Natalie Robehmed Forbes.com 11/06/2013 Last month, unsigned rapper Nipsey Hussle made $100,000 by selling 1,000 copies of his latest mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100 each. Hussle – real name Ermias Asghedom – shifted every single CD in less than 24 hours at a pop-up store in his hometown of L.A. (Jay Z bought 100 copies.)
“One of my mentors suggested I read a book called Contagious,” says Asghedom, speaking to me in New York. “In the second chapter, a restaurant owner created the first $100 Philly cheese steak and got ridiculed but got a ton of prominent people interested.”
Asghedom had originally planned to release the mixtape for free on popular hip-hop download site, Datpiff.com. Instead, in the age of inevitable album leaks and declining record sales, he was inspired by the marketing madness of Philly’s $100 sandwich to launch a campaign entitled Proud2Pay, which rewards Asghedom’s most committed fans with concerts, priority access to new material, and one-of-a-kind gifts, like an old rap notebook or signed photo.
“It’s time we acknowledge what we all know: the music is free,” Asghedom said. “We shouldn’t force people to buy it, what we should do is create different methods to monetize the connection.”
The $100,000 raised from the mixtape went to expenses for Asghedom’s label, All Money In No Money Out, which Asghedom owns a quarter of. (The remaining equity is split evenly between Asghedom’s brother, Black Sam, Adam Andhban and Steven Donaldson.)
Currently unsigned and utterly independent, the 28-year-old Asghedom is not your average rapper. Though the modest watch on his arm has stopped, he arrives five minutes early for our interview, and describes himself as a “book junkie” as he looks around the Forbes library.
“I want to build a product company, I want it to be like an urban Sanrio eventually,” Asghedom muses, referencing the Hello Kitty monolith. “I want our focus to be products that can’t go digital, that can’t turn into ones and zeroes, because anything that can eventually will.”
Asghedom’s instinct – to monetize an exclusive, VIP experience that cannot be bootlegged like a Proud2Pay concert or novelty gift – is a swiftly expanding revenue stream in the music industry, which startups like Ground(ctrl) and Bandpage are already capitalizing on by selling special artist packages like backstage tours and studio sessions.
Proud2Pay is a new take on the concept of the deluxe edition – one Eminem will take to extremes this month with the release of a $300 limited run of The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
Still, $100 for a mixtape – a free record released between albums to sustain buzz or build a following for a rapper – is unprecedented. While the line between mixtape and album has been blurred by increasingly polished offerings – think A$AP Rocky’s 2011 LiveLoveA$AP and Chance The Rapper’s 2013 Acid Rap – can it still be a mixtape if you charge so much for it?
“When you say it’s a mixtape that has less value to people, but I think the fact that I charged $100 dealt with that issue,” Asghedom explained. “It was all original music too, so for all intents and purposes it was an album, but I didn’t want people to mistake it for my debut album.”
Asghedom hasn’t always been independent. Building a following with popular mixtapes in 2008, he signed to Cinematic Music Group and Epic Records in 2009. A regime change at the label soon stalled Asghedom’s debut, and he opted to leave in 2010. He paid nothing to get out of the deal and took his catalogue with him, but signed an override which stipulated that if he signed to another major label before the end of 2013, Epic Records would take a 5% cut on all earnings.
“I think a major label has to be like a venture capitalist,” Asghedom mused. “They have to put forth the resources – the relationships, staff and professionals to take an artist from 60-100.”
“But they have to respect the artist took his own situation from 0-60 and the only way to respect that is in the structure of the deal,” Asghedom said. He bemoaned labels wanting a cut of ancillary income like merchandise and touring, but was optimistic about the future of the music industry.
“CD sales are falling off the cliff but the artist is thriving,” Asghedom remarked. “More people consume our music and people are going to shows again because you can’t bootleg that, you can’t download the show.”
Asghedom is now preparing for the 2014 release of his debut album, Victory Lap, which will also be available for $100, a free download and at regular price on iTunes. He remains open to a record deal, though he says: “I let go of being some type of overnight superstar.” And as Asghedom leaves for an afternoon of label meetings, it seems there’s no stopping his hustle.
This Article First Appeared on Forbes.com