LUPE FIASCO: 'PARIS, TOKYO'... BLUES AND SOUL
While the quirky combination of his prescription glasses with self-confessed pastimes like comic books, Japanese animation, reading literature and skating may have earned him the dubious title of rap`s King of Nerds, there`s no question that.
In the eyes of true b-boys across the globe - Chicago MC Lupe Fiasco has been hailed as a bona fide saviour of those pining for a focus on lyrical content over production excess; a throwback to when rappers expressed themselves from the heart.
Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, the young Windy City wordsmith trail-blazed his path to critical acclaim back in 2006 when his Atlantic Records` debut 'Lupe Fiasco`s Food & Liquor' (executive-produced by good friend and one-time mentor Jay-Z) was released. Possessing dazzlingly intelligent wordplay and a topical range more akin to the underground than the mainstream, the 25-year-old lyricist quickly established himself as one of the most compelling thinking-man`s rhymers of his era by offering a rare combination of complex, thought-provoking lyrics coupled with sure-fire beats. With the buzz created by his Grammy-winning contribution to Kanye West`s global hit 'Touch The Sky' spilling over to his first official solo single - the personal hobby-inspired, skateboard-meets-rap gem 'Kick Push' - Lupe would go on to crown a monumental first year in the spotlight by receiving three Grammy nominations; making his debut on the `NME``s `Cool` list; while also being recognised as `GQ``s `Breakout Man Of The Year`.
Meanwhile, the 2008 release of his hotly-anticipated sophomore LP - the dense, darkly-atmospheric conceptual tour-de-force 'Lupe Fiasco`s The Cool' - has recently seen Lupe score his first international Top Five solo single with the Soundtrakk-produced 'Superstar'( a semi-autobiographical account of his own rise to fame and the discomfort it`s brought him); while guest-wise combining such world-renowned talents as Snoop Dogg and Fall Out Boy`s Patrick Stump with his own up-and-coming proteges like singer Matthew Santos and rapper Gemstones. Decked out in his now-familiar blend of skater-meets-b-boy chic, a bespectacled, mild-mannered and instantly-likeable Lupe holds court for the first time with `B&S` at Atlantic Records` Kensington HQ.
The concept behind titling his latest LP 'Lupe Fiasco`s The Cool' around a storyline involving three made-up characters
“It originally came from a song on my first album called 'The Cool', which is about a zombie who during his life had been a hustler. He was basically a drug-dealer who gets killed and comes back to life. The song tells of the whole process of him digging his way out of his grave and then going back to his neighbourhood. So it`s an interesting story. And, with my mind working the way it does, whenever I get to thinking about something I just start BUILDING on it! So, when I was thinking about the song 'The Cool' - and at the same time wondering about a title for my new album - I started thinking about that character The Cool and started to build a world around him. Which of course involved populating it with other people and a storyline. So the other people were The Game and The Streets. The Game being his father and The Streets - a female character - his love interest. So it`s like he`s in love with The Streets and raised by The Game. And, while the three characters all feature in the album`s art-work, the storyline itself runs through four songs - `The Coolest`; `Streets On Fire`; The Die`; and `Put You On Game`.”
The new single `Paris, Tokyo`
“I love Paris, I love Tokyo… And what inspired me to write the song was that between `Food And Liquor` and this album we travelled EVERYWHERE`- multiple countries, multiple towns, multiple tours. So I just developed a knack and a love for touring, even if I didn`t want to do it! You know, despite the lyrical wear and tear it has on your body - particularly with the different climates - just by force I had to fall in love with it! And of course another side to it all is, when you travel, you leave people behind. So I actually wrote the song for my girl, `cause I`d be gone so much we`d go for two months at a time without seeing each other. So it`s basically her song. Just to let her know that, wherever I go, she comes with me - even if it is just mentally or in spirit.”
His early background
“I grew up on the Westside of Chicago. My father - who`s now passed - for 40 years was a karate instructor, a military guy, an entrepreneur, an engineer, a musician.. an all-round renaissance man. My mother was a gourmet chef and an intellectual. So at home we had all this culture just by nature, I guess, from my parents and the surroundings that they kept. But at the same time we were growing up in the `hood - the ghetto, with the gangs and the drugs and the prostitutes right there and all around us. So it`s like we had all this culture juxtaposed with all this violence and the ills and vices of the world. So I kinda grew up this musical karate kid, who liked Japanese animation and whose friends were all in gangs, and who`d find drug needles while he was playing in the yard! So that was kinda like the duality I had my whole life. Living in those two worlds and, I guess, getting like the best and worst of both of them.”
How and why he first got into rapping
“I actually first got into it through jealousy and envy! My friend - a performer who I still travel with now, called Bishop G - was doing poetry in Eighth Grade. And, when I saw that they were giving him like awards and calendars, I was like `Oh, I could do that too!`! So I started doing poetry, which of course turned into rapping. Then that just snowballed all through High School - doing talent shows, getting better, writing songs... To where eventually it was like `We`re not going to college `cause we`re gonna be rappers`! And, while that was insane to most of the teachers, the few that DID understand it gave me enough respect for me to really believe in myself. So like at the end of High School - the summer after senior year - I got my first record deal! I got a cheque and I was like `Hey, I`m a professional rapper now!`! And from 2000 all the way to today it`s just been non-stop rapping, man!”
An early turning-point in his career
“One of the first songs I ever recorded was called `Could Have Been`, where I was talking about everything I could have been doing other than rapping. And that was actually the song that started to change things for me. I was already in the music business. I`d had, and lost, one record deal with my group Da Pak. So at that time I was just kinda in limbo, but still recording a ton of stuff. And one of the songs I recorded back then - `Could Have Been `- got picked up by MTV without a video. So it actually became my demo-tape. And that was the song that made me realise that you could do rap songs for more than just black people. You know, I suddenly had all these white ladies coming up to me like `I really like what you`re saying on that song`. So that in itself made me start to change what I rapped about and what I talked about; how I did it and how I approached it.”
