To hear passionate words from the man who first believed in the cultural phenom that we now have experienced as Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Eugene “Big U” Henley, the respected former gang leader, now community activist, speaks of the late artist like a brother, a son and a warrior in arms to better the area they both hold and held dear to their hearts…the Crenshaw and Slauson blocks of their neighborhood in Los Angeles.
A few days after Nipsey’s murder, Big U helped organize one of the biggest gatherings of rival gangs from all over L.A. to show unity and oneness with a peaceful, non-violent march through the streets, ending at the famed The Marathon Store.
With a year of reflection on the untimely and senseless death of Nipsey, Big U linked up with noted interviewer, Jacky Jasper, and let VIBE in on his thoughts and feelings around the talent, heart and spirit of his former artist, as well as the social impact they both have had for the Crenshaw community.
This intimate conversation proves to be rare and revealing in the remembrance of Nipsey’s life and a full-spectrum look at a Big U that we don’t get to witness often. This is where the imprint of peace and power meets the driving force in “The Marathon Continues” movement.
VIBE: What is your ultimate goal for these kids through the Developing Options program?
Big U: The ultimate goal is to be for young African-American kids what the YMCA and these other places could’ve and should’ve been. They probably were a lot of good things to other people, they just weren’t to us because I never had one of them out here. The only thing we had was the park so I don’t really know what the experience was. I always hear them talk about the YMCA and the Boys’ Club. In the Crenshaw area we don’t have one.
So you decided to make one?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to be the pioneer, the first to do it. Growing up, because most neighborhoods in California are infested with gangs, so for us being at the area we were at, Crenshaw and Slauson, for us to play football—tackle football—we had to go to another area to play. We couldn’t play in our neighborhood. That was a thing I grew up with, that was a motivating factor as far as tackle football. We had Van Ness park so we could play baseball, basketball, but if you wanted to play tackle football you had to travel.
How long have you had the program going on for these inner-city kids?
I started it in 2003, I came home in 2004. The name of it back then, and still is, is Ex-Offender’s Fellowship Network, which is our parent company, but we also do business as Developing Options. When I created it, I was actually still in prison. I knew I wanted to come home and do things that would move me in the right direction of helping my community and the kids in my community.
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Now from this program you’ve had going on for over 15 years, how many kids have gone on to achieve excellence in something like the NFL, because you’ve allowed them a safe place to play football?
Through Robert Garret and our program at Crenshaw High School, we’ve had about eight or nine kids that have made it to the NFL that we’ve touched or influenced in some kind of way. I always want to give credit to Robert Garret and Crenshaw High School, because he took a chance on bringing Big U to the school. It’s people like that who take chances on me or cared to. He was a coach and a teacher at Crenshaw High and he was the first one to allow me and Mark “Bear Claw” Martin to come on the school campus and to be mentors to the kids. A lot of kids grow up and they look up to us. Just things like paying for the banquets, being there to administrate the kids, helping kids get home, buying them clothes, whatever they need to succeed.
Any popular names that made it through that we might know of?
Yes. DeAnthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs and he just went to the Baltimore Ravens. Greg DuCree, Marcus Martin, all of Crenshaw. Any kids that came out of California that have made it, they all came out of Crenshaw.
How do others get involved in the program that are outside of your unit? Is there any way of doing that? Or do you not allow that?
No! Everyone’s involved. We get help and assistance from the likes of Chris Brown, Sean Kingston, Kurupt. My biggest supporter is Wiz Khalifa. Always want to shoutout Josh Smith…DeShawn Jackson is one of our strongest supporters. Anyone can reach out. But my next step is getting a building that can be a source to help kids educationally. We’ve always been strong reaching kids through our athletic programs, but I really want to reach kids educationally. Right now I’m looking for a school.
You want to get them strong on their academics.
I do that already, right? But it’s more than just me. For about the last 10 years I’ve had about 30 kids that I’ve coached and mentored personally. I’m happy to say about 12 of them are in college right now. All Division 1 colleges right now. My son is at Reno; Darius is at Dixie State; David is in the U.S. Airforce; Nigel’s at UCLA. So I have kids all over the PAC-12.
That’s amazing. Where did you get this vision from? Was it from the lack of access to those types of healthy outlets, so you wanted to give to the next generation?
