EW talks with the hip-hop artist about his impoverished childhood, Grammy nods, and premature retirement plans
Before he’d even blown out a fourth-birthday cake candle, the scrawny Wasalu Jaco was honing his blocks and strikes in karate class; by age 10, the son of Gregory Jaco, a former Black Panther and martial-arts expert, would earn the first of his four black belts. Before he could even legally drive a car, the young Muslim teen was adept at handling firearms — not to contribute to the ongoing violence of his notorious neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, but to ward off the crack dealers next door, and let them know he and his family, inside being nurtured on the fruits of PBS and National Geographic, were not going to be intimidated. By 18, Wasalu, having adopted the moniker Lupe Fiasco, had a major-label record deal; aided by endorsements from Jay-Z and Kanye West, the rookie MC’s full-length debut, 2006’s Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, would go on to earn four Grammy nominations and move some 325,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And this December, he released his superlative sophomore effort, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, which bowed at No. 15 on Billboard‘s top 200, had sold more than 229,000 copies at press time, and features a single, ”Superstar,” that’s in heavy rotation on MTV.
Considering that he’s seen and accomplished so much, so young, perhaps it should come as no surprise that at the ripe old age of 25, this Nietzsche-spewing, skateboard-riding Renaissance man is already planning to hang up his mic.
If that sounds insane, that’s because you don’t know Lupe Fiasco — yet.
As he shows in the revealing interview that follows, Fiasco is the latest in a long line of rappers whose pedigree — and music — are, to say the least, eclectic. Like Jay-Z, Kanye, Nas, OutKast, Mos Def, the Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac before them all, Fiasco transforms standard ghetto references (he’s got plenty of those) with material from far more unlikely sources — in his case, everything from Noam Chomsky and George Orwell to anime and videogames. Not unlike Jay-Z’s American Gangster CD, The Cool is in part a concept album about drugs, crime, and violence, revolving around four metaphorical characters, the Cool, the Streets, the Game, and Michael Young History (read: ”my cool young history”). But really only a few tracks ultimately draw on that primary theme. The rest of the disc finds Fiasco spitting cinematic narratives about everything from the suffering of child soldiers and rape victims to the joys of monogamy and fashion. And he truly sparkles while evoking West’s mass appeal with versatile beats, melodic pop hooks, and articulate lyrics.
So, just who is this stylish nerd who prefers high-tech toys to bling, prayer to partying, and halal meals to Hennessy? During his EW interview, sitting in the midtown Manhattan offices of his label, Atlantic Records, with his well-worn copy of The Portable Nietzsche in hand, Fiasco comes across as an outspoken and confident young man who reveals he revered Tchaikovsky as a kid but didn’t appreciate N.W.A until he was a teenager, hails from the streets but doesn’t glorify the ghetto, and, most of all, loves making music but loathes the music business. Which explains why this rapper on the brink may just be on the brink of retirement.
You were labeled ”the skateboard rapper” when you dropped the single ”Kick, Push” from Food & Liquor. But The Cool has more of an eye on street life. Are you courting a new audience?
LUPE FIASCO I didn’t go out shooting for anybody in particular because I shot for everybody unparticular. I make records for Muslims, Christians, rock ‘n’ roll kids, skateboard kids…. The song ”The Coolest” might turn you off because the hook is ”The coolest n—a, what! The coolest n—a, what!” You might not like the word n—a, and to hear it repeated at least 15, 20 times, you may be like, ”No. I don’t like that.” But you might be like, ”I really like ‘Intruder Alert’ because I know somebody that was raped — or I was raped — and I’m glad somebody shined a light on it.”
Were you concerned that The Cool might turn off your skateboard fans?
Not really, because I always put myself as a storyteller first. I talk about the same concepts as Young Jeezy, but I deglamorize it and put it on a cinematic level that leaves it open to interpretation on more levels than [just saying], ”I’m selling dope. This is what it is.” It has pieces of me, but it also has pieces of you, pieces of him, pieces of her…. So in essence, the story is of all of us. The Cool, the Streets, and the Game — those characters represent all of us.
