Lenny S. Remembers Nipsey Hussle in Photos
On the afternoon of March 31, 2019, Nipsey Hussle stood in the parking lot outside the storefront of his clothing company, The Marathon Clothing (TMC), in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles. Thirty-three years old, he was on the verge of rap stardom and affecting more significant change in his community than any politician or city official had in his lifetime. Sadly, his life came to an end that same day. He was shot and killed in that parking lot on West Slauson.
The national news coverage following Hussle’s death affirmed what many rap fans knew well. A business owner, philanthropist, entrepreneur and Grammy-nominated artist, Hussle was an unparalleled inspiration to men and women of color in crime-heavy, disenfranchised neighborhoods around the world. His final record, 2018’s Victory Lap, was an insightful, hopeful and unflinchingly honest memoir recounting every struggle he’d overcome and each goal he’d achieved to become an L.A. legend both in and outside of music.
Today (August 15), Hussle would have turned 34. To celebrate his memory, we spoke with Senior Vice President of A&R at Roc Nation, Lenny Santiago, a.k.a. Lenny S., about some of his now-iconic photos of Hussle.
A music industry veteran who’s worked with JAY-Z since the earliest days of Roc-A-Fella, Santiago also moonlights as a photographer. His work affords him close proximity to some of the biggest names in rap, and he generally brings his camera to capture moments both grand and intimate that might otherwise go undocumented.
A friend of Hussle as much as he was a fan of his work, Santiago captured the late rapper’s intense focus, unflagging confidence and almost regal presence in his photos. They are reminders that the marathon must continue.
You shot JAY-Z and Nipsey together at the 2019 Roc Nation Brunch. Having spent decades with JAY-Z and a fair amount of time with Nipsey, what similarities did you see between them?
They both had their minds and their goals set on a lot of things outside of themselves. A lot of people want to be rich and successful, and I think that sometimes comes from a selfish place. What Nipsey was doing, what JAY is doing, and what Meek [Mill] is doing now, comes from a selfless place. Nip admired JAY, and JAY admired Nip just as much. What they were trying to build and create, either together or on their own, was always something for everyone else — their people, their family, their community, or their culture.
When I saw them talking, they spoke like nobody was in the room. There were hundreds of people in the room at the Roc Nation Brunch, as well as in other places I’ve captured them. When they’re in the conversation and they’re learning and building — that’s what I felt I captured.
When Nipsey knew he was being photographed, what was his demeanor like in front of the camera?
Confident and humble at the same time. I can’t remember Nipsey ever saying no… Nipsey always gave me the time, and I always appreciated it and took advantage of it. Some people keep it moving or stop for one second… Normally, people rush the photographer. For Nip, as long as you were good, he was good.
Do you think your candid shots of him were better?
I honestly enjoy candids more. With Nipsey, though, the best photos were when he posed for me. He had a towering essence of dopeness. He had a tall, somewhat lanky body, but his clothes fit perfectly; the chains rested perfectly on his chest, the braids were always freshly done, his sneakers were brand new. When he stopped and that tall body leaned over or he posed for you, it came off better than any candid.
Do you have a favorite photo of Nipsey and Lauren London?
I do. We were at the Roc Nation Brunch. In the back of the venue, there was this little hill with these trees. It was the most phenomenal photo opp. I see some random person taking photos back there, and I’m like, ‘Somebody else is going to see this. Before they do, let me grab Nip and Lauren.’
They’re on the other side of the room. I’m like, ‘Lauren, I need a picture.’ She’s like, ‘Alright, bet.’ And Nip was talking to somebody. I was like, ‘Nip, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I need you now, bro.’ He’s like, ‘What’s up, bro? Everything good?’ I’m like, ‘I need this picture.’ He’s like, ‘Alright, I got you. What’re we doing?’
They move to the side. I’m like, ‘No, I need you at the back. It’s over here.’ There was no hesitation like, ‘That’s too far,’ or, ‘Later.’ They just trusted me.
Then they went up on the hill, he put his jacket on, and that’s the picture. As soon as I took it, I looked at it and showed them, and they were like, ‘Daaamn.’ I was like, ‘FYI, this is going up right now.’
