Lupe Fiasco Talks Guest-Starring on 'ELEAGUE The Challenger: Street Fighter V,' Nicki Minaj's 'Chun-Li' & His Upcoming Music

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Lupe Fiasco performs at Coliseo Jose M. Agrelot on March 18, 2018 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  

Lupe Fiasco, a Grammy Award-winning rapper, martial arts practitioner, and video game enthusiast, is tapped to appear on TBS’ ELEAGUE The Challenger: Street Fighter V, the first-ever reality TV show following seven professional fighting game players competing for a spot in an upcoming summer tournament with a pool of $250,000.

The Challenger is similar to Big Brother, where players live in an house together in Atlanta, whittling the group down as they challenge each other in elimination rounds and special activities--one of which features Fiasco in a three-on-three team-based tournament in the third episode.

The stipulations are the winning team will play one another to determine the episode’s Group Challenge winner. That contestant will receive immunity in the third week’s elimination challenge and the right to select one of the competitors for the elimination match, according to the show’s press release. In the clip, Fiasco is exchanging some words with BigBossDayasha as they go head-to-head with Ken and Chun-Li, respectively.

Fiasco is an avid Street Fighter player, who famously defeated professional veteran player Daigo Umehara in an three-to-two win for the Chicago rapper on the eve of Street Fighter V’s release in a 2016 tournament in San Francisco. Since then, Fiasco has been more public about his passion for gaming, and his involvement in the fighting game community as well as various eSports content brand campaigns shows he’s more than just a celebrity player. He’s here to help spotlight a group of eSports players who often get overshadowed by popular competitive scenes -- namely StarCraft, Halo, Call of Duty, and the like.

“It’s good to see mainstream showing the FGC some love,” he says of The Challenger. “Those dudes have been working hard their whole lives, dedicated their lives to playing Street Fighter. It is good to see them get some shine. I just hope people enjoy it.”

Billboard spoke with Fiasco about his experience on the show, his origin story behind his love for Street Fighter, his win over Daigo, and even got into some of his side projects -- like when Drogas Wave is coming out. Look out for Fiasco’s celebrity guest challenge when The Challenger premieres Friday, April 20, at 11 p.m. ET/PT on TBS.

When did ELEAGUE The Challenger: Street Fighter V approach you to be apart of the show?

I had done some work with TBS before on their ELEAGUE show for a celebrity gaming kind of thing. I played Shaq and some other folks -- Reggie Bush. I worked with them prior, and I was just kind of in their pipeline already for people that they knew were interested in Street Fighter. I think that’s how I got the call.

When did they shoot your part?

It happened this year so it wasn’t that long ago. I think they were shooting the show for a few months now or something like that. But yeah, they shot it in Atlanta. I think I shot it a couple of months ago.

You’re going to be appearing on the third episode. Can you explain the special challenge that you’re apart of?

I went in for a special team challenge and I was one of the team captains. I had to pick a squad. It was still an elimination -- whoever won, got to pick whoever would go up in their elimination round. It was pretty cool because I knew most of the players that were there. I’ve seen them in competitions or know them somewhat personally.

Who did you pick for your team?

It was me, RobTV, and JB against Commander Jesse, gllty, and Dayasha.

Why do you choose Ken as your fighter?

I always play with either Ken or Ryu. I used to play with E. Honda when I first started playing Street Fighter along time ago. And then I gravitated towards Ken and Ryu for the karate aesthetics and the hadoken and the dragon punch and all that stuff, which was more my style. And then kind of around high school, like 8th grade or freshman year of high school, I really started to play Ken in Street Fighter vs. X-Men. I was playing at the arcade.

I always had consoles [to play]. I always played Street Fighter on Super Nintendo and all that. When I started to really play was at the arcades. I actually picked Ryu, Ken, and Sagat. It was all those Shodo, down-forward fireball dudes. I just got an affinity for Ken. Then it became Ryu, and they started to balance him out. They made Ryu slower, but stronger. I still liked the speed of Ken, so I kind of just stuck with Ken. Fast forward to this Diago [Umehara] match, that’s who I was naturally able to practice with and play with.

It sounds like you’ve always been a fan of the franchise. What’s the earliest memory you have of Street Fighter?

I think it was either kindergarten or first grade. I went to a school called Crown Academy on the West Side of Chicago. There was a corner store up the street from the school that people used to go to before you had to go to class. Before the bell rung and school started, you would get cookies or candy or whatever. They had a few arcade machines in there, and one of the machines was Street Fighter II, the original. I remember just throwing a few quarters in or if you just let the game play, you’d see the different scenes and the different characters kind of come up. Kind of like the demo thing.

