Common interview: Just Be
Monday, 30 January 2006
The Chicago MC Common, aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn, has defied the odds in hip hop. He's broken into the mainstream in the middle of his career. This summer Common is finally touring Australia with the Big Day Out, testament to his heightened international profile.
Common, as with that genius Nas, has long embodied the conscience of hip hop. But, unlike his New York contemporary, Common has been consistent, even if strictly there's nothing in the definition of 'genius' that implies consistency. Common is cerebral, spiritual and politically, socially and culturally engaged. Since his 1992 premiere, this street poet has yielded a series of challenging albums. However, it is 'Be', his sixth, that has lifted him into the pop stratosphere. Following 2002's avant-garde yet widely misunderstood 'Electric Circus', the MC owes his triumphant comeback in part to Kanye West.
Ignoring the potentially metaphysical title, with 'Be' Common vowed to record a "blue-collar" LP and so reconnect with the streets - the straight-up hip hop contingent - and consequently it lacks any pretence, artifice or otherwise. Nevertheless, Common hasn't forfeited his artistry. Be isn't hip hop for the lowest common denominator. It's poetry for the everyday. Perhaps Common did defend 'Electric Circus' with too much vigour - after all, it was valued by the Gilles Peterson set - but 'Be' is such a classic that it's not necessary to lament Common's compromising. So what of his growth-
"I feel like I've been through certain experiences in my life, whether it's ups or downs, the valleys, the mountaintops, everything, whether it was experiencing marriages, deaths - just whatever things that life brought me, it allowed me to grow as a human being and that came out in my music. So it came from making good choices and bad choices and just being a person.
"I feel like I evolved by being able to express myself and not be afraid about who I was at each stage of my evolving and growing. It's like, this is who I am and this is what I feel and this is what I like right now and I do change and I do go through this. So I was able to express that and be truthful with myself - and I think throughout my evolving as a human being, my music did the same thing."
Common, at home in Chicago, breaks off frequently as his passing homies show him love - he's on form, no doubt.
Common has aligned himself with West's GOOD stable, also home to the R&B John Legend, former Native Tongues MC Consequence and violinist Miri Ben-Ari, and, although he's liaised with The Soulaquarians in the past, for the first time the Chi-towner has tangible support. He's no longer a struggling artist.
"This time it's organised where we got a goal," he says of GOOD.
"You feel that hunger - like for a lotta people [on GOOD], it's their first project coming out, so you feel that newness and that hunger. It's good to have that support - and also not only to be around creative people, but creative people who got goals.
"It's like, OK, we gotta go out there and do these things and generate good music and money."
As it happened, Common met West in Chicago when the braggadocios producer was starting. West was then being mentored by Common's original partner No ID but, as the story goes, Common wasn't feeling his beats. Common re-established a rapport with Kanye on the road when the latter accompanied his supporting act, Talib Kweli. Common says Kanye has changed but slightly. "He just matured like we all do as human beings," he says. "But he was always confident, always would speak his truth, he always was like a little child, like he'd tell a childlike truth - like, if he felt someone was weak, he would speak on it, if he thought he was the dopest, he's gonna say it [laughs]. It didn't matter who was around. So he's always bee Tags