Dallas rapper -topic is crouched low, sitting on his heels, his weight resting on the balls of his feet. He's at Fun Fun Fun Fest, behind about four fences he really shouldn't be behind, and standing fifteen feet away is Lupe Fiasco. -topic has a CD in his hand.
Lupe is facing the other way, furious, surrounded by his manager and the inner circle and anyone else unlucky enough to still have to be here. It wasn't a good show. Most of the people who followed him off the stage peeled off at the first opportunity. A few approached as he walked toward his bus but they turned heel quickly. So now it's just those who wish they could leave and -topic, who followed the crew back here from the stage - shit, all the way from Dallas, really, and he has no choice now but to stand up and walk over. So he does.
A bad Lupe Fiasco set is still a Lupe Fiasco set. Seven years ago, the Chicago rapper preached individuality from his skateboard and reached kids all over the world. Two of those kids were -topic and his Team From Nowhere running mate and fellow MC KoolQuise, who is standing behind the stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest a few minutes earlier. -topic's one barrier closer to the stage, somehow, standing right by the steps up to where Lupe's standing with his mic. He's playing "Kick, Push," and Quise is rapping along, his head bowed, his arm held loosely out. He stops and says, "This song inspired me and -topic. I never dreamed we'd be standing right beside him."
How they came to be standing right beside their onetime idol is something that depends on your perspective. In the longest possible view, it involves their own rising star in Dallas, where Team From Nowhere is starting to get some high profile gigs. -topic opened for Erykah Badu earlier this year at the Prophet Bar. He played with The Cannabinoids at Index Fest. There's something of Lupe's ethos in Team From Nowhere's style. "He has dope lyricism and meaning," says -topic of Lupe. "You just have to listen to it."
-topic is the crew's most talented MC; he's endlessly inventive, and onstage he has an almost goofy confidence. In pictures, he's always the one with the most exaggerated facial expression. He's an instinctual person, who finds missions in his gut and follows them. He walks around with a plush lion backpack. On his trip to Austin it filled with buttons and CDs and pens and a plastic knife/fork/spoon utensil made for camping.
So people are starting to notice -topic, at least in North Texas. One of those people helped get him backstage at this week's Lupe Fiasco show in Dallas on Wednesday. That was big, because even before all this in Austin, earning Lupe's respect had come to be one of -topic's missions. He'd tried once before, in 2008. It had not gone well.
The first time was when Lupe played at the House of Blues. -topic approached him after the show and asked if he'd do a quick cypher. Predictably, Lupe brushed him off. "I just rapped for two hours," -topic recalls him saying. "I don't have time for you."
Most people probably would have left it at that. Though to be fair, most people wouldn't have made such a bold request in the first place.
It's been five years, and on Wednesday -topic still felt he had unfinished business. Lupe had just finished a bad set in Dallas - there were problems with his DJ and his crew. He lectured them tersely.. -topic stuck around. Lupe came out for exactly 30 photos, and -topic was 31st in line. Lupe started walking away with his bodyguards, still in a bad mood, and -topic felt that pull in his gut toward his mission. So he stepped alongside the group, and started rapping his song "Broke.Black.King.Rap" a capella and unprompted. Lupe kept walking.
But then something unexpected happened. Lupe Fiasco stopped, turned around, and listened. He asked -topic for a CD, and -topic had to tell him that he'd sold the last one earlier that day.
So -topic went home, that mission changed now but still burning in his chest. He'd been acknowledged by his idol, and his skills had also been respected, but -topic didn't see it that way, not after Lupe had walked off empty handed, without his copy of Time to Feed the Birds: Stories of Dead Kings.
Lupe, meanwhile, went to Houston where he had another bad show. More sound issues, more lectures, another quick photo session and Fun Fun Fun Fest less than 24 hours away. Up north in Dallas, -topic decided he'd find his way to Austin.
Conviction inspires people. Even if -topic did manage to get Lupe the CD, there's no guarantee that he'd even listen to it, much less do anything at all with it or its creator. -topic knows that, but he went south anyway. His friends and Dallas-based allies know that, too, but that didn't stop them from offering help: A ride down to Austin, then a pass into the festival and a few strings pulled here and there and suddenly, -topic is walking backstage at a Lupe Fiasco concert for the second time in a week.
"I just want him to acknowledge me," says -topic then. "Everything else is everything else."
Onstage, it's another disaster. Rain drops start hitting the stage, and Lupe stops the set midway through. There's a $50,000 light screen as part of the travelling set, and it could be destroyed by water. He won't continue until it's removed. It is and he comes back out to play the hits. A fan jumps onstage, and Lupe stops once again. "Get the fuck off my stage." The man does, and they start the song over.
See also: Fun Fun Fun Fest First Impressions
So that's where Lupe is, three bad shows, one at a festival, many of the same problems still unsolved. His face is grave. He practically emits smoke as he walks over to his bus, with -topic tailing at 15 feet. They stop. -topic crouches down, to steel himself. All these people helped him get here, found solutions to the little hiccups and hurdles. And now there's no one -- just a few feet of patchy grass and a half-dozen very unhappy strangers between him and his mission.
-topic stands. One of them wanders over and takes the CD. -topic starts to explain himself when the biggest member of Lupe's crew - a tour manager, maybe, storms over. He towers over -topic and starts shouting, pointing at the gates, threatening violence, basically exactly what you'd expect. -topic stands his ground. The manager walks off and -topic turns back the way he came, his eyes bright, his chest heaving.
All this way for nothing. Except it was never about Lupe, really. It was about the mission, about satisfying that nagging sense of unfinished business. If it had been a great show and Lupe had lingered happily among his fans, talking, openly receiving all comers, it would have taken little courage to give him a copy of Time to Feed the Birds: Stories of Dead Kings. And probably left little impression. Palms touch palms, little things pass between people and they're gone.
As it happened, -topic faced everything from eviction and possible arrest (remember, he wasn't really supposed to be back here in the first place) to getting his ass kicked in a dark corner somewhere. So even if it had ended right there, with Lupe getting on his bus and -topic standing raw on the grass, it would have been a victory over doubt.
But it didn't end there. We all parted ways, and an hour later I got a text message from -topic. "We...WON AFTER ALL. Lupe has the cd!!!" it read. Apparently Lupe noticed this brash dude with the lion backpack, and maybe even remembered his earlier encounter with him, and so when someone from his crew handed him a copy of Time to Feed the Birds: Stories of Dead Kings, he had that person go track -topic down to make sure the young rapper from Dallas knew he had it.
"On his worst day, he still inspires people, " says -topic. "That's why I'm here. Yesterday I had nothing, no ride, no ticket, and here I am."