According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” Ten years ago today, the late great Nipsey Hussle took a giant step on his musical journey with the release of his landmark mixtape The Marathon, a major milestone in a movement that continues to this day.
“I’m on a mission and I’m all alone,” Nipsey Hussle croons (yes, he could sing, too) at the end of “Love?” the opening track of The Marathon. “Far from where I’m goin’ and I’m far from home. Somehow, I know I’m movin’ in the right direction. My mama always told me I was gon’ be special.”
For those who first tapped into Hussle’s music around the time of his 2018 Grammy-nominated debut album Victory Lap, it can be difficult to comprehend the full significance of The Marathon. This is the sound of a bold and brilliant young artist for whom failure was not an option, walking away from a major label situation and navigating the treachery of music industry politics and hood politics while betting everything on himself and his All Money In No Money Out team. As such, The Marathon represented a fearless leap of faith that paid off big for Neighborhood Nip, his big brother Blacc Sam, and the close-knit inner circle—Stephen “Fatts” Donelson (RIP), Adam Andebrhan and Jorge Peniche.
Hussle was far from an obscure underground artist when he started running The Marathon. His Bullets Ain’t Got No Name mixtape trilogy, particularly Vol. 2, set the streets of L.A. on fire. By June 2009, four months after the release of So Far Gone, Drake was paying homage.
The two rising stars would soon collaborate on a track intended for Drake’s debut Thank Me Later, but instead they leaked “Killer” to the rap blogs in December 2009. A few months later Hussle appeared on XXL’s third annual Freshman Class cover, alongside the likes of J Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, Jay Rock, and Freddie Gibbs.
“Nipsey was the star of the day,” recalls XXL editor-in-chief Vanessa Satten. “He got the most prominent placement. It was all coming off his relationship with Snoop and bringing the West Coast back to relevancy.” The cover story looked forward to his major label debut South Central State of Mind, but for reasons that Hussle would detail in the liner notes to The Marathon, he chose to walk away from a seven-figure deal with Epic Records. For him, the decision came down to creative integrity and ownership.
Hussle’s devoted fan base kept running laps with him through The Marathon Continues the following year. His very next mixtape, 2013’s Crenshaw, made history when he sold limited edition hard copies for $100 apiece. Jay-Z wired $10,000 for 100 copies of Crenshaw the first night they went on-sale. As Hussle told me, “When Jay tapped into the wave, everybody became a believer.”
When I spoke with Hussle during the Victory Lap press run, Nipsey drew a direct line from his long-awaited debut album to The Marathon. “It’s so much underlying events that took place in between me leaving Epic Records and Crenshaw coming out,” he said. “Real-life things. Street shit that never really got written about cause it doesn’t belong on the front page. My brother going to the penitentiary. Going to jail. Us getting raided. Us having real war in the streets. You know? But I never went on camera or went on record and said ‘this is why it’s taking so long’ or ‘this is what I’m going through.’ I just dealt with, you know, what was going on cause it sound like excuses… Nah. I was just trying to work through it, survive it.”
As The Marathon marks its 10-year anniversary, there are 960,000 #TMC hashtags on Instagram and another 730,000 #TheMarathonContinues hashtags plus 1.4 million #NipseyHussle hashtags. Hussle has become an iconic figure in hip hop culture whose face appears on murals, T-shirts and tattoos all over the planet, an emblem of resilience and inspiration to people from all walks of life.
On his 2018 debut album Victory Lap, Hussle referred to himself as “Tupac of my generation,” but since his tragic demise, it’s become clear that Hussle’s legacy stands alone. “I don’t even put him in the Biggie or Pac,” DJ Quik said in an interview on L.A.’s KDAY radio. “This was more like the Malcolm X situation because he was more politically involved, like Martin Luther King.”
Ten years later the music on The Marathon hits different. From the Kanye West flip “Mac 11 on the Dresser” to the line on “One Take 3” about friends who kill their homies then bring yams to the repast. “Blue Laces” inspired Lebron James at one of the hardest moments in his career, and inspired a sequel that’s one of the highlights of Victory Lap.
The final hidden track “Slauson & Crenshaw (True Story)” is a whole musical autobiography. Hussle’s high school classmate Ralo Stylez, who went on to co-produce “Dedication” and “Young Niggas” on Victory Lap, is credited as Executive Music Producer on The Marathon. “What we had is super organic,” says Ralo. “’Cause literally me and him are like musical soulmates. In the sense that my natural approach to beats is his default. We came out the same pot.”
When I play the tape now I find myself rewinding the final bars of "Love?" "No. 1 question now is ‘Did the fame change him?’/Fuckin’ right, young nigga/Should I be still gang bangin’?/Wait, hold up/Hold that thought/Take these shots/And tell my niggas SIP the marathon don’t stop.”
And yes, the marathon does continue, especially with Hussle’s affiliates dropping heat on a regular basis with no major label support. If you love Nipsey Hussle, make sure you tap into Cuzzy Capone & Wee Dogg's Cracc Babies 3, Pacman Da Gunman's Esta Loca Vida Mia, Cobby Supreme's Pyrex Vision 4, BH's The Bluprint, Killa Twan’s forthcoming I’m Who They Pretend to Be, and the highly anticipated new album from J. Stone The Definition of Pain, which drops this Wednesday, Dec. 23 and includes two new collabs with Hussle, one also featuring T.I. and one with Dom Kennedy. Nipsey passed the torch to these hand-picked L.A. artists because as Ralo Stylez puts it, “It’s not even a marathon anymore. It’s a relay.”—Rob Kenner
Rob Kenner is the author of The Marathon Don’t Stop The Life & Times of Nipsey Hussle, which will be published by Atria Books this March.
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