“All the smart money got they bets on me / And all the real niggas wish the best for me” – Nipsey Hussle

Of course Jay Z gets the final word on Nipsey Hussle’s now seminal mixtape, Crenshaw. Illuminati theorists wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the last 17 seconds of the last track, “Crenshaw And Slauson (True Story)”—a three-song victory lap of reflection and market disruption—begins a clip of a vintage Hov interview after a then nascent Roc-a-Fella Records’ secured Priority Records distribution in 1996. As lore goes, Jay and partners Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke chose the independent route after toiling for years attempting to land a major label contract. Here’s the quote:

“We had to get our little thing together. We picked up distribution. Now we strong. Now we’re legit. We a force to be reckoned with right now.”

Roc-a-Fella’s Distribution Deals With Priority Records & Armadale Vodka

The Priority agreement would become the linchpin of the Roc-a-Fella empire—a diversified business that included one of the coolest record labels of the era, a clothing line (Rocawear) and a signature liquor brand. Through a multi-million dollar deal, the Roc acquired the North American distribution rights to little-known Armadale Vodka from Scottish distillers William Grant and Sons in 2002. Rappers flooding their raps with Tanqueray and Courvoisier references were as common as Ciroc shout outs now, but few artists, if any, actually owned the distribution rights. Speaking with Scotland’s Edinburgh News in September 2002, Kareem “Biggs” Burke explained the Roc’s rationale for venturing into the premium spirits market.

“You always hear about us talking about the [vodka] in the song,” he said “So, like with the clothing and the music industry, we were like: ‘Why are we still making money for everyone else?’ We just acquired the company and said: ‘Let’s do it ourselves.’

“This is not just for Hip Hop,” Biggs added. “Of course that might be our initial sales, because of our demographic—the two million people we have a tight hold on. It’s going to reach way more than that. That’s why it’s Armadale and not Roc-a-Vodka or some crazy shit like that.”

The Armadale distribution rights would eventually change owners, along with every other Roc-a-Fella property in the years following the label’s contentious 2005 fallout, even though the vodka company still leverages Jay Z’s cool quotient in its branding. Regardless, two things remain striking about Biggs’ quote in the Edinburgh News”:

1.) Roc-a-Vodka is an awesomely awful brand name. Clearly it would’ve been an abject failure in the “Grown & Sexy” era Hov ushered in with The Blueprint 2’s “Excuse Me Miss,” “All Around The World” and later with “Change Clothes” off The Black Album. It’s even difficult to envision a club full of faux-Louis Vuittons clattering into the happy hour spot requesting Roc-a-Vodka.

1A.) Club going sucked in the “Grown & Sexy” era, actually. Dress codes were entirely too strict and few things agonize a 22-year old ego more than hoping your outfit makes it past the bouncer. Even fashion sneakers were grounds for exclusion. A business suit and Steve Maddens couldn’t crack Manhattan’s China Club in 2003—absolutely the most uncomfortable by-product of the age.

2.) Waka Flocka Flame should immediately reprise Roc-a-Vodka as Wak-a-Vodka. Just the name Wak-a-Vodka sounds like something that goes with going hard in the paint. And since the Atlanta, Georgia general’s already ventured into the alcohol game with his Desiac Liqeur, diversification makes too much sense not to consider.

Most importantly, Bigg’s comment—like Hov’s Crenshaw closing quote—provides an interesting glimpse into the rebelliously progressive, do-it-yourself mindset permeating through the organization. The specifics may differ, but Jay “no-hyphen” Z’s 2013 #NewRules mantra isn’t all that new. Rather, it’s an evolution of Roc-a-Fella’s defiant middlemen rebuking culture. In the six years between the Priority Records and Armadale Vodka distribution deals, the brand galvanized, as Biggs’ says, a loyal fan base two million strong and it did it while maintaining ownership of its intellectual property, essentially assuming an all money in approach—something Nipsey Hussle exercised to perfection recently with his #PROUD2PAY campaign.

Nipsey Hussle’s #PROUD2PAY Campaign

“Fuck the middleman / I said that in 2003” – Nipsey Hussle

The line stretched halfway down North Fairfax Avenue that Monday (October 8), then arced around the corner along Rosewood Avenue. Black people and Brown people and White people and young people and OGs all impatiently waited for midnight so they could cop an autographed copy of Nipsey Hussle’s exorbitantly priced mixtape, Crenshaw. Karen Civil was there documenting, along with Skee TV, Sway’s Universe and of course HipHopDX. Online naysayers said the Los Angeles-native went irrational for charging $100 for his latest release (which also came complete with a ticket to an upcoming concert), but judging by the horde gathered outside of YOUth boutique, Nipsey might’ve been the smartest man in music. The “Tiny Loc” sent out the proverbial Bat Signal the Friday before and on cue his following flocked like moths towards light. Arguably, this was the biggest fan mobilization Hip Hop’s seen since Lupe Fiasco fanatics protested Atlantic Records for the release of Lasersjust so they could buy it…and won. By every distinction, this was an event.

