Commentary

Fiasco revs up his team for 'Lasers'

Updated: March 2, 2011, 1:39 AM ET
By Roger Lotring | Special to ESPN.com

Lupe Fiasco is a complicated man. He's a rap artist who loves Queen. He was a skateboarder who studied martial arts. His music became an X Games soundtrack, but Fiasco, 29, says GT Racing is his favorite sport.

[+] EnlargeLupe Fiasco
Don Arnold/WireImageLupe Fiasco's upcoming release, "Lasers," has been a long time in the making.

The Chicago native literally grew up in the shadow of Chicago Stadium and the championship-era Bulls. But Lupe (née Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) also saw the dark side of the city, drugs and gang violence being the daily backdrop to his childhood.

Still, when he talks about those days, Lupe recalls the positive aspects of growing up on the West Side. And he still recognizes good things within adversity. When Atlantic Records delayed the release of his latest album, fans signed an online petition and picketed the company's offices in support. Two years later, the experience has made him stronger and more focused, he says.

The Life spoke to Lupe, who was ESPN's Artist Of The Month for February, while he was in New York to perform a free show thanking fans who pressured his label to finally release "Lasers" on March 8.

The Life: Three tracks from "Lasers" were part of the soundtrack of ESPN's coverage of the Winter X Games. What makes Lupe Fiasco complement sports so well?

Fiasco: I don't know. [laughs] "Kick, Push" kind of made me a hero for a certain part of the action sports crowd. I think that started a relationship betwixt it.

I think there's a certain energy, maybe on certain songs, which fits it well, I guess. When it comes to action sports, and sports in general, you never know. It's just something that reverberates with a certain athlete or fits well with a certain style of sports.

When I did "Kick, Push," it wasn't even supposed to be for me. I was gonna give the track to my friends who were putting together a skate DVD, because I thought it was really good music to skate to. Then, people were like, "No, this is a great song!" So, who knows? It's one of those weird things.

The Life: You speak from experience as a skateboarder.

Fiasco: Yeah, I'm retired from that. [laughs]

The Life: That sounds funny, you're not even 30 and you're retired.

Fiasco: I know a ton of retired skateboarders under 30, [laughs] for various reasons -- all of them involve hitting the ground at a high rate of speed. It's like, hey, do you want to be able to tour for the next two years, or do you want to be in a body cast? I was like, I want to tour, so I'll put the skateboard down.

The Life: Before you "retired," were you an extreme skater?

Fiasco: No, that takes a level of balls that I don't necessarily possess in that amount. I saw people wiping out on handrails or banisters and losing some of those balls, as well. I thought, you know what, I'm just going to stay on the ground, just do some flatland. I may do a couple bowls or something, but I'm gonna keep it simple. I like my [balls] a little bit too much. [laughs]

The Life: Coming from Chicago, a town with more than one storied sports franchise, did you follow a particular sport or team when you were a kid?

[+] EnlargeMike Singletary
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLupe Fiasco's father has a connection to legendary Bears linebacker Mike "Samurai" Singletary.

Fiasco: Oh, most definitely! I lived about nine blocks from Chicago Stadium. If I stood in the middle of the street, I could literally see [it]. I was there when we [Chicago Bulls] got our first championship with Michael Jordan. I was there for the other [five], so from that to the Blackhawks, to the White Sox when they won [in 2005].

The '85 Bears did these stylized posters. Jim McMahon redid "Miami Vice," and they showed him in a suit with an Uzi. When they showed Mike Singletary, he was a samurai, cutting the football in half. The armor he had on was my father's. My father was a big guy, and it was the only samurai armor they could find in the city that was big enough to fit [Singletary]. So, it was that direct, a childhood story going way back, that my father's karate armor was worn by the heroes of Chicago, the Chicago Bears.

So, it's that direct, and also indirect, just being in the city and feeling the energy when the Bulls were unstoppable.

The Life: Do those direct ties and vivid memories still affect you?

