Last month, when hip-hop
hero Kanye West played for his biggest hometown audience ever as a headliner
at Lollapalooza, the most memorable moment in a set plagued by sound
problems wasn't from his own platinum-selling albums but from the
major-label debut by an artist many in the music industry are hailing as
Chicago's next hip-hop superstar.
Gliding onstage on his
skateboard before some 50,000 music fans in Grant Park, Lupe Fiasco
delivered a spirited rendition of his first big hit, "Kick, Push," a song
that's as effective in evoking the feeling of surfing the city streets --
with its memorable chorus of, "Kick, push ... kick, push ... kick, push ...
coast" -- as any of the Beach Boys' most indelible songs about riding
Born Wasalu Muhammad
Jaco and the youngest of nine brothers, the rapper grew up on the South Side
around the Madison Terrace housing projects. He first made his name in the
hip-hop underground via a series of vaunted mix tapes, and he broke into the
national spotlight courtesy of a stellar turn as guest on West's inspiring
"Touch the Sky." Now, after years of wrangling for a record deal and
numerous delays after he finally got one with Atlantic Records, "Food &
Liquor" arrives in stores on Tuesday, with a title inspired by the corner
groceries that serve as a center of community in many Chicago neighborhoods.
As I've noted before,
this city's most successful rappers have distinct personas that break from
gangsta stereotypes: West is the natty, egotistical playboy; Common is the
hippie mystic; Twista is the class clown; and Rhymefest is the hardworking
hip-hop everyman. But Lupe may be the most memorable personality yet. He's a
self-professed nerd who loves comic books, skateboarding and "Star Wars,"
but he's also a devout Muslim, the son of social activist parents and an
artist who isn't afraid to express his opinions.
you're only 24, Lupe, it's seems as we've been waiting a long time for your
A. Yeah, I've
been doing this since I was 18. I got my first record deal when I was 18,
and at that time, the only people who had major-label deals were Twista and
Common. So I was 18, getting a deal, and then losing a deal. Then I think it
was in 2001 that I got courted by Roc-A-Fella to come and sign there, and I
developed this relationship with Jay-Z and then wound up signing to Arista
Records with L.A. Reid. I was there for 2 1/2 years, and that situation fell
through, because L.A. Reid got fired. Three days after that, I was doing a
deal with Atlantic Records. It's been a journey, and I've been working on
the same album the whole time! It's weird for it to finally be my time now.
Q. It has to
have been frustrating, weathering all those ups and downs.
A. In certain
instances. There were times when it seemed like, "Damn! When will this album
come out?" Then you're back on and back to the grind, and you're oblivious
to it because you're just working. You're working, and before you know it,
you look up at the calendar and you're like, "It's June already?" It's been
good and it's been bad, but I'm actually happy I went through it all now.
Q. Why is
that? Do you think the album has gotten better because you've spent so much
time tinkering with it?
A. Yeah, and I
think I have matured. The message in the record has changed. When I first
got my record deal, I was straight out of high school, and the music was
more violent and less positive. It was about entertaining the 'hood, as
opposed to trying to entertain more general ideas and more positive things.
Q. You were
playing the gangsta role as opposed to being yourself?
A. No, I was
myself, but it was one aspect of my personality. I was from the 'hood; I
grew up in the projects and it was about the things that I had seen. The
glamorized 'hood lifestyle had an impact on me, and I wanted to be a part of
that and be privy to those things. On the other side of it, though, there
was also this whole culture of being a Muslim, listening to jazz, collecting
comic books and being a nerd. I already had these different aspects of my
life, and I have always been involved in these different cultures. At that
point, it was almost like, "Let me focus on the negative stuff." I had my
chains and my car and models and I was happy. And then I matured, and those
things lost their luster.
After that, it went to
the other, regular stuff: the comic books and the toys and skateboarding.
The skateboarding is funny, because I was skateboarding when I was young,
between 6 and 11, and then I stopped for a couple of years. It's kind of
weird that I rode back into the limelight with that subject.