“Every time my shit drop / Victory for Hip Hop” – Nipsey Hussle

Hussle hustled all 1,000 physicals in under 24 hours—reportedly grossing $100,000 off CD sales alone—even though the mixtape would be available for free download the next morning. (There was also a line of Crenshaw-branded merchandise available for purchase, including a black crew neck sweatshirt going for the low, low price of $136) Hov respected the ballsy move so much that he alone copped 100 copies. In an interview with DJ Skee, Nipsey said that they “planned this bank robbery for the last two or three years.”

“Originally bro, I was gonna give away the project on Datpiff,” explained the kid that came up selling socks on the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson. “We were gonna tour off of it, support it with videos and do the traditional one-two punch…I looked at the era we was in and I was like, ‘Man, I’ma sell some physicals…And I’ma charge 100 bucks for them.’ But my goal was not to sell out. It was to create conversation. I wanted people to get mad. I wanted people to say, ‘Why is this album $100? I’ve gotta listen to this shit because if it’s not the greatest album ever, this dude’s crazy.’

“My intention was to create conversation solely,” Nipsey added. “I think that that worked. People started talking about it but then I knew I had a certain amount of people that was engaged to the point of wanting to support me based on what I’ve given them for free already. My motto’s always been ‘F the middleman.’”

“It was a concept. It was basically like, always by choice, never by force. If you proud to pay for it, this the price of it.”Nipsey Hussle

The campaign’s success may have caught the industry sleeping, but those following Nipsey’s hustle over the course of his now decade long career were not surprised.

“Not at all, man,” Stat Quo told HipHopDX exclusively. “He’s been working so hard.  He’s one of the guys on the cutting edge of West Coast music for the new generation. I gotta go ahead and give him and Archie Davis props for coming up with an incredible scheme. It just shows you the power of grassroots marketing. It starts with your community and raising awareness about yourself and using this Internet as a tool to push your product.”

“When he first came out, he was doing these Worldstar blogs and people hadn’t even heard music from him,” remembers Glasses Malone, who was on-hand for Neighborhood Nip’s big night. “He’s a real powerful artist. His whole thing is inspiration. His whole movement is built off ‘You can get it, too.’ He leaves you with a certain level of being inspired. That’s a smart nigga. And he’s so deceptively smart. If you really don’t pay attention to the conversation and only look at the outer shell, you’ll miss him.”

Analyzing How Nipsey Hussle Galvanized His Fan Base

It’s easy to see why people gravitate towards Nipsey Hussle. He looks you in the eye when speaking. He moves with a resolute conviction and steadily shows respect. He kicks empowerment both on and off wax. His music brims with an energy akin to Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation: 101 or Rick Ross’ Port Of Miami—minus the IMAX-ready cocaine imagery. Crenshaw resonates because of its honesty, intellect and, as Glasses Malone says, inspiration. A quick Google search of the words “Nipsey Hussle Interview” reveals seven years worth of headlines like “Inspiring Words From Nipsey Hussle” and “Nipsey Hussle At USC Talkin Some Real Shit” all littered with comments like “Nipsey is the next Pac” and “Nipsey is a smart dude, he is super worldly and real.”

In a 2006 conversation with Hardknock TV during Russell Simmons’ Get Your Money Right Summit, 21-year old Neighborhood Nip’s matured perspective on financial investing and police profiteering nearly floors venerable journalist Davey D.

In a 2010 interview with A Team Media, 24-year old Nipsey acutely details how controlling music on his corner connects directly with controlling the world of music. “[Los Angeles] is important to the country,” he says. “Regardless if you can’t have the whole country, if you have LA, you have a place that’s important to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

“If you have the streets of LA,” Hussle continues. “You have LA because the streets is important to LA and LA’s important to the country. And if you have the 60s, you have the streets of LA. It just so happens I was born and raised on 60th Street. Once I figured Crenshaw and Slauson was the most important corner in the world, in my eyes it all made sense. That was the conscious move: take the corner, take the hood, then the West Side, then the whole city. Then I’m like, ‘OK, BET Awards is once a year. When they fly in, they gonna be like, who’s the nigga?’”

In this week’s conversation with Complex, 28-year old Nipsey Hussle passionately describes the source of his visceral connection with his fans. “There ain’t no nigga in the game like me,” he says. “I don’t need a Dr. Dre beat. My truth is gonna be what they connect to. I touch people when I go to my shows. I see my lyrics tattooed on them. But I’m not a fame junkie. I’m not into trading ownership of the only asset I have, which is my intellectual property. I’m not into trading that so people will understand why I’m the realest thing in this shit.”

In retrospect, Nip’s risky #PROUD2PAY campaign wasn’t a risk at all. It was a sure shot. His entire career is built off his belief in himself and the promise of his Crenshaw neighborhood. With every step along his marathon, Nipsey’s spoken truth into reality. His words literally enlighten people, which in turn galvanized a base devoted enough to drop a one-day, $100,000 Thank You note.

The point is this: In music, as in life, you never bet against those who never cease empowering others; those who never creep close to complacency; those who never trade their convictions for trinkets. You never bet against guys like Jay Z. And you never bet against guys like Nipsey Hussle. 

Justin “The Company Man” Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and entertainment for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.