Cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain
The last time I interviewed Lupe Fiasco, I did it for Pitchfork. This time, as soon as he saw me, he said, “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you guys,” and he brought up every problem he had with Sean Fennessey’s Pitchfork review of his album and the 7.9 rating that it got. This was on the 28th floor of the Atlantic Records office building on Monday. One floor down, Diddy was doing a photo shoot or something, and all these office workers were scrambling around stressing out about how to keep Diddy happy while I was waiting for Lupe to finish up his Japanese phone interviews. Lupe operates within the same pop universe as Diddy, but he’s staked out a different corner of it; he’s the type of review who reads the review of his album on an indie-rock website and tells you everything he doesn’t like about it. If this interview is a little confusing on paper, it’s because Lupe talks a mile a minute, and he’ll abandon what he’s talking about mid-sentence if something else occurs to him. I did the interview a few days after Billboard erroneously reported low first-week sales for Food & Liquor, his first album, when Best Buy forgot to send in their sales report for the week.
I wanted to ask you about this Billboard thing with Best Buy. It’s really weird; I’ve never heard of this happening before.
This project is the most hilarious thing; the industry can’t even believe a lot of the stuff that’s going on with this project. Either we’ve paid for something or we know someone. They have Billboard pulling down their numbers for the week and re-putting them back up. When they were like, “Lupe gets 57,000” everyone was like, “Yay, he failed!” People were rejoicing in my failure.
People meaning Byron Crawford?
Byron Crawford, he’s whatever. Just in general, a lot of the Lupe skate-rap, that’s whatever, nerdiness, look at his homo album cover, those people were like, “See? See what happens? There’s no room for that.” And then it was like, oh, sorry to mention Best Buy didn’t turn in their numbers. Oh, and by the way, he was the number one selling artist at Best Buy. Oh, it’s the number one rap album in the country. Oh, it’s the number two R&B album in the country and it’s the number eight overall. For that to happen within two or three days, it was like ooh. You had blogs and websites blasting it because they got the ability to get it up quick, so they was like, “Lupe Fiasco flops.” Then two days later, they gotta put up another one, “Oh, the grandiose performance of Lupe Fiasco,” and all the wording’s changed. So it’s just whatever. It just shows the facetiousness of the music business.
But based on that, how much do record sales matter to you personally?
I don’t really care. I expect the album to do 700,000 at the end of the day, overall. That’s the way I look at it. I had dinner with Jay-Z and Nas, and Jay was like, “Reasonable Doubt did 34,000 its first week and it took umpteen years for it to go platinum.” Same thing with Illmatic. And it was like, “But look at where we are, at the movement we’ve started.” He was telling me how when they finally got they numbers, Dame called a meeting with MTV, and he was like, “You see? Now let’s really talk!” They knew what they had accomplished. They had accomplished sparking a movement, and it led to what it is right now. So I’m cool. I’m happy. It’s not even about me. When I tell people I’m cool, I’m good. When Jay-Z said I was nice and respected me as a parallel MC, you can’t tell me nothing. I’m more worried about my company, the placement of my company. I got mine as a rapper five years ago. That’s why I don’t need to go on your show and freestyle, I don’t need to do this mixtape, I don’t need to do this battle. For me, I have nothing to prove. I don’t care if you don’t believe it. I’m good. My next thing is to put out the next two albums, and then my mission is complete.
So you’re going to do three albums and then that’s it?
There’s some things in between those albums, like groups and stuff like that, collaborative efforts that might happen. But as far as solo albums, Lupe Fiasco’s dot dot dot, that’s it.
What are you going to do after that?
Run my company. First & Fifteenth, we got Gemini, who’s rolling out right now; his video’s on every hour on the hour on MTV. Then Shayla G, a female MC. Then you got Risque, an R&B group. Got First & Fifteenth/BMG publishing, got F&F Studios. Righteous Kung-Fu, which is all my fashion and sneakers and stuff like that. So it’s stuff to do. I’m not finna just fade away. But as an artist, you just get sick of it, tired of trying to tell these execs that it’s more than radio. All they want is 500,000,000 in audience, and then you turn around and got a Chingy, who’s got the number one record in the country for weeks, come out and I beat him with three records that didn’t do anything on Billboard. The highest I think we got was like fiftysomething. But we were doing so much work in other areas; we were galvanizing the movement. We were making things happen that they couldn’t see, that they couldn’t understand. You get tired of trying to explain it to them. So now, we going to keep doing what we knew we was doing from before.
