There’s a universal language spoken by car enthusiasts, one that transcends all barriers of class, race, and gender. It’s called “car speak,” and it’s a language of auxiliary fuel tanks, valve trains, compression, sequential fuel injection, and valves per cylinder, a language that is completely meaningless to those who don’t spend Sundays with their heads jammed under a car hood, but a language rapper Lupe Fiasco speaks fluently.
We find the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop star deep in car speak with fellow engine enthusiast Bobby Green, owner of the Old Crow Speed Shop, a remarkable vintage car museum/workshop in Burbank, California, birthplace of hot rod culture. In the shop are 1932 Fords, 1940s hot rods, and other incredibly rare soup-ups dating from the early 1900s to 1945.
“I need one of those,” says Fiasco, pointing at a 1932 Ford, “but it’s too high. I need it a little lower.” He notices a Lakester and nods approvingly. Conceived by hot rodders in the late ’40s, Lakesters look like giant silver bullets that sit low to the ground and are raced to this day on the dry lakebeds of Southern California or the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah. Even though he and Green, who looks like the fifth Mumford and Son, come from very different worlds, the same juice runs through their veins -- gasoline -- and Green is impressed with Fiasco’s knowledge. “You know about Lakesters? That’s really awesome. Very few people who walk in here know too much about them.”
This is a side of Fiasco not everyone knows about. To millions of hip-hop fans, he’s known as that rare breed, the socially conscious rapper, the prodigy who collaborated with Kanye even before he had released his first single, the entrepreneur who runs two clothing lines, and the artist who has achieved no less than 12 Grammy nominations since 2006. Not that Green had ever heard of him.
“I am not in that musical world, but I looked at your videos and I could tell that even though we are worlds apart, we are very like-minded.” And it’s true. Lupe Fiasco (real name Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) has been reading low-rider magazines since 8th grade, and for years cars have been as huge a passion for him as music.
Fiasco acquired his automotive addiction when he was a kid, growing up in the projects in Chicago. His father, a Black Panther supporter, karate instructor, and beloved community activist, introduced him to the joys of customization. “My father had normal cars that he would crazify,” says the rapper. “He drove a mail truck, and that was the family car until he had more kids and had to get a station wagon. But he had this big church van that he got his martial arts students to paint orange, bright orange, using house paint. He kept markers in the car, and everyone that he met he would have sign the van. We would be driving around in this gigantic 20-seater orange van covered with signatures from random people around the city of Chicago.”
Green’s jaw drops to the ground.
“I love that orange van story,” he says, and Fiasco sighs.
“You love it now. You wouldn’t have loved it if you were me, and your dad was coming to high school to pick you up in a bright orange 1970s van covered in writing.”
It was around this time that the young Lupe decided to take on his first rebuilding project, turning his dad’s blue Chevy pickup truck into a low rider. He had no experience nor any idea how to go about it. He didn’t even know how to drive. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘OK, I have to somehow cut this, and drop this.’ Working on it made me think about how cool it would be to own my own car, and paint it and soup it up. But money was the issue. I was like, ‘I’m poor, so I can’t afford a car.’ ”
Not for long, though.
He had been making mix tapes for a few years already, recording songs in his father’s basement. He eventually joined a gangsta rap group called Da Pak, who were signed to Epic, before signing a solo deal with Arista Records, where he met Jay-Z, who helped him get a deal at Atlantic. His debut solo record, 2006’s Food & Liquor, explored Islam, poverty, and racism, earning him four Grammy nominations, a Grammy win for the song “Daydreamin’,” and a bundle of cash. Fiasco was the break-out rap act of the year, and finally he had the means to indulge his lifelong car fetish.
“I started out with Ferraris,” he says.
“I bought four -- the 575, 456, and two 400s. I wanted to have a collection of every Ferrari with four seats. I was being naïve, though, because when I went to get the cars serviced it was like, ‘Hey, you know that 456? $50,000 please.’ So that wore off. The maintenance, the impracticality.” He came upon the storied Daytona Coupe, a race car built to take on Ferraris in the mid-’60s, only six of which were ever built. “A Ferrari killer built in 1965? I said ‘I got have that.’ And that started the whole thing of me getting into 1965 cars and that whole race scene. The ’60s is where I am at. Anything 1960s, all the Jaguar XKs—literally anything that is two-door 1960s, I’m like mad for.”
The most he ever spent on a car was for his first Ferrari, which set him back $130,000. Later, when he sold it back to the dealer he bought it from, he only got $80,000 for it—his first lesson in dealing with dealers. Nonetheless, you get the feeling that even if he couldn’t afford to drop a hundred thou on a car, his passion would have been just as strong. It’s not just about the vintage sports cars for him either—one of his favorite cars is his pickup. It reminds him of his dad, who passed away in 2007 of type 2 diabetes. “He had an old step-side Cheyenne with bullhorns on the front and a coach cover on the back—a real canvas coach cover, like from the 1860s or something.”
His father was Gregory Hamza Jaco, a Green Beret turned sensei whose Tornado School of Martial Arts was at the heart of the vibrant martial arts scene on Chicago’s South Side. While his father may have had more eccentric tastes when it came to customizing his vehicles, they certainly shared the same passion for social justice. Unlike many of his music peers, Fiasco rejects the display of misogyny in hip-hop. A practicing Muslim, he is ardently pro-Palestine, and had to leave the stage at an event celebrating President Barack Obama’s second inauguration after telling the audience he did not vote for the president and launching into an anti-war song.
“I don’t hate Obama,” he clarifies. “I hate injustice.” He pauses, correcting himself, saying he’s hesitant to use the word “hate” these days. He also does not like to be called “political” or “angry.” The last two years, he says, he’s been reading a fair amount of nihilist philosophy, from Nietzsche to Kierkegaard to Baudrillard, all of whom explored the inherent meaninglessness of all human existence. Only the smooth curves of a 1965 Jaguar, perhaps, can soothe Fiasco’s nihilist angst these days, although even his relationship with cars has been evolving.
“When I started collecting cars, I had that initial ‘I have to have everything’ feeling. Now I just need to be able to see the thing I am thinking about, then I’m cool ... two or three cars that I am going to have forever. Not just as a 30s, mid-life-crisis thing (he recently turned 31), but as something that I’ll drive when I am 70.”
Green nods his head, deep in thought. He knows exactly the feeling that Fiasco’s describing. “That’s the thing about a car hobby, you learn about yourself, and you grow with the hobby,” he says. “Because every different style of car has a different personality. You learn about yourself. And eventually you’re like, ‘that car is me.’ It’s your discovery of self, as a car.”
Check out the June 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands May 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.