Photo Credit: Jessica Hatter Weaver
Lupe Fiasco spoke with Okayplayer about his new album Drill Music in Zion, his forthcoming MIT course, rappers catching RICO cases, his friendship with Virgil Abloh, and more.
“Rappers die too much, that’s it, that’s the verse,” veteran rhymesayer Lupe Fiasco laments on “On Faux Nem,” the final track from his new album Drill Music in Zion. Nearly 16 years have passed since the release of Lupe’s debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, and the rapper has seen it all. Now on his eighth album, Lupe – born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco – is looking to the future of hip-hop while keeping his perspective close to his hometown of Chicago.
Lupe spends the majority of Drill Music In Zion flowing over lush, jazz-centric production from longtime collaborator Soundtrakk. The 40-year-old made it his mission to record the album in 24 hours; the process ended up taking three days. “I really tried to do it in one day,” Lupe told Okayplayer. “But I almost died, so I was like, ‘I need to sleep, I need to eat, I need to rest my voice.’”
Lupe’s sister Ayesha Jaco returns as an opening narrator on the poetic introduction “Lions Deen,” where she tackles different facets of the word “drill.” On “Ms. Mural,” which follows his nearly nine-minute 2015 track “Mural” and “Mural Jr.” from 2018’s DROGAS WAVE, the rapper critiques how trends have ruined music industry ethics. Enlisting collaborator Nayirah on “Seattle” – also featuring the vocalist on tracks “Autoboto” and “Precious Things” – Lupe voraciously embodies “Westside Chicago Lu.” As a lyricist and rap savant, Lupe hasn’t lost his step on Drill Music In Zion, always unafraid to give listeners the real.
Okayplayer caught up with Lupe Fiasco to discuss the creation of Drill Music in Zion, the criminalization of rap artists and how he’s willing to guide the next generation in hip-hop.
What was the purpose behind titling your new album Drill Music In Zion? Drill has a very gritty sound, but your production had a mellow approach.
Lupe Fiasco: Yeah, it’s not meant to be a “drill music” album. In some cases, it’s not even an album about drill music. There’s songs on the album that reference drill music in a certain direct way, but the album was never meant to mislead people into thinking that it was an album of either me doing drill music or an album about drill music.
I think when people get the record and they hear the first track that my sister [Ayesha Jaco] did, “Lions Deen” – she gives a great breakdown of all the different facets of what drill music is. The different types of drilling, the different types of what “Zion” means, kind of like her interpretation of that phrase. I actually pulled it from The Matrix Reloaded, so it started out as referencing that scene where the robots drill down into Zion. The last place where humanity can live and survive in the Matrix world, they call it Zion. I think my sister does a better job than me [of] explaining it.
Speaking of your sister, she’s also done spoken word on some of your other albums. Being from Chicago, how much has spoken word informed your music?
Shout out to my sister, a super amazing poet. I mean, it’s part of my tradition, part of listening to The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets back in the day. Listening to folks like Rudy Ray Moore, which you may not consider to be in the same vein of spoken word, but it is, at least in my definition. It’s always been a part of my vocabulary of communication since the beginning. I vividly remember listening to The Last Poets on vinyl or my mom playing it in the background. I do some spoken word, stuff that doesn’t rhyme, so to speak. So I think I’m kind of good at it, my sister’s probably ten times better than me.
Were you ever involved in any local slams? Louder Than A Bomb started in Chicago.
Oh, yeah. Shout out to all the homies over there. The only thing that I did that would be considered close to spoken word was in high school – and this was probably one of my first spoken language performances before I was doing shows – we had a project in school to write an essay and then perform it in front of the class. It was a speech class or something like that. I remember writing this long piece about going to another planet or something weird over this Parliament music. It wasn’t a rap, but it was me with some background music doing this Last Poets-type style. That’s the only time I’ve ever done it, I haven’t done any slams, competitions or anything like that.
Drill Music in Zion was recorded in three days when you explored a folder of beats from Soundtrakk. Before you went through the beats, did you already know the concept of the album, or did it come to you when listening to the production?
I had the title because I mentioned it in a random freestyle I was doing. I had these daily or weekly freestyles I was doing around that time, and I just said “my next album is gonna sound like it’s drill music in Zion.” So, I had the title, and then I made the decision to do an album in 24 hours, like that was the goal to see if I could do it.
I woke up the first day, looked at the clock like “OK, let’s go.” I had a bunch of Soundtrakk beats, a majority of them I had never heard before. I would open up a file, let it play and whatever happened, I would do a song to it. So it really was like, listen to a beat for the first time, start rapping to it, come up with a concept, a chorus, something. When I was done, it was like, “I only have so much time to spend on this record before I move to the next one.” So when that one was done, at least to my satisfaction, I would open up another beat I hadn’t heard. It didn’t start to become an album until somewhere towards the evening where it was like “Oh, I need a song like this now.” The process wound up taking three days. I really tried to do it in one day, but I almost died, so I was like, “I need to sleep, I need to eat, I need to rest my voice.”
Going through the beats, did you find that they were fitting for the album’s concept?
On some of it, it was like you open it up, play the beat and it’s like, “Oh, perfect. I know exactly what to do with that because I’ve had beats like that before.” On others it was like, “This is interesting, I can’t just approach it normally. I gotta think of a new flow pattern, a new way to attack it or structure it. Maybe not ‘new,’ but let me reference this idea and use that.”
As I got towards the end of the process and I was consciously making album decisions, it was like, “Oh, I need a song like this. Or, I got a great introduction or a great transition record, now I need a song that’s like this to kind of end the album with.” So I found myself in the process of making those decisions, moreso towards the end where it became more deliberate.