Those were my very first experiences with Street Fighter. Then it just kind of fast forwarded through random arcades and seeing it around. And my father, we had martial arts school. He always had some type of video game at the school.  At one of the schools, he had Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition, which was this super glitchy Champion Edition -- like glitched out version that we used to play. It was like super crazy. I kind of fell off at around Street Fighter IV when it came out for Playstation. I was like, "Yo, this is wack." I really just wrote it off.

You stopped playing Street Fighter when the fourth one came out?

Yeah, I stopped playing Street Fighter when Street Fighter IV came out. I really love the period of time between Alpha, 3rd Strike, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom. That period of just the aesthetic of the game, the way it played, and the way it felt, that’s what I kind of fell in love with.

When IV came out, it was the 3D, clunky animation. It just looked weird. Somebody bought it and I remember being at home. I think I had a record deal by then -- or maybe not, I can’t remember. I remember just playing it, like, "Yeah, whatever with this. I’m out." Then I started playing Onimusha and straight campaign kind of games.  

Now with Street Fighter V, they got all these updates. Which one do you play?

They really only got Arcade Edition. They keep doing those updates like seasonal updates or whatever. Just mostly layering characters in stages. I just have to do the updates because I have to or they’re automatic. Everybody plays Arcade Edition now... You kind of really don’t have a choice. I just play AE and I play online sometimes.

I was begging them to do a standard arcade mode, right? Like what we used to play when we played Super Nintendo or whatever. Just basic arcade mode. So when they put that in, I was just like, "I’m just playing arcade mode from here on out. I don’t even want to play online. I just want to play this arcade mode." Arcade mode is too easy for me. I walk through it.

You won in the celebrity Street Fighter V tournament as well as beat Diago. Are you undefeated in professional play?

Yeah! In professional play, I’m undefeated. There’s another celebrity tournament they had where I played [DJ] QBert and I think Del the Funky Homosapien. There’s like another little tournament where I think I won. Well, I lost Weds Night Fights, something they do out here in SoCal. I lost at that. But I didn’t even really want to play, so that didn’t really count. Y’all just using me to play. I lose everywhere else. If it's not celebrities or Diago, I lose. [Laughs.]

If you could break it down, how do you prepare for those type of matches?

I mean, the Daigo match, I really trained. People put an asterisk next to that match because they think it was fixed, but it wasn’t. Like, it really, really wasn’t. It was just a matter of what state or condition Daigo was in and how comfortable he was with playing the game. That was my first time ever playing Street Fighter V because it wasn’t out and I didn’t have access to any of the betas. I was playing Street Fighter IV to practice because I thought we were going to play Street Fighter IV. I was expecting to lose. I was just like, ‘Let me just go in here and not look crazy. If I can get in a super, then I’m good.’ But we were playing IV.

So then fast forward to the match, they were like, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to play V.’ And V came out the next day for console. So we did our match on the 15th and V came out on the 16th. So we’re like, ‘Yo, we are just going to play V.’ So that was my first time ever playing V. I got to practice a little bit before that match and one of the Street Fighter techs were there from Capcom, and he was like showing me the updates and some of the moves on Ken... And giving me ideas on target combos and stuff like that.

It was just one of those things, and Daigo -- whatever his condition was or whatever his comfort level with the game -- people were like, "Oh, he was sandbagging." I was like, "So? [Laughs] I still won. It was a real match." So that was cool. I was the No. 1 Street Fighter player in the world. Until the first tournament came around, I was No. 1.

eSports has been a trend to watch in 2018. Do you see yourself becoming a celebrity investor or a professional player after hip-hop?

I got approached to come in on some teams as an investor, as a co-owner, stuff like that. It wasn’t something that I was super into doing. My relationship to gaming is real. I think because people don’t know about it, they just look at it as just being a celebrity. It’s like, "Bro, I had an arcade, literally, when I was a little kid." 

We had a little bit of money, and my father, he used to go and buy -- this was 1982... We had an arcade in our basement. We had Asteroid. We had another game called Submarine. We had Scramble. We had these stand-up arcade machines in our basement. Like I said, everywhere we went, whether we had a martial arts school or a surplus store, my father would put an arcade machine in there. I’ve been around video games literally since I was born. 

For some people you have to qualify. Like now, you guys qualified in the ‘90s or the 2000s. You guys qualified on Super Nintendo or Dreamcast. I was playing Odyssey and 64. I’ve had every console that ever came out, whether we got it from the flea market [or elsewhere]. I remember buying the last TurboGrafx-16 that Toys "R" Us had. I’ve had Action Max. My relationship to gaming is super pure -- that it is to the martial arts, that it is to, like, rap.

But it is weird when you show it to the world after you're a celebrity, and you think that you’re just kind of like gaining off of it. It’s like, "Nah, I really got it. Do I have to put my whole story as to why I should be here? And like why I’m authentic to this space? I actually vibe with you guys more than I vibe with the rap world. I can hang out with you dudes more than I can hang out with the next rapper."