Conscious rap versus materialistic/violent rap
“Well, first of all, ALL music forms are sometimes materialistic and violent. For example, country music talks about guns. One of Johnny Cash`s best songs talks about a kid who shoots a man. And to me hip hop and rap is just another way to express the human experience, which isn`t all conscious, happy, positive, clouds, rainbows and teddy bears. It`s every GAMUT of it. So in that way it is possible to have some artists that are TOO conscious. Who may be too politicised to where they start to ostracise the common man. Because it`s all high ideals and just like `You either grow dreadlocks or you`re not pure`. So for me I think you do need that balance, and rap doesn`t have to be ALL about conscious, positive MCs. Because what that all means is that we`ll all start to live in a fantasy land! You know, you do need those MCs that are still talking about the strifes and the struggles - whether they`re glamorising it or not. Because, without artists making the statement that those things still exist, people will FORGET that there`s poverty right around the corner from Parliament! They`ll forget that there`s people living in garbage cans around the corner from the mansions. So for me - in ALL forms of music - it`s important that EVERYBODY has a voice. Even if they`re just saying `You`re not cool if you don`t have a chain or you don`t have a Rolls Royce with rims on`.”
Multi-million-selling MCs who still rap about the `hood long after they`ve left the ghetto
“I think the misconception that people have is that these artists are now AWAY from that lifestyle, when the fact is you NEVER get out. Because what you become is a vehicle for OTHER people to get out. And, if THEY`RE still there, in essence YOU`RE still there! You still have to go and pick them up physically from their project buildings. Or you ask them to come to the studio, meet them at the train and they might have a bag of weed in their pocket or a gun on them. Which is how some big-name rappers are still getting caught up. You know, just because you cross a certain threshold, you don`t instantly start hanging out and socialising with another group of people. Those people that were in the `hood with you - people who were killers, gang-bangers, drug-dealers when you were 12 - were your best friends then, and there`s no reason why they`re not still gonna be your best friends NOW! And, because these are the people these rappers still see every day, it`s only natural that their everyday problems are gonna be reflected in the rappers` lyrics. Because these people are still talking about the `hood and what`s going on in the `hood. You know, they`re like `Yo, my aunt`s still addicted to drugs; my cousin just got shot; my homie just went to jail`... So, though these big-selling rap stars may have physically moved out of the ghetto, the CONNECTION is still there. And I don`t think you can ever break it.”
The impact superstar rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West have had on Lupe`s career
“I knew Jay-Z before Kanye. So Jay-Z was a little bit more massive in the initial steps. Because when I was just nobody - no mixtapes or anything - he took a liking to me, brought me out to New York, took me to his house, took me to the studio, and we just generally started building this rapport. He offered me my first record deal and basically became my go-to guy within the industry. Particularly when my partner Chilly and I were setting up our own label. While with Kanye the situation was that I knew him when he was just the beatmaker - when he was in the background producing records and earning notoriety for that. And I watched him go from that to the phenomenon that he is today. Every step of the way I was there - participating, going on tour with him… So with Kanye for me it was all about watching him and learning from him how to actually perform. Because to me, rapping-wise, he`s the most talented performer in the WORLD. So, while with Kanye it was all about learning how to entertain, with Jay-Z it was more seeing how he did things on the business side - the empire-building and the steps you take to make it all work.”
Forming a new supergroup - CRS - with Pharrell Williams and Kanye West
“CRS stands for Chi Rebel Soldiers, and it was like Pharrell`s idea one day at the studio. `Cause we all basically have the same interests, the same inspirations, the same likes and some of the same dislikes, it was like `We gotta do something together as a GROUP!`. But then the problem was our schedules. I was working on `The Cool`; Pharrell was working on N.E.R.D.; Kanye was on tour... So we haven`t actually been in the studio to work as CRS EVER! Like it`s always just been talking on the phone, recording a verse here or there, e-mailing stuff off... So we still don`t know exactly what CRS is gonna be about, except that it will comprise fashion, music and art. But, having said that, we were all talking on the phone about it last night. Basically this summer we`re all gonna be together on the US leg of the Glow In The Dark Tour for two months. So we`ll probably debut CRS while we`re doing that tour. And, with us having a studio on the bus, who knows? We`ll just have to see what happens.”
Retiring after his next, third album
“I`m like 85% sure that my third album will be the last album. Simply because of the way the RECORDED music business wears and tears on you. You know, for me there are two music businesses. There`s the recorded CD and all the things that come with that, and then there`s the PERFORMING. Now, while I love performing - even with all the travelling - it`s the RECORDING side that wears on you more mentally than physically. To where it`s like `Oh, I can`t do this FOREVER!`. Because while yes, I`ve been doing it successfully for the past two years, I`ve actually been trying to GET there for 10 years! So there`s still all that that people didn`t see - which is just as heavy, just as tough, just as intense WITHOUT the hit records! So, while it`s not a lack of wanting to make music - I`ll still perform FOREVER - it`s the lack of wanting to be in the rigmarole of the recording game. But I am setting myself up to leave WELL! I plan on putting so much into my third album and making it such an event that it`ll be MASSIVE! While I`m also planning to introduce artists that are signed to my label (1st & 15th Productions, Inc) - like Matthew Santos - who I`m trying to break and show to the world. So that by then I`ll be able to say `Hey, I`m still here! But it`s just they`re the ones doing the run-around now!`!”
The single `Paris, Tokyo` is released April 21. The album `Lupe Fiasco`s The Cool` is out now, both through Atlantic
Words PETE LEWIS