Hip-hop artist, entrepreneur
As an observant Muslim, jazz aficionado, and self-described nerd, Lupe Fiasco was an unlikely candidate for hip-hop stardom. At a time when "gangsta" rap glorified drugs, violence, flashy diamonds, and misogyny, Fiasco's socially conscious lyrics celebrated love and respect, cartoons, and skateboarding, while remaining grounded in the 'hood. His first big hit, "Kick, Push," an ode to skate-boarding, and mixtapes released over the Internet garnered Fiasco a solid international fan base even before the release of his first album. Critics and fans loved his lyricism and his high-energy charismatic live performances. By age 25 Fiasco was a seasoned show business veteran. As he pushed the boundaries of the musical form, some heralded him as the future of hip-hop. But Fiasco considered himself to be as much an entrepreneur and businessman as a rapper.
Enjoyed an Eclectic Childhood
Wasalu Muhammad Jaco was born on February 17, 1982, the fifth of nine children. He told Ebony magazine in 2006 about growing up in the Madison Terrace housing project on Chicago's West Side: "The 'hood, that was the environment, but it was juxtaposed with a really strong family." Wasalu's mother was a gourmet chef who had traveled the world. His father was a Black Panther, an engineer, a martial-arts grandmaster, and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic judo team. A former Army Green Beret, he also owned army surplus stores. Fiasco told the Chicago Tribune: "I was throwing grenades and firing AK-47s [at shooting ranges] when I was 5. My father told me to respect weapons. I learned to respect them so much that I never wanted one. I did martial arts. If I had to fight, I could defend myself. But it also taught me how to see when a fight is coming and how to defuse it. I learned how to think. That's the most important thing my mother and father taught us." Wasulu began studying karate at the age of three and eventually earned four black belts in martial arts and two in samurai swords.
Wasulu's father was also a musician, an African drummer who played bagpipes and sitar and listened to rock music and hip-hop. Fiasco told the AllHipHop Web site, "at first, I didn't like Hip-Hop…it was vulgar. It was demeaning." Wasulu listened to Beethoven and Tchaik- ovsky and studied classical music and jazz. He later told Dimitri Ehrlich of Interview that "I love jazz more than I love hip-hop…Just growing up around all these different types of music—that's what I turn around and put into my music."
In an interview for the SoundSlam Web site, Fiasco talked about growing up Muslim in segregated Chicago. "We would go to different mosques around the city," he said. "Each mosque would be in a different community, so it would be a different ethnic group. It would Pakistanis, it would be Indians, it would be Palestinians, or it would be Africans…. And then being in the martial arts we also had karate schools all over the city. So I was always all over the city in different neighborhoods. I got to see a lot of different people…. It's like we were almost traveling the world…. I got exposed to a lot of different cultures."
The Jacos moved to the southern suburb of Harvey where Wasulu attended high school. His parents hoped he would pursue a scientific career; although he liked science, especially chemistry, Wasulu was a poor math student. As an adult Fiasco would identify quantum mechanics and chaos theory as among his interests. Wasulu joined his high school chess club. He did lights and sound for school theatricals and considered going into the theater. But he told classmates that he wanted to head a multi-tiered company.
Became Lupe Fiasco
Although Wasulu began rapping in the eighth grade he didn't become serious about it until age 17. In an interview for the Half Time Online Web site he explained his stage name: "My name is Wasalu and I would always rap under Lu, little Lu or Lu tha Underdog or something like that. So when it came time to change my rap name I had a friend named Lupe…. The Fiasco part came from The Firm album because they had a song called ‘Firm Fiasco.’"
Fiasco rigged up a recording studio in his father's basement, and his group Da Pak began performing at talent shows and show cases. In 2000, just out of high school, they landed a major record deal with Epic. They adopted the gangsta rap pose, but the group broke up after releasing their first single. "We had a song out about cocaine, guns and women, and I would go to a record store and look at it and think, ‘What are you doing?’" Fiasco admitted to the Chicago Tribune. "I felt like a hypocrite. I was acting like this rapper who would never be judged, and I had to destroy that guy. Because what Lupe Fiasco says on this microphone is going to come back to Wasalu Jaco. When the music cuts off, you have to go home and live with what you say."
