NPR

Lupe Fiasco: Two Sides To Everything

Lupe Fiasco went from high-school chess club to the heights of hip-hop. His new album is called Lasers. (Courtesy of the artist)

Wasalu Muhammad Jaco grew up in rough neighborhoods in and around Chicago, where crack addicts would pass out on his front stoop. But, while his friends were drifting in and out of jail, he joined the chess club and the academic decathlon at high school. He was also a drama geek.

This is the story of Lupe Fiasco — that's Wasalu Jaco's stage name. Now 29, Lupe Fiasco is arguably the most innovative rapper to hit the scene in more than a decade. He raps about cops and drug dealers, but he's also known to quote Nietzche, Orwell, Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Fiasco celebrates the idea of being an oddball — he is a living juxtaposition.

"I always saw two sides of life," Fiasco tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "I saw the dudes who would be the gangsta, big-time guys on the block, but would also be dedicated fathers. It was kind of weird to see that dual story that everybody has."

Fiasco's parents divorced when he was young, and he spent time with both of his parents, who each exposed him to the world outside his neighborhood.

"My mother had a massive collection of National Geographics," he says. His father's tastes were even more eclectic: "There would be a massive collection of swords from Pakistan, and then a ton of Ravi Shankar vinyl, and then a set of bagpipes, and these vases from China. It was just all these little knickknacks and pieces of the world strewn around the house."

Music was a big part of Fiasco's global education. He listened to N.W.A in the car with his father, but also had access to an extensive record collection that spanned world music and jazz. Known to use a range of styles in his songs, Fiasco says his father was instrumental in building this base of music knowledge.

"I have an understanding of Queen and the way Freddie Mercury did his harmonies," Fiasco says. "I know what tablas sound like, because my father played a lot of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan." Fiasco says his knowledge base has made him uncompromising as an arranger: "I can't play any instrument for the life of me, but I know what I want to hear."

In "Words I Never Said," from his new album Lasers, Fiasco explores another part of his upbringing: Islam. Growing up around potentially dangerous influences in his neighborhood, Fiasco managed to keep out of trouble. He attributes this in part to the tradition of faith in which he grew up.

"I was born Muslim, but for a large part of my life, I wasn't necessarily raised Muslim," he says. "My father always kept everything around us, from Western philosophy to Eastern philosophy." That air of tolerance is reflected in the song, which is in part a reaction to Islamic extremism. Take this couplet: "Jihad is not a holy war, where's that in the worship? / Murdering is not Islam, and you are not observant."

Fiasco says he sees his music, which pulls influences from prog and experimental rock, as a way to bring different groups of listeners together — including those who are wary of hip-hop. "Kick, Push," the Grammy-nominated single from his first record, Food & Liquor, became a skater anthem, popular with skateboarders black and white, urban and suburban.

Fiasco has continued to experiment. Last year, he introduced Japanese Cartoon, a post-punk side project in which he affects a mock British accent in the mold of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Even Lasers was originally meant to be part of a genre-spanning three-disc set — which he'd hoped would satisfy his current contract and release him to take a new direction.

That decision, he says, "got lost in translation" — but he says he isn't discouraged.

"This will not be my last album," Fiasco says. "I have three more to do with my record company, and I will continue to do music until I decide to stop."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of song, "Daydreamin'")

Mr. LUPE FIASCO (Singer): (Singing) Daydream, I fell asleep...

GUY RAZ, host:

Wasalu Muhammed Jaco grew up in rough neighborhoods in and around Chicago in the '80s and early '90s. Crack addicts and prostitutes would pass out on the front stoop. But inside his dad's apartment, National Geographic was on the coffee table and PBS documentaries played on the TV.

Wasalu's friends drifted in and out of jail, while he joined the chess club and the academic decathlon at high school. He was also a drama geek.

This is the story of Lupe Fiasco, that's Wasalu Jaco's stage name, and Lupe Fiasco is arguably the most innovative rapper to hit the scene in more than a decade.

(Soundbite of song, "Daydreamin'")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) As I spy from behind my Giant Robot's eyes, I keep him happy 'cause I might fall out if he cries. Scared of heights so I might pass out if he flies. Keep him on autopilot 'cause I can't drive.

RAZ: He raps about cops and drug dealers, but he's also been known to quote Nietzsche, Orwell, Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Lupe Fiasco's been called the Geek MC, and his long-awaited third album is now out. It's called "Lasers." And Lupe Fiasco joins me from Tampa, Florida.

