In a time when so-called MC’s rap about their bank accounts or invent the latest dance craze to sell records, Lupe Fiasco is on the other side of the spectrum. It’s refreshing to find a mainstream rapper dealing with non-commercial issues with the passion and sheer lyrical skill that Lupe exemplifies.

MethodShop had an opportunity to interview Lupe and talk about music, sneaker design, karate, Chicago, Jay-Z and his album, The Cool. Here’s how it went….

So your 2007 album, The Cool, is a concept album right?

Yeah, lightly, though. There are 3 characters. There’s The Streets, The Cool and The Game. So there’s “The Coolest”, there’s “Streets on Fire” and there’s “Put You On Game” and then there’s another record called “The Die” which is the death of The Cool. I thought that the story was so vivid that as opposed to just basically acting all cool and you see me dressed up as The Fonz or something like that.

I think it was more the story of those characters and that resurrected hustler. That sort of personification of street life and the personification of the game. I thought that would be fresh; to make that overriding concept really push.

Do you find that a lot of rappers nowadays don’t really put together an “album”?

Of course they put together an album, but not like what we consider a traditional album or what we even consider a classic album. Or I won’t even go there because that’s still a little bit too subjective. They’re not putting out albums with thought behind it where it makes sense. Or trying to get a point across, as opposed to just a bunch of songs with the title track on there and that’s it. But there are people still doing it.

If you look at Kanye West‘s career, from College Dropout all the way to Graduation, his whole career is based on a concept, you know, schools. Nas does it; Hip Hop Is Dead and different things where he really pulls out these concepts and stuff. It’s still there. There’s still people doing it, but I just don’t think it’s as overt as, like, The Cool or even Jay-Z with American Gangster.

Jay-Z describes you as a “breath of fresh air” in a new hip-hop world characterized by mainstream pop and glamour. How does it feel to get such high praise from a hip-hop mogul?

It feels good. He’s one of the greats. He’s dope.

A lot of people consider Jay-Z to be the best rapper alive.

He probably is. He probably is. I’m good friends with Jay and I’ve known him from way back. I have a real history with the dude. And it wasn’t the first time he came out publicly and said that, but I think it’s more relevant because I’m a little bit more known. It feels really good.

Just to come up as a rapper and Jay-Z knows who you are, that’s amazing.

Mm-hmm. From before, though… he’s watched me go all the way up. So now he’s still like a fan. Like “Yeah, I fuck with Lupe for real,” as opposed to “Lupe’s hot, I’m on one of his records and go buy the Lupe album.”

Lupe Fiasco & Jay-Z
Lupe Fiasco & Jay-Z

Maybe he hears a bit of his influence in you.

Yeah, definitely. I let him know. Like, I went to sleep listening to his album Reasonable Doubt. So it’s definitely there, overtly. I look at it like almost paying homage to him on a certain level. Like, retracing his steps to learn and adding on and doing it better, but you can never outshine a master because he always comes back with shit.

You were born and raised in Chicago by your mother, a gourmet chef, and your father, a karate instructor….

Karate instructor, engineer, a military man, explosives expert, a musician – he was a renaissance man for real. The whole shebang.

Do you know any karate?

Yeah, I have a full black belt. A black belt in karate, two black belts in styles of a samurai sword, kendo and aikido and the equivalent of a black belt in Chinese woo-shoo. So like kung fu and tai chi and all that stuff.

Do you ever compete in martial arts events?

I used to when I was younger. I kind of lost the drive for it. It’s more about the discipline and the actual art and loving it.

If a fan of yours was in Chicago for the weekend, what should they check out if they wanted to retrace your childhood? Stores, streets, restaurants, clubs, parks, landmarks, etc….

(laughs) I’d take them to my old Chicago neighborhood so people can see where I really came from because people might have a misconception of “Lupe Fiasco.”

Lupe Fiasco - Chicago Bean
Lupe Fiasco in the Chicago Bean. Photo by @accarrino and BriBra.

