Lupe Fiasco: Grindin

Photographer Todd Cole
January 22, 2013

January, 2013: After abruptly cancelling his upcoming album and quitting Twitter, Lupe Fiasco was booted from the stage at a concert in Washington DC. His mic was cut after he repeated a phrase from 2011''s "Words I Never Said"—Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit/ That's why I ain't vote for him, next one either—for 40 minutes. "We are staunch supporters of free speech, and free political speech," the event organizers wrote in a statement. "This was not about his opinions." That show was just too "bizarrely repetitive," "jarring," and ultimately dissatisfying to the crowd, they reasoned. Below, take a look back at the simpler, skateboard-loving era of Lupe's FADER #35 cover story, written upon the release of his Jay-Z-assisted major label debut in 2006.


Life on the ledge with Lupe.

It’s only five minutes past noon in early November and Lupe Fiasco is already behind schedule. He’d meant to get his haircut and his stubble trimmed before he picked us up, but there just wasn’t enough time. So with his older brother Huggy Bear riding shotgun he takes his two year-old Chevrolet Suburban to the westside of Chicago until he reaches Adams Barber Shop. It’s a small, narrow rectangle that ends at a stack of white plastic chairs and a small TV playing the local news. Dirty Redd says they didn’t have to spend all that money making Barbershop—if they’d put a camera in the store’s corner for a day they’d have had enough material for a movie.

When the TV anchors turn it over to the guys in the kitchen who are going to show you how to make an amazing pesto sauce with roasted pumpkin seeds, the station is switched to BET where John Legend is tonguing down a model. Fiasco originally asked the photographer not to shoot him in here—rappers in barbershops being so cliché and all—but midway through he changes his mind and asks for a couple snaps. It might be nice to give one to his barber Mac and let him compete with Nero, who’s known to have the most famous clientele at Adams and has the Scottie Pippen pictures to prove it.

After changing into a grey Maharishi T-shirt adorned with a camouflage Beethoven, Fiasco takes us to a nearby area known simply as Out West. “When we were younger I never used to come here,” says Fiasco. “We didn’t have the money to buy anything namebrand. I was 12 when I got my first pair of FILAs, then some hand-me-down Timberblands.”

These days 23 year-old Lupe Fiasco (born Wasalu Maco) isn’t interested in the new shipment of Pelle Pelle jeans that came in last night—he prefers Japanese selvedge denim—but Huggy Bear is in the market for a new jacket. In the first store we enter, a clerk asks the pair why they’re being photographed. “That’s Lupe Fiasco,” Huggy Bear says pointing to his brother. “You know that song ‘Kick, Push’? That’s him. He’s on the Kanye album too. ‘Touch The Sky’. Track three.”

This answer delights her and as we head to the exit she alerts every other employee along the way of the celebrity in their midst. “You know that song ‘Kick, Push’? ‘Kick...push…kick…push,’” she sings in a tuneless approximation of the single’s chorus. “That’s him. You know, that skateboard kid.” Fiasco just smiles and keeps moving in his jaunty waddle as his pants hang around his thighs.

Since “Kick, Push” was added to the rotation of local urban radio powerhouse WGCI in the beginning of October, Fiasco’s mostly been out of town. He’s been bouncing between New York, Los Angeles and London to take meetings and do pre-promotion for his album Food & Liquor—all this during Ramadan, often breaking his daily fast on airplanes, judging sundown by the time zone he just left. Fiasco hasn’t been around for his new hometown notoriety, so right now he’s clearly enjoying the attention.

At Tops & Bottoms, Huggy Bear finds a butter leather jacket with elaborate stitching that outlines Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson. While Fiasco talks with his credit card company, getting them to take off the precautionary freeze they’ve put on his account after expensive sneaker, clothing and art purchases appeared in different cities on concurrent days, WGCI sends “Kick, Push” over their airwaves for one of its eighteen plays this week and onto the in-store stereo. Producer Soundtrack’s beat is all summer breeze strings and subtle bass as Fiasco’s rhymes about a young skater finding love and freedom glide on top. Even Fiasco quietly sings along with himself to the chorus as if it was the hold music, So we kick…push…kick…push…kick…push…coooast

