Since his career began in the ’90s, Common has been regarded by hip-hop fans as one the genre’s premiere lyricists. Alternating between thoughtful lyrics and fierce battle rhymes, his versatility has been in a league of its own. But along with his reputation as a brilliant lyricist, and maybe more importantly, Common has come to be an artist known to innovate successive with each release.
Like Water for Chocolate, released in 2000, was Common’s breakthrough album, as "The Light," a song about his love interest and guest on the song Erykah Badu, became a staple on the music video and radio charts. After such a success, he could have stuck with the sound that worked, putting out another record with the same sound. But Common is not your prototypical hip-hop star. With his latest release, Electric Circus, Common has created an album that breaks the boundaries of what a hip-hop album is suppose to be. While his sound has expanded, the album continues to bring listeners deep into his mind. To dig deeper into one of hip-hop’s most innovative minds, we spoke with Common this past January.
Prefix Magazine: The first thing that anyone notices about the album is the cover. You have 86 people on the cover. After the album came out did anyone afterwards ask you why you left them out? I mean, you got Jimi the cat up there.
Common (2003): Nah. Well, I guess some of my friends said something, but the whole thing was about the people who were in my head at the time I was recording the album. Those were the people at the time that were surrounding and influencing my thoughts.
PM: Most artists that initially achieve acclaim through the underground seem to become less creative as they get more successful and break into the mainstream. It seems that you went the complete opposite direction and created a hip-hop album that was even less mainstream then your earlier albums. What led you to creating such a unique sound album that isn’t like most hip-hop albums out now?
Common (2003): Well, I just believe in trying to create good music. For some reason, in my own dream world, I believe that good music will stand the test of time and will allow me to have a career. I don’t feel like conforming is my way of life. It’s not natural to me. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, and it’s not what everyone else is doing, because I’m not that type of person. If I see someone else doing it, I don’t want to do it.
PM: But at the same time, did you ever feel the record it was too ahead of its time? That people weren’t ready?
Common (2003): I mean I wasn’t afraid, but at times I was thrown off, because I’d play it for people and at first some of them would be like, "What the hell is this?" But then they’d be, "Ooh, this is the new stuff!" In my mind I had the confidence in what I was doing. You know, it’s not fresh if people don’t ask you why’d you put out those colors like that? Other people’s opinions can distract the art that you create. That’s the only thing that makes you fearful. I believed in myself and in the music and I believed it would be one of my biggest-selling albums.
PM: Along those same lines, you have a real eclectic mix of guests on this album. You have the Neptunes, Prince, Stereolab. Was there instant chemistry working with these artists?
Common (2003): Yeah, everyone I work with brings good spirits. They’re comfortable to work with and they’re always down. God’s looking out for me, from Pharell to Laetitia, from Stereolab to Prince to Erykah to Mary J. Blige to Bilal, they all brought love and hard work to the projects. The tracks they made on the album was like creating history for me.
PM: Do you have a personal favorite track on the album?
Common (2003): Right now it’s "Aquarius." Sometimes its "Heaven Somewhere," the last song on the album.
PM: You’re still residing in Brooklyn?
Common (2003): Yeah.
PM: How do you compare that to Chicago?
Common (2003): Well Chicago is home, so I’ll always love Chicago, and the crib’s got its texture to it, its own personality. But I love being in New York and Brooklyn because its got its own culture and it’s new for me. I’m exposed to different people that I wouldn’t have met in Chicago and different cultures and arts that I wouldn’t have met or been exposed to in Chicago.
PM: Do you read the reviews that the critics write?
Common (2003): Yeah. Uh huh.
PM: Do you take those to heart?
Common (2003): I take them to heart for about an hour and then I move on with the rest of my life. I am grateful when I do get good reviews and I do get disappointed when I get reviews that I didn’t expect. But I don’t stop and cry or nothing. I’m just like, Damn.
PM: When your album dropped it was at the same time a ton of albums dropped. The Roots, Talib Kweli, GZA, Nas, Jay-Z, Snoop all dropped in the same time frame of 4-5 weeks. Did you compare your new material to all those?
Common (2003): The one I really checked out was the Roots. I loved that album.
PM: A while back there was talk of this group that was going to come out that consisted of yourself, Black Thought, Jeru and Pharoah Monch. Any chance that will still happen?