Q. If there is
anything the Chicago rappers I've covered have in common, it's that they
haven't been afraid to break the gangsta stereotypes and sing about
real-life issues, religion and family, or even growing up middle-class.
A. Yeah, I think
there is something there. One thing about Chicago is that we do have this
tendency to talk about the regular humdrum life, and I think that is because
of where we are from: Chicago is a humdrum, corporate, regular city. We
don't have any celebrities; it's not like L.A., where you'll go into Borders
and it will be like, "Oh my God! It's Magic Johnson!" Even with the Bulls
being here, they all live out in Deerfield! So we don't have that, and we
don't have that New York sensibility where it's 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, rush, rush, rush. We have this laid-back, regular life where we talk
about the regular things.
Q. I've read
some fascinating things about your upbringing: Your dad was a drummer and a
Green Beret who was later active with the Black Panthers, and your mom is a
clerk with the Cook County Court.
A. Yeah, Pops was
a lot of things: He was a renaissance man. He was a plant engineer who
worked at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for about 20 years; a martial arts
master who had about six or seven karate schools in Chicago during the
1970s; he used to teach at various community centers, and he's a musician.
We used to go out to 63rd Street Beach and have these jam sessions with a
lot of the African drummers. He had a giant record collection, and he was a
big kid who collected a lot of toys, but then he had this whole militaristic
discipline style, because he had been a Green Beret.
My mother was an
intellectual from the South. She was a chef, so she went to Loyola and
studied culinary things and then went around the world being a caterer for
different bands. She also had a restaurant in Atlanta and worked at a few
restaurants in Chicago. We always had a book collection and a vast
collection of National Geographic magazines -- all this stuff that was
cultured, but at the same time, we were in the ghetto. There were shootings,
drive-bys, prostitutes, drugs and gangs. So it was a weird juxtaposition,
Q. Tell me
about your faith: Were you raised in the Sunni Islam religion, or did you
turn to it on your own later in life?
A. We were born
Muslim. When my mother and father got married, my father took his shahadah,
which is a conversion, and that's where my name comes from: The guy who gave
him shahadah was named Wasalu, so they named me Wasalu after him. When my
mother and father got married, she took her shahadah and converted all the
kids that came out of that marriage. It's nine of us overall, but there were
three of us that came out of that marriage, and we were all Muslim. We were
brought up in it, but it wasn't on us every day. I don't remember us all
praying together ever, and I don't remember reading the Koran with my father
or anything like that.
I didn't really turn on
to it until maybe about 13 or 14, and that was because I had a cousin that
moved in with us, and he was Muslim. So the two of us would start going back
and forth, and we started reading the Koran, praying and being a lot more
Q. I've read
that hip-hop's glorification of certain things rubs you the wrong way:
celebrating drugs and alcohol, disrespecting women ...
A. Those are
things where everybody should be like, "Yo!" I think it's more the pop
culture, not just hip-hop, and the ideology is getting kind of played out.
When you see the videos and the exploitation of women and stuff like that,
it's the choice of that woman if she becomes the spokesperson or the target
for the other side who believe that that's wrong. I'm not trying to carry
any cause for any organization or do anything like that; I just feel bad
when I see someone disrespecting another person, especially a woman in this
Q. At the same
time, you have a real sense of humor in your lyrics: You're not preaching to
people, and you're not afraid to laugh at yourself.
A. Yeah, I don't
take myself seriously at all. I don't take the music business seriously, and
I don't take things with entertaining seriously. For me, it's whimsical: I'm
a fan of satire, so I'm a fan of Aaron McGruder with "The Boondocks," and
I'm a fan of Dave Chappelle. Even when you go through my music and you're
singing through it, you'll find that one social track or that one track
pointing out this or that, and then a bunch of stuff about how I'm scared to
talk to girls in high school or a giant robot who walks through projects and
sees these different things. It's like taking different concepts that
haven't been discussed in hip-hop and putting them out there.
collaborated with Jill Scott, the Neptunes, Kanye West, Three-6 Mafia and
Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. Given the long wait and all the star power, do
you feel like there's a lot of pressure to perform commercially?