I got the vision for it while in incarceration.
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Wow How Old was I ?? What Prison ?? I was on my Student Shit ?? I prepared for this Freedom Walk while i was incarcerated. Now i MANAGE over millions in state/GOVERNMENT accounts, have over 21 full time employees OVER 15 years doing what i studied for ( helping our people ) None of it dealing with ENTERTAINMENT OR MUSIC !! And yes im Not Finished. About to start this Youth Mentoring program !! 2 days a week two hours after school ….. we going to Keep UNEEKING THE WORLD #THEUNEEKWAY ALWAYS THANKFUL TO @snoopdogg for taking a chance on a HOODSTA… @syfl_snoopspecialstars #syfl #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1 ##developingoptions 👨🏿💻 📘📚 @pieces_0f_lee is RUNNING point on this Program Reach out to her our @dynastydoe
Got you. Now, were you Nipsey Hussle’s manager?
No, Nipsey was actually signed to me. He was signed to me for production, but I was also doing a little management too, me and Steve Lobel. I brought Steve in to be our frontman because, you know how hard it was to be Big U, my reputation precedes me. I had to put a white face in front of a black situation. And because we were moving at that time, I was half and Steve was half. But no, he was signed to me at Uneek Music, my production company.
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Our hearts are broken 💔 there’s so much to say but for now my condolences to all his family , friends and fans around the world whoever knew when the 3 of us started this marathon 12 years ago it would end like this fuck fuck fuck ! We love u #nipseyhussle #ripnipseyhussle #bigu @bigu1 #ripthundercat #weworking 🙏❤️🏁🥃👑🎤
Since Nipsey’s death, how is the community taking it and what have you done for the community since then? How is the community supposed to take it now that the Marathon store is closing down?
I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I do the community work. I’ve always done the community work. I did the community work and Nip did the entertainment.
I came home in 2004. I didn’t pick Nipsey up until 2006-2007. At that time, Me, Suge [Knight] and brother-in-law [Rick] were running together. Suge was giving me studio time. A lot of that early studio recording time with Nipsey was because of Suge. It was me coming home and trying to teach my whole community to love the community. To help them get an understanding of us and what Crenshaw was. People from the outside who didn’t understand us were coming in and filming in the ‘hood and writing books about the ‘hood and I said, “Y’all can’t come in here anymore.” Know what I mean? The homies didn’t understand that, but Nip did.
If you look at the last speech Nip gave, at my banquet, he said, “I remember when Draws [Big U] first came home, he was hard on everybody. But now I understand. You gotta have your own. You gotta be your own.” See! He got it. He was one of the very few people who truly understood that the message was, “We need to do this ourselves. We need to put our own value on our self.” People couldn’t understand that we were selling Crenshaw shirts for $100. Or $40 or $50. They didn’t understand where that came from.
Like I said, when I first came home, I made it my mission to put a value on “us.” To make the people appreciate Crenshaw and all it has to offer. So as soon as I came home I started pushing Crenshaw. Like my young guy, he never went to Crenshaw High School.
Nipsey didn’t go to Crenshaw, Sam [Nipsey’s older brother] didn’t go to Crenshaw High School. I understood how big Crenshaw was. Crenshaw is a community that’s bigger than all of us. The success of Crenshaw is so far past what me and Nip was doing. I had to explain that to him and the rest of the young homies…how we got something, we need to brand this. And all of us need to get behind it. It doesn’t just belong to one person.
Is that where the first instance of trademarking came in?
Actually, trademarking Crenshaw is almost impossible. You can’t trademark Crenshaw because it’s a city. It was a white guy who was the first one to use the Crenshaw logo on his shirt, if that’s what you’re referring to. He was a Mike Tyson fan. He paid me and Nip to wear the Crenshaw crewneck in the video. He was out of New York. He was a Mike Tyson and [former MLB super star] Darryl Strawberry fan. Darryl Strawberry is where the original motivation came from. Darryl Strawberry wore that Crenshaw Coca-Cola font for the Crenshaw High School baseball team. It was a baseball coach from back then that came up with the Crenshaw Coca-Cola logo. Then some 32 years later, we took it and took it to the next level, but I’ve never trademarked anything but “Uneek.”
