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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NERD MAKES GOOD: (left) Fiasco and his mother at the Grammy Awards in February; (right) backstage with Jay-Z following a show in New York
What fascinated Fiasco (who was still using his given name, Wasalu Jaco) was Bishop's poetry-rhymes and stanzas of power and beauty-coming from someone so rough. At around the same time, Fiasco came under the guidance of an unlikely mentor, the school's bespectacled chemistry teacher. Calvin Stark spotted Fiasco's potential right away, but he also saw that the young man was uncomfortable about revealing his intelligence. "The students then had this strange thing, and it still exists today, that it's uncool to be thought of as being smart," Stark says. "Wasalu was the type of reserved individual who would rarely put up his hand. So I would say, OK, I'm going to call on him. I'll get him, because I don't think he's paying attention. Every time I would call on him he would respond with the correct answer. I said to myself, There's something up with this kid. He's smart. Very smart."
In fact, Fiasco was a member of the school's scholastic bowl team. "I told him, ‘You know you're an egghead, right?'" recalls Stark.
Fiasco knew. And he knew that his mentor desperately wanted him to go to college-perhaps even an Ivy League school. "I'm not going to lie; I was really disappointed when he decided not to go on to college," Stark says. But the teacher also knew his star pupil felt no passion for academia. "He had to set his own course and that's what we did."
Stark transferred Fiasco to honors chemistry, but two weeks later, the student returned to the regular class. "It wasn't that he couldn't do the work," says Stark, "but he told me he just didn't feel comfortable" being part of the "smart" class.
By then, Fiasco had begun to turn his intense curiosity to writing, filling notebooks with long stream-of-consciousness shoot-'em-ups about guns and the 'hood, as well as recapitulations of the Japanese cartoons he had come to fancy. "Every time I would see him, he'd be jumping up and down with headphones and a tablet," Shirley Jaco says. The words spilled out like a slot machine jackpot; he had not yet learned to harness the outbursts.
"He was writing about all this stuff about guns," recalls Bishop, who performs to this day as Fiasco's backup rapper. "Don't get me wrong; it was dope, it was real dope. But I had to tell him you can't connect all your words together like that. There're too many words! I had to teach him how to rhyme and use stanzas."
When his mother read his first efforts, the typical fare of the emerging thug rapper, she was furious. As someone who had traveled the world and considered herself a Renaissance woman, she says, "I had tried to teach [my children] some dignity and pride about who they are, about the neighborhood, about black-on-black crime." When she saw Fiasco's efforts, "I would say, ‘Boy, what are you writing?' He'd say, ‘Momma, that's rap!' I said: ‘Rap? Boy, I'll give you a rap.'"
Bishop stepped in, assuring Fiasco that they didn't need to follow the pack; that there was nothing wrong with their rhymes' sounding smart. "The more we read and kept reading and listening to other people," recalls Bishop, "the more we wanted to do something different."
Meanwhile, Fiasco's mother introduced her son to books like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. She told him about groups like The Watts Prophets, one of the first acts to use spoken word with music in the nascent genre that would become rap. "He matured," Fiasco's mother says. "He started listening to the lyrics, to what they were saying, because he started to change his whole style."
Fiasco's father took Fiasco and Bishop to secondhand shops in search of used musical equipment and pointed them toward the basement that they could use as a studio. "He said, ‘If you're going to be serious about this, you got to put your best foot forward,'" Bishop recalls. "Oh, my Gawd, that basement was filthy! But we cleaned it out and made us a little place."
The two teens created mixtapes, and soon word got around Thornton Township about the budding rappers. But their first public appearance was a disaster, recalls Bishop. "They were hatin' on us," he says. "They threw us off the stage because we didn't sound like everyone else." At least in Chicago, everyone else favored the "twister" style: machine-gun bursts of rhymes syncopated with slow hip-hop beats. "We wanted people to understand the words," Bishop says. "We wanted to tell stories."
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Photography: (Image 1) Arnold Turner/Wireimage.com; (Image 2) Jessica Hatter