Lupe Fiasco, Word Star
Sit back and listen in on a Range Rover ride to the West Side with breakout rapper and Renaissance nerd Lupe Fiasco. You’ll get an earful on history, sociology, anthropology, and the artist’s muses, from Tchaikovsky to Noam Chomsky to Ice Cube
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FIASCO IN THE MAKING: (from left) Lupe as a child, left, with his cousin; Fiasco (left foreground) with his parents, grandfather, and two of his siblings
He was a great spirited child," says his mother, Shirley Jaco, a gourmet chef. "Smart, a bit complex; he kind of was a loner; he didn't hang with a lot of people. But I had all these books-on medicine, anatomy, philosophy, religion. And he would just pick them up and read. He would be thumbing through a National Geographic or listening to music. He loved Tchaikovsky."
In a neighborhood caught in the crossfire of the eighties crack-cocaine wars, the son of Shirley and Gregory Jaco became known as the neighborhood nerd. "He always had the glasses," she says, "always had a book bag over his shoulder and some type of a writing tablet. He loved to skateboard, too. You could hear those little raggedy wheels . . . ka-kunk-ka-kunk-ka-kunk, all night long."
Introduced to Islam by his father, he may have looked like a bookworm, but gangbangers learned not to mess with "Lu." For one thing, his father (now deceased) was a Green Beret "and held about eight black belts in karate," says Fiasco. "He was one of those political black power Malcolm X guys." Fiasco recalls that one of the first things his father did when the family moved was to open a martial arts school-with Fiasco as the prize pupil.
Having also run an army surplus store, the father boasted an imposing gun collection. "He had like a floor-mounted 20-millimeter machine gun. I remember playing with actual dummy bazookas," Fiasco says. "I have pictures of me holding live M-16s, fully loaded, laying down on my neighbor's lawn, and they're like, ‘That's so cute; look at him!' We'd go out to some camping ground somewhere and leave rounds there. So I know guns." (Today, two of his older brothers are cops.)
"That's probably why no one really messed with him, either," says Shirley Jaco, with a laugh. "Lupe may have had the nerd persona, but when he would go out to play he was in the 'hood. That's where he lived, and he learned to deal with that."
He did so partly through bluff. "I always had a scowl," he recalls. "I remember when I graduated high school. On the last day, these girls, beautiful girls, came up to me and said: ‘You know what, Wasalu? We really liked you, but we thought you were mean.' They were like, ‘It seemed like you were going to bite our heads off.' [When asked about current girlfriends, Fiasco gives an I'm-not-telling-you smile.] So there was the nerdy side, but there was also the full black-belt-beat-you-to-death side."
One of the peculiarities of Fiasco's story is his initial reaction to the art form that would come to define him. He disliked it. He respected the strong political message of groups like N.W.A., as well as the music behind the lyrics. But he rejected the seemingly senseless glamorization of violence and the vulgar references to women.
Initially, he took up jazz and blues, classical music, and African-flavored sounds. He left himself open to rock 'n' roll. "Music was around since I was a baby," he recalls. "My father used to play sitars and African drums and he had this record collection that was just vast. I got my first djembe [a small African drum] when I was like four and we'd go out to 67th Street beach and have this huge jam session. Everything would come: African drummers, sax players, flutes-whatever added to the stew, it was there."
By degrees, however, hip-hop crept into his consciousness. Fiasco's parents divorced when he was five, and by sixth grade, he was living in Harvey with his father, having gone there to escape the violence of the West Side. He had begun listening to rap groups like Fu-Schnickens, a trio known for its witty way with words. For Fiasco, nothing else seemed to combine the beat, the autobiographical opportunity, the wordplay, and his earlier musical influences in quite the same way. A budding friendship with a fellow Thornton Township student-a street-hardened fringe gang member named Bishop G-cemented his path. "When we first met, I was running with a bad crowd," admits Bishop, whose real name is Dusean Dunbar. "[Fiasco] was like the nerd. He had these big glasses and he was always reading or something. For whatever reason, though, we kind of clicked up. I guess I liked the way he read out loud in class. I could read real well, too."
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Photography: Courtesy of the Jaco family