[You know what’s funny? Let me give you this good-hear tidbit that you can give to your people. You know when they were talking about somebody trademarking Marathon? Man, I don’t know anything about no Crips. I don’t deal with Crips like that, you know what I’m saying? If it doesn’t say “Hoodstas” or “Sixties” I’m not doing sh*t with it.
And what’s funny to me is, how people listen to all this rhetoric on Instagram, on YouTube, all these bum ass lanes, everyone is running around “Like, subscribe and follow! Like, subscribe and follow!” and they take this bullsh*t and spin it to be something. People tell me all the time, “You should say something.” Man, I shouldn’t say nothing! I just look at these “journalists” like they’re asinine. They just don’t even make sense. Here goes another one: Nipsey was my brother! And my son! And my nephew! If I had any intentions of trademarking from him, who the f**k could say anything about it anyways?]
So, from you saying that he’s your son, that he’s your brother, the conspiracy theories of these people saying things about his death must’ve really pained you some?
Not really. It didn’t bother me, but it only bothered me because of the people that are supposed to know me even entertaining the idea. It would bother me if you claim you’re someone who’s supposed to know me and you’re even entertaining the bullsh*t. And the sh*t don’t make no sense, you know what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense that they’re trying to make me and him be enemies when clearly motherfu**er, I just was with him.
He came and got me and flew me out of town! But, you know, it’s the same way I tell people all the time, it’s the same sh*t. They say Suge set up Tupac, so who am I? I’m not no different than Suge. Ain’t no ni**a be fittin’ to be sitting in the car when motherfu**ers are shooting at him. For them to say that about Suge, you don’t think those same motherfu**ers aren’t going to say the same about me?
Yeah, but that must hurt though? I hear what you’re saying. It hurts when people close to you to even think—
To entertain the idea. That’s the point. It ain’t even the fact that the lames do it, what hurts the most? My daughter. My daughter and my kids. You know me, it doesn’t bother me, I’ve been disliked around this world for years. But to them, it bothers them. Then they have to deal with the bullsh*t of the world. That’s the only thing that makes me want to go knock one of these dudes heads off because it’s all lies. And my thing is, if you really love Nipsey, why are you going to sit around and let people say false sh*t about him?
You know what I’m saying? What does that lead to? What happens after the case is over? And Big U may not know when the case is over, but guess now what happens? Now I see them right now. I did the Kev Mac interview and showed them the text messages of me and Nip texting, the day before he died, and we were texting about some business. I showed that on the Kev Mac interview right? Right after I did that, and that sh*t came out, everybody started changing their tune. Now you’ve got a lot of these lames talking about, “Nobody ever accused you of killing him, you came out and said you didn’t.” Well, that’s because you lames were putting out a fake ass post saying the police was looking for me.
It was then that I learned fast, don’t address anything ever said on the Internet. That’s why I never address it.
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Here’s the question I have to ask: there’s people at home on their laptops that have the audacity to come up with conspiracy theories. Don’t they have the fear of writing this and then coming back into your town not knowing if there’ll be repercussions or not?
Well let me just say this to you, I’m going to handle every one of them I catch. I don’t give a damn what nobody said. If you think I did something, you’re going to know I did something. That’s not even a question, that’s an obligation. Because you hurt my family, your malicious attacks is an attack on my kids and on my family. So yes, I promise you that. You can write that down too. I don’t care. I’m not letting none of them go. I ain’t did nothing to nobody, I shouldn’t have been accused of doing nothing to nobody. It’s just click bait. Somebody’s making money lying on me or putting me into some bullsh*t I had nothing to do with, you know what I mean? I’m not the type to forgive and forget. I’m not Martin Luther King. I’m not going to let you slap me and turn the other cheek.
Switching gears to new and developing projects…
I did a deal for this documentary with FX before Nip died. I did a deal that I wrote, me and Jim-Bob wrote it, and FX picked it up right before—
That’s my guy, that’s one of my partners. He’s a Piru from Compton. He came up with the idea and we pitched it to FX. We pitched it to a couple of people and ran with it for about three-and-a-half years, then FX picked it up. It was crazy, Nip and I were excited. We were going over how we wanted to make it look. Nip was supposed to do a song. It’s a struggle with my group and then four months after we signed the deal he died. But Nip is the whole reason I got back into music.
