I sometimes wonder how today’s hip-hop audience would respond to the video for De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I.” For us ’80s babies, the African medallions, high-top fades and Plug One spectacles represented an awkward pre-pubescent age, not only in our lives but in the development of hip-hop. Back in our day, groups such as De La made it cool to be different and, dare I say, even a nerd. For the first time in hip-hop music, we embraced and celebrated our idiosyncrasies and not only praised originality but also demanded it from our artists.
Yet the “Me, Myself and I” video poignantly highlights the conflicting personalities inherent in the music. It’s best represented by the contrast between the LL Cool J-type, dukey-rope wearing, Kangol-fitted alpha male and the Q-Tip-type, carefree psuedo-hippie and eclectic introspective artist. Things have changed since then, and there is an obvious winner in this battle: Native Tongue-influenced hip-hop has been banished to the nether regions of the underground, off the majors and independent-minded.
Which is why we can’t help but take notice when an artist comes around who challenges the standard. Lupe Fiasco’s debut, Food and Liquor, executive produced by Jay Z (although it came out on Atlantic, not on Def Jam), has already been deemed by many as the best hip-hop album of the year. But it many ways he has exposed an inherent deficiency in hip-hop media. How do we define an artist who doesn’t fit the classic Mr. Me Too mold? Lupe has been characterized as a Muslim, a skater, a nerd, a lyricist, a backpacker, as post-Native Tongue, as the next Jay Z and the next Nas. The arrival and domination of Southern coke-related hip-hop has not only limited what is playable and marketable, but it has also changed the way we talk about hip-hop. It’s caught up in the trap. Like De La before him, Lupe has thrown a wrench in the system: We expect our emcees to pushing Bentleys and popping tags and bottles, not kicking around a skateboard, playing CalecoVision and fantasizing about robots.
He may be an oddity, but he’s hyped in nearly every segment of the hip-hop community, from college radio to MTV, from the streets of Chicago to overseas hip-hip hubs such as London. He’s inked endorsement deals with Reebok and skater outfitter DGK. If Lupe proves profitable, it may create a much needed avenue for that ’80s babies brand of hip-hop. And he may have done something even more important for hip-hop: show that it’s okay for artists to drop the charade and once again have fun with their music.
On “Failure” you say its all coming back to the lyrics. Do you think you can bring it back?
Lupe Fiasco: Not really. I just put it out there. It never left, truthfully. I recorded it in the record actually like four years ago. So that statement was made like four years ago when nobody was talking too much about any lyrics. But you still got cats spitting they rhymes. You got Talib Kweli, Rhymefest, Kanye. So I guess, yeah yeah, it wasn’t there, but it did come back.
You’re the VP and cofounder of 1st and Fifteenth Records. For a VP, how hard is it to sell records now? Has the market changed? How are you looking to market yourself and sell some records?
Pretty much, it’s the music. You know what I am saying? The type of music that I make. If we want to go the regular gangsta gangsta route, then we gonna go that route and go through that promotion and go through that market. Then let’s make gangsta gangsta music. If we want to hit this particular section of the market, you know what I am saying, then we going to do this. If you want a hip-hop market, let’s do mad pop songs with mad corny hooks. I’m actually trying to go for the middle. I’m trying to get a little from every market. You know what I mean? Not trying to ostracize anybody too much. That’s why you got gangstas who can rock with “Kick, Push” and skateboard kids who love it to death.
With my music, I’m trying to let my music sink into everything. Then I see what people are feeling; I see what the feedback is from it. Then I go back to the studio and, “Yeah, okay, let me do a little more like this,” or, “It was too poppy; the gangstas can’t really rock with it. Okay let me tweak it bit for the gangstas.” Like even with “Kick, Push,” I did a “Kick Push II” strictly for the streets. You know what I am saying? Like, here, take that. Like, relate to that. I know you can relate to this, so go ahead and relate to that right there.
