Like Saigon's Greatest Story Never Told, Chamillionaire's Venom, and countless other albums before it, Lupe Fiasco's Lasers is currently in major label limbo. Originally slated for release in late 2009, the past year has seen Lasers go from being delayed by the artist, to pushed back by the label, to "Is that shit ever going to come out?" status. Never one to sit around, Lupe got busy and started Japanese Cartoon—a punk rock group consisting of Wasalu Muhammad Jaco (Lupe's real name), Graham Burris (Bass), Le Messie (production), and Matt Nelson (Keyboards). They even dropped a free EP titled In The Jaws of The Lords of Death this past July. But still, what about Lasers? We got on the horn with the Chicago-bred lyricist to get his side of the story on his long delayed album, what inspired him to make punk rock, and what his definition of success is.
Interview by Insanul "Incilin" Ahmed
Complex: How did the Japanese Cartoon EP come about?
Lupe Fiasco: Well, I've always been a fan of all music. My favorite songs aren't hip-hop songs, they're songs from Queen like "Somebody To Love." Hip-hop is just something I actually know how to do. But I always had aspirations to participate in other forms of music. Once I got to create some hip-hop, it was like, "Okay, what am I going to do now?" So my artistic side was like, "Yo, let's do some rock music."
The true inspiration for Japanese Cartoon is the band Joy Division. You ever watch footage of Joy Division singing? [Joy Division's lead singer] Ian Curtis is like a straight nerd. And he [doesn't look] like the rock and roll type. But when he got on stage, he became a completely different animal, like he was having a seizure on stage. When he was performing he just threw himself into the performance, but when he came off stage he was a mild-mannered person. Japanese Cartoon is like a tribute to Joy Division and Ian Curtis.
And it actually came about quite secondhand. I was actually writing songs to hopefully present to Matthew Santos, who was working on his album at the time. It was kinda like my two cents. And it was good. It wasn't great by any measure, and it wasn't terrible by any measure. But it was just weird. The creative process for me to create that type of music, I had to put myself in a whole other zone. I only felt comfortable doing it in a British accent or some other kind of subdued version of my own voice. Simply because I don't like to hear myself sing. So to get comfortable [hearing myself sing], I sang in another accent.
I still don't know how to play any instruments. But the guy in the studio, Graham Burris, did. But we didn't have a drum set, so he had to beat-box the drums. And he could play the bass, so he played a bassline on one song. And that's how you get [the song] "ARMY."
Then it went from making songs for Matthew to being its own thing. Like, "this is Japanese Cartoon." With me singing in a fake British accent with this motley crew of guest engineers and guest studio musicians to play on this record by request. So that's the band. And over time as we did more records, I got more comfortable hearing my own voice so the accent started to go away. On songs like, "Crowd Participation" and "You Are Here," I'm not using the accent. Those are songs later in the recording process, [when] I'd stopped using the accent. But I felt it would have been an injustice to go back and re-sing all the songs. I felt that people should get the whole Japanese Cartoon experience as it was.
So anyway, my stepfather who is true-blue British—and this is another reason I keep throwing out the British, because I want to somehow rightfully say I can use a fake British accent since I have British family members who are white, a part of the punk scene, and working for EMI. My stepfather was a studio engineer for EMI and he knows The Ruts—or at least the surviving members—and I sent him the music with the British accent. The Ruts [are] very similar to The Clash, but mostly fixated in Europe. They're my favorite punk rock band. I like them more than Sex Pistols. The response that came back from The Ruts was, "Why isn't it more aggressive?" and "Can we come over and play with you guys?" So I got this acceptance from a lot of musicians and people that I looked up to. So instead of them giving me the thumbs down or, "Nah, I think you should do something else," which is what I got from my record company, I got this motivation to do it. So once I got that, nobody couldn't tell me nothing. It was the same reaffirmation I got when I first came into the music business—I rapped for Jay-Z, and Jay-Z was like, "You're nice." So I got the same reaffirmation doing Japanese Cartoon.
Complex: When the public first heard about Japanese Cartoon, you denied being in the group. What was that about?
Lupe Fiasco: What that was, I didn't know if I really wanted to do it. I set up a Myspace page, and this was when I was like, "Aaight, I want to put it out but I don't want to promote it through Lupe Fiasco." I didn't want it to be viewed as a Lupe Fiasco side project. I wanted it to be like, "Here's this band out of nowhere." [That way] I can get an honest opinion. I didn't want to get, "Man I like Lupe, but that's wack because he's not rapping," or a "Lupe, everything he do is dope!" I wanted a true reaction to it.
