Lupe Fiasco defines his hip-hop niche

Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. The name doesn’t sound familiar, does it?

Combine the name of a childhood friend and The Firm’s song “The Firm Fiasco,” however, and you have Lupe Fiasco, one of hip-hop’s biggest stars.

Growing up in Chicago, hip-hop almost pushed Fiasco out of the genre; he didn’t like the vulgarity of it and actually preferred jazz music.

It wasn’t until he heard “It Was Written” by hip-hop legend Nas that Fiasco decided he wanted to pursue hip-hop. He would go on to rap under the stage names Little Lu and LuLu, derivatives of his birth name,Wasalu, with his group Da Pak.

In 2003 he released “Coulda Been” and moved away from “gangster rap” and more towards lyricism.

“All of the songs before it were gangster rap records, and it was like an old white lady that really liked the song that I did. It was honest — you do that, you are that person, you are that guy that can talk to the dudes in the hood and will talk to the old white lady or the Muslim guy or the French dude,” Fiasco said. “You can do that with or without hip-hop, so why not do that and let your songs represent it as well?”

‘This is life’

One of the biggest influences on Fiasco’s music was the immense musical collection that his father Gregory exposed him to at an early age, with albums ranging from hip-hop to Bollywood.

“Musically, I was aware from a very early age. When I got the opportunity to make my own music, I was able to go back through and have knowledge of so many different forms of it,” Fiasco said. “I would listen for a beat or ask a producer to make a beat for me and think ‘I’m going to use this Pink Floyd (sample) as opposed to just using this Biggie Smalls or Tupac beat.'”

Lyrics are equally, if not more, important to the rapper’s music. Within each of his three studio albums, he tackles issues that most other rappers would shy away from.

While his peers make songs about money or material possessions, Fiasco records tracks that highlight the struggles of single mothers, misconceptions of the Muslim religion and the perils of fame.

“When I turn on the TV or the radio, I see a bunch of negative stuff, so I want to talk about something positive, to tell the other side of the story,” Fiasco said. “You’re never going to defeat negativity in this world; it comes and goes in cycles … I wanted to be the balance. I wanted to take everything that was inherently negative, and complete it to show ‘This is life.'”

With that approach to his music, Fiasco has earned plenty of praise in the hip-hop community as being a socially-conscious artist.

“Whether it’s the struggles in Palestine or the economic policies of McDonald’s, I always try to educate myself on a bunch of different things so when I go in to make music, I’m able to pull from this big information pool,” Fiasco said.

In “Lasers,” his latest album released in early March, Fiasco moved away from making a storyline album and focused more on “The L.A.S.E.R.S. Manifesto” — Love Always Shines Everytime, Remember 2 Smile.

While it’s a departure from his previous two albums, it actually fared better commercially, debuting at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 charts with over 200,000 copies sold.

“I kind of flatlined at a certain point … Since (2006’s “Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor”), it’s been kind of the same thing. What was increasing has been my commercial success and my visibility commercially, but the message has stayed the same,” Fiasco said.

Beyond going solo

Fiasco isn’t content being just a solo artist, however. His schedule remains busy with work from three separate musical acts all with their own unique sounds.

Child Rebel Soldier, or CRS, is a trifecta of hip-hop royalty with Fiasco, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. fame.

With each member of CRS currently pursuing their separate recording and producing careers, time to record anything other than the occasional song is hard to come by.

“(CRS) is just three massive people trying to get into the same space to sit down for a couple weeks and record an album — it’s really hard,” Fiasco said. “If the opportunity presents itself, hopefully there will be another record.”

Japanese Cartoon is perhaps Fiasco’s biggest departure from his three previous albums.

The punk rock band released a free album, “In the Jaws of The Lords of Death,” in July 2010.

“We’re learning what music we want to make, what we want our sound to be, if we even want a sound, and it’s really those things of trying to figure out,” Fiasco said. “That’s why we’re not charging for (the album). We’re trying to learn ourselves and figure out what we want to do. We’ll continue Japanese Cartoon until the wheels fall off.”

All-City Chess Club is his newest endeavor into the “super-group” realm, with the group’s roster reading like a ‘Who’s who’ of young hip-hop artists — Asher Roth, B.o.B., The Cool Kids, and Wale to name a few.

The group has only recorded one track thus far, a remix of “I’m Beamin'” from Lasers.

Fiasco’s future

After five years and three successful studio albums, Fiasco has certainly carved his own niche into the hip-hop community.

“Once I found out what my purpose was and I identified what I wanted to be regarded in the music business, I wanted to be a positive rapper — a positive, socially aware movement within hip-hop — but within the commercial space,” Fiasco said. “I wanted to make sure that I was always the dude going left or doing the obsessively positive messages in my music.”

Regardless of his approach or which musical direction Fiasco hopes to take in the future, it’s clear that his career is only going in one: Up.