Lupe, great pleasure to have you on.

Mr. FIASCO: I appreciate it, Guy.

RAZ: I should mention that the song we're hearing, "Daydreamin'," which is so beautiful that you did with Jill Scott, won you a Grammy back in 2008.

LUPE FIASCO: Yeah. My first and only Grammy.

(Soundbite of song, "Daydreamin'")

Ms. JILL SCOTT (Singer): (Singing) You daydream

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) I fell asleep beneath the flowers.

Ms. SCOTT: (Singing) I fell asleep beneath the flowers.

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) For a couple of hours.

RAZ: You've been called - and I say this with the utmost respect and solidarity - you've been called a geek, right?

Mr. FIASCO: Geek is so harsh. What about a nerd?

RAZ: A nerd. Okay, that's fine.

Mr. FIASCO: Yeah. Nerd is softer.

RAZ: But I guess somebody who kind of celebrates the idea of being an oddball, almost kind of like a living juxtaposition. Are you those things?

Mr. FIASCO: I'm quite against the grain, you know? It's weird. It's that duality. You know, everybody has their quiet guilty pleasure, you know? So you might have, like, the gangster in the streets who collects comic books, you know? Or you might have the convict or the drug dealer, you know, who likes Teletubbies or may have a collection of Beanie Babies.

RAZ: And those are people that you knew and grew up with.

Mr. FIASCO: Yeah. I always saw two sides of life. Me, I just - I choose to just kind of live both of them, you know, with really no fear of any critique or anything like that.

RAZ: Your folks divorced pretty early on when you were a kid, and you were raised by both your mom and dad. You went back and forth between their apartments. Your dad was a Black Panther, he ran community centers, and he turned you on to all different kinds of music. I mean, we just heard the description of crack addicts and prostitutes outside the house, but inside you would be exposed to all these different ideas and books and film and sounds. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?

LUPE FIASCO: Yeah. My mother had a massive collection of National Geographics. And, you know, PBS and Chicago's WTTW is, you know, my Window to the World is what I would watch. And when I was with my father, you know, my father had a massive collection of vinyl, you know, a ton of Ravi Shankar vinyl and then a set of bagpipes, you know, and these vases from China. And then there was, you know, it was just all these little knick-knacks and pieces of the world kind of strewn about the house.

So it was a very interesting childhood, you know, so to speak.

RAZ: Did you feel like an oddball, I mean, in your neighborhood growing up?

LUPE FIASCO: My father very, very well-broadcasted that we were different, you know, whether it'd be that we had, you know, his truck. His pickup truck had bullhorns bolted to the front of it with a stagecoach, you know, kind of canvas thing that he mounted on the back of it, you know, so we look like a caravan going West, you know, whenever we went through the West side of Chicago.

RAZ: In the streets of the Chicago.

LUPE FIASCO: In the streets of Chicago. My father was very flamboyant. You know, he was always down to make a statement.

RAZ: So much of your dad's musical influence is obvious, especially when it comes to jazz. And you hear it so clearly on one of your best-known songs called "Superstar."

(Soundbite of song, "Superstar")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear, the crowd is here...

RAZ: Talk to me about how you think about integrating those kinds of sounds and what you do.

Mr. FIASCO: From that, you know, experience with my father and with my mother, as well, but more so with my father when it came to the actual music, you know, you get introduced to all different forms and types of music, you know? So I have an understanding of Queen, you know, and the way Freddie Mercury did his harmonies. And I know what tabla sound like because, you know, my father played a lot of Ustad Ali and Khan. You know, it was all this mix and match.

So when I got the opportunity for me to make music, it was like, oh, yo, let's get the djembe, you know, or, yo, I'm familiar with this jazz kind of thing, let's use that. I can't make music. You know, when I say make music, I cannot play any instrument for the life of me. But at the end of the day, I know what I want to hear.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Lupe Fiasco. He's a man Jay-Z called the most creative rapper in the business. His new record is called "Lasers."

(Soundbite of song, "Words I Never Said")

Ms. SKYLAR GREY (Singer): (Singing) It's so loud inside my head with words that I should've said...

RAZ: The latest single from this new record is called "Words I Never Said." And it's a political song, but it's also a very personal song. It's a song in which you address your Muslim faith. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Words I Never Said")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) Now we can say it ain't our fault if we never heard it. But if we know better, then we probably deserve it. Jihad is not holy war, where's that in the worship? Murdering is not Islam and you are not observant...