Usually, I’ll hold my pictures. What I get is usually exclusive, and I can hold them. But I couldn’t risk someone asking them to go back there as well. I posted that and it went nuts. Even Lauren came to me later and was like, ‘We’re on fire out here.’
There are few photos of yours where Nipsey’s wearing a black suit and lighting a blunt. In one of them, he looks like he might’ve been laughing. How did you capture that side of him?
We were actually shooting the Drake and Meek video ['Going Bad']. I was a little bit away from Nip. I like being in the distance sometimes, because I don’t want the subjects to ever feel like they’re being crowded. Even if I’m super tight and cool with you, I’m not going to always be in your face with the camera.
Someone was talking to Nip, and they were having a conversation while he was trying to light his blunt. They were just talking to him. It was a good casual conversation. Nip was just there to support his brothers. He was always supporting. He came to do a cameo in the video, and he always came looking like a million dollars… I just had to capture that moment.
You were on set for the entirety of the ‘Higher’ shoot with DJ Khaled and John Legend. This was just a few days before the end of Nipsey’s life. What was the mood like on set that day?
The mood was great. Nipsey was late. I believe he had to finish getting his hair braided. He was always punctual, but I remember him being late for one reason or another.
You have the people from the label, the managers, the people from production — at least 30 people on set. I remember Nipsey greeting everybody and telling them, ‘I’m sorry for being late.’ I mean everybody. Me and Steve-O were just looking at each other like, ‘This guy is legendary.’ Then we went right into shooting.
There wasn’t anything going through my head at the time — it was pre and post. He had on that blue, there was that blue car there, and we were talking during a break. I walked over to him and literally said, ‘Yo.’ He was like, ‘What up?’ I looked at the car and he looked at the car and was like, ‘You want that shot, right?’ I said, ‘Fuck yeah.’ He just knew.
One thing that photo reminded me of — and it’s something that I actually learned from JAY and Nip — is don’t be so scared to take your moment or ask for your moment. There’s so many people that I’ve been around and wanted to shoot, but I was hesitant. Or I saw a great shot and was like, ‘I don’t want to bother them.’
I never want to be intrusive. Everyone I shoot with, I’m cool with. They’re 100% good with it. I think it’s like that because I never go too far. My point is, there have been times I should’ve asked and didn’t, and I missed out on amazing captures. Not even for myself, but for them and the culture.
JAY and Nipsey taught me to go for it. They made me feel comfortable. I thought about this photo 10 times before I asked him. Then I was like, ‘Nip loves me. What do I have to lose?’ It became the best picture I ever took.
That same day, you captured Nipsey and Khaled standing in front of a blue building. Is that in South L.A. somewhere?
We’re actually in Nipsey’s neighborhood, a few blocks from the [Marathon] store. We needed another shot of Nipsey outside of the roof. He suggested his block.
He was like, ‘Come there, we’ll be good. We’re safe. We can shoot without any problem.’ We went and we literally went into the gated houses around there. We shot raw. There was no way I was missing that. It was the realest shit ever.
It seems like you really believed in Nipsey as a person and his music. What aspect of his music resonates with you most?
For me, it was the honesty and vulnerability. Most rappers are aggressive, and they think that being vulnerable is not cool. When I listen to Nipsey, he was always honest and transparent about what he wanted, what he was trying to do, and what he was building.
He spoke like he gave you jewels without feeling like you were being preached to. He was trying to tell you to do right by your family and your community — that’s cool.
You’ve been in the rap industry for a long time. What do you think Nipsey’s legacy will be?
I think it speaks for itself. The overwhelming love, support and admiration he received from the world, from people who didn’t even know his story and learned what he was about and how much he gave back and how progressive-minded he was — that’s the legacy.
The Marathon will always continue. All Money In will continue. What his team and his brother have done will continue. What they’ve done and are continuing after his passing will continue.
2Pac has pop records. I’m not taking away from what he did, but he was way more popular and in films, which helps the platform of your voice. It was so incredible that Nipsey had the same impact without being as big as he was going to be.
Nipsey was obviously going to be huge and was on his way. The impact he had around the world says a lot.
(Photo credits: Lenny S.)
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