It’s crazy, man. He called me and told me “look…” I already had talked to him while he was making the album. Now let me tell you something, Nip has about 100 songs, bangers that didn’t go on that album.
You’ve got unreleased material from Nip is what you’re saying?
I don’t have it. I don’t know who has it. I’m assuming his brother has it.
I’m telling you, the music we were doing…the music he was playing before he died, when he was in the studio…he has some sh*t that’s going to come out if they ever put it out. I don’t know who’s running it, but he has some sh*t. I’m talking about the songs that didn’t make the project that just came out.
I don’t know if this is the rumor mill or not but do you and LeBron James have the same connections with inner-city kid programs?
I don’t have any connections at all. I have nothing going on with him, no.
What about T.I.? Because I see T.I. talking about you a lot.
No, me and Tip…remember I did Tip’s show a long time ago when he had that Redemption show.
I did Tip’s show with him where I’d talk to the kids. I did some administering to the kids for him.
Because he really looks up to you, you know? Whenever he speaks about you, it’s always in a positive light.
Right. Me and Tip do community work together, always. We have to.
You’ve got a long hand in Atlanta helping people out as well?
Yes, we’re trying to take Developing Options, my gang intervention program nationwide. With Developing Options, we got the gang violence down 70 to 80% in L.A. from where it used to be. There used to be murders every day. I would love to work with LeBron [James]. I’d love to work with anybody who’s got the right mind. I like what LeBron is doing. We definitely need LeBron and a lot of brothers who have the money that I don’t, to be able to reach these kids. I know if I had access to the financing, I could put more kids in and graduate from college than I am right now.
How do you feel waking up and walking around as one of the most powerful men in L.A.? Does that take its toll on you?
No, it’s not a toll on me because it isn’t true! I don’t know who the most powerful man in L.A. is, but it’s definitely not me because I’m one of the brokest ni**as in L.A. [Laughs]
I think you need money to be powerful or why else would they try to strut? Let me tell you something, I don’t know if you know who Poo Bear is? But this is what you’ve got to put in the article. Poo Bear gave me a very sizeable donation to help us with the organization and push. If you don’t acknowledge nobody in the world, you better acknowledge Poo Bear.
I have to raise just for my football program almost $21,000 a year so I don’t have to charge these kids out the roof. What people don’t understand is that now, here in L.A., they charge people to play and practice on the football fields, on the grass. You have to pay to rent that field.
Until this year I used to get a classroom for free. I have a mentoring program for young black men where two times a week, we get together and talk about whatever is bothering them. Now get this, I’ve had my store on Crenshaw for about 12 years. Every night, for 12 years, I’ve got kids walking the streets with nowhere to go. If they’ve got nowhere to go, that’s how they end up doing robberies, they’ll go to the liquor store…
What are your thoughts on saving our young men, our sons in the struggle?
You talk about gang violence…people think kids are getting forced to join gangs, for whatever reason. But no, it’s because when they ain’t got nowhere to go, they join a gang, they get somewhere to sleep, they can go to the homie house. Let’s keep it one hundred. I don’t have any plans for the 60s [gang]. I got a plan for young men, young Black/African men in our community. I got a plan for the Black community as a whole. Black, Mexican, Brown, or what have you. I did that years ago. Now, I’m trying to save…I’m trying to save people and if they was saved on the road to it, Alhamdulillah. But, I got one for the 60s, the Bloods, the Crips, the who all ever. Cuz right now, I don’t have no choice on who walks in my door trying to get help. The only problem is, I can’t help everybody.
Any plans for honoring Nipsey in the future?
We’ve got a couple of things planned that we’re going to do. My organization is going to do something. I’m going to always honor Nip. We put a trophy together with our banquet in honor of Nip. I know the city wants to do something, the city is sitting down with me to do some stuff too. So, we’re trying to make it big man. Nip was our Young Prince.
I see him as legendary before anybody did. I saw him as legendary before the world did. I’m the one that invested in him first. When nobody else invested in him, Big U invested in him. I saw the legend in him first. I saw the legend when none of y’all saw it. And, let me tell you this: I brought the legend to VIBE in New York. I brought the legend, took him all over the country, I paid for all of them flights for us to go everywhere in the beginning, because I believed in the legend.