A. Yeah! [Laughs]
We made the cover of Billboard, and I called the publicist up at Atlantic
and asked, "What does this Billboard cover mean?" He put it very bluntly:
"It means you better sell a lot of records!" But ... like I said, I don't
take myself too seriously, and I don't expect too much out of the stuff that
I do. I'm just having fun.
Hip-hop Urkel? Fiasco's
debut is anything but
Hip-hop fans have been
trading versions of this album for months, and Atlantic refused to release
proper advances to reviewers, even though every newly revised track seemed
to hit the Internet as soon as the artist finished it. But following
Rhymefest's debut, which has so far been a commercial disappointment, "Food
& Liquor" is one of the freshest, most unique and most inspiring hip-hop
albums of the year, and it has already spawned a hit single with "Kick,
As the bizarre and silly
cover art indicates, Lupe has no intention of striking a gangsta pose, and
he doesn't hesitate to "Spaz Out," to quote the title of one track,
celebrating geeky and allegedly non-ghetto obsessions such as science
fiction, comic books, skateboarding and video games. All of this has a
musical analog in giddy backing tracks driven by melodramatic, B-movie
orchestral samples, over-the-top sound effects and lovably cheesy
synthesizer burbles. But the focus is on the rapper's fluid and rapid-fire
flow, which is impressive despite a somewhat adenoidal voice.
A grownup Steve Urkel
goes hip-hop? The comparison is almost too easy, but it isn't far off. It
would be a mistake to dismiss Lupe as a novelty or a lightweight, however,
because there are some potent messages in his music, along with funny riffs
on pedophile priests, porn and hydroponic pot, among many other things.
"Ghetto Story" is a
moving track that finds the artist "thinking about the Black Panthers and
the babies who were born in the '80s / Who now have babies," although they
don't have a Santa to deliver presents come Christmas. Time and again
through tracks such as "Trials and Tribulations," "Game Time," "Hustlaz
Song" and "Close Your Mind," he gets downright angry, railing against the
lack of self-respect engendered by drugs and prostitution. His attacks on
people who disrespect women are particularly striking, so it's no surprise
to note that earth mother/neosoul queen Jill Scott joins him on "Daydream,"
one of the last tracks added to the disc. Lupe is never preachy, however,
and in the video for that song, he dances with a giant robot -- one more
example of the fact that the album marks the debut of a true original.
I'm with Kanye: The
Want to cash in on Kanye
West's critical cache? Get in line. Lupe Fiasco is one of at least half a
dozen hip-hop hopefuls to emerge in the last year or so calling themselves,
or getting called, "a protege of Kanye." Who are these imps lurking in the
hitmaker's sizeable shadow, and are they coattail riders or genuine talents?
Just last weekend, Kanye introduced his latest protege at the Fashion Rocks
concert, part of New York's Fall Fashion Week. Surrounded by umbrellas and
bouncy dancers, the swift-rapping Bentley performed a song from his upcoming
He co-wrote West's 2004 hit, "Jesus Walks" -- which earned him a Grammy nod
before he had even debuted his own music. His debut disc, "Blue Collar,"
came in July.
From prodigy to protege, Legend grew up a musical wunderkind in Ohio, then
moved to Philadelphia and New York. Kanye quickly signed the young talent to
his new label. "Get Lifted," his first studio album, has since sold more
than 3 million copies worldwide, and "Once Again," his next CD, comes Oct.
Once West took this class clown under his wing, speed-rapper Twista received
two Grammy nods.
Upon the release of their debut album last year, "The Second Time Around" on
his own G.O.O.D label, Kanye remarked, "Sa-Ra is my sh-- right now!" Later,
he elaborated on the stylish, sex-charged hip-hop group: "Sa-Ra pushes the
style and musicality of the label. I might have to change the name to Great
Music or Best Dressed Records." Look for a major-label debut soon.
Formerly Bumpy Johnson, this Kanye protege quickly has come into his own and
built a lot of hype for his debut with the strong single "Move Around."