What happened was Busy—who works at Atlantic and is a part of me becoming who I am today—put the link to the Myspace page on his blog. And the kid who runs the Lupe blog just happened to check it out by chance and he was like, "That sounds like Lupe!" And it was a wrap from there. And me denying it was me just like, "Nah, that ain't me. I'm not British." But it didn't work. They was like, "Nah, that's you." But then you had people who were like, "Man, I'm telling you that ain't Lupe!"
For me, it was an ill piece to the band with the anonymity because I was denying it and why would I deny it? But it was more so because it wasn't finished and I didn't really know if I wanted to do it and I didn't want it to be presented to the world in that controversial way. I just wanted it to come out and people got on to it and one day we did a show and I come out like, "Oh my God! It's Lupe!" I would have preferred to have that than have an Internet scandal. This is one of the downsides of having a fanatic fanbase that I love so much.
It just came out from two sources that came out that were dedicated to Lupe. Busy's blog, they know he's my man and he's a part of my crew. And they did it from the official source of all things Lupe Fiasco. And it was kind of like, "Yeah, that's Lupe." And I was like, "That's not me!" And they was like, "Yeah, it's you." Now I'm like, "Yeah, it's me."
Complex: So what is Japanese Cartoon?
Lupe Fiasco: Japanese Cartoon is my lifeblood. That was my Plan B. If Lupe Fiasco fails and Lasers never comes out, I have to do something. I still have to make music. I still have to go out and tour. I want to make music as good as Radiohead, as good as Coldplay. I can make hip-hop as good as anybody. But you get bored with that and you want new challenges. And for me, this is a new challenge.
Complex: You mentioned Japanese Cartoon being your Plan B, let's talk about Plan A. A second ago, you said "If Lasers never comes out." Will it not come out?
Lupe Fiasco: It could. The situation with me and my record company has gotten to the point where it's just like... we're really at our final straws. People could say it's me, that "Lupe doesn't want to make popular music" or "The label has got to have records that they can sell and Lupe is not giving them the records they want to sell" and XYZ. I'll meet a fan on the street and we'll have a full conversation about it. There's maybe six or seven people walking around who know the whole story with their mouths wide open and their jaws to the floor as to why Lasers has been held up to this point and why it's not coming out. I can't tell you that. We're in a space where we're still negotiating and some stuff isn't meant for the public.
CLICK NEXT TO READ LUPE'S THOUGHTS ON LASERS and FOOD & LIQUOR II...
Lupe Fiasco: God willing. I literally put it in God's hands. You know what, Lasers is a record I poured my heart into. I was actually making my own music, in the studio making the songs, and rapping on them. And at the same time, making the music more acceptable. Not making it more poppy, but making it more popular. Putting it in the position where more people can understand it but at the same time still satisfy my hardcore fanbase.
Complex: Like the people behind the petition?
Lupe Fiasco: Right. That fanbase who wants to hear stuff they can't even understand, who like puzzles. But at the same time, I felt like I was doing myself a disservice by having all of this stuff that I wanted to say that I thought was right to the people who are the scholars, the Cornel Wests of the world, but it was getting lost in translation. So I was like, "I'm going to make it untranslated." And give you the message in the raw and hopefully you'll pick it up. To me, I found that medium and I was happy with it. But the market forces were not. And then the fixers, they weren't happy with the fixers either. So, God willing. Until then... Japanese Cartoon.
Complex: As far as putting out stuff to the fans, why not just go on the mixtape circuit and give your fans something to go on?
Lupe Fiasco: I think it burns you out. I had this conversation with Kanye when we were doing the CRS project: I don't like to do a bunch of records just to do it. I want every record to have a purpose and mean something. I don't want to do it to satisfy some perceived demand. If you give into everybody's demands, then what are you left with? I always came into the music business saying, "It's 50% me and it's 50% y'all." So let me make my 50% and then you can have it. I didn't want to get caught up in the "put out a mixtape every month" because I think it cheapens you as an artist. I ain't even gonna front, I think it cheapens your work.
People are happy, fans are cool, some people aren't cool. But I'm not doing it for the Internet dudes on the message boards who don't like nothing. Who are always comparing you to somebody else. I'm not doing this for you to have one more piece to play in your game of "this rapper is better than this rapper." I'm not in competition with nobody. I want to make good music for my fans who want it, who enjoy it, who learn something from it. And that's what it is.
And in this instance, Lasers has been done for two and a half years. I was ready to give it to you two and a half years ago. The reason I did Enemy of the State was out of desperation. Releasing these records now is out of desperation. This isn't out of my feeling like, "Oh man, I got to satisfy my fans." And this isn't coming from some artsy place. These are acts of desperation. I don't want to do desperate acts, I want to make music because I want to make music.