We drop Huggy Bear off at Madison Terrace, the public housing low rises where Fiasco’s mother, a clerk at the family circuit court, and many of his relatives live. The youngest boy of his mother’s ten children—who range in age from four to the mid-30s—Fiasco stopped living here during high school when he moved in with his father, the former owner of karate schools, in the southern suburb of Harvey. A procession of sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces and his grandmother come outside to say hello, then rapper Twista pulls up in a metallic orange H2 with a mouth full of shine. After talking to Fiasco through the passenger side window, he beckons me to his side of the truck. He looks stoned. Taking his cell phone earpiece out, he wants to go on the record, “Lupe Fiasco is the shit. The next hottest shit in the Chi and if Twista said it, ain’t nothing else need to be talked about after that. Fucking everybody else up in the game. Shitting on them with a skateboard song.”

As downtown Chicago grows westward, this area is becoming prime real estate. Buildings are being bulldozed, residents are being bought out and Fiasco says early next year the eight buildings of Madison Terrace will be demolished. Everyone’s remaining rent has been taken care of by the city and then Fiasco will be setting his mother up with a place back in Mississippi where she was born. He’s not sure what’s going to happen with everyone else.

One week earlier Fiasco sat in a hotel lobby on the border of Beverly Hills. On the coffee table was a bowl of decorative ostrich eggs and upstairs chilling was Reebok-endorsed skateboarder Stevie Williams. Fiasco was invited out to Los Angeles by Tony Hawk to perform at a $2000-a-ticket skatepark fundraiser, and after a one-song set of “Kick, Push” he ceded the stage to Pennywise.

Fiasco was explaining the progression of his career like a producer sketching out a film’s narrative, skimming over the color with non-sensical syllables in order to get to the plot points faster. He said he started rapping in middle school and signed to Epic at the age of 18 as the youngest member of a collection of Chicago MCs called Da Pak. When a couple singles and showcases went nowhere, the group was dissolved and Fiasco linked up with Chill, one of Da Pak’s co-managers. Together they created the label and production company 1st & 15th. Around the year 2000, Fiasco started to get attention as a solo artist and nearly signed to Roc-A-Fella. “Jay-Z actually was in Chicago,” he says. “I rapped for Jay and [Kareem] ‘Biggs’ Burke, flew out to New York, came up to the house, said what’s up, came to the offices, came to Baseline, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, and then the deal just fell through.” Though Fiasco eventually signed to Arista, he’s maintained a relationship with Jay-Z, landing the beat for “What More Can I Say” by 1st & 15th affiliates the Buchannans on The Black Album and having him cosign as the executive producer for Food & Liquor. But after LA Reid was fired as the head of Arista, all projects on the label came to a stop and Jive was given the right of refusal on the entire roster. Fiasco and Chill were able to persuade Jive to pass on them, and that same day he signed to Atlantic.

“So, here we are,” says Fiasco. “Right on that ledge. Ready to rock. The album is done. And after all that, here comes Kanye, ‘Guh-guh-guh-guh-guh. Jump on my album.’ And then BOOM, I’m on one of the biggest songs on the album, BOOM! Then prior to that, Mike Shinoda was calling, Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park, ‘Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, Yo, I want you to jump on my album.’ At the same time, ‘I want to do something for your album,’ so make that swap, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. Then even to take it to real time to a couple days ago, Tony Hawk was like, ‘Duh-duh-da-da, I want you to come and perform.’ So like everything is falling in place to be a really good spring, a really good first quarter.”

Back in Chicago, Fiasco drives north of the El train’s Green Line into the Wicker Park neighborhood to show us some of his favorite stores. “This is Ken,” Fiasco says, introducing one of the quiet dudes behind the counter at Uprise Skateboard Shop. “He’s the inspiration for ‘Kick, Push’.” Fiasco explains that because of his sneaker obsession he had been getting deeper into streetwear culture, frequenting websites like Hypebeast and heading straight to the LES when he visited New York. One day last year while in Uprise he started thinking about the skateboard he broke when he was 12 and decided to finally buy a new one. As Ken assembled it he started going on and on about the life-changing powers of the sport. “It’s the speech I usually give to the little kids,” Ken says.