Do you think it makes sense to make plans this far in advance at a time when the music industry is floundering?
The music industry is wack. I think we got too caught up in the numbers. I don’t really think people were selling back in the day like that. People would come out and go platinum, and that’s it. People would come out and go gold. What happened was people start setting the bar too high. You start getting 50 Cent and Eminem, people putting up massive, crazy numbers, and people started to make that the bar. Independently, 100,000 is gold. That’ll get you a record label at a record company. You look at that with a whole company behind it, that’s failure because you didn’t sell as much as X. But yeah, three albums; that’s all I want to do.
On “Daydreamin’,” the part where you go into the video description, obviously you’re being satirical. But I have this idea, and you can tell me if I’m wrong, that there’s this exhilaration in your voice when you’re saying this stuff. You’re talking about these cliches, but the reason they became cliches is that they have this fantastic weight to them and it’s really cool to see someone hold up their chains slow-motion through the flames.
At one point, it was cool. You see that visually and it’s cool, but it has no weight. Even in reality, it has no weight. Nothing on this planet is real at the end of the day. What I believe is that everything here is just a test. It really has no bearing unless you ingest it and make it a part of you, like “I need this watch because this watch is a part of who I am. I need this chain because it’s part of who I am, this gun, this cocaine,” as opposed to being something that satellites around you. If I got to shoot the video that I wanted to shoot, that statement was made from the director of the video. This was my visual for it. It wasn’t Lupe Fiasco saying this; it was a bandleader guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the last Jamiroquai video where it was the devil, and he was dancing around and touching stuff and making stuff happen. He was this real zany-looking character, and that’s the idea that I had for this one scene. It’s weird because it really happened, but it sounds so ludicrous, that you would pretty this stuff up like that. And they really do. It still happens to this day. You’ll be on set, and it’ll be like, cue the smoke! OK, now look tough! Gimme anger! Gimme anger! Now hold up the chain! It’s to the point now where it’s the thing to do. As a rapper, you have a chain on in the video, and it’s like look at me! It’s ludicrous. If you look at that through this positively conscious eye, you know what that means. At the end of the day, it means nothing. You look at the G-Unit album cover when they were shooting, it’s like come on, man.
All the G-Unit album covers always look like they’re painted. I don’t know what kind of filters they have on those cameras or what, but they look like they’re not supposed to look real.
But the act of that, that that’s what you’re promoting and you really mean it, you almost can’t take it seriously. But that’s the danger, because you have to. People really do. People will be in the hood with their gun and their chain, and they’re out there because Jeezy made it cool to hustle and this is how you look when you hustle and it motivates you to hustle and to shoot someone. It’s projected through the music. I don’t knock it because of Arnold Schwarzenegger and everybody else, but you can also argue the point that they’re not real. They actually sit and talk about how that’s not real and how they dressed up for that part and went and learned from real gangstas how to dress and act and talk like a real gangsta. The social situation and the effect that music has on it is really damaging. Hip-hop needs to stop for about a month and do a nice inventory, a nice overall of itself and look and see what it’s actually affected to see how to proceed.
That’s never going to happen, though.
It’s not because they’re making too much money.
Are they making money, though?
[Points across the room to TV showing MTV] They’re making money. The music is a distraction to keep you entertained long enough to get you to the next commercial.
Well, MTV learned a long time ago that music’s not enough of a distraction; they’ve got to show Next marathons or whatever instead.
But music overall is a distraction. Music, sports, all that stuff is a distraction to numb the pain of reality, of what’s going on in the world. That’s why it was banned. People shunned it. Like jazz, jazz didn’t have any real damaging words in it; it didn’t tell you to kill anyone. But the atmosphere of the juke joint was different; they drank there, and it took your mind away from what was going on. You supposed to be out there grinding those grains and tending to your farm; you not supposed to be over there playing that music, the devil’s music. You supposed to be focusing on what’s real. And I think now it’s used as a big distraction. I talked about that in a blog I wrote. Even me, even with my upstandingness and inspiration. And Talib Kweli and Mos Def and everybody else, at the end of the day, it’s still used as a distraction to keep your mind off of this.
It gets into this echo chamber. Something that I’ve learned from knowing a few people who make music is that when somebody thinks that something is their best album, it’s never their best album. They get into their headspace, people telling them that they’re right all the time. Do you ever worry about that happening with you?
You kind of start living in a bubble. You never know the real impact of your music unless you force yourself to participate in arenas which are shunned by your fellow artists. Like the internet; do you know how many rappers aren’t on the internet, don’t know what’s going on, don’t care? It’s shunned; it’s nerdy.
