The Making of Lupe Fiasco

The Making of <b>Lupe Fiasco</b>
Two questions into my interview with Lupe Fiasco, a stocky man walks up, brazenly ignoring the Q&A set-up and introduces himself to the MC. Lupe regards the man quizzically; the man wants him to come into the clothing store where he works. "I’m in a smooth rush right now,” says Lupe politely. Clearly Lupe Fiasco is a very hot property.

Being approached isn’t new to the Chicago MC, but he’s one of the few people to have a song on the topic as his current single. "I Gotcha,” produced by the Neptunes, features the crafty wordsmith rhyming, in part, about how in-demand he is. It’s not merely bragging, as this random encounter proves. After all, Lupe Fiasco has been the most hyped artist in hip-hop for the past year. But why all the attention?

His politically charged "Conflict Diamonds” mix-tape rhyme over Kanye West’s "Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” plus his cameo on West’s "Touch the Sky,” as well as his "Kick, Push” single about skateboarding raised curious eyebrows from hip-hop aficionados, but Lupe has been cultivating his against-the-grain rep for a while. Despite hating hip-hop as a child, Lupe scored an ill-fated record deal with Arista before he finished high school, but it was valuable advice from a certain Brooklyn MC that put him on the right path. "One of the lessons Jay-Z told me was ‘don’t chase radio.’ I took that as don’t follow what everybody else is doing. It’s the risk takers who win.”

With no qualms about his fascination with skateboarding, role-playing videogames, Japanimation and sneakers, and a willingness to discuss his nerdiness, his Muslim faith and freely proliferate his Fahrenheit 1/15 mix tapes from his personal website, Lupe concentrated just as hard on his image as his music. "I exploit my own diversity,” he says. "I know what I have that the other rapper doesn’t have and I know how to put it out there and have it come back to my music. People go, ‘Ooh he loves sneakers. Who is he? Oh he does music?’ That’s that niche, that sneaker community. I know how to use that a little bit, but I’m not a master.”

Clearly the approach has worked; Lupe’s debut Food and Liquor is one of the most eagerly anticipated hip-hop records of the year. But beyond the hype, Lupe Fiasco has the skills to deliver. His sophisticated awareness is distilled in an intricate rhyme style, highly influenced by the "simple complexities” of jazz, weaving street smart and often ambiguous narratives atop comparably lucid yet soulful arrangements. Despite the contention the album’s title reflects a balance of good and bad, Lupe Fiasco is careful to sidestep negativity. "I come from one of the most violent neighbourhoods in the world,” he says of his west side Chicago stomping grounds. "So it’s kinda like, ‘Let’s quiet that. Put that over here,’” he says, lifting an imaginary box. "Everybody’s like, ‘You’re not gonna talk about that?’ Whereas it’s like, ‘let me take this weird skateboard route.’ It was kinda weird to the people surrounding me.”

Since his recent success, his friends are not the only converts to his efforts. "The good works,” he says. "You don’t have to exploit violence, you don’t have to follow that for success. You don’t know what this could do and that unknown, just that unknown stuff that you could do and capture, to me that’s what’s exciting.”