Lupe Fiasco has no filter. It’s pretty damn refreshing in an industry bursting at the seams with image-conscious rappers and manufactured pop divas. A practicing Muslim, he’s called President Obama “a terrorist,” does not vote in U.S. elections, was a regular fixture at Occupy Wall Street, and had an infamous on-air tussle with the irascible Bill O’Reilly.
The artist formerly known as Wasalu Muhammad Jaco sat down with The Daily Beast for an in-depth interview to promote his new album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. Released on Sept. 25, it’s his fourth studio LP and an anticipated follow-up to last year’s Lasers, which made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Pt. II, meanwhile, will see the light of day in early 2013.
Food & Liquor II is equal parts searing indictment of American politics, urban history lesson, and demystification of hip-hop culture. On the standout track “Lamborghini Angels,” the rapper riffs on everything from MK-Ultra programming and pedophilia in the Catholic Church to human-rights abuses during the war in Afghanistan.
“This is Lupe’s history,” he says with a grin. “It came from America. Howard Zinn is definitely the inspiration for it. Zinn was the person who gave you an alternative view of American history, and people beat the shit out of him for it. It took decades for people to grasp it.”
As for current U.S. affairs, when given the chance to play political analyst and break down the presidential election stateside, Lupe remains critical of both Oval Office candidates.
“I think Romney’s talking himself out of the election, to be honest,” he says. “I was wondering what was gonna happen when the Republican power structure turned the money on, and then they turned on the money and nothing happened.” He pauses, adding, “But I do think the press are giving themselves too much liberty when it comes to what’s in Romney’s mind, ’cause I understand sound-bites,” referring to the infamous “47 percent” video.
He continues: “I have yet to see someone attack Obama over his report card. A lot of people I talk to from both sides of the fence are like, ‘Well, what about this economy? What about these incidents?’ There are still no answers except time, but time is the answer for everything. I’m more concerned with the midterm elections after whoever wins and how they’re going to shake up Congress. If Romney gets in, he is going to bomb Iran. He’s going to do it. It would be a disasterpiece.”
Born in Chicago in 1982, Lupe was one of nine children and describes his early family life as “very transient” and “in pieces,” including a myriad of half- and stepsiblings, as well as adopted brothers and sisters. He says he got his rebel streak from his father, who was a member of the Black Panthers.
“Before my father would open up a karate school in a particular neighborhood, he’d clean up the block—kick all the drug dealers and gang bangers off the block,” he says. “My father was very clear: ‘I’ve got guns too, and I’ll kill you just as much as a rival gang would.’ And he meant it. He was a man of many facets and complexities.”
His father used to play an eclectic array of music around the house—Queen, N.W.A, and Tchaikovsky, mostly—but Lupe says he was turned off by rap as a youngster “because of hip-hop’s vulgarity, violence, and all of that.”
When his close pal Bishop G. began publishing his poems in their school’s monthly calendar, the two began rapping the poems, forming an N.W.A-like crew with Lupe playing the part of MC Ren. At this point, Lupe says he embraced the genre, crafting “elementary poems” that were “super-duper vulgar.”
“One of my first raps was, ‘It all started when I was young / Coming up hard / Pimpin’ eighth-grade hoes in the motherfuckin’ schoolyard,” he says with a laugh.
At 19, he joined a gangster-rap group called Da Pak that signed to Epic Records and released just one single before splitting up.
“It was our first record deal, and you’re listening to the managers and producers,” he says. “I didn’t really know my purpose or my place. I was raw and didn’t understand the industry or the power of art.”
But his career gained serious momentum when he met Jay-Z in Chicago through mutual friends back in 2002. When they were introduced, Jay-Z put him on the spot and told him to freestyle. “That was dope,” he said after and invited Lupe to come to New York City. “They wanted to sign us to Roc-A-Fella and we turned it down, because we had our company 1st and 15th and wanted to do our own thing,” he says. Despite not signing, Lupe says Jay-Z still stayed “a homie” and gave him a big profile boost when he brought him out onstage during one of his shows in Chicago in 2003. After Lupe signed with Atlantic, Jay-Z would go on to executive-produce his first album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, to near-unanimous critical acclaim.
His third album, Lasers, was notoriously held hostage by his label for three years, with the label demanding a more radio-friendly sound—prompting fans to start online petitions as well as a planned protest outside the New York offices of Atlantic Records.
“If you knew the process I had to go through to make this record, every time you look at it, it’s like a bastard child,” he says. “Slaves hate sugar. It’s delicious, but they think, ‘If you know what I went through to make this sugar, you’d hate it too.’” He pauses. “I’ve always said I hated the music industry. It’s just so seedy and devaluing. It restricts the art. It’s a real murky place, and I’ve never liked it. But que sera, sera.”
Born a Sunni Muslim, Lupe says he fully embraced Islam when his cousin, who had just converted, moved in with the family when he was 13.
“I’ve always felt I’m going to be Muslim till the day I die because I fully understand it and have never wanted to be anything else,” he says.
The subject eventually turns to Innocence of Muslims, the incendiary, anti-Islam amateur film that’s helped fuel rioting in the Middle East. Says Lupe: “They should fight for the dude’s right to make that movie. Unfortunately, we also live in a world with everyone else. America is not its own planet. You can say whatever you want, but have some class.” He adds, “It’s a provocation, but I think that at the same time, the Muslim world is taking it a little too seriously. If you want to battle and protest against it, this is the opportunity to talk about all the great things the Prophet Muhammad has done and the ways he’s inspired people.”
As for Newsweek magazine’s controversial “Muslim Rage” cover that set the Internet ablaze, Lupe has plenty to say.
“There’s Muslim rage. There’s Christian rage too,” he says. “Truth is supposed to hurt. That shit’s supposed to hurt, it’s not supposed to feel good. If you’re feeling good about something, you should really question that. That’s how I was raised. With Muslim rage, you’ve got a kid who walks into a restaurant with a bomb strapped around his waist, pulls a cord or presses a button, and kills all these innocent people. He’s not killing Christians or Jews, he’s killing other Muslims from a different section of Islam, because they’re Shia and he’s Sunni. He’s 1,400 years removed from the original conflict, so people say, ‘That’s terrible.’ Then you have a plane that drops a five-ton bomb on a school because there are reports that it’s insurgent-based, but they haven’t been thoroughly sorted, and you just dropped a bomb on a school and killed kids. And that guy’s Christian. But you don’t say, ‘Oh, these terrible Christians.’ All you say is, ‘Oh, these misguided intelligence officers. It’s collateral damage. Shit happens.’”
He continues: “Isn’t that rage, to drop a bomb on somebody? Isn’t it rage to park a tank 50 miles away and shoot rockets into a village? What’s more rage: people burning an effigy of a president that they’re never going to meet, as people chant and throw rocks, and then they go home to their poverty-stricken shanty towns. What’s more rage: that, or dropping a nuclear bomb on somebody? We’re still the only country that’s done that.”
This, says Lupe, provides the “perfect segue” to his next album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. II, which will be released in early 2013.
“There’s a song on that album called ‘Atomicness Philosophy’ which breaks down our nuclear-weapons program,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite records from this whole project. You’ll get to hear what I think about American rage. It’s the best rage, and the most awesome rage the world has ever seen.” He pauses. “We don’t fuck around.”