But the internet is its own bubble.
Yeah, the internet is its own bubble, but the regular world is too big. On the internet, it’s focused and concentrated, so you can go to that one site or that one blog or interview or chatroom and get a bunch of people commenting on something: the hate, the love. In the world, if you just walk around and expect people to walk up to you, you’ll never catch it. It’s too much variation in the world. I know people who don’t know who Jay-Z is, so how would he sit down and get a real reaction? It would be like, “Yo Jay-Z! Your album is dope!” And that’s all you hear. But you never get a real good dissection of how you’re affecting people. I was sitting down with Nas, and Nas was telling me how in the Illmatic days or whatever, this little kid walked up to him out the blue like “Yo, Nas! I got my Philly!” And this kid didn’t come up to his waist. He was telling Big, like, “Yo, man, our music is really affecting people, and this ain’t cool!” And then Big was telling him that he shouldn’t feel guilty, that it’s not his fault or whatever. But Nas was like, ” Nah, it is!” These are his words that went through all the hip-hop heads saying he was dope. They weaved and ducked and bobbed and had this kid proud to be smoking Phillies. That space where it’s like airport, car, car, hotel, phone interviews, by the time you’re done everything’s closed so there’s no way to really participate. If you want to go somewhere, they gotta close it down or section you off from everyone. So you really lose that participation with the world; you don’t get a real critique, or it comes from people who are professional critics. If you don’t participate in that arena where you get to see what the amateur or the average person thinks of you other than a two-second phone call at a radio station, you don’t get a real sense of the impact that you have until later on. I made a statement, and it’s true, even though I got put in XXL‘s Negro Please section for it. I was trying to figure out why I always had a thing in high school of shunning women because I didn’t trust them, and I was like, “I wonder why that is.”
Ice Cube. We talked about this in the last interview.
Ice Cube! Because of “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”! I remember listening to that and being eight years old. I don’t think Ice Cube knew that he’d have that similar effect, weaving through all that up until now, to be able for me to have the epiphany years and years later that I could sit and trace it back to that. Just imagine how many kids fifteen, twenty years from now, that’ll be like “Yeah, I remember that record” or take the time to figure out why they do the things they do. “I remember playing Grand Theft Auto, and that’s how I learned to steal cars.”
Changing gears completely, “The Instrumental,” that’s the guy from Onelinedrawing singing on it?
I guess. That was Mike Shinoda’s addition. I liked the sample, and Mike was like, “Yo, he’s my friend, I’m gonna get him to come in and re-sing it.” We had trouble clearing it, though, even after he re-sung it. But we got everything cleared, and that was Mike. Once I got done my verses, Mike took that record and just went into a dungeon with it. I didn’t really know the history of it like that.
You have a lot of F&F producers on the record, and that’s one of the things that people didn’t like about it, like in the Pitchfork review. Did you worry about that?
Not at all. You can go get a bunch of Neptunes records or Kanye records or well-known records, but for me, it was like, let me give the album to my people. Let me give the album to Pro, who I’ve been with for five years. Let me give it to Soundtrakk, who I’ve been with for half that time. Let me give them their time. When DMX’s first album came out, nobody knew who Lil Rob was, nobody knew who Dame Grease was, but they captured his sound and set him up. That’s what appeals to me. Every beat on the album, it could be the weakest track on the beat tape. I could’ve had this Kanye record or this Pharrell record. I was trying to get one of those spacey way-out Pharrell records, and he wouldn’t make it for me. He always gave me Tribe Called Quest because that’s what he thinks I like. I don’t know one Tribe Called Quest song by heart. I don’t own one album. I don’t own any De La Soul like that; that’s not my era. I grew up on Nas. I grew up on Jay-Z. I grew up on Big Pun. I grew up on Pharoahe Monch. I grew up on Mos Def. That’s the sound that I liked. I rapped over Premier beats. I didn’t rap over Teddy Riley beats from when he was making breakbeats; it ain’t my era. I’m mirroring my era. And it’s hints of different things on there, different genres. Stuff like “American Terrorist,” I’m really happy about because it’s like flamenco jazz. To know that Chick Corea was a part of it, that appealed to me beyond what the album sounds like. I like that beat, and this is what came out of that.
So you think of it less as a collection of tracks and more as this intertwined, cohesive thing?
