Can’t Knock The Hustle

string(0) "" bool(true) string(0) ""

Inspired by the example of Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon Store, G Perico, Desto Dubb, and 2 Eleven are channeling the spirit of entrepreneurship and economic independence.

Art By Evan Solano

At a strip of businesses on the 1400 block of Centinela Avenue in North Inglewood, there’s a cable technician balanced on an awning and untangling a ball of primary-color wires. When I’m in earshot, I hear him asking for the owner to come outside. Specifically, he’s looking for the proprietor of 1409 Centinela. It’s early January of last year, so when rapper 2 Eleven, the owner, emerges from the glass storefront, he’s donning a white Lakers hoodie with Kobe Bryant’s #8 on the back. He answers the technician’s questions then, after checking the matching gold outline of his Nikes, notices me and announces, “It’s a good day you came, I just got my LLC today.” 

The physical shop has been updated in the past year — now ‘LEVEL UP ON CENTINELA’ rests above the door — but The Level Up Store was serving Inglewood before the sign was finished. It’s tucked back about 20 yards from the road in an ‘L’ shape strip with The Serving Spoon as a neighbor, a staple breakfast joint that’s occupied the space since 1985. The two are connected by a soft maroon awning that wraps around the strip. The Serving Spoon is getting ready to close for the day, but The Level Up store is buzzing right now. The shop sells clothing and is filled with custom shoes, jeans, shirts, jackets, hats, socks, and other apparel from popular national companies like Bathing Ape and Adidas, but mainly focuses on smaller Los Angeles brands, especially those from Inglewood. On one of the first racks I see three shirts emblazoned with ‘Cypress Drop That Shit’, merchandise for L.A. native DJ and producer Cypress Moreno. Some members of the new staff are rearranging items while 2 Eleven holds court. “Everything’s gotta look nice,” he says. “One of my homies, Keebo, been locked up for 17 years. He just got out and I’m trying to lace him up when he comes by in a minute. He needs to see we’re official around here.” 

‘Official’ around Inglewood hasn’t always meant restoring autonomy for victims of the prison industrial complex though. In 1939, as a part of the New Deal, the now-defunct Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) drafted a map of Los Angeles to visualize and chart mortgage risk across the city according to Federal Housing Administration (FHA) standards. The map divided the city into dozens of irregular-shaped districts and then color-coding those sections according to letter grades given for loan risk assessment (A: Green, B: Blue, C: Yellow, D: Red). Officially, the map shaded Centinela and all of North Inglewood red. The criteria for grading was, at best, odd and, truthfully, overtly racist. It favored racial and ethnic homogeneity and, even in that creepy practice, disproportionately awarded ratings depending on which race or ethnic group occupied the area and how “subversive” they were. Areas with a red ‘D’ rating tended to contain a large minority population. 

Once a district was “redlined” it made it increasingly difficult to obtain a home loan or even smaller ones to repair owned property, which ignited a cycle of disrepair that continues to affect communities. Richard K. Nelson of the University of Richmond helped publicize the insidious nature of these “redlining maps” and calls the 1939 Los Angeles HOLC map “explicitly racist…the racism isn’t subtext. It’s just text.” 

2 Eleven at his Level Up store on Centinela in North Inglewood (Photo by Nathan Moya-Mendez)

2 Eleven has spent most of his 35 years in Inglewood, growing up near Rogers Park. He talks about listening to Snoop Dogg with his cousin for the first time in a Hyundai after church and how smooth and forbidden it felt compared to the Keith Sweat and New Edition he was used to hearing at home. Soon Damu Ridas, a large group of Blood-affiliated rappers, would enter the scene in the early ‘90s, swerving Chevys on two wheels and wearing “beanies and jeans at 100 degrees.” They were an even closer touchstone of local success and the combination of them and No Limit Records (“I bought anything with a tank on it”) eventually led 2 Eleven towards music. “Rapping?” he says leaning on the Prius he drove that day to save gas, “that shit kinda fell into my lap. We were always playing at rapping, but it started for real when I went to New York to work with some producers. They let me freestyle in the studio and I printed off the recordings into CDs and went around selling them shits in like 2001-2002. It was called Nephew. I came back with 10 songs and ran it up at all the swap meets. I didn’t know anything about the industry.” 