Fiasco: Yeah! Anytime anybody mentions Kobe Bryant, [laughs] I hit 'em back with, look, Michael Jordan, OK? I was there, and I've seen greatness. You're witnessing something [with Kobe], but you're not witnessing what I witnessed, which was the best basketball player of all time.

You walk with a certain level of pride, to know you were around greatness -- we're away from Kobe now, 'cause he's a good guy -- I'm just saying that it wasn't about a fluke win; it wasn't about a 3-pointer at the buzzer, or a team that was crappy through the season then became brilliant through the playoffs. It was literally about a team that was a dynasty and amazing all the time.

You got to see that as a little kid, and you're wowed. You're wowed at Michael Jordan doing this, or Scottie Pippen doing that. I'm not a super huge, gotta-wear-the-team-jersey kind of guy, but to be a part of that history in a direct way, and for it to be up the street from my house, definitely gives me a certain level of authenticity and bragging rights.

The Life: Did that example instill certain expectations in you to be great, be it music, your clothing line, or anything in which you're involved?

Fiasco: Yeah, most definitely! And it's other things that I'm a fan of, too, out of the realm of traditional ball sports. I just came back from Australia, doing a big tour. When we were rehearsing and prepping for it, I kept pushing the idea of my team, that we were like an F1 team.

We're like a world champion F1 team, and everybody has to be at their best. Everybody's a part of this. It's not about me crossing the finish line, and the spotlight's on me. No, it's about how well you tune the engine the night before -- how well you actually practiced that song; how well you actually got that drop right; how we're all going to do this head nod in sequence and synchronize this.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Jonathan Daniel /AllsportMichael Jordan's intensity, performance and success influenced Lupe Fiasco when he was growing up.

So, I literally -- literally was saying, "We're a world champion F1 team, and we're treating it like that."

The Life: When did you first develop an appreciation for exotic cars?

Fiasco: Oh, man, since I was a little kid with Hot Wheels, and seeing a poster with a Ferrari Testarossa in it. I've got a big affection for racing. I think it comes from my father taking me to the auto show when I was a little kid. There was this one gray car that I saw, some type of prototype, probably some LeMans or something like that. I'm like, this car looks crazy!

I remember when I was like 13 or 14, out of nowhere I got this strange want to race 5 Series BMWs on road courses and things of that nature. I was light-years away from having a BMW, but it was just one of those things where it's like, man, I wanna race that particular car.

I have to put a lot of blame to "Top Gear" through the years. [laughs] But also just watching NASCAR. It was kind of like, wow, there's highs and lows, the chills and the spills, the thrills. I remember vividly the accident where Dale Earnhardt died.

I was a fan. I remember being a little kid on the West Side, watching three hours of NASCAR, [laughs] then learning that there was Formula 1. And then learning there was GT Racing, which is actually my favorite sport right now. They would race those Lamborghinis, race those Ferraris, race those GTOs -- and even race those Mazdas and Camaros, things that looked just like cars I could actually go get. If I couldn't go get 'em, at least I had seen them in the showroom. It's like, it's not about flashy, shiny, going to the club. No, there are people who are racing [them].

So, yeah, I'm a motorhead, got a nice collection of Ferraris. And with my friends at Platinum Motor Sports in L.A., we just put together a twin turbo Camaro SS that's 800 horsepower.

The Life: Different sports move at different paces. Do those rhythms affect or inspire the musical direction of your songs?

Fiasco: Yeah, there's definitely the "I want to create intro music for the World Boxing Federation championship." I want Manny Pacquiao to walk in to my song. That's a large part of it for a lot of people, that intro music. The theme song for the Chicago Bulls that I heard as a kid was just so dramatic, and when that music came on, you knew it was time to go to work. Everything would go dark, and it's like, yes! [laughs] It's gonna go down right now, so to speak.

Those kinds of emotions, as well as you want to be the theme music to that dramatic play, that high-energy slam dunk in slow motion. You want your song to be playing. You want it to match things like that, so there are aspirations, in that sense, to create that theme music to great things.

The Life: Were you a Queen fan as a kid?

Fiasco: Hell, yeah, and I'm a Queen fan to this day! And my favorite song of all time is "Somebody to Love."