In 2001 Fiasco and his manager/partner Charles "Chili" Patton founded the production company 1st & 15th (FNF). Six years later Patton was sentenced to 44 years in prison for drug trafficking. In 2002 Fiasco signed with Arista Records, which planned to release Luis Fiasco's Food & Liquor, but nothing came of the deal. Fed-up with record companies, Fiasco began releasing his Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtapes over the Internet.
Discovered by Kanye West
Fiasco's 2005 Internet release of "Conflict Diamonds"—his take on Kanye West's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" about the bloody African diamond trade—created a sensation. West himself was impressed and gave Fiasco a spot on his single "Touch the Sky." The video played on MTV and Fiasco's career took off. He did a remix of West's "Jesus Walks" entitled "Muhammad Walks." It was a free download because, as the song said, "I ain't tryin to profit off the prophets so this one's for free." It reached Muslims worldwide. Later Fiasco collaborated with West and Pharrell Williams as the hip-hop supergroup CRS (Child Rebel Soldiers).
On Half Time Online Fiasco said that Islam "affects my music as far as the stuff I don't talk about. I don't degrade women in my records, I try not to use profanity in my records or put anything negative in my records. I always try to put a positive message or solution in my records."
At a Glance …
Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco on February 17, 1982, in Chicago, IL. Religion: Sunni Muslim.
Career: Chicago, IL, rapper, songwriter, producer, 2001-; 1st & 15th Productions(FNF), Chicago, IL, co-founder and vice president, 2001-; Righteous Kung Fu, Chicago, IL, founder and principal, 2005-.
Selected awards: AOL Music, breaker artist, 2006; Billboard, Top 10 album, 2006; MTV2, Freshest MC, 2006; Rolling Stone, Artist to Watch, 2006; GQ, Breakout Artist of the Year, 2007.
Addresses: Web—www.lupefiasco.com; www.myspace.com/lupefiasco; www.righteouskungfu.blogspot.com.
In early 2006 Fiasco introduced his FNF Radio on the Illinois Institute of Technology's radio station. He played hip-hop—his own and that of other FNF artists—and discussed music, politics, and sports. He told Rolling Stone in 2006 that "I feel I have the responsibility—since I have this soapbox—to not only entertain but to educate. The world is in a really terrible place, and you have to stand back and ask why we're in this situation."
Released Food & Liquor
Fiasco worked on Food & Liquor for years before it was finally released in 2006, after unfinished cuts had been leaked over the Internet. The leaks only increased the anticipation and hype. A few months before the release, Fiasco appeared on the cover of Billboard riding a skateboard. The album garnered three Grammy nominations, including best rap album, and best rap song and solo performance for "Kick, Push," as well as numerous other award nominations. Fiasco explained the album title on the Atlantic Records Web site: "The title reflects on me being Muslim and being from the streets. In Chicago…the majority of the corner stores are called ‘Food and Liquors’…The ‘Food’ is the good part and the ‘Liquors’ is the bad part. I try to balance out both parts of me."
On "American Terrorist" Fiasco sampled jazz pianist Chick Corea. He rapped: "camouflaged Torahs, Bibles and glorious Qur'ans/the books that take you to Heaven and let you meet the Lord there have become misinterpreted, reasons for warfare/we read 'em with blind eyes I guarantee u there's more there." Fiasco felt a certain responsibility to Corea, using his work. He told the World Entertainment News Network that "We went the extra mile to make sure he [Corea] heard the rest of the record and could see that there was no cursing, and that there was positivity. We were taking extra care with his work and not putting any garbage out there."
In an interview on the Nobody Smiling Web site, Fiasco talked about his style, saying "I like to call it ‘simple complexity.’ I'm a big jazz fan…. You might have the same three instruments but the beats, the rhythms, and everything they're doing is really, really complex. So I always take that approach when I make rap records."
Fiasco's acclaim spread from the streets of Chicago to college campuses, MTV, and overseas. In 2006 London's Guardian newspaper named him "the best skateboarding Marxist." Fiasco toured, played festivals, and made numerous television appearances. He produced MTV2 My Block: Chicago in 2006 and the TV soundtrack to One Tree Hill in 2007. Fiasco's second album The Cool was released in 2007 filled with pleasingly cerebral raps about such disparate things as child soldiers, a zombie, and a song inspired by Orson Welles' 1984. "Superstardom," the first single from the album, was released over the Internet in September of 2007, offering Fiasco's humble take on his sudden rise to fame.
