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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."
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