After the sun sets and Fiasco breaks his fast with roast chicken and mashed potatoes, he takes us to hear Food & Liquor. As the only MC on the record, he’s created an increasingly rare hip-hop album where the artist speaks entirely for himself. The result is suitably, satisfyingly complex with horn-heavy party jams knocking against caustic politicalism. Following the path carved by Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and even Linkin Park, there is now a place in both the rap and pop worlds for someone like Fiasco to dig deeper into. And it’s not just because he shops at Undefeated, releases internet-only mixtapes of him rhyming over the Gorillaz’s Demon Days and knows who KAWS is. It’s because he’s smart, charismatic and he gets the details right. On the brief but hilarious “And He Gets The Girl”, Fiasco tells the story of a kid who’s “not the popularest of students” trying to kick game to a cheerleader. The protagonist, who’s a lot like Fiasco, basically shoots himself in the foot as he approaches his crush, only to find out that she’s his perfect match—Thelonious Monk is the wallpaper on her computer and she confesses “I love Final Fantasy, I hate first-person shooters.”

Fiasco can also effortlessly switch from his nerd persona to honest consciousness, turning Jay-Z’s hypothetical possibility of being lyrically like Talib Kweli into a reality. On “Hurt Me Soul” Fiasco discusses his own personal conflict with hip-hop, deploring the way it portrays women, only to find himself laughing along with Too $hort. He confesses to being unable to relate to a Jay-Z who worships Gotti not God, but then becomes obsessed with Streets Is Watching. His own struggles captured in the verses are framed by a changing chorus where he chants the problems that plague others—My mom can’t feed me…My boyfriend beats me…I’ll have sex for money…The hood don’t love me…My teacher won’t teach me..My massa beats me and it hurts me soul.

For our final stop, Fiasco has to host a mixtape for a dreadlocked young rapper and singer named Nikki Lynette. We meet his engineer Greg “G-Ball” Magers at The Attic—a home studio above Magers’s apartment, which, in turn, is over the Burrito House near Wrigley Field. In the stairway up to The Attic are posters of Pink Floyd and Albert Einstein, next to the futon couch are framed tickets from Bonnaroo 2002, 2003 and 2004. The sparse space feels like the bedroom of a boy who has left for college. This is where Fiasco recorded most of Food & Liquor.

Fiasco agreed to host the tape because Lynette linked to his website off of hers, but it soon becomes obvious that she is unclear exactly what she wants Fiasco to do. “Just talk shit,” she says. “But I don’t talk…mess,” he replies. Both Fiasco and Lynette wear headphones as Magers cues up the instrumental gaps, and whenever she thinks of another neighborhood or person’s name to drop she raises her hand and blurts it out. “Featuring Juice,” she calls out across the six feet of green carpet between them.

“Say what?” he yells back.
“You’ve got to shout out Juice.”
“I got to shout out Juice? What’s Juice’s crew’s name? What’s his crew?”
“I don’t know who he’s cool with, he’s trying to get signed to Interscope. So it’s just Juice.”

Magers starts recording again and Fiasco gets his DJ Clue on, “Shouts to my man Juice! Chitown collaboration! Nikki Lynette featuring Juice! You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout!” Fiasco’s already thinking the half hour drive home and his plans for the next day. He’s going to try to make morning services at the mosque for the final day of Ramadan and he didn’t get to the Apple store this afternoon like he’d hoped. Then he needs to pack and get to the airport for another trip to New York. And next week he’s taking the long flight from LA to Singapore, where his friends from LMAC are throwing a big streetwear conference. He’s going to set up some collaborations for his own company Righteous Kung-Fu and eat, like, five Halal Big Macs. And he’s thinking about getting married to his girl real quick before he leaves the country…

Lynette takes off the headphones and goes to write some more notes for Fiasco. He’s tired, he’s been saying it for over an hour, but he wants to make sure she gets what she needs. “Don’t think I’m in a rush,” he tells her. “Even though I am absolutely in a rush.” There’s so much to do tomorrow.

Lupe Fiasco: Grindin