The Life: There's nobody bigger, in terms of stadium anthems for sporting events, than Queen.

Fiasco: Yeah, and if you look at it from a very direct kind of thing, the dream of every musician, the dream of every artist, is to make stadium music. We wanna be in a stadium, sold out, 30,000 people, 40,000 people, 50-, 60-thousand people, rockin' the stadium. And those stadiums are football stadiums, baseball stadiums, or basketball stadiums.

It was a dope feeling for me to go back to Chicago and play in the same place that Michael Jordan played, play in the same arena, but playing my sport and I have a packed house. My slam dunk is this song I'm about to play, or my 3-pointer from half court is doing this backflip onstage. It's pretty interesting that we actually call this stadium music; we want to make music to fill up a stadium, and those stadiums are sports arenas.

The Life: Your childhood was unique, a broad contrast of education and ideology, street violence, martial arts and the theater. Were sports just another flavor of how you grew up?

Fiasco: I think so. It served various purposes. In the midst of the street violence, living on the West Side of Chicago and being in the ghetto, I vividly remember the things that used to bring us the most joy, the bright spots within that. It wasn't the only thing, but most definitely one of the bright spots was [sports].

Sports definitely played a role in that sense, as far as giving us a little bit of a break from the craziness, I guess. I mean, the same drug dealers and gang bangers who were at one point responsible for a lot of that violence, they would be playing, too. Everybody would kind of be normal, because everybody enjoyed it and could gather around the same things, and the gang stuff was put to the side for the moment.

[+] EnlargeLupe Fiasco
Saverio Truglia/WireImage/Getty ImagesHot wheels: Lupe Fiasco poses with two of his preferred rides.

We had milk crates for basketball rims. We would take three hours and everybody would kind of play basketball in the alley. Or we would commandeer the old, abandoned playground, and it would turn it into a gymnastics floor exercise. [laughs] It would be the Olympics for us. The swing set with no swings became parallel bars. The field, which was absolutely dangerous because it had 6-foot steel poles down the middle of it, that's where we played football. It was really about, you better not go out of bounds 'cause you're going to run into this metal pole. [laughs]

Some of the best memories were going to watch the high school basketball games, where it was beyond the violence. It was like, let's show some solidarity with my homey who I've got the same math class with.

The Life: The release of "Lasers" has been a very long road. How are you most different from the person who delivered this album to Atlantic Records a couple of years ago?

Fiasco: Way more stronger. More focused -- you know, I always give advice to my friends. I tell 'em, don't do anything until you know exactly what you want, because you'll start to run yourself into circles; you'll never really be satisfied with what's going on because you don't really have a goal.

I had to take a dose of my own medicine with that. It's kind of like, you know what you want, but you've got to act like it and know the things that affect you. Stop taking this stuff so serious. Stop putting your faith into this business, which can eat you alive, hoping that it's going to be the best. Start taking your destiny into your own hands. You have to start controlling and standing up for the things you actually believe in.

So, I became a stronger individual and, at the same time, somewhat numb. I don't really care about the fame anymore. I don't really care about the success; I don't really care about the money. I don't really care about any of that stuff anymore, to the same degree I did when I first turned that album in with the expectations that I had for it.

It was a process that destroyed me, to build me back up, so to speak.

The Life: Can sports be a tool to benefit the call for social change that people will hear on this album?

Fiasco: Sports could be the inspiration: That dude, or this particular game, or this particular event can inspire somebody. But it's really about that person acting beyond that. The music can be a soundtrack to them doing it, but it has to be about them acting.

It's not really about a song. It's not about Twitter or Facebook. It's not about one particular thing that's going to motivate people to do something. It's about people acting.

The boxer isn't in the ring with headphones on, you know what I'm saying? The intro music is dope because it pumps him up and puts him in a space. But when he jumps into the ring, it's all about him acting, showing action and relying on his training. I think it's the same with people. Those things are good to inspire. It's a great way to organize and communicate, but at the end of the day it's all about the action of the people, which is way more important than anything else.

Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.