Meet Muslim MC Lupe Fiasco, Chicago's next hip-hop star
For a second there, we thought an auto shop might be too prosaic of a location to ask Chicago hip-hop’s next big star about his faith. “Actually, I think it’s a great place,” counters Lupe Fiasco over his cell. “To be at a Jiffy Lube when one of the main struggles in the war is over oil in a Muslim country? And I’m a Muslim MC.”
Lupe Fiasco is also a 24-year-old connoisseur of jazz, skateboarding culture, anime and toys (“I can sit in Rotofugi all day long”), and has rhyming skills that have left industry bigwigs watering at the mouth. He’s back home from the promotional gauntlet because his major-label debut, Food and Liquor, was recently leaked on the Internet, and in three days, he’s had to rewrite and record six new tracks for the album. “I’m fresh from doing about 65 interviews and from trying to record,” he says. “Then, being a regular person and having to [do things like] change your oil—it’s a little hectic.”
Behind-the-scenes drama doesn’t seem to faze Lupe, though—most likely because he’s used to it. “I was taken away from the Chicago [hip-hop] scene when I was 18,” he recalls of his move to New York, back when his first group, Da Pak, was signed—then dropped—by a major label. It’s only now, with an enviable solo deal at Atlantic and an executive-production credit from none other than Jay-Z on Food and Liquor, that Lupe’s finally getting the attention he’s always wanted.
Raised on the West Side by a musically inclined martial-arts instructor father and a gourmet-chef mother, Lupe’s encounters with his neighborhood’s titular food and liquor stores left a major impression: “There were winos hanging out in front of them, prostitutes, drug dealers. It was a scary situation to actually walk to the store everyday.” The destitution provides the backdrop to Food and Liquor, as Lupe spins a range of artful stories about broken families, frustrated skateboarders and his conflicted feelings over the war in Iraq. His high-pitched voice is confident but never cocky, and the string-laden soul he’s got behind him recalls Kanye (whose “Touch the Sky” features Lupe) at his finest.
But gentrification has yet to really change the old neighborhood. “Mike Skinner [of the Streets] says, ‘Try to change the things you can. But what can’t change, change the way you think about it.’ When you’re young, it’s ‘Oh, big scary winos!’ When you’re older, it’s like, ‘Move. Could you move, please?’?”
Lupe’s Muslim faith not only guided him clear of the vices surrounding those stores but also burnished him with humility. When asked why his sets never stretch longer than 20 minutes, he explains that until the album comes out, “I’m still a writer-rapper. I don’t even think I’m a performer yet.” Mostly because of his early exit to New York with Da Pak, he also admits to being remarkably disconnected from Chicago hip-hop, not including a childhood infatuation with West Side bounce artists like Crucial Conflict and Tung Twista. “I’ve never been out to an open-mike night or any of these Chicago hip-hop hot spots.” But that doesn’t mean the hoopla surrounding his imminent entrance has left him surprised.
“People are like, ‘I’ve heard the Christian rappers and the Jewish rappers, what does the regular Muslim guy have to say?’ Our airtime gets taken up by the likes of [Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al] Zarqawi. I don’t think you really see the true opinion of Muslims on the ground in any form of media right now.”
Lupe doesn’t harbor any illusions about his new popularity, but he does hope to harness its power. “I always want everything I do to have a double impact, a double purpose,” he says. “I want to achieve some success businesswise, but I also want to have some social impact. I don’t need to change the world, but I definitely want one person to be like, ‘Yo, you’re right. I should stop smoking,’ or ‘I should stop drinking.’ That’s where my responsibility comes in.”
Lupe Fiasco plays the Fourth Annual Chicago Rocks fest at Metro Saturday 13. Food and Liquor drops June 27 on Atlantic Records.