A music aficionado would not have found much to be thrilled about amidst the list of Grammy nominees this year. It was pretty much a given that Mary J. Blige would get the nod for her comeback album, “The Breakthrough.” Ditto for Gnarls Barkley and its ubiquitous R&B anthem, “Crazy.” But one unexpected beneficiary of this year’s announcement was Lupe Fiasco, a relatively unknown skateboarding Muslim from Chicago, whose critically acclaimed debut, “Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor,” sold just 220,000 copies, but nevertheless managed to score nominations for rap album of the year and rap single of the year.
Socially progressive and unconcerned with the kind of materialism currently dominating hip-hop, the album is a throwback of sorts to the days of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, when rap music was more about conveying a message than selling firearms and Maybach cars. “In this culture, violence prevails,” Fiasco said. “If you look at the acts who sell the most records, it’s the most violent ones.” Not a moment too soon, Fiasco — whose real name is Wasalu Muhammad Jaco — is trying to rewrite the script.
On Dec. 12, the young emcee came to New York to do a concert at S.O.B.’s, where a sold-out crowd of about 500 waited for nearly three hours for his show to begin. The audience was mixed, ranging in age from about 20 to 35, and many looked like they’d just gotten off the L train from Williamsburg.
“I like his lyrics,” said a young Hispanic woman, when asked why she’d come out that evening. “They’re more profound than a lot of the artists out there. He talks about President Bush. It’s what hip-hop is supposed to be about.”
When Fiasco finally took to the stage at midnight, the audience roared.
“Take it off, Lupe,” yelled one of the women.
“Nothing here to see,” yelled back Fiasco, who’s about 5 feet 9 inches and extremely wiry. “I’m built like a 12-year-old boy.”
Then he launched into a song called “I Gotcha,” a searing rebuke to the “pimps, macks and mobsters” currently dominating hip-hop.
This story first appeared in the December 19, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The sermon went on for about an hour, culminating with a performance of his unreleased parody of Kanye West’s bling-anthem “Diamonds Are Forever.” Originally, the song had been about how great it is to be rich and show it off. But a year before conflict diamonds became the celebrity cause du jour, Fiasco recast West’s song as an indictment of the jewelry industry. West heard it, was impressed and hired Fiasco to rap with him on another track from his album, “Late Registration,” which was in its finishing stages.
“Now,” Fiasco said, “I’m going to bequeath the stage to a man who’s given me so much.”
And with that, West himself jumped onstage from the audience, and the two rappers launched into their duet “Touch the Sky.”
“I met him years and years ago,” recalled West, backstage. “We used to hang out just playing records and he was one of the nicest emcees. Then he did ‘Conflict Diamonds’ and it was so good, I had to have him on my record.”
After the show, Fiasco made his way downstairs to a green room, where he passed hordes of guys in baggy jeans and at least half-a-dozen young Muslim women wearing hijabs. There were lots of high fives; cheers like, “What up, man,” and autograph seekers.
After posing for photographs and engaging in a bit of chitchat with his friends, Fiasco made his way to a threadbare dressing room, where he continued his critique of the music industry. “Today, the business is flashy,” he said. “It’s about overdoing it. When Rihanna started out, she was doing Caribbean music. Then someone said to her, ‘This is success: Success is Beyoncé.’ So now you have Rihanna with the same look, the same songs and the same act as Beyoncé. It’s the same reason hip-hop culture is so negative. The people who are the most successful are the most violent, so everyone imitates them.”
This may seem bitter coming from an artist whose commercial success has not risen to the level of his critical recognition, but Fiasco did not sound angry explaining it. And his argument is backed up by a decade of radio consolidation.
“It’s great that someone’s taking a chance on a socially conscious hip-hop artist like Lupe, but the economics are not as good as they once were,” said Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy records, the label that launched De La Soul and Queen Latifah. “The sales of his album have not been great.”
When asked if radio had been supportive of his album, Fiasco said: “Not really. There’s definitely a shunning of the eclectic.”
How do you get around that?
“You don’t,” he said. “You operate for your hard-core 500,000 fans who will love you till the day that you die, that will make it possible for you to keep touring and selling out 500 seaters. Who knows? Maybe my next record will sell a million billion copies. But if I don’t, it’s OK.”