Common (2003): Nah, I don’t think that’s going to happen. At the time we were talking and wanted to do it. There’s still love amongst us, but we haven’t talked about it since.
PM: Lately, your face has been on the TV a lot, between the appearance on UPN’s Girlfriends and the Coke commercial with Mya. Is that something you’d like to pursue further?
Common (2003): I do want to get more into acting. Acting is so fun. I’d love to do more acting.
PM: How would you compare that to making music?
Common (2003): Well, it’s more challenging because I’m new to it. In some ways it’s similar, because I get to be a character, and sometimes in my raps I get to be another character. In my raps, I get to use my imagination, and in my acting I also have to use my imagination. But I enjoy it a lot though. Acting is a whole new challenge and field, I’m starting with a humble experience. I established myself in hip-hop, but as an actor I’m starting fresh.
PM: Do you feel any of your fans would have a backlash upon seeing you on a Coke commercial?
Common (2003): I don’t think so, because I have to be me and I think my fans would appreciate that. If they listen to the lyrics they’ll know it’s Common being Common and that’s what Coke wanted.
PM: I personally feel, it’s a good thing because it gives artists like you more exposure. Usually, you see the same few mainstream artists doing the same thing.
Common (2003): Exactly. Thanks, I appreciate that. I would hope that a lot of the people that have followed my career would be proud and happy to see me expand, yet not change who I am to try to expand. I mean, I’ve changed as a person, but I didn’t leave my essence to be in a Coke commercial.
PM: Going back to beefs, a few years ago you and Ice Cube had an infamous beef. Nowadays, the big beefs are between Eminem and Benzino, 50 Cent and Ja Rule. Do you think these beefs are good or bad for hip-hop?
Common (2003): It won’t be bad as long as people keep it on record. But right now, it seems like they might be getting past records. I think that battling is not a bad thing if it’s not taken to heart and not taken past the music. And I feel like, Hey, there’s a bigger war going on right now, so I’m not concerned with these wars.
PM: So, what are your thoughts of the U.S. going to war with Iraq?
Common (2003): Why are they going to war? I know Bush is a money-hungry and oil-hungry guy that doesn’t care about bloodshed. I think we as people living in the United States need to be aware and as a collective need to try to make something happen. I feel there are things going on in this country — people are hungry, kids aren’t getting a proper education — and we’re paying so much attention to what’s going on over there and trying to go over there and direct and control the society? If your home ain’t straight, why are you going to try and deal with someone else’s home?
PM: Along the lines of education, have you had time to read any good books lately?
Common (2003): I’m continuously reading a book titled Awakening the Budda Within, the Bible is always good and the Koran is great.
PM: What was the greatest thing that happened to you in 2002?
Common (2003): Not a single event. More or less, to be alive with good things coming and the completion of Electric Circus, but it was a gradual process. The end of the year was beautiful. The release of the album and I guess the greatest things were the blessings that came my way and knowing that this year was going to be great.
PM: Do you ever picture yourself 20 years from now?
Common (2003): God willing I’ll be sitting back with my family. Writing music, playing some instrument. Enjoying life, making records with a record label. Writing film. Taking my family to visit one of our homes somewhere.
PM: Here’s some more randomness …
Common (2003): You often drop references to the NBA, so I assume you’re a big fan of hoops.
PM: You got a pick for this year?
Common (2003): The Sacramento Kings!
PM: Do you think the Lakers are going to the playoffs?
Common (2003): Yep.
PM: But you don’t think they’ll win it?
Common (2003): Nope.
PM: Why do you think they were losing so much?
Common (2003): I think they were getting a little bored and they have to get their chemistry up.
PM: A while back in one of your songs you said, "Whip anyone’s ass in NBA Live." Are you still playing that?
Common (2003): Nah. I haven’t been playing that in a long time, but I still know I got game though. I still think I’m the champion at it.
PM: People seem to view you as well versed in the topic of romance. Maybe you can help me out…A while back my girlfriend told me to spend a maximum of $20 for her birthday. Have you ever been in a situation like that? Any advice?
Common (2003): You got to be creative man and get some gifts from the heart. Think! You got to go some things that you know she’s connected with, not necessarily expensive, but just sweet gifts. And you have to really dig into what type of person she is. You have to go get a couple of things that are just sweet that lay down a story. That’s all it is, you have to show that you care about your mate and respect who she is. Getting them gifts that they know you paid attention to them. Just be aware.