the friend who’d had to tell a 23-year-old Nipsey that his first radio hit — “Hussle in the House” — was getting pulled off the air because of all the gangbanging references. So for her, the success of Victory Lap was deeply satisfying.

DEVI BROWN: I first started hearing, like, the single in the car. Hearing it in the car was different, especially remembering what it was like to get him on the radio at all. You know, both he and I were much older at this point, successful in different ways. To be able to turn on the radio and hear his music, knowing how it started, I would just cry. I legitimately — when I heard the whole album from start to finish — I cried. And I hit him up and I was like, “I’m crying right now.” I was like, “This project is so incredible.” And his response to me was just like, “Yo, if anybody knows, you know.” Like, “Thank you. Thank you for always being solid. You know, you’re my sister.” And I was like, “I love you. I’m so proud.” It was a really powerful moment.

[The Hollywood Fix
Nipsey Hussle: You already know the marathon continues. This shit don’t stop. February 16, 2018 Victory Lap is officially out. Make sure you all download the album, buy the album, stream the album, turn this shit up man.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: The release was timed with NBA All Star weekend, which just so happened to be in Los Angeles. Black Panther dropped that weekend, too. And let me tell you something as someone who was there on the ground. It was a celebration of Blackness, of epic proportions. And Nip was the unofficial host.

ISAIAH THOMAS: For it to drop and hit like it did — All Star Weekend in LA. Like, it was just the perfect situation it seemed like. Perfect moments.


[2018 NBA All Star Game
LeBron James: We’re honored to be here part of 2018 NBA All Star. So, let’s get this going. Let’s have fun.]

[97.9FM The Box
Interviewer: I was at an All Star Weekend in LA and the song for the weekend was “Last Time That I Checc’d.” Every time I dropped that record all weekend long, the club went up.
Nipsey Hustle: That’s love. Thank you, bro. I appreciate that.]

JUSTIN TINSLEY: The weekend was like a gift for a race well run. It brought together hip hop and basketball, Nipsey and his brothers in the NBA, all in his hometown. 

Victory Lap debuted as the No. 4 album in the country. Nipsey had that classic album he always knew he would make. And it would be one that would bring him his first Grammy nomination.


But the race wasn’t over. As far as Nipsey was concerned, the marathon was just getting started. 



Reporter and Host: Justin Tinsley


Senior Producer: Joanne Griffith


Production Team: Gus Navarro, Dave King, and Derwin Graham


The series was edited by: Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer for 30 for 30 Podcasts, and Steve Reiss, Deputy Editor for The Undefeated


Executive Producers: Erin Leyden, Brian Lockhart, Kevin Merida, and Raina Kelley


Additional Production Support: Meradith Hoddinott, Mitra Kaboli, and Eve Wulf


Original Music: 1500 or Nothin’

Mix Engineering: Ryan Ross Smith, Ben Tolliday and Garrett Lang


Project Manager and Licensing: Cath Sankey


Additional Licensing Support: Jennifer Thorpe 

Development: Adam Neuhaus & Trevor Gil


Talent Producers: Chantre Camack and Sharee Stephens


Music Director: Kevin Wilson


Fact Checking: Roger Jackson


Legal Review: Alan Lau 

Special thanks to the Estate of Nipsey Hussle 


Archival Material
Audio provide courtesy of:

“Self Made” interview series hosted by Brett Berish, CEO of Luc Belaire, Bumbu Rum, McQueen and the Violet Fog and Villon

97.9 The Beat

97.9 The Box


ABC7/KABC-TV Los Angeles

Associated Press

Big Boy Radio Network

iHeartMedia’s The Breakfast Club 

DenDen Media


Genius Media Group, Inc.

HOT 97

Justice for Murdered Children


LA This Week


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