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Hip hop at 50

Lupe Fiasco on his latest challenge: teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Grammy-winning rapper talks about the fusion between academia and hip-hop

Rapper Lupe Fiasco, now 40 years old and more than two decades into his career, has attained all the commercial success and critical acclaim that any artist could hope for: a platinum-selling album (2007’s The Cool), a 2006 GQ Man of the Year nod, and a Grammy Award (best urban/alternative performance, in 2008).

But his goals have always transcended standard metrics of success, and he has aimed to push the envelope by forming institutions, such as the Society of Spoken Art (S.O.S.A.), an educational guild for aspiring rappers that explores the art form at a level of sophistication that includes the study of linguistics, semiotics, and poetry.

Recently, Fiasco (Wasalu Jaco) began a new challenge that he can add to his long résumé: an appointment as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He will teach a course on rap during the spring semester, and collaborate with artists, scientists and engineers across the school.

We spoke to him about this latest undertaking, his views on the industry, and advice for creatives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us how the relationship between you and MIT started.

The impetus was building out the Society of Spoken Art and trying to find folks in the academic space that were either interested in rap or using rap in some capacity to inform their work. Then recruit them to, at the very least, supply either some of the literature that they were using, or even just a conversation about their thoughts in a way.

That was the background. But the MIT relationship was formally initiated through someone  who had a connection to one of the professors at MIT, Dr. Nick Montfort. I mentioned my interest in studying computational poets and trying to look for somebody who worked in that space. 

The connection was made, and all of a sudden, I was at MIT. At first it was, ‘Come for a day.’ Then ‘Come see the school, get a tour.’ Then to, ‘Come speak at a class.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh, yo, come be part of a research group.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh, come be an artist-in-residence.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh, come be MLK Visiting Scholar for a year.’ It was just incrementally building over time, so it’s a result of a five-year engagement.

How would you describe this phase of your career as an artist?

I always felt, just like any other cultural product, there’s periods and phases in hip-hop. So hip-hop goes through its underground phase, then into its recognition, visibility, industrial stage, its commercial stage, its entrepreneurial phase, its cultural phase. Then it’s like, ‘OK, well, what’s left?’ It’s like, well, the academic phase, when it gets enough experience and enough terminology underneath its belt to now be able to stand in an academic way.

Of course, there have been many academics who are in one field and they use hip-hop in some ways, heuristically, to inform their field. I imagined something that goes the other way: where hip-hop itself establishes dialogues and research questions, with the artists who do it as a profession create institutions that are hip-hop-focused. Not as in, ‘I’m a part of a department that does world music, and then examines hip-hop as an example.’ But rather, ‘No, no, no: This whole institution is a hip-hop institution.’

I felt that was the next frontier, so I started to migrate towards that, from a career professional standpoint. Also, from a research standpoint, I was like, ‘I need new things to talk about.’ Then you realize, ‘Oh, rapping isn’t just songs, it isn’t just creating bars. It’s the way we arrange ideas in a novel way.’ And then I ask: Is there something deeper to that, and what’s the best space to explore that? It’s the academic space, the laboratory space.

Yeah, there’s a studio, but then there’s also resources, and a library, and people from other disciplines using different methods, and all these other things that you only learn in a deep way in academia.

Ultimately, it boils down to some basic questions. For example: Yes, rappers retire and then do what?

Especially the rappers who retire and aren’t billionaires or millionaires. What do they do? What do you do next? It’s like, ‘Oh, you can go teach, or you could be part of some research program, or be part of some institution.’ Mine was like, ‘OK, I need to go start one of those institutions.’ That’s where S.O.S.A. comes about.

What’s been the response from your hip-hop colleagues and fans?

The response has been nearly nonexistent. They have no idea that I’m even here, let alone having a formal thing to say about it.

That could be about one of two things. Maybe they genuinely don’t care, because I’m that far off their radar, which is perfectly fine. But it’s also probably true that people don’t understand. My gift and curse is that I’m always 10 years ahead. I’m not saying that out of ego. It’s just something that I’ve noticed. You do something, and then 10 years later such and such did it. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, I did that 10 years ago!’

Your new album, Drill Music in Zion, demonstrates that you’re still an active artist. How do your musical experiences interact with this new side of your life?

I’m researching, exploring ways that they interface and what is born out of that interaction. For example, I’m going to go back and listen to my latest record, Drill Music in Zion. But now I’m going to listen to it through a Marxist realist frame, to see if there’s elements that match up with this set of ideas that I’ve been fascinated with for a few years now. 