So I was like, "You know what? Fuck it." So I started my own team like about two weeks ago. We only play SaltyBet.

What’s that?

Do you know what SaltyBet is? SaltyBet is a channel on Twitch. There’s a gaming engine called MUGEN, which is where they built Fatal Fury, Mortal Kombat, those early Street Fighters, those 2D Street Fighters. All those weird kind of anime games. They were built on an engine called MUGEN. MUGEN just kind of opened their software to be open source so anybody can come in and create games and customize players and stuff like that. People kind of took it to the extreme, so the standard MUGEN engine has 2,000 characters in it.

There’s a guy named Salty, who took all the characters, had AIs play each other -- so computers playing computers -- and put it to where you could bet on it. And it runs 24 hours a day. So people actually go in there and legitimately bet fake money, but it is still dope. You know what? You guys will never respect me as a Street Fighter player, because I could never play at the level. I don’t play any of these PC games like that, so I’ll just play SaltyBet [Laughs.] You get to watch these crazy fights.

It’s super fun, super easy, super legit. I just play that. So I started a team kind of a joke just to play that. But some of the best players in the world wanted to be on my team. So now I got ill dudes on my team.

Do you want to shout out your team?

Yeah, it’s Cobra Deportes Electrónarcos. MenaRDis on my team, he won Capcom Cup last year. Chris Tatarian, he’s one of the best Ken players in the world. He’s on my team. I got Ne-Yo on my team, like the singer. So I am slowly building. It’s kind of like all this funny, jokey, thing, but it’s kind of like whoa. When I did it, people were like, "Oh shit, I want to be on your team." We are going to have the illest merch, the illest team jerseys, this shit is going to be the illest shit ever. You’ll see.

To get into some music, Drogas Wave is back on schedule?

The albums were never really on a schedule… let me pull that back. Not to say never. I wanted to do three albums last year, and we were able to squeeze Drogas Light out. Waves was always in the pipeline, and Skulls was always in the pipeline. But we hit this wall with samples and stuff like that. I explained it all on the Reddit account that I set up to let fans know with daily updates. We actually did the last update last week. It is going to come when it comes.

For me, I always shoot myself in the foot when I try to give an idea of a release date or a period of time. So I’m just not going to do that [Laughs.] I’ll just let you know that it is being mixed, and then pass it off to manufacturers and stuff like that. And they have their own kind of schedule. My portion -- the raps are written, recorded. My part is done. Now it’s on to the next. Now it’s shift gears to figure out what I want to do with Skulls.

What about Roy? Is that something you’re still putting out?

Nah, Roy is dead. Roy was supposed to be maybe a replacement for Skulls or something like that. Roy was an idea. I was like, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll do a thing around this.’ I actually sat and built it out, but it was something like, "Eh, it’s not as strong as Waves and it’s not where I wanted to be with Drogas." So I just broke it apart. I’ll just put this song here and use these beats for something else.

Is Drogas Waves still about American slavery?

Not technically. It’s about a group of slaves on a slave ship on their way to Africa to the West Indies and they are thrown off the boat. But they didn’t die. They stayed alive and they lived under the sea. And they dedicated their lives to sinking slave ships -- so they became this super, underwater force against slavery. It’s like a super-deep story that I am building on different fronts. But that’s the main idea and the source material for the album.

You talked about Drogas Light having pre-existing material. Will Drogas Waves be curated in the same way?

I mean, you’ll have to see when you get it. I don’t want to give none of that out. Light definitely had some pre-existing joints on there. What’s pre-existing to me might not be pre-existing to you 'cause you never heard it before. It’s something that I dedicated to another project. But you’ll see. On this album, I don’t want to give anything away. I just want people to get it and rock with it. And we can do the press and all the other stuff after it is out. I don’t want the press to speak to what this album should be. I rather let the fans have it. Let them rock with it and then everybody can have that conversation at the same time.

I have to ask you this since we’re talking about Street Fighter. Nicki Minaj dropped a song recently called “Chun-Li.” Have you heard it?

Yeah, I heard it. I was listening to it the other day. I was waiting for the Chun-Li sound effects! I was like, "Yo, this is Chun-Li. Where’s the Spinning Bird Kick? The Yah-Yah-Yah-Yah-Yah!" But I mean, she murdered it though. The first verse is kinda crazy.

Nicki has always been cool with me and I always been cool with her. I’ve always been a fan. She used to rock—like way back in the day—with my brother Stack Bundles, rest in peace. She’s always been good in my book, and super solid. I would definitely want her to do some Spinning Bird Kick sound effects in the remix maybe.

Maybe you can hop on that and help her out.

Nah, I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll see.