Food & Liquor earned three Grammy nominations in 2007, and it just picked up a fourth for 2008. How does that feel?
I love it because that’s the highest you can go in music. And to be recognized for work on my first album when I’m fittin’ to come out with another album? It has the more primal, ”In yo’ face! Hold my nuts! I got another Grammy [nomination]! You know how a n—a do. We gonna do it real big!” That’s in me as well.
Wow! That’s a side of you that we rarely get to see.
I grew up in the hood around prostitutes, drug dealers, killers, and gangbangers, but I also grew up juxtaposed: On the doorknob outside of our apartment, there was blood from some guy who got shot; but inside, there was National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias and a little library bookshelf situation. And we didn’t have cable, so we didn’t have the luxury of having our brains washed by MTV. We watched public television — cooking shows and stuff like that.
Your dad was a martial-arts expert…
My father was a Renaissance man. He was an operating plant engineer, a musician, and a martial artist. He had eight black belts and taught [martial arts] for 40 years. He was also in the military and the Black Panthers. My mother [Shirley Jaco] was an intellectual and a chef. I got nine brothers and sisters. Three of us have the same mother and father, everyone else is half brothers and sisters.
Who were you raised by?
It was like we were at my mother’s house to go to school and then after school, my father would come get us and take us out into the world — one day, we’re listening to N.W.A; the next day, we’re listening to Ravi Shankar; the next day, he’s teaching us how to shoot an AK-47; the next day, we’re at karate class; the next day, we’re in Chinatown; the next day, we’re in a weird-ass Pakistani store looking for a rug…. We experienced everything with my father because the things he was into were so vast.
Did your family convert to Islam or were you raised Muslim?
We weren’t raised Muslim — we were born Muslim. I didn’t go to a Muslim school, but it was just the theme song. It was ambient.
Have you ever rebelled against your faith?
Smoking and drinking, that stuff was never a problem because I never had a genuine interest in it. Females were different because I had a genuine interest in females.
Is it true that you hated hip-hop when you were a kid?
Yeah. That’s when I was 7, 8, 9 — because hip-hop was battling Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and jazz. I wanted to be like Benny Goodman.
Did you get picked on a lot when you were a kid?
When the gangbangers would try to pull it, I was like, ”Yo, I will f— you up. And if you wanna call your cousin, call him. I’ll call me! I’ll call me right now.” We were shooting TEC-9s when we were babies, so the whole gangsta image, that ain’t nothing. When I was growing up, there was a crack house next door to us and they were trying to expand. My father was like, Are you serious? He took his gun, walked next door, and said, ”You’re done,” while I aimed my gun out of the window. I was 13 or 14 and to see that, a lot of the facade and the upkeep [of trying] to impress people was eliminated very early for me.
You’ve said your next CD, tentatively titled LupEND, will be your last. How committed are you to that plan?
Like 85 percent.
How many albums are you contracted to do?
So then why are you saying your next CD will be your last if you’re going to have two more albums left on your contract?
Because I don’t have to do ’em. There’s renegotiations and all types of other plays and ploys that you can put into effect. I’ll pay Atlantic back or whatever. It’s like a student loan. [When reached, Atlantic Records had no comment.]
Why would you want to pay Atlantic to get out of your contract rather than fulfilling it?
Because that cost is less than the [toll that] is being taken on me.
But at age 25, aren’t you awfully young for retirement?
This game wears on you. It tears you down. It’s perpetual motion for some people who’ve achieved a level of independence, like Madonna and Jay-Z — they don’t need to do music anymore. But there’s people who need it. And in that need, that’s when it’s tough and it tears you to pieces. But my goals are low. My ceiling is low. I’m not on a $100 million hustle because I know what it takes to get $100 million in music. It’s like they’re paying you, but how much is your independence, your soul, and your sanity worth?