Founded Righteous Kung Fu
Fiasco told SoundSlam that he wanted Food & Liquor to be a commercial success to benefit FNF: "Just as much as I like Hip Hop and the whole thing, I like business. I want to build a company that's successful…. I got my kudos for being a rapper. I'm not really in Hip Hop for that, because I got it early. Now…I want to see my company succeed. I want to see my artists get their shine, and get their kudos, and put them in position for that, and see my company do different joint ventures…. I only plan on doing like 3 albums."
Fiasco was recruited by Reebok and designed the white/grey model of the Reebok "OG" shoe. He joined Reebok's RBK Artist Spotlight, releasing tapes at stores and events. He also did endorsements for the skateboard outfitter DGK and sponsored a skateboard team.
Fiasco loved Japanese toys, especially robots. But along with his Nintendo and his Koran, he always carried a sketchbook. In 2005 Fiasco founded Righteous Kung Fu (RKF), a collaborative multimedia company that designed fashions, sneakers, toys, video games, comic books, and graphics for album covers and skateboard decks.
Fiasco said on the Atlantic Web site that when he retired, "I want to step away on (a) positive note. What you put out into the world comes back to you. You actually change the world with what you do. I want to put some good in the world."
Food & Liquor, 1st & 15th/Atlantic, 2006.
The Cool, 1st & 15th/Atlantic, 2007.
"Kick, Push," 1st & 15th/Atlantic, 2006.
"Daydreamin" 1st & 15th/Atlantic, 2006.
Billboard, July 15, 2006, p. 24.
Chicago Tribune, July 2, 2006.
Creative Loafing, March 1-7, 2007, p. 76.
Ebony, December 2006, p. 152.
GQ-Gentlemen's Quarterly, August 2006, p. 44.
Interview, March 2006, p. 200-201.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 2006, p. 22; February 8, 2007, p. S16.
World Entertainment News Network, December 13, 2006.
"Hip to be Square," SoundSlam,http://www.soundslam.com/articles/interviews/interviews.php?interviews=in060511lupefi (September 7, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco," Atlantic Records,http://www.atlanticrecords.com/lupefiasco (September 7, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco," Half Time Online,http://www.halftimeonline.com/sickwidit/lupe-fiasco (September 12, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco—Almost Famous," Nobody Smiling,http://www.nobodysmiling.com/hiphop/interview/84943.php (September 7, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco-A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing," The Age,http://www.stuff.co.nz/3921934a13975.html (September 7, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco: Revenge of the Hip-Hop Nerd," All-HipHop,http://allhiphop.com/blogs/features/archive/2006/02/10/18133452.aspx (September 7, 2007).
"Lupe Fiasco: The Rise of the '80s Babies in Hip-Hop," Prefix,http://www.prefixmag.com/features/L/lupe-fiasco/440 (September 7, 2007).
Rap musician, songwriter
Lupe Fiasco is a rapper who doesn't like to refer to himself as a rapper. This African-American skateboarding kid who grew up to be an MC had his debut album executively produced by Jay-Z. Raised in Chicago's housing projects, Fiasco could have gone the way of many of his peers—into drugs, theft, or gangs. Instead, he started skateboarding, reading comic books, and listening to jazz music. East Coast hip-hop did nothing for the young Fiasco. But eventually he found hip-hop he admired, such as Kanye West and Jay-Z. Fiasco's first album, Food & Liquor, earned four Grammy Award nominations. An MC with a fresh outlook and sound, Fiasco still claims he prefers jazz to hip-hop.
Born Wasulu Muhammad Jaco, the young MC took on the moniker of Lupe Fiasco at the age of 18. But before he entered the world of Jay-Z, Fiasco's first love in music was classical and jazz. "From 5 or 6 years old, I was listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky," Fiasco told Dimitri Ehrlich of Interview. "My father is a musician, an African drummer. He also plays the bagpipes and sitar, so I grew up around stuff like Ravi Shankar. … Just growing up around all these different types of music-that's what I turn around and put into my music." As a child, Fiasco had earned four black belts in karate by the age of ten (thanks to his father) and had nine siblings (some are half sisters and brothers). He lived in the housing projects and saw the effects of violence every day. "I grew up in the hood around prostitutes, drug dealers, killers, and gangbangers," Fiasco told Entertainment Weekly writer Margeaux Watson, "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."
