Q&A With Lupe Fiasco

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The January 17 Westword profile of Lupe Fiasco was based on a wide-ranging conversation – and the following Q&A preserves every word.

The man born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco begins by discussing the three characters he created for his latest CD, The Cool, noting along the way that they represent pieces of everyone, himself included. From there, he discusses reviews – those he dismisses, the ones he finds biased and the occasional critique that makes him stop and think. He also espouses his belief that fiction can often get closer to the truth than either autobiographical musings or straight reportage; provides a sneak preview of a novel he’s writing that features a window-washer – a character who, like Fiasco, is an observer of life; admits that his talk of retiring after his next album, and his claim that he doesn’t have all that much to say, may be partly fueled by insecurity; gets into the assorted themes of an intriguing new track, “Dumb It Down”; puts some perspective on the 2007 disc war between Kanye West and 50 Cent; explains the delay in revving up Child Rebel Soldier, a proposed hip-hop supergroup that’s supposed to team him with West and Phrarrell; shares his thoughts about the arrest and conviction on drug charges of Charles Patton, his partner in the record label 1st and 15th; lays out the contrasts between crime and art that influenced him during his childhood; gets political about Hillary Clinton and the inequities of our governmental system; and shares some insight into his struggle to become a better person.

That’s one way of fighting the good fight.

Westword (Michael Roberts): You’ve talked a lot about the three characters on the new disc. Do you see them as representing completely fictional characters, or do each of them have aspects of your personality in them?

Lupe Fiasco: I want to say this with a grain of salt: I’d say they have aspects of everybody’s personality. Especially some of the really dark characters, like the Game. I think he represents the extremes of what we’re capable of. It’s very easy for people to go from one extreme to another. So they kind of represent pieces of all of us. And I try to do that with all of my records. You take a record like “Kick Push,” which is about skaters, but it has universal concepts that kind of touch us all: looking for acceptance, being a rebel, whatever. It’s no different with those characters. But they still a certain flavor of their own: Like, this is the Streets, this is the Game, this is the Cool. They have their own personalities as individuals, even though they’re made up of everything. But we’re all made up of everything.

WW: I’ve heard authors say that every character they write, no matter what the character is like, will have aspects of themselves in them, just by virtue of the fact that they created them.

LF: Right. They definitely come from a certain place within. Even if it isn’t something that’s already in you, genuinely, you’ll create something, and to articulate it, you’ll put yourself in the frame of that character, the mind of that character, and kind of act it out on your own, just to be able to right it. You know what I’m saying? It’s not like you pull it out of the air and write blindfolded, and then you look down and it’s on the paper. Sometimes you have to actually get into that character and become it in some aspects in order to even write it.

WW: Are there times when that surprises you – when you realize, “I didn’t think I had those characteristics in me”? Do you discover things about yourself through the creative process?

LF: Most definitely. But it’s more when you see the body of work finished. When you’re creating, you get caught up in the details. But when you step back and look at it and see the range of emotions that you’re capable of expressing, or ideas, it can be impressive, or it can be scary, or it can be self-congratulating. It ranges. But it’s more when you see the body of work finished and you go, “Wow.” And sometimes, it’s like that even with reviews. The reviews come back and sometimes things are misconstrued, but sometimes you’ll think you were going to be able to hide something. You thought you could just tuck it underneath, and then the first review comes back and it says, “This record is directly talking about his mother.” And you’re like, “What?”

WW: So not only do you admit to reading some of your reviews, but you admit that some of the reviews are actually insightful?

LF: Oh yeah. The accredited ones, I read. Sometimes there are people who just don’t like me, so they don’t like my music.

WW: They come in with a bias…

LF: Yeah. The review isn’t even about the music. And then you have certain people who’ll just rehash other reviews. So I’m very particular about which reviews I take to heart. Which is not a shot. I think everybody does that. In life, a certain person may say, “I hate those shoes on you,” and you’re like, “Whatever.” But your girlfriend might go, “I really hate those shoes,” and you’ll go, “Ah, man, I’ve gotta take these shoes off.” So some of the reviews I don’t let get to me. But some of them are dead-on, so I don’t have any choice. Like, “Yeah, he really nailed that one.”

WW: Are those the ones you can view as constructive criticism that might help you next time around?

