Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.
The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.
“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”
Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.
“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”
In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”
But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.
“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”
Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”
“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”
Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.
“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”
LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.
“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s Kansas City debut promised to touch the sky, but left many fans hanging in midair. While Fiasco’s 65-minute set was strong, the lack of an encore left the brief evening seeking resolution.
As his guitar player noodle a riff reminiscent of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Fiasco launched into “Shining Down,” a song he released as a on-line single last year. A handful of similarly low-profile or unreleased cuts were sprinkled throughout the set. It has been three years since Fiasco’s last release, and the crowd happily embraced the new material.
Hip hop always sounds better when delivered through live instruments. Fiasco’s band included a drummer and a DJ, who rocked two Macs instead of two turntables, and it flexed its muscles several times. The setlist included a devastating reading of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as Fiasco spit some of his most articulate and angry rhymes of the night. The players also bridged one song to another with brief solos or instrumentals. . Although the new songs were appreciated, the evening didn’t officially seem to start until the fifth number, “Hip Hop Saved My Life.” The performance raised a sea of hands and kicked off a powerful run through most of Fiasco’s biggest songs. A surprise detour through N.E.R.D.’s “Everybody Nose” (“all the girls standing the line for the bathroom”) led straight into “Go Go Gadget Flow” and Fiasco’s pride for the Windy City. The run culminated with the skateboard anthem that took Fiasco into the mainstream, “Kick, Push.”
The favorites were exhausted, but Fiasco still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. “Scream,” another new track, was a low-key mood piece set in a wash of keyboards and guitars over insistent drumming and magical delivery. From there Fiasco made his biggest statement of the night. The trio of “Little Weapon,” a song about child soldiers in Africa, “Streets of Fire,” a portrait of inner-city gang culture, and “Fighters” created a stirring case against violence and war.
The cavernous Midland was more empty than full. The upper balcony was closed and the floor was only three-quarters populated. While the fans’ energy rarely flagged, the sound suffered, and one had to wonder if the performance wouldn’t have been better in a smaller venue.
A lot of the band’s sound seemed lost in the room. The drums were thin and it seemed only the guitar or DJ could be heard in the mix at the same time. Only Fiasco’s ultra-enunciated, rapid-fire rhymes consistently penetrated the space.
The set ended with two of Fiasco’s biggest songs off “The Cool.” “Superstar” is a portrait of the fragility behind a celebrity’s public armor, and the hook-happy “Paris, Tokyo” is a hip hop love song about life on the road.
When the band departed after a little over an hour, an encore seemed inevitable. Too many good songs –including Lupe’s duets with Kanye West, “Touch the Sky,” “Us Placers” – had yet to be played. Chanting for their return, the crowd continued to stand in disbelief when the house lights came on. As the canned music grew louder, they gradually filed out.
Les Izmore: The local MC turned his 30-minute opening set into a taste of the city’s hip hop scene. Backed by a DJ, he performed one number alone, then brought out Dutch Newman for another. His set really took off when the four-piece horn section and rhythm section from Hearts of Darkness came out. “Middle of the Map” had a tight James Brown feel, and the Afro-beat number “America One” got the crowd involved. Izmore took the stage wearing a duck head and leading the crowd in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but quickly proved he’s no joke.
Setlist: Shining Down, Solar Midnite, The Instrumental, The National Anthem, State-Run Radio, Hip-Hop Saved My Life, High Definition, Everyone Nose (N.E.R.D. cover); Go Go Gadget Flow; I Gotcha; Kick, Push; Scream;Little Weapon; The Cool; Streets on Fire; Fighters; I’m Beaming; Superstar; Paris, Tokyo.