People have a misconception, like, Lupe Fiasco is a nerd or skateboarder and he did all this other craziness. But I come from this. I’m no different from that guy, or no different from Jeezy, or no different from that dude. They all come from the same place but this is what happens when you look at it from a different perspective.

What do you think it is about where you come from that made you an artist?

To get the hell out of there. Prostitutes on the corner, people getting shot in your hallway, you don’t want to be around that. You look at the avenues that you really have out: to really go out. Not to be somebody’s lackey or nothing like that. It’s that kind of cliche “get out the hood” situation. But more so to change it. Like, what can I really do to change that or change the perspective of that? Even if I can’t go there and build up a palace and have everybody live in palaces, how can I make people change their perspectives of the system and to making the best of what they have?

NERD NOTE: Lupe has been open about his Islamic faith. He has noted the importance of religion in his life, stating: “Well, I was born Muslim, so Islam plays a part in my life and everything I do, to a certain extent. I’m not like the poster boy for Islam… I still got my flaws and stuff like that, so I don’t really wear that on my sleeve… I don’t go to clubs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, you know like my whole – the whole groupie situation is shut down.”

Before you even turned 20, you were in a group called Da Pak that got signed to Epic Records. However, the group split after releasing only one single. What happened? Do you still keep in touch with any members of Da Pak?

(laughs) We’re so broken up. That was years ago. That was so dysfunctional. My real group was a group called the 15 Hundreds and that was in high school. That was my real rap group. Da Pak was, like, four individual MC’s put together at the last minute just to go get a record deal. So once that ended, we just went back to being individual MC’s.

Some people collect coins or stamps, but you collect sneakers, right? How many sneakers do you own?

Not really. Not anymore. I used to have a ton of them, but not anymore. I just get what I use for utilitarian purposes. If I need a black pair of shoes I’ll get 4 pairs of the same ones that I really like and wear them. But I don’t stand in line paying $1,300 or go on eBay. I don’t do that stuff.

Speaking of shoes, I heard you work with Reebok…

Yeah, for their sponsorship deal from February ’06 to February ’07. But, I did a little campaign with them. It was me, Lil’ Wayne and Mike Jones.

Oh, I thought you were designing shoes.

Um, no. I do some stuff now, like, I do some fashion collaborations with a clothing company called Trilly and Truly. But that Reebok shit was just the face of it. The shit was wack as hell, but that was just the face of it and the opportunity. We got to design variations of Reebok shoes, like make mine all gold and put some sprinkles on it. We got to do that, but not design a shoe from scratch.

But halfway into the deal, everybody that signed us was gone. They got fired. They actually ended the entertainment department of the shit. There was me, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Daddy Yankee, Nelly – they did this whole entertainment promotion at Reebok – and Reebok was like, “Yo this shit ain’ t working,” and ended it all. So there was like 6 months where we couldn’t go in public wearing Nike.

Really? You were forbidden from wearing Nike shoes?

Yes. Not in public. I made the cover of Billboard Magazine (see image below) and someone had taken a photo from a long time ago when I was in Nike sneakers. Billboard doesn’t do photo shoots. They just use press photos. So Billboard used that press photo of me with Nikes on and Reebok sent a cease-and-desist letter. All types of wild shit. They threatened to sue. It was crazy.

Lupe Fiasco on the cover of BIllboard Magazine
Lupe Fiasco on the cover of Billboard magazine wearing Nike sneakers.

Finish this sentence. I want all my fans to…

(laughs) Live long and prosper.

Lupe Fiasco at MTV Spring Break performing “Paris, Tokyo” from his album titled The Cool (2007).

Learn More About Lupe Fiasco

Lupe Fiasco is a Grammy-winning American rapper. He rose to fame in 2006 following the success of his critically acclaimed debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor. Prominent hip hop mogul Jay-Z describes him as a “breath of fresh air.” You can learn more about Lupe Fiasco, his music and get tour dates at his official website