Welcome to the hype machine, experienced by the select few. In this case, an artist works long and hard in the underground scene, self-producing singles and mixtapes of him rapping over other people’s beats. Along the way, someone notices and signs him to a record deal, which falls through in the Napster age of major label mergers, acquisitions and closures. The artist is back where he started.
Then it happens. The artist gets a break, a guest appearance on a hot radio single, and like the screenplay of a Hollywood movie, he’s on the fast track to the top of the charts. It’s the great underdog story. It’s a publicist’s wet dream. Only look as far as Eminem or 50 Cent for examples of the tough way to stardom. At the moment, it’s rising star Lupe Fiasco’s life before the release of his major-label debut Food and Liquor.
Not that you would know from talking to him.
“I don’t really believe I’m the next big thing,” Fiasco, raised Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, says on his cell phone as he exits a Dunkin’ Donuts on a quick stop at home in Chicago. “The more things get closer, you see glimpses of that. But there’s always someone who’s like, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ That humbles you to a certain extent.”
Fiasco started rapping in junior high school, the son of a gourmet chef mother and a father once a member of the Black Power movement. He grew up in a Muslim household. He joined the gangsta-tinged group Da Pak in high school, signed to Epic Records and released a single before he graduated.
“I knew I had to have a back-up plan,” Fiasco says in between bites of a chocolate glazed. “I knew I wasn’t going to go to college, I knew I wasn’t headed for the nine-to-five, but I knew I had to do something. High school was coming to an end; it was like, ‘I got to do something.’”
Fiasco maintained a presence in music even after the Epic deal fell through and Da Pak splintered. He released several mixtapes on independent labels and formed his own production company and studio, 1/15 Entertainment, along with a design company, Righteous Kung Fu. He signed to Arista after being talked up by Jay-Z and eventually wound up at Atlantic. Food and Liquor is finally set to drop August 29.
“I have to approach the situation from two guys—I have to approach it from the artist and from the business guy,” Fiasco says about his long wait. “The artist guy is like, ‘I want to get this out for my fans,’ but from the business side, it’s like, ‘You don’t have enough presence in the eyes of the masses to release the record right now.’ You have to think in two ways.”
It can be argued that Fiasco’s real step towards the mainstream didn’t come until the stars came calling. Kanye West, who’d set the hip-hop world on its head with The College Dropout, approached Fiasco to appear on his future single “Touch The Sky” from the 2005’s blockbuster Late Registration. Word quickly spread about Fiasco, especially alongside the release of Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtapes, parts I, II and III. Fiasco broadened his music and reached out past the hip-hop fanbase, sampling Revenge of the Nerds and Pink Floyd. Soon, he was the one asking big-name artists to perform on his record, including neo-soulstress Jill Scott, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes and Jay-Z.
Much like those artists, it’s his dedication to pushing the music forward while maintaining a populist mentality that has record execs, music critics and hip-hop fans salivating for Food and Liquor.
“You know, I like to create different things,” Fiasco says. “If it gets pigeonholed into a particular area, then that’s cool. I have that different aesthetic, the conscious, laidback, more thought-provoking thing, but I also have the drive to do the shiny—not diamond-studded songs—but more current, mainstream culture songs. I want to blend the two.”
There are two sides to the hype machine, however, even as it helps build him a pedestal from which to launch his career. There are those too eager to get a piece of Fiasco. Originally slated for release last week, Atlantic pushed the record back twice after it was leaked online—purposefully or accidentally—half-finished. After years of waiting for this moment, Fiasco once again headed back to the studio to write several new tracks.
But when you’re the buzz, support comes from unlikely demographics of music listeners. The first single from Food and Liquor, “Kick/Push,” the tale of a young man in the hood finding freedom in skateboarding—inspired by a story told to Fiasco as he shopped for sneakers in a Chicago skateshop—caught on with skaters everywhere.
“I was in LA at the House of Blues and we were leaving the stage,” Fiasco says, marveling at his fame amongst boarders. “I turned and there was Tony Hawk. I was like, ‘Oh snap!’ We went back out on stage with Tony Hawk, the crowd goes insane. The love from the skate community has been great.”
Ultimately, it’s Fiasco’s roots that might keep him in the public consciousness after he breaks on the scene. His ties to family and the word of Islam are responsible for turning him away from the violence and bling of commercial rap, toward the old-school samples, contemporary flow and underlying ideas practiced by his “Touch The Sky” collaborator. It also grounds him in reality and keeps a check on the various other vices to which other stars might succumb.
“In Islam, if you gain knowledge, you’re supposed to share that,” Fiasco says. “It’s almost as if I had a responsibility to talk about the stuff I learned through the years and embrace those things. I have all these ideas and all this knowledge inside of me, it spilled down to my music. You can only talk about guns, cars and diamonds for so long. For me it’s about six or seven songs, then it’s like, now what are we going to talk about?”
Lupe Fiasco w/Element Kontrol, Quake & Spesh K, Papa Grand and R$ $mooth, July 1 at The Marquee Club, 2041 Gottingen, 10pm, $20 adv at Mary Jane’s (1549 Grafton) and Revolution Records (5189 Prince).