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...