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Fiasco with his Thornton Township mentor, chemistry teacher Calvin Stark, in 2006
At Northwestern, Fiasco launches into “Kick, Push,” and the crowd roars. Fiasco mimes riding a skateboard across the stage, arms out, one leg kicking; the students, red-faced and sweat-drenched, shouting the hook: Kick push, kick push, kick push, kick push . . . coast! Anyone else and the pantomime would be silly, almost geeky. When Fiasco does it, the crowd explodes.
The skateboard culture seems an unlikely group to attract an aspiring rapper. “It was another one of those weird things I was into,” he says. “I was into sneakers and the fashion, and I was like, wow, these are some cool people.” His favorite hangout was Uprise Skateshop on Milwaukee Avenue, a nationally known grinder mecca. “I would see these kids come up with their skate shoes all eaten up, dirty; you could just tell that they came from a situation that wasn’t right. But they were cool. The song is about this one guy and what skateboarding meant to him.”
The song has been one of his biggest hits-another case, he says, of “revenge of the nerds,” one of his favorite themes. “Nerds, those with or without glasses, are the coolest people on this planet. The stuff that they do and the things that they talk about and the outlook they have on life.”
Fiasco aggressively promotes his point of view, and he’s fond of citing Cornel West, the African American scholar and Princeton professor. “[He] said-and this is the theory that runs my existence as a rapper-he said, if you want to effect change in society, you have to make it cool to be uncool; you gotta make it hip to be square,” Fiasco explains.
“Because it is the things that have been made hip that destroy us and that we will be blamed for.”
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We are back in the Range Rover. The sky, moments before a lemony wash, has faded into a gray purple. The Sears Tower begins to glitter with pinprick lights. The discussion of harsh influences has ignited Fiasco’s passion, and the words, thoughts, and theorems flame up like a flash fire. He agrees that calling women ‘hos and bitches is degrading, but equally troubling, he believes, are the white record-label executives who encourage it-especially when doing so helps sales.
“Look at 50 Cent,” Fiasco says. “He has this video that promotes and sells a product-the most absolute, violent, destructive thing around. So who controls the distribution of that? Fifty Cent doesn’t. I love him to death. But he doesn’t control none of that.”
The words pick up speed, Lupe on the loose. “No rapper, no kid in the ‘hood, no drug dealer, no Scarface wannabe, no pimp, no prostitute, no ‘ho, no bitch, no nigga controls any part of mass media. It’s Viacom and their baby companies. It’s Rupert Murdoch. So if the moral compass was that strong and everything was as fucked up as everyone says it is, do you blame the artist? Hypocrisy is not something that is licensed, owned, and exclusive to hip-hop. It’s in movies. It’s everywhere.”
In almost the same breath, Fiasco demands responsibility from his fellow rappers. Mass media pushes certain images, but the artist “has to make a decision whether he’s going to perpetuate it. When you put pen to paper, what are you going to talk about? Because you can talk about the things that are around you, the reality of the violence, but do so in a way that takes the glamour out of it. You address, you relate to it, you maintain your authenticity or street cred or whatever, but you put it in such a light where it shows the ills of it, the ugly face, of the streets, of the drugs, of the life.”
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Photograph: Courtesy of Thornton Township High School