So that’s a profound critical-analytical angle when you’re processing your own work deliberately. I’m going to go back and listen to this record, not to remember the lyrics for a concert, not out of narcissism. But to learn. I think that’s exciting. It gets you, not only creating new work, but interpreting past work. Who knows what’s going to happen?

Then the other side of that coin is just being on MIT’s campus as, I would say,  a D-list celebrity. But with it, I’m a working professor, so I have a whole other job, and what I’m planning on teaching is what I do. Now my career feeds my academic credentials. Now I’m on stage being very intentional about what I’m looking for, to turn it into a teachable moment in a classroom setting.

You’ve been outspoken about your experiences with his former label, Atlantic Records.  With all these new angles to your career, what is your current take on the industry?

Things have changed, gatekeepers have moved, positions have changed. Radio is still dominant, so there’s still formats that exist that you need to be tapped into. To me, it feels like the same amount of work. You still have to pay somebody 30 grand somewhere to do the footwork and do all of the stuff that needs to happen on the other side. But then it becomes like, ‘Oh, but you can also have a TikTok hit,’ which requires none of that. But it also requires somewhat of the same amount of work. It still requires a bunch of engagement, still requires a bunch of face time with folks, and being out there.

You can’t be a Blue Note demo tape period guy, then also try to be a TikTok Hit guy. You got to do one or the other. They’re on the spectrum, but they’re on opposite ends, at least in my understanding. Might be closer, maybe not. But I wake up and I’m like, ‘Do I want to do that?’ because I know what that means. I know what it means to have another ‘Superstar‘ or another ‘Battle Scars.’ I know what that is going to take. It’s like, do you want to do that? Or do you pop out every once in a while, do a thing, do a couple shows on the weekend, and go back to MIT?

How would you describe this period in your musical life?

When I left Atlantic Records, I wanted to go to two places: to Red Bull Records, or to Blue Note.

For the Red Bull thing, we approached it, but it just petered out. Then it was, ‘OK, well, Blue Note.’

So I’ll probably title my current stage as my ‘Blue Notes Demo Tape’ period. I want to just have that in my artistic life. So, when they read my eulogy, it’s like, ‘Won a Grammy. GQ Man of the Year,’ whatever that means. Then, ‘Oh, he’s a professor at MIT, visiting professor at Caltech. Oh, he won a Nobel Prize for literature, and he put out an album on Blue Note Records.’ I’ll lean up in my coffin like, ‘Yeah!’

But what is that? What does that record sound like? What would fit in the canon that is Blue Note? Who’s already there? What type of frame do you want to have? That’s been forming the process.

From the album covers to the orientation of certain things, the conceptualization of certain things, the looseness of certain things, even just the procedural stuff with Drill Music in Zion, which was recorded in three days. These are records that the concept isn’t the theme on the record, it’s how the record was put together.

So I say, ‘OK, I want jazz. I want to create jazz records, but in hip-hop. I’m going to create rap.’ I don’t want to create jazzy rap records, which is sometimes what it turns into. But it’s my definition, or my understanding of what jazz is. Jazz has a certain feeling to it, that is the product of the instruments, the practice, and the aesthetic. It’s a combination of all of those things, and the ephemeral elements. I want to make rap records that sound and feel like that.

What advice do you have for creatives?

Again, I’m in this different phase, and understand that there’s an arc. We’re past, ‘Let’s just create.’ Been there, done that.

You can still fulfill your creative piece. But you can fulfill what people need as opposed to just constantly throwing people a biography of yourself, which may work if that’s what people want. Some recognize that people want a lot of violence and they’re like, ‘I’m going to give them a bunch of violence.’ It works because you’re giving people what they need. But is that the only thing that people want? Is that the only thing that people need?

Some people need love because you can have just as much success and power with love. Compassion, empathy, intelligence, information. It all depends on where it is and finding it.  So, a lot of the work isn’t the actual product, it’s the procedures, and the decisions, and the process of getting to your own work.

So, in the end, it isn’t you, work, audience. It’s you, audience, work. That’s the chain. You go through your audience first, then you create the work. You don’t create the work, then try and force that through your audience. That’s my creative advice.

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a New York City native, is a computational biologist at Yale University. His popular writing takes place at the intersection between sports, data science, and culture.