2 Eleven’s music wasn’t moving past Centinela, but his affiliation with the Neighborhood Pirus helped keep his music popular in Inglewood. Besides a quick chance encounter with Suge Knight in 2005 — in which the Death Row head reportedly told him to hop on a still unreleased 2Pac track — 2 Eleven stayed outside the established music industry. Until he got a phone call from Young Jeezy’s camp in 2007. “I popped up on them,” he explains, “They signed me to CTE World [Jeezy’s label imprint] and I lived in Atlanta until 2011.” Once he stopped receiving communication from the label and his deal was subsequently terminated, he returned to Los Angeles. “Shit went left basically,” he summarizes. 

Back in North Inglewood, he was embraced by a new generation of rappers. Rucci, Ackrite, Lil Deuce, Sean Mackk, and others saw 2 Eleven as a vetted uncle in music and NHP. “I think the youth helped me stay relevant and motivated in some way.” he says. “I know for sure I wouldn’t have this store if it wasn’t for Sean Mackk.” Sean Mackk was part of a duo with Rucci known as MackkRucci and the two had styles that meshed like a jaw clenched on itself on their lone self-titled project. Mackk slid like a poised hustler while Rucci stepped on jaws. 

In July of 2017, Sean Mackk was murdered in a cul-de-sac, a devastating blow to his friends and family and the potential of Inglewood rap going forward. It’s also the reason I’m standing in that parking lot. “This whole store shit was Sean Mackk’s idea,” 2 Eleven says, “When he died I had to honor his memory by fulfilling his wish. One day I pick him up and we’re about to go to a studio in Paramount. He’s on my ass from Rogers Park to Cahuenga about why we ain’t got shit for Inglewood like Nipsey Hussle does for his hood. He was saying that I’m the oldest and I need to be going in and setting it up for them. I deflected it at the time, but he was right.” 

Sean Mackk provided the impetus but wasn’t here to see the Level Up Store incarnated or 2 Eleven’s “Blood Walk” video reach 2.4 million YouTube views. It’s obvious he would have appreciated the video, but the clothes and welcome Keebo received on his first trip back to Inglewood suggest Mackk would have more to look at.

G Perico at his So Way Out Store on 108th and Broadway (Photo by Nathan Moya-Mendez)

The corner of 108th and Broadway is relatively quiet on a mid-July afternoon. On the Westside of Broadway are a small church, an even smaller hotel and a liquor store. The building in the northeast corner opposite the liquor store is a shared space between Broadway Boxing Gym — obvious from the bold red ‘BOXING GYMNACIO’ against the white paint — and rapper G Perico’s So Way Out store. Sharing the name of his So Way Out clothing brand and record label, the storefront showcases the apparel, merchandise, and physical music available from all his ventures. When asked about the meaning behind So Way Out on L.A.’s Home Grown Radio in 2016, Perico said, “I’m just an ignorant nigga trying to have something big.”

When I knock, the rapper comes to greet me wearing a deep blue flat bill hat and his “work clothes”: grey Dickies shorts, a white t-shirt, Puma sneakers with cream and blue accents and a diamond So Way Out chain. He warns me to watch my step. 

In about a month Perico will hold a grand re-opening for the store to coincide with last August’s project Ten Eight, which features a black and white image of the So Way Out store on the cover. Right now, the space is virtually empty. The walls are a fresh slate of white and the slick new flooring is complete save for the hallway in the back. In its 1939 assessment of district D52, where Perico’s store sits today, the Federal Housing Administration acknowledged its large Black, Mexican and Japanese populations before commenting, “This is the ‘melting pot’ area of Los Angeles, and has long been thoroughly blighted.” 

The FHA gave it a red shading and recommended a “slum clearance project”.