LF: Most definitely.

WW: Are there times when you think writing in character cuts closer to reality than it would if you were writing in the first person about yourself?

LF: Yeah. I think it rips the ceiling off. I even took it to the point where it was like, these characters are supernatural. But it rips the ceiling off of reality and allows you to go in all these different directions. And what you start to see is, what we consider to be supernatural or other-worldly or beyond belief is stuff that’s already been done. The reason we even have a concept or a notion of it is because it’s already been done by a regular human being. You take someone’s life, which might seem very mundane on the surface, only because you interact with them. Like, you might see the same old man jogging past you every day, and you’ll be like, “Oh, there goes that same old man again.” But little did you know he was jogging away from the giant robot he was building in his garage, and jogging toward the cliff that he jumps off of everyday. And then you see him jogging back and he’s like, “Hey, how you doing?”, and he has no idea that while he was gone, you climbed Mount Everest and then went back and chopped down some trees and built some log cabins. It may seem simple and mundane on the surface, but everybody is capable of supernatural things. With a character, you think you’re actually doing something. Like, “I’m going to make him do this, and I’m going to make him do that.” But anything short of him throwing fireballs, you might find out afterward, “Well, such and such did that.” So it’s about putting as many of those weird, supernatural things in them as possible. Like the Game, for instance. He’s probably the one who has the most amount of evil deeds in him. But when you look at him and listen to that record “Put You on Game,” which doles out all his attributes, some of it’s like, “Wow, that was that, and that happened, and that took place, and that took place.” And that represents where I got it from.

WW: I’ve heard that you’re working on a novel about a window-washer, and when I thought about that kind of a character, I realized that a window-washer gets to look in on the lives of other people. Do you see yourself in that way, too? That as a creative person, you have the opportunity of looking in on the lives of the rest of us?

LF: Definitely – the observer. There’s an interesting little chapter that I’ve got, where he does that kind of stuff, and they can’t communicate with him except with signs, and the signs have to be very brief. Like, “You missed a spot.” [Laughs.] But definitely for me, I’m always observing. I’m always taking in and regurgitating. That’s what I do. It’s like my mission in life. I’m the observer of things in the world.

WW: You’ve gotten a lot of attention for comments you’ve made about possibly retiring after your next CD, and about how you don’t think you’ve got that much to say, which seems crazy given the variety of material on the new album. There’s everything from a very serious story of rape to a song that presents a cheeseburger as a killer. Do you think you’re being a little too hard on yourself about that I-don’t-have-that-much-to-say stuff?

LF: There might be some insecurity tied up in that statement. Everything to me is a work in progress, even with my work and my analysis. I say I’m 85 percent of the way there with the thought of leaving after my next album. It’s more the rigmarole of the music business. The accolades are fine, the critical acclaim is fine, and everything is welcomed with open arms. But there’s always the premise of the Big Brother Record Company doing you bad over your shoulder. And the only way to really kind of escape that is to stop for a period of time. I will still perform, I will still create. But the music will be in a different format. It wouldn’t be in a CD. It’s like, if you want to hear want to hear the next Lupe Fiasco album, you’ve got to come out and see a show on his thirty-city tour, because he’s going to perform the new album, and it’s all live.

WW: Is that a way for you to have more control over the way your music gets out?

LF: Yeah – actually seeing profits off of it, fairly, for the amount of work you put in, and being able to present it in a different way, to see if people are really, genuinely interested in it. Like, “Hey, we’ve got to go listen to the new album.” Well, how are you going to listen to it? The same way people had to listen to music in the 1400s and 1500s. They had to get dressed and go out and hear it once and really appreciate it – where everyone is really quiet, listening to every word. I guess I’m kind of a romantic in that sense.

WW: I know you’ve talked about your admiration for people like Cornel West, and I can imagine someone like him coming to you and saying, “Hey, you’re one of the artists who has something interesting to say: Don’t quit.” If he came to you and asked you to keep going in more of a traditional way, where you’re actually releasing albums in a way that might affect mass culture in a larger sense, would you listen to him?