Yeah. I couldn’t even put all the records that I wanted on the album. At the final hour, it would be like, I couldn’t use that record because of the sample clearance or whatever. And it got to the point where I lost the control of it. Like, I’m 80% on the album. But if you got your core of what you really like, then that’s what it is. Food & Liquor is five years old, and during that five years, it probably changed direction six times. During the last two weeks of putting the album together, it probably changed two times, what we were going to do and what people wanted to talk about. If I play people the record of what Food & Liquor was in 2001 or 2002, they’d be like, “God, he sounds like Fabolous. It sounds like Jadakiss.” Like “Look at my chain, look at my watch, I’ll kill you.”
So you talked about killing people.
Yeah, but this is what people don’t understand about me: I’ve had a gun since I was like twelve. My gun, given to me by my father who was in the military, who taught me how to shoot when I was four, how to shoot AK-47s and take apart M16s. I used to write my raps with my 9 millimeter right there. I understood what it was for, and it went from the stage of being like, “I have a gun, and I’m not going to kill you, but I’ll defend myself” to getting caught up in the industry: “Yo, I’ll shoot you.” And then it got to the point where you can’t explain that to people, you can’t explain your history of it. Everybody’s not going to read that one interview where you do, so I’d rather just not talk about it at all.
I wanted to talk about the album cover. You look like Silver Surfer.
Yeah, that’s cool. It’s from the back of this skateboard. A skateboard company called Instant Winner came out with these skateboards influenced by Japanese culture and Japanese animation. And the way they had it, it was four decks, and you could put them together like a train car. It was these two ninjas asleep on this one, this old geisha right here, and this one was this man floating with an accordion, and everything that he had around him was floating. And I like Dragonball. I like looking like a Super Saian, like I can throw fire. I want to fly. And it’s not even childish because I still want to do it. I’d love to conjure a fireball and throw it at a tree. That cover’s for me. And it harkens back to that Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon thing on accident, and I love Pink Floyd. So I tell people the cover’s not for you; the cover’s for me. I do a lot of stuff for people. I make sure that I have a different shirt on in every interview, that I’m here, that I’m there, I’m at this performance, I’m always trying to entertain. But this cover’s mine; I don’t care if you like it or not. But the inside of the booklet is for you. I know what people are going to like and what people are not going to like to a certain extent, and I told people, you might hate this cover, but when you see the inside, then you gonna love it. And that’s what happened. People forgot about the cover. But at the same time, I’ll get an Entertainment Weekly interview just about the cover, one interview just about that. As an artist, it’s certain stuff that you have to have your own, something that you can be proud of. Some people have no control over what they do. The art department was like… But I was like, “Look at my contract. I can do what I want.” A lot of people don’t have that, so if I got it, I’m gonna exercise it. And the next one is going to be ridiculous as well. But the booklet, the music, that’s for you. This is mine. When you do a magazine photo shoot, you have no control over the photo’s they’re going to pick; they just put it out. When I got the cover of Billboard, I almost got sued by Reebok because they didn’t even know I had Nikes on. But that cover, I had to fight for every single thing on it. The law department threw mad stuff at me, like, “You gotta get clearance for all this stuff.” I was like, “OK,” and I came back with clearances from Nintendo, Levis, this toy company, everything.
How do you feel about working in what seems to be a fundamentally corrupt system?
Everything is fundamentally corrupt. Everything human beings make, to a certain extent, is fundamentally corrupt, the music business especially. The music business, hip-hop in particular, thrives on negativity. So it’s good to be here knowing that you’re fighting the good fight and to have the business end locked down to the point where they know you’re the antithesis of the music business, that you’re fighting it, that you want to bring it down, but they have to respect it because contractually you can do it. They can make a fuss and holler, but it’s like, “Yo, I got a contract, and the contract says I can do whatever I want, even if it means ridiculing you from the inside out.” And they expect it to only go so far, but then it becomes the subject of interviews, on TV and everywhere else, and people really start looking at the music business. You can blackball, you can do whatever, but you’re making money and you’re making noise for a company. We’ve helped this company in certain areas, to get into places where they couldn’t get into.
Like helping their relationship with retailers. They’ll use me as the face of Atlantic Records. You couldn’t put this person in there because he looks like the gangsta or they can’t understand him, so they’ll put me in there, the nice articulate guy to shuck and jive for them, and it makes it that much easier for them. They relate Atlantic Records to Lupe now, so they can sneak in this record or that one. I’m aware of that because I’m a businessman and I do the same thing, piggyback this into that. But as long as I can help one person, I’m good.