G Perico has been in South Central his whole life. He was raised near the tangle of the 105-110 freeway interchange and the “Crip lifestyle included in that area.”  In a 2017 interview with the No Jumper podcast, he said, “I don’t got no woe-is-me story. I did a gang of gangster shit though and was in those situations. Alotta that shit is documented, some of it’s not.” While rejecting the conformist idea of a job, he noticed during a 2014 prison stint he was basically the only person in his cell block that didn’t have a double digit sentence. He had flirted with the idea of rapping before and even dropped projects to local acclaim, but it was after Perico’s final prison release that he leaned into music. Since then, he’s released six projects that craft a sound distinct from the traffic music of Drakeo the Ruler and 03 Greedo. Perico doesn’t test the limits of slang or transmit the ghoulish feelings of his own psychological torture. He steers you through days in South Central as seen from behind well-above-average-hair. It’s pimp rap that’s less fixated on the pimping than it is on how that informs everything else. Perico’s music is often sold critically as “G-funk revivalism,” but that confuses the precise candor and likeability of those artists with the music they actually make. 

He shows me down the hallway at the back that’s used to access an office and general inventory, but that’s its secondary function. Each wall is broken up by graffiti pen marks every few feet and, though they’re almost finished painting over it, you can see evidence of bulk t-shirt order sketches and stylized reminders of incarcerated friends. All are Perico originals. At the back of the hall is a door displaying the height of the exhibit, the message ‘SHITTIN ON ALL HATERZ’.  “I’ve always been drawing and writing on shit,” he says, pushing his hand along the wall. “You see all this shit? This is what L.A. does, it’s part of the culture.” 

“Ain’t no other G Perico and So Way Out,” he continues. “There’s similar stories to mine, in background and all that, but there’s just one me. That’s what I think this latest project of mine [Ten Eight] does. This is progressive gangster music, introducing the story behind the bigger story; G Perico in all his qualities. This is what makes me interesting, I got different personalities. That’s what makes me a dope nigga, I’m not just one bland thing.”

Perico is in the middle of cleaning the office and slides boxes and pictures aside to make room for a couple of chairs. After wiping the desk, he kicks the Pumas up and leans back in his chair while fiddling with a Bluetooth speaker so he can play Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” at the volume he feels it deserves. When the first chorus plays, Perico pulls up his tube socks and starts rocking in his chair yelling, “Don’t that sound clean? I want this place to look how that sounds.” 

The storefront came shortly after the music as another means of escape and legitimate income. Before he explains, he asks his manager to place a family-sized lunch order at Imperial Fish Market for the shrimp, red snapper, and fried oysters. “If you get popular in the ghetto, you can’t be in a dope spot or hot spots around the hood,” he continues. “This was my escape from that. And LAPD tried running up in this motherfucker a couple times after we set up shop. One time they even blew open the doors and rushed in with riot gear and shit. When they saw it was legit and I filed complaints on they ass, they leaned back and gave me room. Now, it’s getting to a point where this is something that makes money, can feed families and pay people’s rent.”

Police aggression and vendettas aren’t the only obstacle to running a brick-and-mortar operation in a less advertised part of the city. Perico, like 2Eleven, relies on word-of-mouth and social media to broadcast his business and it’s difficult to drive traffic when the standard L.A. shopping destinations are Rodeo and standing in line for two hours on Melrose. 

Now that So Way Out has been open a few years, Perico says he finally understands the full role of his store in the larger G Perico cosmos. It’s not just an escape to him anymore so much as an aesthetic extension, which explains the shop’s overhaul. When it’s finished, the left wall of the store has large-scale images of the Ten Eight album cover and stills of Perico and the shelves are back on the opposite side and full of clothing. He also plans on using the store as a community venue for concerts, pop-up events, and a meetup for his bicycle club. “In order for people to understand my conversation and respect it and value it,” he says, “it starts at the base. I need different aspects of my artistry to work together. If you have multiple things going on in the art and clothing world, it’s hard for people to attach to it all at the same time if it’s not tied together. That’s what I’m on right now. When you look at it, it’s gotta be something, not just the idea of it. I’m more than a Crip nigga from Broadway. I’m an important Crip nigga from Broadway for sure, without music or anything, but it’s way bigger than that.” Watching him talk about his store, it’s clear that, like Nipsey and 2 Eleven, Perico doesn’t cynically use his storefront as a background income generator. Instead, they’re hubs of redistribution, mending systemic failures as best they can for the people they see everyday, whether that’s in the form of employment, a physical space to create, or clothing.      