LF: Most definitely. Cornel West is the reason that this album is called The Cool. I went to see him speak one day, and he said, “If you want to change the world, have some real social impact on the world, you have to make it hip to be square, you have to make it cool to be uncool.” And I was like, “Oh yeah,” and that became my mission. I actually just did the Tavis Smiley show, and he brought up Cornel West. He was talking about how one of Cornel West’s lectures at Princeton is all about Lupe Fiasco. So to know that is there and to continue to give him material for his lectures… Well, that’s part of the other 15 percent, where I’m like, “Hmmmm.” [Laughs.] If he came up and directly asked me, I’d probably be obliged to give him another album.

WW: One of the best tracks on the new album is “Dumb It Down,” which can be interpreted as a comment on hip-hop in general. Is that the way you meant it? And if not, are you okay with people interpreting it that way?

LF: That song is personal, it’s more for the group, it’s macro, it’s micro. It makes comments overall. It’s music, it’s entertainment as a whole, it’s the news, it’s everything that has been perceived by the black conspiracy theorists and the non-conspiracy theorists and everybody in-between as what is distraction. Is this really meant to keep us dumb? Are we really meant to be just gears in a machine? Or do we really have a voice? Are the smart people too smart for their own good? Are the people who really need the information unable to get it because they can’t understand what the smart people saying? Is that statement saying the people are too dumb already and you’re doing them an injustice by not even talking to them because they’re dumb? It goes back and forth. I think it opens the can of worms on when you’re really trying to ask questions about certain things and really try to reach solutions. It’s as personal as people telling me, “Lupe, your music’s too smart,” but it’s also about the pseudo-man who’s behind the scenes pushing buttons. Someone who’s like, “They’re starting to think smart is cool. Dumb it down. You’re giving them too much information. You’re messing up this little thing we’ve had going for the last few hundred years. You need to relax a little bit.” It’s as big as that – as direct and as indirect as both of those things. But I like that. I always like to leave my music open for the most complete and the most ridiculous interpretations possible. I think that’s what gives it some of its life.

WW: Looking at some of those issues from a hip-hop perspective makes me think of the hype over Kanye West and 50 Cent having discs coming out on the same day and Kanye coming out on top. Some people have interpreted that as proof that a lot of people don’t want their music dumbed down. They want to be challenged a little more, and to have more thoughtful material. Do you see it that way, too?

LF: I don’t really look at the Kanye album as a super-dense of work. I don’t look at it as if it was Talib Kweli versus 50 Cent. You understand what I’m saying? I don’t look at it like the supreme underdog versus the supreme overdog. They’re both supreme overdogs. So I think it was more the music, the quality of the music, and the saturation of a certain kind of music, which is 50’s music – and 50 kind of doing more than he should have, overpromoting the situation, and really making himself look like the bastard in the situation. But I don’t really think it was a strike for conscious information – dense information like Talib Kweli. I don’t think it was that. It can be perceived as that, but if you listen to the music, you’re not going to be like, “I just learned a whole new chapter of some part of history somewhere.”

WW: You and Kanye have talked putting together a project called Child Rebel Soldier with Pharrell. Did the death of Kanye’s mother push it back? Is he dealing with so many other things right now that he can’t really move ahead on a new project?

LF: I don’t think so. Actually, the passing of Dr. West was more motivating for him. But the CRS project is a monster, a seven-headed monster in itself, because there are three different record labels and three different, active artists on three different parts of the planet at any given time, with multiple entities that they’re controlling. I think it was more that than the passing of his mother. It was always ridiculous. Always when we brought up, like, “Let’s do CRS,” somebody would be like, “All right, but I’ve got to go to Germany. I’ll be right back.”

WW: Does that tie into what you were talking about earlier – your frustrations with record labels. Wouldn’t it be nice if you guys could just get together and not worry about having eighteen different lawyers figure out if it’s okay or not?

LF: Yeah, that would be a grandiose event. And actually, that’s one of the reasons it’s been taking so long: We’ve been trying to find non-traditional ways of making it as easy as possible. To get it out there in a new way and cut out a lot of the red tape. So that’s been a staller, I guess.

WW: The first track on the new disc, “Baba Says Cool For Thought,” takes on a lot of big issues, including Columbine – and one of the lines says, “They think it’s cool to stand on the block/Hiding products in their socks/Making quick dime bag dollars.” Some people might interpret that as being a reference to Charles Patton. Are they wrong to see it in that light? Or is it broader than that?

