When rapper Nipsey Hussle was killed on March 31, 2019, at his South Los Angeles Marathon Clothing shop, Wendell Nelson was devastated.
Hussle was more than an idol to the Leimert Park resident, who raps under the name Universe, The King (UTK). Hussle was his mentor.
In 2018, UTK won the Craft Syndicate/Dutch Masters music mentorship contest and collaborated on “Hierarchy” with Zaytoven and Hussle. The song is featured on UTK’s most recent EP, “Diamonds.”
“I’ve been doing music for 20 years now,” he said. “I’m more of a poet. I create from the heart. I look at myself no differently than Pablo Picasso or an architect. I believe that’s what they saw when they were judging the contest.”
Still, UTK felt his work was unfinished. This month, he released the single “NH,” inspired by Hussle’s life and legacy.
“We grew up in the same neighborhood,” he said. “When we linked up, we had already run into each other our entire careers, like passing out CDs. We exchanged CDs.
“That’s what artists do. I opened for him at his ‘Marathon’ show at the House of Blues, when it was still open, in Hollywood. I was under a different alias then. Everything was different. That was 10 years ago,”
When the two linked up again, UTK waited for the right opportunity to remind Hussle.
“We locked eyes and I said, ‘You don’t even remember me, huh?’” UTK recalled. “It instantly came back to him. It was this beautiful moment. It’s painful to say now. We had so many mutual friends, so many great things to do. It was finally coming together until the worst thing happened. It was very, very tough. It was tough for everybody. Everybody felt their own personal connection. I stopped rapping and stopped doing music.”
Born to do music
Born in Los Angeles, UTK began his music career at Crenshaw High School in 2002 under the alias 16 BARZ and released numerous street albums and mixtapes.
His style gained the attention of many major labels, including Interscope and Def Jam, and landed him in the studio with Dr. Dre and Zaytoven. Never signed to a major label, UTK had plenty of experiences, including being a BET Music Matters artist (2014) and touring with the Vans Warped Tour (2013).
“The Warped Tour was one of the greatest experiences as an artist,” he said. “We were the only hip-hop band that was there. Every day we’d play in front of this huge audience with new people and new faces every single time. People appreciated us.
“Here in LA, it’s not like that. The culture doesn’t allow people to be free and loose. You have to be cool and keep your distance. You’re not going to be in the midst of it.”
His first album under the alias UTK, “M.U.S.I.C. Volume 1.6,” was released in 2013. Accompanying the music were four creative videos that proved to be the catalyst for bringing UTK to the forefront.
The videos are short films and garnered 425,000-plus views on YouTube. His 2014 project, “Feels Great to be Dope,” added to the already-growing buzz online upon the release of the song “Talk to Em” featuring Ab-Soul and Loaded Lux. Since then, UTK has been featuring on major hip-hop websites and blogs.
The following year, he released the self-produced street single “FTSU,” which earned numerous spins on internet radio stations such as Home Grown Radio. Thanks to the single, UTK made his TV debut, performing on “Revolt TV” live (2015 pilot episode). Months later, he became the host of the 2016 “Road To BETX” show on BET with The Game.
Just before his daughter was born three years ago, UTK stopped doing music until he heard about the Craft Syndicate/Dutch Masters contest.
“I couldn’t believe I won an amazing contest and got to work with amazing and legendary people,” he said. “The blessing is I’m able to draw so much inspiration from everything. When I think about life as a whole, the thoughts inspire me to continue to do great things. The marathon continues. Nipsey Hussle used to say the marathon isn’t one quick race. Keep going. Plan for the long run.”
In 2019, he planned to release four EPs, including “Diamonds.” When Hussle passed, it didn’t feel right anymore.
“I didn’t feel like putting out happy or cool songs, or trying to be dope,” he said. “Six months went by and I thought I had to do something because that’s what Nip would have wanted—to keep running the marathon. I got this crazy inspiration, and in 30 days I wrote and recorded 33 tracks. I couldn’t believe it.”
UTK said the single “NH” is by far one of the most emotional songs in his catalog. He uses his lyrical and storytelling abilities to convey a message of positivity and truth. The song’s stand-out hook cries “pray for my neighborhood” and was written as a double-entendre highlighting parallels to the life of Hussle and the “hustles” everyone has to perform just to survive in the neighborhood.
“I want people to enjoy the song from my perspective,” UTK said. “It’s more so seeing it through my eyes. This area means so much to me. This person means so much to me. I want to use my artistry to really relay that message.”