Desto Dubb overseeing his “That’s An Awful Lot of Cough Syrup” empire (Photo by Nathan Moya-Mendez)

A couple of weeks before Halloween 2019 and a small group of teenagers are huddled together smoking a joint a few blocks south of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. They’re mostly oblivious to the people moving around them. When they notice the only man with a lime green duffel bag — thrown across a simple white tee and black basketball shorts — sliding down the street with a small posse, the teens join the 60 percent of pedestrian traffic greeting and smiling at his tall frame. The man, Desto Dubb, keeps his head on a swivel to make sure he doesn’t miss any locals and yells apologies if he can’t reach to shake their hand. Some people know Desto for his now-infamous September 2016 Vine clip where, for six seconds of looped video, an LAPD officer holds Desto’s skull to a car hood next to three pints of codeine syrup. When the officer says, “That’s an awful lot of cough syrup…you must be really sick,” Dubb’s wit takes over and he clears his throat a few times to counter the officer’s instigation.   

No one mentions that incident to him though, at least not on the sidewalk. If they know about the city’s contemporary rap scene, then they’ve heard his music; a layered cocktail of hustler pragmatism (“if the pint in the lake, then I go in the lake”) and opiated blues from the Jordan Downs projects on the Eastside of Watts. He declared he was “put on this Earth to sell juice” on his formal music introduction. Even if Los Angeles’s music isn’t on your radar, Dubb is constantly floating in the background of some rapper’s Instagram, most notably Florida native Lil Pump who Desto has toured with internationally as a hype man. Today, at least for this hour, he’s just part of the neighborhood. 

Right now, Desto, known to close friends as Josh, is marching toward the heart of downtown to pick up a new promo run for his clothing line, That’s An Awful Lot of Cough Syrup. He started selling shirts with the viral phrase shortly after settling the legal issues that brought it into existence. Originally just black t-shirts with white lettering, his inventory now includes vests, bags, and hoodies in all colors, and, as of today, a few khaki suits. His merchandise is so prolific among rappers and rapper-adjacent celebrities that it’s hard to find talent who’s never owned one. (In the last month, young Detroit rapper Baby Smoove posted a video in a hoodie; Gabriel Gutierrez, the chef for traveling Mexican wing spot Alitas El Diablito, was gifted the first “Awful” cooking apron; and polyglot genius Young Thug was seen wearing the khaki suit.) “You gotta give some shit away,” he says before we cut through a dilapidated mall to reach the print shop. “Cause if somebody won’t wear free shit it must not look that good. We’ll see what happens with these.” While other rappers in the city have opted for brick-and-mortar establishments, Desto sells most of his clothes online and his main advertising platform is Instagram and these sample runs. 

Dubb’s confidence is on par with any memorable salesman but there’s substance beneath the pitch. Runs of his clothing frequently sell out — despite typically being priced around $100 — and this is half due to their exclusivity and half due to his experience. I ask when he first remembers selling something and he replies, “Where I’m from, everybody’s poor. You don’t even realize it because everyone’s in the same position. At like four or five years old on Friday mornings I remember waking up early as fuck to pick cans out of the trash. You’re happy about it cause you’re getting a little bit of money to do stuff, but later you realize that’s not how it should be.” 

