Lupe Fiasco Helped Put Chicago on the Hip-Hop Map

© Pooneh Ghana
By Andrew Barber
Fourteen years ago, Lupe Fiasco got his first break. While Chicago wasn’t exactly the hottest hip-hop market in 2006, Lupe’s emergence helped usher in a new wave for the city.
The word "industry" is a loaded term, especially when discussing the Chicago music industry. Ask most people who’ve worked in Chicago’s hip-hop scene over the past 25 years what the biggest problem facing Chicago’s industry is and they’ll likely tell you “lack of industry.” But what does that mean exactly? A lack of resources? A lack of major labels? A lack of radio support? It’s likely all of the above, but industry is a loose term and easy catch-all to describe why Chicago wasn’t always a hip-hop powerhouse.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Chicago wasn’t at the epicenter of hip-hop. Names like Chance The Rapper, Chief Keef, Juice Wrld, Polo G, Lil Durk,Vic Mensa, and Noname have dominated blogs, streaming services and music pubs over the past 10 years. But in 2006, that wasn’t the case. You could probably name the rappers signed to major labels on one hand, which sounds crazy for the third largest market in the United States. New York was on fire, Atlanta was dominating, and LA was still making noise. Houston had a dozen popping rappers at that very moment. But alas, lack of industry (and social media still in its infancy) made it hard for aspiring artists hailing from the middle of the map to break through. The truth is, Chicago has always been a hot bed and breeding ground for talent, but at that time it was just hard to catch a break.
Lupe Fiasco performs at Red Bull Music Festival Chicago
Lupe Fiasco performs at Red Bull Music Festival Chicago
On Aug. 30, 2005, Lupe Fiasco finally caught his break. And he had Chicago’s newest sensation, Kanye West, to thank for it. Kanye, who at the time had just helped resurrect the careers of Chicago legends Common and Twista (puns intended), gave Lupe the coveted feature on track three of his highly anticipated sophomore album, Late Registration. The song was called “Touch The Sky,” and it was an early commercial and critical favorite from the album, eventually becoming a Gold-selling single and top 10 Billboard rap hit. Lupe’s cool demeanor and wizard-like 16-bar appearance stole the show, and a star was immediately born — think Mase on 112’s “Only You (Remix)” or 2Pac on Digital Underground’s “Same Song.” There was something special about him, and fans began rallying around the Chicago upstart almost immediately.
Lupe wasn’t technically a rookie, however. He’d toyed with fame in the year’s prior, and dealt with the ups and downs of the major label system, first with Epic Records as part of his group Da Pak, and later with L.A. Reid and Arista Records as a solo artist. However, shrinking profits due to piracy found Arista shuttered and merged into a parent company, and Lupe without a recording home. But the loss of the deal came as a blessing in disguise, as Lupe and Charles “Chilly” Patton recalibrated and put all their energy and resources into their own imprint, FNF or 1st & 15th, setting up shop primarily on Chicago’s West Side. They recruited a slew of promising local producers and artists to build their own roster from the ground up. Names like Boogz, Prolyfic, Soundtrakk, Gemini, Bishop G, Sarah Green and even Stack Bundles were around at that time, all contributing to one common goal: making FNF a powerhouse label for Chicago.
They started by flooding the market with mixtapes, an early 2000s marketing and promotional tool, featuring original songs over popular industry beats. Lupe’s debut mixtape series, Fahrenheit 1/15, started to catch fire online and in the streets of Chicago. It featured the skilled emcee tackling industry beats as well as original production, showcasing his verbal dexterity and exquisite ear for picking beats. YouTube had yet to become a music sharing juggernaut, so most of Lupe’s songs were passed around on message boards or sharing platforms such as Limewire and Kazaa. But the song that truly grabbed everyone’s attention was “Conflict Diamonds,” his re-working of Kanye’s hit, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” which broke down, in detail, the travesties and horror of the illegal diamond trade in West Africa. That song, along with fan favorites such “Failure,” gained Lupe a cult-like following with some proclaiming him as the savior of hip-hop. Pair that with his appearance on Kanye’s “Touch The Sky” (which he was initially reluctant to do), and Lupe’s peachfuzz buzz began to balloon into one of the hottest in music; with Rolling Stone even naming him one of their 2006 Artists to Watch.
The music was powerful enough to grab JAY-Z’s attention, who was by then serving as President of Def Jam Recordings. Jay wanted to bring Lupe into the Def Jam fold, but by that time, Lupe and Chilly had secured a joint venture with Atlantic Records for Chilly’s FNF imprint. Undeterred, Jay agreed to executive produce Lupe’s debut, and the project was underway. “Kick, Push,” Lupe’s tale of love and skateboarding (whom many still believe was a metaphor for drug dealing) blew up almost immediately. The Chicago-centric video was filmed by local directors Chris & Blaq, and included clips of Chicago skateparks, West Side landmarks and the famed Uprise skateshop. The song hit the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was added into heavy rotation on MTV and BET. The set up for the album was going as planned, and it looked to be smooth sailing for the rollout. That was until the entirety of "Food & Liquor" leaked online in the spring of 2006 — just before the album was to be officially released. It was a crushing blow to not only Lupe, but also the FNF imprint, who were eager to make a splash within the industry and on Atlantic’s crowded roster.
While fans still debate on which version of "Food & Liquor" was superior, the bootleg or the retail (this writer prefers the leak), the bootleg is widely known as one of the biggest rap album leaks ever. While the source of said leak still remains unknown, the setback gave Lupe extra time to craft a more commercial and polished version of his debut that included songs with Pharrell, Jay-Z and Jill Scott. The subject matter on both versions covers an extensive list of topics including life in Chicago, love, religion, parenthood, war, racism and it was done at such a high level, it was hard to believe Lupe was only 24 years old at the time. It was light years beyond what most rappers were doing in 2006. It proved Lupe to be one of the most thought-provoking artists in hip-hop, spreading knowledge and enlightenment at a time when most rappers were dumbing down their messages for record sales.
But it wasn’t just the music — fans were also hooked on Lu’s persona outside of the bars and beats. His unique fashion sense, and love for rare sneakers and skate culture also made him one of the more fashion-forward and influential artists at the time. He set message boards ablaze every time he was photographed, and before you could click on someone’s Instagram and find out every piece of clothing they were wearing, fans would scour the internet and boutiques to try and find out what exactly Lupe was rocking.
While Chicago wasn’t exactly the hottest hip-hop market in 2006, Lupe’s emergence helped usher in a new wave for the city, which would push its way to the forefront of music just a few short years later. New ideas, new sounds, new outlooks. He was part of a family tree that would later inspire the next generation of rappers behind him such as The Cool Kids, Chance The Rapper, Noname, Saba and Vic Mensa. The seeds he planted then are still growing now, but have also blossomed in many beautiful ways. Lupe would, of course, go on to become a huge star and humanitarian, and will go down as one of the most important artists to ever rise from Chicago. But "Food & Liquor" will always be his mission statement — that’s why we are still celebrating it in 2019, and likely will be celebrating it for the next 100 years. Much like society, the theme of the album represents the good and the bad and how it will always exist in the same place at the same time. But it’s what you choose to do with it that will define you and your legacy. FNF up!