Chicago-reared MCs Rhymefest (né Che Smith) and Lupe Fiasco (né Wasalu Muhammed Jaco) met two years ago while on the same flight home from Los Angeles, where each worked on Kanye West’s album Late Registration. Now each rapper makes his own major label début: Rhymefest with Blue Collar, recently out on J Records, and Fiasco with Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, due August 29th on Atlantic Records/1st & 15th Productions. Both practicing Muslims, the two rappers also share a hope realized by West-that an album of socially conscious lyrics can reach platinum sales. For Rhymefest, this means depicting his working-class experience. For Fiasco, it means writing about jazz, skateboarding, and other interests cultivated in Harvey, where he grew up. Chicago brought the two together again to talk about Kanye, the city’s moment in the hip-hop spotlight, and the responsibility of an MC.
|Photograph: Chuck Anderson
Q: Each of you has chosen to avoid lyrics that glamorize the thug life and misogyny. What is your ethical responsibility as an MC?
Fiasco: It’s recognizing you have a voice that’s heard by more than one person. You have to be careful what you say because people will believe it-and that goes on your record with God.
Rhymefest: As a black man, I have a responsibility to my child. I know when someone waves money in your face, you can think, I can eat just by rapping this. But do you have to eat at the expense of my child? A lot of rappers say that’s the responsibility of the parents. But a lot of us grew up without two parents.
Q: Rhymefest, you’ve lived in Indianapolis for the last four years. Lupe, you’re still living in Chicago. Do you have to leave Chicago to have a chance at stardom?
Fiasco: Maybe for, like, two days to have a meeting with your label. You don’t have to relocate.
Rhymefest: During the making of my album I lived in New York for about eight months. It goes back to something Kanye told me: “If I’m trying to sell bathing suits and I live in Alaska, who’s going to buy bathing suits? I need to go somewhere warm.”
|Photograph: Anna Knott
Q: Speaking of Kanye West, you have both worked with him. ‘Fest, you won a Grammy for “Jesus Walks,” and Fiasco, you were on “Touch the Sky.” What has Kanye’s role been in bringing the Chicago scene to the national audience?
Rhymefest: Kanye is the king of bridge building. A lot of times Chicago artists don’t work with each other, but Kanye works with us. I hope we learn from that.
Fiasco: He hit on every niche. He was probably the only universal artist that came out of Chicago. He was like Nelly out of St. Louis or Eminem out of Detroit.
Q: In the vein of bridge building, do you have any songs together?
Fiasco: No, not yet.
Q: Is there any competition between you?
Q: So, ‘Fest, there’s no chance of you getting on a skateboard?
Rhymefest: If Lupe works a blue-collar job, I’ll get on a skateboard.
Fiasco: Come on, man.
Q: How has Chicago influenced your sound?
Fiasco: Chicago is the crossroads of everything. Chicago has influences from everywhere.
Rhymefest: Chicago is not a sound, it’s a sensibility. We’re the home of the blues; we’re the house of house music. Chicago is the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam, and the national headquarters of Rainbow/PUSH. Dr. King called it one of the most segregated cities he’d ever been to, [yet] Chicago was founded by a black man. It’s a sensibility. When you listen to an artist from Chicago you’re hearing the racial, the cultural, the soul, the passion. You’re listening to the best that America has to offer.