I Love Lupe


September 17, 2006


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 the waves.

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.

Q. Though you're only 24, Lupe, it's seems as we've been waiting a long time for your debut disc.

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, growing up.

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 serious.

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 society.

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.

Q. You've 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, Push."

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 proteges

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?

Farnsworth Bentley
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 debut album.

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.

John Legend
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. 24.

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.

Bump J
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."