You tackle the epidemic of death in rap throughout the album, especially on “On Faux Nem.” Coming from Chicago where drill music began, do you feel like you have survivor’s remorse?
This album isn’t a critique on drill music as a whole, so I don’t want to lean into that narrative like that’s what I was doing it for. When drill music first started in the city, I made a notorious statement ten years ago that it scares me. “I know what’s coming with this. Maybe the world doesn’t know what’s happening, but I definitely know what’s about to happen because I know Chicago.” I know what these records really mean and I know the response that’s gonna happen with these records.
Unfortunately, you fast-forward to today, and — not everybody — but everybody’s dead. Or they’re in prison, or they’re basically exiled from the city – they can never go back. It’s not just the stars that I’m talking about, I’m talking about the dudes who are like, “Oh, underground drill music guy who was supposed to be the next guy – Oh, he’s dead… Dude who was covering the drill scene and being the person who was acting as a conduit for putting drill music on the scene – Oh, he’s dead.” Up and down the chain, you’ve just seen people die, and that’s what scared me. This isn’t just music, people are gonna die behind the scenes in a very serious way, and that’s what happened.
So for me, I reached out to a couple cats and I’ve spoken to almost everybody in one capacity or another. The ones who are super successful, they don’t need it now, but even we’ve seen that success doesn’t matter. It’s not even just Chicago, trap music is the same way – that shit is scary. The people that were influenced by drill music in their particular city – from London to Atlanta to LA to New York to wherever – it’s the same thing. People are dying, they’re going to prison, they’re catching the crazy RICO cases like in Atlanta, and it’s all the same energy.
Something I tried to do – at least with a couple artists – was reach in and be like, “Are you gonna do the rap thing or are you gonna do the street thing? If you do the street thing, rap ain’t gonna save you. In some cases, they’re gonna use rap against you. So you need to make a decision.” Those same people caught cases.
Contemporary rappers are being indicted partially because of their lyrics and social media presence. What are your thoughts about creative expression being criminalized in rap music?
They’re not being indicted because of rap songs, just to be clear. I don’t want to focus this on what’s happening in Atlanta with that situation, because this is happening everywhere – people that aren’t famous or aren’t on the scene are catching cases for their music, for their videos being used against them in court. They’re catching cases for actual charges. The prosecutors or the D.A.s or the police, feel like they’ve caught [rappers] in some act in one way or another that’s yet to be proven in their day in court. They’re just using the music to support their claims.
So people aren’t being charged for making a rap song about shooting somebody. I’ve made rap songs about shooting somebody, but I didn’t go shoot anybody. What does the police say when you get arrested? ‘I’m now placing you under arrest. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.’ That doesn’t mean we’ll be able to convict you on what you said. It doesn’t mean we’re gonna be able to give you the electric chair [based] on what you said on some social media post, but we’re definitely gonna use it. They’ve been saying that for a 100 years, so what’s the difference?
It’s less about legacy and more about Virgil. Virgil was my friend, I knew him. For me, it was less about what he was doing and more about him as a person. I think sometimes when we look at people, we don’t really look at them, we look at what they do. It’s like, “Oh, I love XYZ person” but what you really love is that album that they made, or that movie that they made, or that sneaker that they made, but you don’t know anything about them. You’re just going off of some narrative of something that they put out.
With me, I knew Virgil. I knew his mentality, his expectations, what he wanted to accomplish, who he was as an individual in addition to all the stuff that he did. For me, there’s nothing that Virgil made that compares to who he was as a person. Who he was as a person was more important, more impressive, more powerful, more creative than anything he’s ever designed. We’ve designed stuff together, we worked together for years, but if there was a choice between a pair of shoes that he made or having a conversation with him, let’s have a conversation. I loved him deeply, man. With all that said, the things that he made are also phenomenal.
Congratulations on becoming a professor at MIT. Can you share a bit about the curriculum?
It’s still in process. I can say this with certainty: it’s only available to MIT students. MIT has a relationship with Harvard, MassArt and Wellesley College, where students from those other three schools are able to take the course, too. It starts in the Spring of 2023 and it will be Rap Theory and Practice.
Have you sought any insight from other professors?
I’ve had a relationship with MIT for years. It’s new to people now, but I’ve been in and out of MIT for maybe the past three to four years. Working with different professors, speaking in classes, so this is more of a deeper dive for me with becoming faculty coming on board and doing research officially, so to speak. So I’ve been working with professors in and around some of my ideas and passions around rap for years, so this is something I’ve been prepared for, not knowing that I’d become a professor at MIT. I’ve been kind of prepared for this in one way or another for the past ten years, from Princeton to Harvard. Kind of like interfacing, getting different ideas about what I do, how it applies to other fields, other sciences, other practices. So now, it’s kind of like, “You’ve done all this work, you’ve been in these circles for the past ten years, let’s see what you’ve learned and teach us.”
What knowledge do you want to impart with your students?
There’s a lot of things that I have personal experience on, things that I think about in rap… They’re not gonna have this conversation or lesson on the Okayplayer boards. It’s talking about, like, “What is the relationship between rap and biology?” We’re not talking about Biggie Smalls, we’re not just talking about the entertainment side or the culture side of it, it’s like, “How is rap informed by astrophysics?” We’ve done rapping, we’ve done freestyles, we’ve done shows, we did a club walkthrough, we made some money, we bought a Rolex, we did all of that stuff, but there’s still lingering questions and paths that I want to explore with the student body as well as with the faculty.
So it’s half of me giving them my personal experiences and some of my ideas about things and the other half is getting their response. Asking a computer scientist ‘What is your take on this particular part?’ Asking an astrophysicist or evolutionary biologist and getting that information back. It’s a student-student versus a teacher-student dynamic. I’m there to learn as much as I’m there to present.