That African-American street culture mixed with the suburban skateboarding became an integral part of Fiasco's personality. In 2000 Fiasco was part of a rap group, Da Pak, which signed a deal with Epic Records, but after the release of one single, the group broke up. Around 2001, Fiasco started his own record label, 1st & 15th Entertainment, but little happened in his career until he landed a feature guest vocal on Kanye West's second album, Late Registration. Fiasco also co-wrote rhymes in "Touch the Sky," a top-charting single for West. Fiasco appeared (with his name, to make no mistake) alongside West and actress Pamela Anderson in the video for "Touch the Sky." It was that appearance that caught Jay-Z's eye.
Although Jay-Z didn't sign Fiasco to Def Jam (of which he was president), he pointed the Chicago MC to Atlantic Records, where Fiasco signed a deal in 2004. Before a record was made, Fiasco began making himself into a brand. In 2005 he founded Righteous Kung-Fu, a company that made custom sneakers and clothes. In June, Atlantic released Fiasco's debut album, Food & Liquor. Its first single was "Kick, Push," a playful tune about skateboarding. "The album straddles hip-hop and rock, with songs that segue from funky blaxploitation grooves into grunge, cabaret, and swirling cinematic string arrangements," declared Ehrlich. Unlike productions from many of the most popular MCs, Fiasco's songs were a refreshing sidestep, unable to be pigeonholed easily into the hip-hop genre. "Without dipping his toes into violent imagery, wanton obscenity or other hip-hop clichés, Fiasco reflects on the personal and the political, and reminds fans of everything hip-hop can be," wrote Evan Serpick in Rolling Stone. Although it only sold 325,000 copies, Food & Liquor was often referred to as one of the best hip-hop records of 2006.
Citing the scholar-like sway of his lyrics as well as the beats he chose, critics often compared Fiasco to some of the finest MCs, such as Jay-Z, Kanye, Nas, OutKast, Mos Def, and others. "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," stated Watson. His wide appeal rang true when Fiasco appeared as himself to perform on the CW TV show One Tree Hill. With his second record awaiting its official release date at the start of 2007, Fiasco was nominated for three Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Solo Performance, Best Rap Song for "Kick, Push," and Best Rap Album. The nominations came at almost the same time as Atlantic's release of Fiasco's sophomore disc The Cool. A semi-concept album, The Cool was partly about a couple of metaphorical gangsters, while the remainder of the album reached into politics, jazz, love, and society. "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. … So in essence, the story is of all of us. The Cool, the Streets, and the Game—those characters represent all of us," he explained to Watson.
When the 2008 Grammy Awards nominations came around, Food & Liquor was up for another nomination. This time, Fiasco won a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, for his track "Daydreamin'," featuring the vocals of Jill Scott. Fiasco then focused on The Cool, and what it could represent. The album was almost entirely produced by Soundtrakk, and included appearances by Snoop Dogg, British trip-hop/electronic outfit UNKLE, and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, an eclectic group to say the least. "There are genuinely thrilling moments to be had here," wrote Mart Pytlik of Pitchfork Media, of The Cool, "some of it from Fiasco's storytelling abilities, some of it from his lyrical dexterity, and some of it from his willingness to submerge himself in the theatre of it all." At 25, with so much on his plate and already so accomplished, Fiasco is already thinking of hanging up the microphone.
For the Record …
Born Wasalu Jaco, in Chicago, IL; son of Gregory Jaco (karate master) and Shirley Jaco (a professional chef).
For Atlantic Records, released Food & Liquor, 2006; released The Cool, 2007.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Urban/Alternative Performance for "Daydreamin'," 2008.
Addresses: Record company—Atlantic Records, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, 28th Fl., New York, NY 10104. Web site—Lupe Fiasco Official Web site: http://www.lupefiasco.com.
Food & Liquor, Atlantic, 2006.
The Cool, Atlantic, 2007.
Entertainment Weekly, January 18, 2008, p. 56.
Interview, March, 2006, p. 200.
Pitchfork Media,http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/record_review/47793-the-cool (June 24, 2008).
Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/album/11498267/review/11925372/lupefiascosfoodliquor (June 24, 2008).