RAZ: Jihad is not holy war, murdering is not Islam. You are a Muslim. You grew up around all these potentially dangerous influences: drug dealers and guns, violence, prostitutes, and yet you sort of managed to keep out of it, even though you were familiar with it and comfortable in that world. How much of that do you think was because of your faith?

LUPE FIASCO: A piece of it. You know, the one thing I always say is I was born Muslim. But for a large part of my life, I wasn't necessarily raised Muslim. But, you know, Islam was always there and other religions and other practices, as well, 'cause my father always kept everything around us from Western philosophy to Eastern philosophy. We used to go to Juma on Fridays and then turn around and go to church, you know, on Sunday.

So what he built me up to have was a moral compass, you know? So I never, for instance on a small note, I've never, you know, drank alcohol before, you know? I've never smoked before in my life, you know? When I'm in the city or anywhere in the world, I always try and find a halal restaurant, you know, to eat at, whether it'd be fast food or what have you. So there are certain little things that pop up. But then, at the same time, too, you know, there's a certain level of I'm comfortable living in the secular world.

(Soundbite of song, "Words I Never Said")

Ms. GREY: (Singing) I can't take back the words I never said.

(Soundbite of song, "Us Placers")

Mr. FIASCO: Yeah, just a little bit.

RAZ: You have been known to use, you know, experimental rock in your music, including music from Radiohead, like this song. It's called "Us Placers."

(Soundbite of song, "Us Placers")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) Lifestyles of the rich and famous bought a big house and a whole lot of rangers. A fresh new couch and a whole lot of trainers, a closet full of clothes and some brand new dangers and some Mexican floral arrangers, a great big TV that'll entertain us, some colorful commissions for some high paid painters, someone to take the wrap so that I stay stainless. And a new relationship with a banker, two pinky rings for my manicured fingers, a trained German Shepard that bark when it's angered to watch my possessions and look out for strangers and a 50-foot yacht with an anchor, young supermodel that shall remain nameless, ups and the downs, the sames and the changes, all the money in the world don't make it painless, no.

RAZ: I can listen to this song a thousand times. It's such an amazingly beautiful song. Do you see your music as a kind of a bridge, like a gateway for people maybe who aren't instantly attracted to hip-hop, maybe, to come into it through your music?

Mr. FIASCO: Yeah, you know? And I actively kind of put out there that I feel like I try and communicate between, you know, it could be as on the surface as between genres but between communities that wouldn't necessarily talk, you know? So, like, you take a song, for instance, like "Kick Push," you know, which was my first kind of big record off of my first album.

RAZ: Which is an anthem for skateboarding or has become a skateboarder anthem.

LUPE FIASCO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Kick Push")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) Check it out, first got it when he was six, didn't know any tricks. Matter of fact, first time he got on it he slipped. Landed on his hip and bust his lip. For a week, he had to talk with a lisp, like this...

So you take, you know, black kids talking about skateboarding, and it crosses so many barriers because that is one thing that, you know, a lot of kids have in common. You got, you know, black kids in the hood who skateboard, you know, and you got, you know, white kids in the suburbs who skateboard. So it's kind of those trying to find those universal kind of element and trying to connect them together, you know, so that creates like a bridge. It creates a means of communication and relativity where you both can kind of be like, hey, we're both interested in the same thing. Like, yeah, you know?

And it's less about the skateboarding and more about the story behind it, you know? So that's kind of like my same approach to music.

(Soundbite of song, "The Show Goes On")

Mr. FIASCO: (Singing) All right, already the show goes on all night...

RAZ: That's hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco. His new album, "Lasers," is now out. Lupe, thank you so much for talking with us.

LUPE FIASCO: Thank you, Guy. Appreciate it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Show Goes On")

LUPE FIASCO: (Singing) ... Just remember when you come up the show goes on. All right, already the show goes on all night. 'Til the morning we dream so long. Anybody ever wonder when they would see the sun go. Just remember when you come up the show goes on. So no matter what you've been through, no matter what you into, no matter what you see when you look outside your window. Brown grass or green grass, picket fence or barbed wire, never ever put them down, you just lift your arms higher. Raise 'em 'til your arms tired...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz at NPR West here in Southern California. We post a podcast of the best WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED each Sunday evening. Check it out at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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