LF: It’s much broader. Much, much broader. The only thing that’s directed toward Charles is “Free Chilly,” because I want to see him come home, come out of his legal situation. But that particular line was more about the glorification of violence, the glorification of drugs, the glorification of the hustler lifestyle. One of the attempts of this album was to de-glorify that. Cool is the hustler. He’s a hustler supreme who sold more dope than anybody, made more money than anybody, had more power than anybody, wreaked more havoc than anybody. He’s represented as this rotting corpse, with a rotting right hand. They won’t let him into heaven or hell, so he’s forced to walk the earth after his death and had to dig his way out of his own grave. Very macabre, dark themes that hopefully will subconsciously strike a chord in some people where they’ll go, “Oh, snap, that’s really the end game for the hustler – either dead or in jail.” It was really to put it up there for debate – for this question to be asked right now, to put it in the public arena, where people would ask, “Why did you right that line?” Well, I wrote that line because it’s a shot at the glorification of violence and that kind of lifestyle, which is something we really need to flip-flop.

WW: You’ve always been straight-edge about drugs and alcohol, but the state’s case against Charles Patton suggests that the record company you partnered with him on was financed in part by the very kinds of things you reject. Is it frustrating to you that the case is being presented that way.

LF: It’s frustrating in a few aspects, but it’s almost like, I’m so real about stereotypes. I know that certain stereotypes are certain people’s reality, so it’s almost like it’s expected. On a really base level, it’s like, here are these black guys from the hood having all this success, so there has to be something lascivious there. It’s that stereotype, and I know some people believe it. But understanding that keeps me sane. It keeps me rational in what are sometimes the most irrational situations. It’s expected, so now, you have to reverse it – and I have to go and testify that it isn’t. I have to go and say, “It’s really this.” I just had to present it in its proper course. But that’s the system we live in.

WW: You grew up around very different kinds of people – some of them with criminal backgrounds, some of them who were more interested in comic books. Do you feel that juxtaposition helps make your music interesting?

LF: Oh yeah. In my early childhood, I grew up around prostitutes and drug dealers – finding drug needles and bags of dope and crooked police. That was my life. So that’s why with this whole thing, I was like, “Here we go again.” Because I’m from those neighborhoods. I’m deeply rooted in that stuff. My brother was a gang-banger, and close to 80 percent of the people I consider childhood friends have been in jail. But then there’s the other side, where there were artists and musicians and sculptors and painters and comic books. That whole world. And it was always together. It was like I was always in both. And I guess it’s still playing out as far as how that’s going to affect me within the music and my career and what is yet to happen. It’s still unfolding.

WW: That’s the kind of complexity that most politicians who talk about reform don’t seem able to grasp: You can live in both worlds instead of rejecting one.

LF: I don’t think there should be a rejection. I think there should be an embrace. I reached a point in my life where I could have tried to erase my memories of those things – where I could have just gone off into the happy land of comic books and things of that nature. But I thought that would be a great injustice. I thought I had to embrace that stuff, because for half of my life, that’s what raised me up. That’s what gave me my education about the world, and gave me the inspiration to get out of it. I have to remind myself that it still exists, because that motivates me to motivate other people to get out of it – to let them know that this other side exists. I can’t act like it doesn’t exists, because that would basically be me quarantining that off. I’d be shutting the door in people’s faces, and I don’t think that’s fair.

WW: Speaking of politicians, you were recently quoted as saying that you’d prefer Hillary Clinton to be elected as president, but at the same time, you’re not planning to vote. Is that because you see the system as being so corrupt that it prevents the real changes the country needs from taking place?

