Lupe Fiasco vs Pete Rock: The Great American Rap Controversy

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When Lupe dropped “Freedom Ain’t Free (Around My Way),” it should have been an immense welcoming home party for him. It should have been a warm reception replete with pats on the back and cries for encores. Many listeners were understandably disappointed by Lupe’s lackluster major record label release Lasers. The album that was intended to be an immense statement about the corrupt system and those who choose to oppose it became a cautionary tale of what not to do on your third album.  Lupe blamed Lasers on his label, listeners blamed Lasers on him.

So when the Internet started buzzing a few months ago about the possible release of Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor 2: Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 fans and detractors alike were all excited about what this could mean. Lupe would be returning to his sonic home, the classic boom-bap that took him from relative unknown to lyrical phenomenon on his pre-Food & Liquor mixtapes. The Rhyming Ape would make a triumphant comeback; the nerd would finally get his revenge on Atlantic. This would be a chance to show everyone that people will still buy dope, thought-provoking Rap music. Would Lupe finally be vindicated and live up to the high aspirations everyone has had for him since Jay-Z cosigned him almost a decade ago? Would he release more than just classic songs? Would the Great American Rap Album be Lupe’s first undisputedly classic album?

Rap heads could not have asked for more from the song “Freedom Ain’t Free (Around My Way).” Advised by his right hand man Chilly to take it back, Lupe jumped in a stolen Delorean and arrived in time to offer a fresh perspective on one of Hip-Hop’s greatest songs ever, Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” Lupe is once again on his political soapbox addressing atrocities occurring across the world. However, he has scaled back his prophetic-like fervor (i.e.“Words I Never Said”) and describes these social ills as if he is viewing them unfolding like we are. This voyeur-esque perspective makes this song very reminiscent of “Hurt Me Soul” off of Lupe’s debut album. Here Lupe goes the extra mile; not content to just describe the world’s problems, he prescribes personal involvement as the eventual cure to many of these societal ills.

Unfortunately, the issues brought up in the song have taken a backseat to the controversy that its release has caused. Almost immediately after “Freedom Ain’t Free (Around My Way)” dropped, Pete Rock went to his Twitter account to scream foul play. According to Pete Rock, he gave Atlantic Records a conditional yes to remake “T.R.O.Y.” People in the media have glossed over this fact, but it is a pretty big deal. Ask the nearest slumlord in your area. IF a person signs a lease saying they can move into an apartment based on the condition that they can pay first month and security and keep up with regularly monthly payments, their staying in said apartment is contingent upon these conditions. Pete Rock said to Atlantic Records that he would okay the record IF he was involved, meaning IF he was not involved the answer would be no. This asking for approval was more like asking for a blessing since Pete Rock does not own the rights to the sample. Still, if his blessing was so important, the conditions he said yes under should be equally important.

What is truly shocking is not Pete Rock’s understandable frustration at the situation – it is Lupe’s rebuttal. As reported by MTV, Lupe called in to Sway’s show and began to brashly attack Pete Rock. You can hear the venom in his voice; at one point Lupe starts screaming into the phone like he is having flashbacks to his days in the mediocre rock band Japanese Cartoon. He said he made the song to pay homage to Pete Rock, that his producers had gained more respect for Pete Rock while recreating the beat, that he could not believe Pete Rock would publicly burn him, Lupe Fiasco, like this.

This is what I call a prideful rapper moment, to think that a legend SHOULD be honored that you would remake his song. Pete Rock SHOULD be honored because your wet behind the ear producers respected him so much more after going through the arduous task of remaking a classic beat bar-for-bar with little deviation from the provided formula. Foremost, to think that you have reached any kind of level where you, as an artist, are beyond people publicly disagreeing with what you are doing, especially when what you are doing is breaching a verbal agreement and remaking a song that they did.

At one point during the conversation Lupe says of all people HE should certainly be trusted to honor the legacy of Hip-Hop legend Pete Rock:

“It’s me kid. It’s Lupe Fiasco, for whatever that means, for whatever weight that, that carries. Right? I’m up here. I’m not honoring Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five at the Grammy’s for no reason.”

He mentioned the Grammy Awards where he honored Grandmaster Flash; funny he did not mention the tribute he did for A Tribe Called Quest, the one he bombed. The one when questioned about his poor performance he blamed it on his unfamiliarity with ATCQ’s music. Not to mention how instead of an apology he insinuates Hammer had a bigger impact on Hip-Hop music than them and called his detractors Hip-Hop elitists. I am not sure if even Lupe’s musical peers should entrust their legacy to him, let alone someone with the endless catalogue of classics as Pete Rock has.