His first true salesman experience came when Desto started selling candy at store fronts as a young teen. “There were kids whose parents could buy them shit and then ones that had to get it on their own. I didn’t know about the second kind until I started seeing my friends show up in Jordans knowing their parents couldn’t afford them. That’s when they told me about Tyrone on 101st Street who hired teenagers to sell candy bars.” Desto and his friends would get picked up on Saturdays and dropped off in front of banks, grocery stores, pharmacies, and anywhere they could get rid of a box of candy. “Doing that you become a people person,” he explains while rifling through the samples and dealing with the print shop owner. “You’re in front of a bank talking to 30 or 40 people an hour. I started to learn which people are gonna buy. You can tell by their face if they’re gonna respond. There’s people you can’t ask right away, so you say something nice about their outfit and then tell them to holler at you on the way out. It’s an icebreaker. Instead of bothering people with ‘HEY SIR, CAN YOU BUY SOMETHING?’” 

The clothing started shortly after as another way to remain stylish despite his financial situation. In an attempt to leave his “old broke self,” Desto enrolled in sewing classes as a freshman at Crenshaw High School. He wanted to make his own clothes and didn’t have plans to sell to others until he got a response from classmates. “This was around the time people were putting the Louis Vuitton logo over the checks on their Nikes and stuff like that. I got a sewing machine and could grab an old duffel bag and put the Louis symbol on it, really do anything you wanted. I sewed for three years and learned everything about that. I didn’t have a site or business, it was all in person. I learned to sell what people like and how to sample your customer base.”

We get back to his loft apartment so he can fold up and package the khaki suits for his promotional one and he casually mentions saving one for Atlanta producer Wheezy. Today his Jordans are blue and white as he paces around the kitchen combing through the details of his life. In the middle of our conversation, he walks toward a pull-up bar to transfer the hanging golden Cuban link chain to his neck. Dubb is most candid when telling stories about tattooing Nipsey Hussle (Desto is also a tattoo artist) and how that formed his bond with the late Crenshaw rapper.

 “Originally I was a fan of Nipsey from Bullets Ain’t Got No Name,” Desto says while shuffling through photos of the two on his phone and pausing occasionally to give context. “Not on some groupie shit, but he was speaking about the streets and locations and events we saw, so you’re going to fuck with that. I was an apprentice at this tattoo shop for like a year and they wouldn’t let me tattoo anyone, so I left and started doing [tattoos] in my friend’s backyard. Nipsey was one of the first people to come by because he’d seen my draw work at the place I studied.” 

Nipsey also connected Desto with a bondsman when the latter was hit with a $250,000 bail. This came from charges slapped on Desto for unknowingly speaking to friends that he recognized in a parking lot, just before they decided to rob a convenience store. 

“That’s how I knew he meant what he said,” Desto says. “He didn’t eliminate himself from any type of person. Nip treated everyone the same, the CEO and the janitor. Every time I was around him it felt like I was learning stuff, but not in a way I could always see. It puts things in perspective now. He showed you a way you could be.” 

Desto talks about his last days with Nipsey before the Crenshaw rapper was shot and killed in front of his store in March of 2019. “We became homeboys just off doing tattoos. He’d shout out my clothes, music, tattoos and everything. During [the recording of the Grammy-nominated] Victory Lap, he told me to come down to the studio every day and just be there while he was making it. If you saw him at an awards show, you could walk up to him. You can’t just walk over and talk to Kendrick Lamar or The Game. You could walk up to Nipsey. That was my Nip.” He spends about fifteen minutes looking through old videos of him and Nipsey. 

Dubb was famous in Watts before Instagram gave his personality the reach it deserves. His IG handle was @tattmandubb because he was the tattoo guy for figures like Nipsey Hussle and A$AP Yams. Now that the “Awful Lot of Cough Syrup” brand is popular enough to warrant pop-ups in major cities (i.e. San Francisco’s Rolling Loud) and be christened by global superstar rappers, he uses the more direct @destodubb. It captures all the subtleties of an Eastside baby who grew up drinking water out of the sink to become the first (probably) rapper-tattoo artist-designer with talent in all three areas. Regardless, he’s the one to remember.