The death last month of Nipsey Hussle, the Crenshaw-based rapper and community activist, prompted an outpouring of grief. Tickets for a Los Angeles memorial at the 20,000-seat Staples Center sold out in less than 20 minutes.
Such was Hussle’s success as an entrepreneur, however, that his family has been able to decline crowdfunding efforts as they vow to continue his community work.
In the past, fans simply purchased albums or CDs. In the age of streaming, allegiance is increasingly expressed physically through the sale of merchandise, which has accordingly become an increasingly significant aspect of music business success.
Hussle, whose birth name was Ermias Joseph Asghedom, established the Marathon Clothing store in 2017. Since he was shot dead there on 31 March, at the age of 33, sales have soared. Outside the store last week, employees were busy fulfilling orders.
Sales had increased “at least 100%, I know for sure”, said Boutabag Wicced, 32, who identified himself as a member of the Rolling 60s gang and said he had been involved with the store for more than a month. Just days after he got out of prison, he said, Hussle gave him $800 worth of clothes and a job.
Marathon, he said, was “no longer really [about] just buying clothes no more – it’s really like a whole new way of life, you feel me? People are really trying to change and that’s what Nipsey pushed for.”
Every 15 minutes or so, men cleared a path to the road so they could load a white pickup with garbage bags filled with packages. Once the truck’s flatbed was full, it would drive off to the post office.
“Since the incident everything has picked up a lot,” said Wicced. “It went out the roof. We always had a steady flow, online orders; since the incident, it’s ridiculous. But we got a team of volunteers to help push out the packages. We’re around the clock, pushing out packages. If you ordered some of the merchandise, it’s being sent to you.”
The shop, he said, was now “where you’re going to come to remember his message”.
Merchandise licensing is an increasingly important part of the music business. According to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (Lima), it generates $12bn in annual revenue.
According to Billboard, merchandise accounts for between 10% and 35% of revenue from major tours. A legend of the merchandising sector, Dell Furano, told the publication Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber shows routinely gross $300,000 to $400,000 in merchandise sales, accounting for as much as $15 to $20 spent by every concertgoer.
The pace of sales of Hussle-related merchandise is therefore not surprising, said Marty Brochstein of Lima: “Licensing is always built on emotion so it would not surprise me that sales of his clothing are climbing. It’s a natural reaction.”
‘Fandom through fashion’
The music industry’s business model has flipped, from tours supporting albums to albums supporting tours and other revenue streams. And while bands like the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Kiss or Nirvana have profitable licensing businesses, few operate with as much sophistication as contemporary hip-hip acts.
Following Jay-Z’s pioneering Rocawear line, acts like Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Pharrell are invested not just in merchandising but in fashion hook-ups. West has been closely associated with Givenchy; A$AP Rocky with Dior Homme; Travis Scott with Virgil Abloh, Saint Laurent and Helmut Lang; Pharrell with Chanel; and Lil Wayne’s most recent release came with four t-shirts created with Heron Preston. On the most recent Drake tour, pop-up stores were stocked with his OVO brand. Justin Timberlake has operated pop-ups with Heron Preston and Nike.
Kurt Cobain would have told you, ‘I’m not a clothing designer, I’m a musician'Harry Bee
According to the brand adviser Harry Bernstein, also known as Harry Bee: “Merch has evolved from a concert T-shirt to an expression of fandom through fashion. Think about it: Pharrell had Billionaire Boys Club, then Adidas. Now Chanel is now another version of Pharrell merch.”
No one would have done that in the 90s, Bee said. “Kurt Cobain would have told you, ‘I’m not a clothing designer, I’m a musician.’ But now if you’re an artist with a certain style or aesthetic you not only make the merch but collaborate with brands.”
Brochstein, of Lima, said: “The tail is not wagging the dog. It’s not a replacement revenue for music. But given the economics of the business, it’s something that more and more artists are looking at as a potentially important revenue stream.”
‘He helped a lot of of people out’
It is unlikely many hip-hop artists will focus on community as much as Hussle did. At the store in Crenshaw, Herman “Cowboy” Douglas said Hussle’s gang once used the parking lot of the same mini-mall to do business.
Saying Jay-Z was the inspiration for the business, he added: “Instead of hanging out on the blocks, where everybody gang-banged at, we sold CDs.”
Like many who worked for Hussle, he said, he had spent time in prison. Since the rapper’s death, he said, members of rival gangs had come to pay their respects.
“A person like me, a person that’s been to jail, it’s hard to get a job. [Hussle] employed me, he employed other people in the same kind of predicament. He helped a lot of of people out. He had homeless people on the payroll. They might be homeless, but they’d have a job to do. In the morning, come in, sweep up, whatever it may be.”
Standing by a memorial arrayed with candles, flowers and other items including blue bandanas and bottles of alcohol, Wicced said: “This ain’t about his death, how he died, he flew early or none of that.
“It’s about everything he wanted for everybody, for everybody to be happy and productive, elevate they life, start to be owners, start to get your own life together, be at your peace with yourself.
“The whole thing about it is to keep his message going.”