It is also interesting in light of the post Fiascogate admittance that Lupe grew up on West Coast Gangsta Rap and NOT East Coast Backpack rap, that he would choose “T.R.O.Y.” to re-make.  Why did he choose to “breathe life” into a Pete Rock song and not his beloved 8Ball & MJG or Spice1? Maybe this was a more convenient way to get the attention of those Hip-Hop elitists whose blogs made bonfires of his last album. Or maybe he has decided to become a more, well-rounded Hip-Hop fan? Somehow I doubt the latter and believe that the song was picked solely because it would draw any self-respecting Hip-Hop head to it like a moth to a flame.

This Great American Rap Controversy story is one wrought with conflicting accounts. Pete Rock claimed Atlantic only contacted him once; while Lupe insists that his camp had been in touch with the producer “for the last six months.” Pete Rock said he firmly stated he wanted involvement in the creation of the song; Lupe said he did not want anything to do with the song. Are we talking about the same song here guys?

If a Hip-Hop legend’s account of events conflicting with Lupe’s sounds familiar, good, because it should. Shortly after Fiascogate, Lupe the Emperor took an opportunity to strike back at his critics. He said he did not originally want to do the performance but Q-Tip was “adamant” about him being part of the show. Q-Tip would go on record several times and flat-out deny that. There were also many people wondering how much of Lupe’s friend Q-Tip was at the time of his invitation to cover “Electric Relaxation/The Scenario” on VH1 Hip Hop Honors. In his statement Lupe made it seem as if the two were close but according to many they did not even meet until that night at the show. This makes it difficult to take Lupe’s word over Pete Rock one of the most trustworthy figures in Hip Hop.

Now let us get to the heart of the matter: Lupe was in no way concerned even slightly with paying homage to “T.R.O.Y.,” CL Smooth or Pete Rock. “Freedom Ain’t Free (Around My Way)” is a phenomenal song in its own right but in no way does it allude to, reference or praise the original song. It is interesting how on Lupe’s mixtape ‘Enemy of the State’ he acknowledged many of the rappers whose beats he hi-jacked while Pete Rock and CL Smooth are not even mentioned in passing on “Freedom Ain’t Free.” Furthermore, if Lupe was so desperate to give Pete Rock’s name some additional exposure, why did he not reach out to him to reproduce the classic beat? It makes no sense to pay a producer homage with someone else manning the boards.  It is like making a Dr. Dre tribute album with no beats from him on the project.

Think of it this way: if someone had spent the last two decades under a rock and never heard “T.R.O.Y.” what would give them any reason to think this is not a completely original song? What would give them any reason to even Google search “Pete Rock & CL Smooth,” let alone listen to Mecca & The Soul Brother? The only real recognition Pete Rock got from this song came because he lashed out on Twitter; without that would he have even been brought up while discussing Lupe’s newest release? I think not.

The issue of a new school artist sampling a Hip-Hop forefather without their expressed permission has already been in the news once this year. French Montana hit pay dirt with his song “Shot Caller” and its star studded remix.  Harry Fraud, a New York based producer, turned to Lords of the Underground “Funky Child” for the riot-inducing horn section that drives the song. DoItAll from L.O.T.U.G. was honored by the use of the song but wanted the royalties that rightfully belonged to him in his group. When this is compared to Pete Rock just wanting a hand in the development of a song derived from his work, it is really incomprehensible why he was not granted it.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Lupe’s phone interview was when Sway says he has callers on the line waiting to talk to Lupe. Lupe coolly refuses to talk to his fans because he has said all he needed to say. Funny how when his album was on hold, he was thrilled to hear from them but when they seek to hold him accountable for his perceived wrongdoings he does not even give them a chance to speak. One must wonder how much of a “Friend of the People” Lupe truly is?

They may have been left on the receiving end of dial tones on May 24th, but the fans will ultimately have the last word when Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor Pt. 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 is released on September 25th. How loud of a statement would it be if at 12:01AM no one was waiting outside of Apple’s digital doors to purchase a copy? What if the album with the most convoluted name in Hip-Hop history became Lupe’s second consecutive flop? I bet Mr. Fiasco would hear that.  This likely won’t be the outcome, but until Lupe makes his next move, we’ll just have to wait and see. Word.