Do you find it frustrating that the media is trying to label you as skateboarder, Muslim, a lyricist. I mean, it really takes away from the whole picture of hip-hop, like you can’t be lyricist without being drug-related or gangsta?
Nah, I don’t really think they got that persona. I really think they like, “Thank you,” you know what I am saying? Like, “Yay.” At least the drugs is still there. The guns and the violence is still there, but at least you got something else. That’s at the same level and gets the same kind of exposure and it’s just more positive. They feel comfortable that they kids can listen to it and they like that. I don’t really be tripping about being a nerd or skateboarder geek kid. That’s fresh. That means there probably won’t be no shootings at my shows. Which I don’t have a problem with.
I don’t want to call it skateboard rap, but do you think skateboard rap is the new backpack rap?
I don’t even think it is skateboard rap. I just think it is rap. You listen to my album; there is no other songs about skateboard. You listen to my mixtapes; there is no songs about skateboarding. I think it is just rap. Expanding our horizons, you know what I’m saying? Talking about different things; talking about things that haven’t talked about before. I think that is the progression of rap and hip-hop. Do things that haven’t been done before. So I think skateboard rap is still rap.
You got the song “American Terrorist” on the album. “Break’em off with all little democracy and turn the culture into a mockery.” Are you talking about hip-hop culture, Muslim culture, black culture, urban culture?
I am talking about any culture with like a flag-waiving country and came in like, “Yo, y’all need to straighten up, y’all walking around with no shirts on, got no shoes on.” Like, “Here, take these shoes.” But they don’t understand when you give them shoes it’s like you are taking away a piece of their culture, taking away some of their history; there is a legacy behind it. It may be weird, like, “Why are these people walking around with these shells on their neck? That ain’t culture; that ain’t our culture.” It’s more about when people try to take their culture and force it on other people.
Hip-hop does it too. Like when you would look at a skateboard kid that dresses in a medium shirt or something like that. They be like, “Yo, that ain’t baggy pants long, fitted hat, like, what’s he doing?” It’s kind of the same situation. So, it speaks to anybody and everybody that that has been done to, somebody trying to change what you doing. Like, “Yo, this is me. Chill.”
You’ve talked about how you want your album to be like [Nas’s] It was Written. Why It was Written?
At a particular point in my life — 16, 17 — that album had such an impact. To me, that’s the greatest hip-hop album. Just because at the particular point in time in my life, that was what was hot. I was like, “Oh! This is ridiculus.” Not really song for song; it was more about the mood of each particular song. I got a song that gives the same mood or emotion like “I Gave You Power” or I have song that is the same mood or emotion like “Take It in Blood.” It’s really just trying to match the mood, as opposed to song for song.
You’ve also talked about how you take rhyme schemes from the South and lyrics from the East. What do you take from Chicago?
Chicago is like the mixing pot. Once you got the ingredients you got to put it somewhere and put it all together. Chicago is like the bread for the sandwich. You take the salami from the East Coast, you take the cheese from the West Coast, lettuce and tomato. But you got to add the bread to make it all go together. Chicago just makes it work.
So we all know the album leaked. What are you doing to put out a new product? What are you changing up?
Nothing. The only thing that occurred was everything we was doing — like the collaborations, they were going to happen anyway. So I stepped back. I ain’t really going do nothing new. I was going to do a song with Jay-Z, when it leaked I was in the studio with Jill Scott. I was going to do a song with the Neptunes. I was going to do a song this person, you know, and there were songs on there that didn’t leak. That were already recorded that were going to make the album. So we really didn’t do nothing. Outside of “Kick, Push II”. But everything else was going to happen anyways, so we just went on with the program.
You said you were working on that album for a number of years.
Here’s the last question: Where do you want Food & Liquor to be ten years from now?
I don’t know. I don’t want you to not be able to find it ten years from now. I want it to be on E-Bay for thirty thousand dollars ten years from now. I want every single copy ever printed up to vanish. People holding it, like “I got Food & Liquor.” People come in and rob you for Food & Liquor ten years from now.