Complex: You keep referring to it as Lasers, but on the Internet now people are saying the record could be called Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album. Is that not a real title?
Lupe Fiasco: When I said that I was going to do an album called The Great American Rap Album, I did it. Lasers is one project.
Complex: So you have two albums already done?
Lupe Fiasco: Yeah. I make music every day. [Laughs.] Half of the next Japanese Cartoon record is done. When I say Lasers has been done for two and a half years, what do you think I've been doing since then? I've been sitting back and making more music. I get beats every day from every producer. People want me to feature on their songs, and favors for favors, and all this other craziness. Lasers is one project on its own. It's its own project, sitting being done, waiting to be released. And I'm in talks with doing the record after this one. So I'm constantly creating. But that doesn't mean I'm constantly releasing.
Complex: A number of songs have been out from you in the past 12 months like "I'm Beaming," "Shining Down," and "What You Want." Are those songs from Lasers or The Great American Rap Album?
Lupe Fiasco: Everything that has leaked between "Paris, Tokyo" and "Go To Sleep" was for Lasers. "Go To Sleep" is Food and Liquor II. [It was released] simply because I was in the position where I wanted to put out some music. Nothing was officially released off Lasers. Nothing. Not "Shining Down," not "What You Want," not "I'm Beaming." Everything that came off of Lasers was leaked or stolen. We didn't put out anything. The reason the songs are iTunes and we shot videos for them is because we felt like we're going to lose these records. It's like we paid $80,000 to $120,000 dollars for this record. If we gonna pay that much we might as well follow though instead of letting it get lost on the Internet. Our hands were forced.
We felt like half the album is out in the midst of finishing it. So it's like, we're not feeling to put out any records. For what? A record to beat the record we already got out? It doesn't make any sense. If the record leaked, then we're going to chase it. I'm not happy about it, but so be it. In the midst of all that you get this stalemate with the record company. And it's like, "Well I got to do something."
So out of desperation, you get "Go To Sleep," which is a record from the next record. Lasers is its own project, it is its own sound, its own mood. Food and Liquor II is completely different. So I don't want to keep just dropping records. To be honest with you, if I could just stop I would stop. If I could just stop and let everything clear the air and let everything settle, then I would literally stop. But it's just my movement has so much momentum and it's so self-fulfilling sometimes that even when I do stop, it keeps going on without me.
Complex: Are you now actively pursuing the release of Food and Liquor II?
Lupe Fiasco: Nah. People were saying they wanted a Lupe record, so here's a Lupe record, from me, not some dude leaking it. Like, "Here's a good, solid, Lupe Fiasco record that's official and that's from me, that I like, that you'll like, and I'm gonna shoot a video for." You can treat it as an underground record, as a mixtape record, as a no-single, as a first single. I don't really care. I'm not trying to dictate what I want that song to be. But it's my first act of control in the last two and a half years.
Just to summarize, Lasers has been done for two and a half years. I started on another album after that, with features on it and all types of craziness. But everything was supposed to be in time. What messed up the schedule when Lasers didn't come out when it was supposed to. So you get this backlog. And then Lasers kinda prematurely leaked out because of all these songs leaking. It's kind of like an unclear moment of what Lupe Fiasco album-wise is going to be. So I would just say stay tuned. Don't believe anything unless I tell you. Please don't believe anything anybody says unless I say it from my official Twitter page or my official UStream page. I'm like one of three people who actually know what's going on. In the meantime, we're going back on tour. We'll see you guys out there on stage. There might a Japanese Cartoon tour coming up too.
Complex: But don't you want to release Lasers? You made the album because you wanted to make it, right?
Lupe Fiasco: To be 100% honest, if it comes out, it comes out, if it doesn't, it doesn't. It's not going to affect me either way. That doesn't mean I don't like hip-hop, that don't mean I don't want to be a rapper. It just means that I know what everybody else doesn't know about that album. I know the dark side of that album. Nobody else knows the story. It's a dark, deep, twisted, nasty story that people lost their jobs for.
It's like Lasers, that's one album that got disrupted in the business process. It's a great album, but that album may not come out. But here's Food and Liquor II. So what's going to make you happy? What's truly going to make the people happy? I'm giving you another album. I'm already past it. I'm not sitting around, "Oh man, I want Lasers. Why don't they put out my songs?" Crying. For what? You go in and put out another record. And that's what I did.
If God wills it to be, we'll be talking about Food and Liquor II. And if Food and Liquor II doesn't come out, we'll be talking about Food and Liquor III. [Laughs.] If Food and Liquor III doesn't come out, we'll be talking about Food and Liquor IV. If that doesn't come out, we'll put out The Cool II, The Cool III. I'm never going to stop.
