LOS ANGELES -- In the season premiere of the CW's "All American" Monday night, there's no escaping the presence that looms as large over the episode as the series' many drone shots from high above Los Angeles: the death of Nipsey Hussle.
Born Ermias Asghedom, the rapper, entrepreneur and philanthropist was gunned down at 33 in front of his Crenshaw store in March. Months later, the community he called home remains shaken by the loss of a gifted artist and force for positive change.
As a show that strives to reflect its setting, "All American" has long maintained a connection to Hussle. His music features in the pilot episode ("Grinding All My Life"), and the show's characters wear clothing from Hussle's shop, the Marathon, amid story lines involving family, relationships and football. The series' British-born star, Daniel Ezra, was a Hussle fan and has spoken of using interviews with the rap star to shape his American accent. Before scheduling conflicts got in the way, Hussle was even slated to appear in the Season 1 finale.
"Nipsey had always been woven into the DNA of our show, because we kind of consider it a love letter to South L.A.," said showrunner and executive producer Nkechi Okoro Carroll in a telephone interview. "And it doesn't get more Crenshaw than Nipsey."
With the Season 2 premiere, "Hussle and Motivate," "All American" pays its respects.
"Nipsey passing away completely shifted my axis for Season 2," said Carroll. "The influence he has on the youth in that area and how they pursue their dreams and how they fight for what they deserve -- our show has always kind of been about that."
Created by April Blair, who stepped down midway through the first season and was replaced by Carroll, "All American," based on the story of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, is of a piece with the CW's string of popular, occasionally soapy teen dramas, from "Dawson's Creek" to "The O.C." But from the moment the new season begins, with Hussle's "Blue Laces 2" scoring the creation of a new street mural in honor of the slain rapper, "All American" stakes out new ground.
"Things will never be the same around here," Coop (Bre-Z) tells Spencer (Ezra) as they gravely look on. Based on the nature of the tribute along the spine of Monday's episode, it's tempting to think of the series the same way.
Painted by Keenan Chapman, the artist behind a number of Hussle's tattoos, the mural echoes the many memorials that have risen around the city since his death. Created after the production consulted with Chapman and Hussle's family, the mural unfortunately exists only in the world of "All American." (The work had to be painted over four hours after its completion, Carroll says with some regret.)
"1/8Chapman3/8 was the one that got the family on board with our paying tribute to Nipsey, because I didn't want to do it if it all upset anyone," Carroll adds. "It's all so fresh."