LF: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It’s more of a trivial preference for me to say Hillary Clinton. Then it gets off to, “Why?” And I’m like, “Because she’s a woman.” They’re like, “Is that it?” And I’m like, “Yes.” And they’re like, “Why? Why just because she’s a woman?” And I’ll be like, “Well, for more than two hundred years, the country’s always been led by men, and there have always been problems. Let’s see what happens with a woman. Just roll the dice and see what happens with a woman.” And that’s really it. It’s really that non-thought-out and basic of a statement to make. Because the more thought-out argument I have is, I don’t have faith in the system. I don’t have faith that any candidate represents our whole idea of democracy as far as the Constitution and these contracts of social equality, which is the true definition of democracy. And even the Athenian definition of democracy, the Greek definition of democracy, was written by people owned slaves, who believed that women shouldn’t vote and that slaves shouldn’t vote. That people outside of the capital shouldn’t vote, and that the farmers shouldn’t vote – that it was only for land-owners and the elites. These are the principles that the system is based on, and that we still hold dear. To know that the abolition of slavery can be repealed – to know that it’s merely legalese, a term and a contract, and that’s what keeps us out of slavery, as opposed to a desire for equality. To know that it’s just a term and a contract really strikes me as odd. But at the same time, I’ve got a little radio show – it’s called FNF Radio. And I put out all the voting websites: Rock the Vote, Vote or Die. Everything that will give you information on the candidates and the system, I always put it out there. I don’t hide it. I don’t say, “You shouldn’t vote, and I’m going to hide everything about voting because voting sucks and the system sucks.” I got to this point that I was educated about this stuff. Like, I used to be rooting for this stuff: “Go, go, Bill Clinton! If I could vote, I’d vote for him!” And going through that phase led me to other information about the system, and I became so informed that I stopped agreeing with it.

WW: You had to get invested in the system to a certain degree in order to learn the problems with it?

LF: Yeah – to learn about the bureaucracy, the million dollar hammers, the ways they can kill bills, like killing a health care bill by tacking on some bridge in the middle of nowhere. The bureaucracy and the double-timing and all that turned me off, so I went more local. I looked more at local politics. I think on a national level, you have no say-so. You don’t vote for the Supreme Court judges; they’re appointed. You don’t vote for the attorney general. You don’t vote for really key positions that really affect you socially. They’re all appointed. And the stuff you do vote for, it’s not social, it’s political. It really has no baring on you. But on the local level, you have all these school superintendents and all these people who really affect your personal situation, and I try to get people to focus on those things, too. People talk about voting, but then they’ll never attend a PTA meeting. They pay attention to who’s going to be president and these kinds of general, vast promises that they’re making, and it would take years – way beyond after they’re done being president – to have anything happen. Meanwhile, your son’s English teacher is garbage, and you should be going to those PTA meetings and saying they need to hire competent teachers. But we won’t. We’d rather blame everything on George Bush.

WW: Given all the problems you just enumerated, do you believe that all of us, but particularly someone like yourself, who’s seen as a role model for a lot of people, can make more of a difference than a lot of national politicians can?

LF: I look my music as a platform. People say, “Lupe, why’s your music so political?” And I say, “My music isn’t political. It’s social.” I think it’s more important to become a social role model – not the crystal-clear pure example, because we’re all human, we’re all flawed, we all have our biases and our elitism in certain ways. We’re all very susceptible to the flaws of history, so to speak. But I always look at it as, just try to be the person you can be, and if you see something wrong, act. Do very small things, like helping an old lady across the street, or helping an old man with his groceries in front of a bunch of kids playing in the street. They might laugh at the old man, saying, “Look! That old man just dropped his bag!” But you can be that little kid who goes and helps him, so your friends know that it’s cool to help old people with their groceries. Little social things like that, so we can become a little more tolerant of each other, aware of each other’s problems. To commune together. The root of community is to commune, to be together, but so many of us are so disconnected. People won’t even know who’s living next door to them – won’t know anything about their plights and their situations. You can’t blame that on Bush. You can’t blame that on some political separation, or the Man, or some super-program to kill off the world. That’s you not knocking on that person’s door and engaging in conversation and inviting them over to dinner and discussing the problems going on in the neighborhood. It’s things like that I try to put out there – and it’s not necessarily that I do all those things all the time. [Laughs.] But the idea of it is so great, and it seems so easy, that the alternative should be put out there, as opposed to putting all your faith in a figurehead.

WW: Does seeing your work as a platform put more pressure on you? Or is it more about the pressure you put on yourself to be a better human being?

LF: It’s more human. It’s more my human struggle to be a better person than it is to make better music. I look at my music as an opportunity that was put before me to have a voice, and I want what I choose to talk about to reflect the similarities that we all have, so that we can all relate to this story. Even though it may be set up in the premise of a hustler in prison or a skateboarder in a skateboard park or a girl that was raped or this giant robot. There are some aspects in there that are very human, and that we all can relate to.

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