I love music. I'm never going to stop making music. I just did a whole punk rock album. So when the business overshadows the music, then I'm done. And I'ma step away from that, which is what happened to Lasers. All people see is music. It's a music business. The music is beautiful and great. I love to perform it, and I love to go around the world, and I love to sing it and say it. But I hate to pick up my phone when I get off stage to talk about the music business!
I hate to be looked at as the villain. I can't control my perception to the public but I try not to be a villain. My greatest fault is that I refuse to backbite others and put others on front street to the public. Because if I did that, I would be justified and vindicated with everything that I'm saying. But I'll be doing myself a personal injustice in something I don't believe in. If somebody wants to come to the plate and talk about the stuff that they're doing behind the scenes as to why XYZ isn't happening, then so be it. But I'm not going to put people on front street. That's why I don't do dis records or any stupidness like that. I'd rather to talk to somebody personally, and if they still motivated enough to tell the public what's going, then so be it. If not, then I'll take the L, publicly. And I don't mind taking the L. I don't really care.
Complex: Earlier, when speaking on Japanese Cartoon, you used the phrase, "If Lupe failed." Has Lupe failed?
Lupe Fiasco: I don't know. How do you define success?
Complex: How do you define it?
Lupe Fiasco: No, how do you define success? Am I arguably one of the best rappers in the world? Do I am have a massive, rabid fanbase? Do I have a Grammy? Do I have multiple Grammy nominations? Yes. Am I constantly on tour? What else can I say that could be a measure of success? How many Ferraris do I have? Do I have my own clothing line? Yes. Am I respected by every single noteworthy artist, rapper, producer in the game?
Complex: On the flip side, do you have an album out?
Lupe Fiasco: Whoa, whoa, whoa. See, that's even greater. Even with me without having an album out, am I still in the public consciousness?
Complex: Yes, but for how long?
Lupe Fiasco: Whoa, hold on. Wait, wait, wait. Are you doing an interview with Lupe Fiasco right now? "Who doesn't have an album out" about an album that's not out? What does that say?
I'll [give] you a definition of what people say success is. People say Jay-Z is successful. Why is Jay-Z successful? Because he has his own clothing line, he has a collection of Ferraris, because he's worth millions of dollars. Because he has connections to everybody around the world, he goes on fantastic vacations, and he sits front row at the Louis Vuitton fashion shows. I do that too.
Now let's talk about rapping. Is Lupe Fiasco not revered? Did Jay-Z not stop his show because at his show there was a girl wearing a "Hip-Hop Saved My Life" T-shirt in the front row? So he stopped his show to point out that I was standing at the booth and said, "That's one of the greatest writers of our time." And that's Jay-Z. You could do that with Kanye, Pharrell, and Drake, who called me a legend in my own city. And that's Drake, he's way bigger than I am. So let's look at that.
Then let's go to our garages because we want to go out to the club. What are you driving? You're driving a Benz or something. Let me take this Ferrari I'm gonna drive today. And that's not to boast. That's to show people, what is success? And I don't even care about the cars. I drive them to the grocery store. I drive them to the masjid to make salah. I don't care about none of that. All of that material success and what people quantify as being successful means nothing to me. I'm satisfied, I'm happy. My family, my friends, and everybody is happy. I'm at the best time of my life. It's Ramadan. But people always want to bog it down with "success."
Success is a very dangerous thing and I think we have to be very careful about when we dictate what success is for somebody else. Because you don't know what it's like. I'm happy with two albums. You may not be good with two albums, but who are you to tell me to put out three albums? I can tell you, "Man, you need to quit Complex and go work for Rolling Stone. But who am I to tell you that? If you feel comfortable, and you feel happy, and successful at your job, then that's success. You define that as success, then that's success. Success is not a general thing. It's a personal thing. It's a personal attribute.
So let's look at success is for me. When Jay-Z told me I was nice when I was 19, I was done. That was success for me. I didn't want much. Little kid from the hood who wanted to be a rapper, my idol at the time told me I was nice. I was done. And I used to say that to people, "Listen, Jay-Z says I'm nice, so I don't need to rap for you. I'm good." [Laughs.] I don't really care about the five mics, I don't care about the XXL ratings—not the magazines, I mean the ratings. I don't care about Pitchfork's 8.1 or 6.2 or whatever, The Rolling Stone's five stars or four stars. Jay-Z said I was nice, so as a rapper I'm good. And I'm better than you. And I can really rap. And you'll even say that I'm better than you. And just when you think that I'm not... go to sleep!
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