“The revolution will not be televised. The revolution is here.” This isn’t any intellectual revolution. This is the people striking back against the vicious circle of materialism that society as a whole seems to be trapped in. Hip-hop is the battleground, with general Common on one side, and the jiggified legion on the other.
Common recently played as a part of the Spit Kickers tour, with Reflection Eternal, Pharoahe Monch, De La Soul, and Biz Markie. The tour represented a meeting of old guard of hip-hop with the new breed of rappers. Common and crew have taken the deep soul and funk roots of old school and mix them with deep thundering bass, and ill programming. They’ve replaced bravado with a personable intimacy, flowing over transcendental verse as easily as rocking the house.
Chicago born Common seems to have appeared from nowhere with his Like Water for Chocolate album, but his notoriety comes from a consistently amazing career. His albums Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Resurrection, and One Day It’ll All Make Sense show the portrait of a maturing artist. From the scathing “I Used to Know H.E.R” to the soulful collaboration with Lauryn Hill, “Retrospect For Life,” Common’s evolution as a stylist is easily charted. Like Water for Chocolate features a tribute to the late Nigerian afro-beat musician Fela Kuti (“Time Travelin'”) and black nationalist heroine Assata Shakur (“A Song For Assata”).
I initially spoke to Common on his way to a panel discussion in the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The second part of this interview was conducted from the MCA offices in New York.
How’d you get involved with this panel?
Actually, the publicist from the Beat, who is a DJ on the Beat, told me that they wanted me to be a part of the panel. So, you know, I’m with it. With some of the hip-hop [circles], I’m viewed as a politically and socially conscious artist, so I give certain kinds of lectures like that.
Are you comfortable with that label?
Well, I never really like being labeled, but if I’m going to be labeled, at least it’s consciousness, or something uplifting. So I am comfortable with it, but at the same time I’m always trying to be aware of political situations, and I’m definitely aware of what’s going on socially among the people.
From listening to your records, I’m not sure where you stand on this. Do you think that politics is the right method for social change?
Well, it’s one method. It definitely can help. That’s one legal way to voice our opinions, and put our hands in the pot and make something happen. It’s like you’re actually stepping into the arena and saying, “Yo, I want to be a part of this, and this is what I want to go down. ” And you’re taking a stand, really. That’s my voice, you’re standing out from amongst the crowd and saying, “This is what I want.” Through voting, you can get actual people who represent what you want. It’s a place where they can make things happen within the system. If you collectively go out and get together an agenda, and get somebody to represent that agenda, and they can vote it in the office, and they’ll be in the office voting for things you want done.
Are you into marginalist politics and social change coming from the outsides, like protests, direct action, and things like that?
I’m into whatever is effective, and that’s done in a way so that nobody gets hurt, when you’re making something happen. But if it takes something physical, then, you know, that’s what it’s going to have to be. I’m into making things happen effectively.
I’m asking you that because you have a tribute to Fela Kuti on your new CD, and he was into that, that very conscious social protest in Nigeria and such.
He was definitely into it, and he suffered a lot because of it. And that’s an inspiration for me, because music is one of the biggest forms of communication throughout the world. And he spoke through his music about not only uplifting the people, but also of what was going on in his community, trying to change it. And the Government took his mother and threw her off the balcony, which eventually resulted in her death. He really took a stand, man, for what he believed in.
Do you see art as a good way to communicate your message?
Definitely a good way. You know that, not only is it a source for people all over the world to hear your music, but the children across the world listen to it, too.
How’d [the panel discussion] go?
It went well, man. I think the panel was definitely enlightening for the people who got to hear it and see it, and listen to it. I definitely feel that I represented well for the hip-hop community.
Was it broadcast on TV?
It was supposed to be on C-SPAN. They were supposed to show clips of it on MTV.
How’d you get your start in music?
I had always listened to music and loved music, you know, everything from the Jackson Five to Stevie Wonder to Earth Wind and Fire. But hip-hop was my start, because hip-hop was the art form that I was able to do. I was able to break and ummm. [car alarm blares in the background] I was able to MC. So that was when I first started creating music.
Wow, that’s loud. Is that a car alarm?
Yeah, yeah. I’m in New York now, I’m in another world, and we get all kinds of noises in the street.
I ask that because you seem to have a really strong connection to your roots, musically and socially. Is that a conscious thing?
Well… I’m aware of where I came from, which is one of the reasons that I’m here. I’ve gotta acknowledge that and honor that. As I move forward, I’m moving in the steps of not only my ancestors, but [also] people that laid it down in my city.
Do you take any influences from blues and such? Did you listen to any of that stuff when you were growing up?
Not too much blues, not even a lot of jazz, either, when I was growing up. I started listening to jazz later. It was more just that soul music, and a little church music from going to church, but I listened to soul music, because I didn’t get introduced to jazz ’til ’92-’93.
How did you come up with the idea for your live show? I saw you in Orlando, for the Spit Kickers tour.
You saw that?
That was amazing.
Oh, thank you. That concept I just developed from a concept of time traveling. I just wanted to show how other music tied in together. I just wanted to put on a good show, to be honest. To perform for the people and do something that’s memorable, have an impact.
What was it like, being up there with De La Soul, who are such legends and have been around for so long?
It’s an honor. It’s like a dream. Sometimes I looked out there and thought, “damn, that’s De La Soul.” I’ve been doing it with them for a [while], but I always, every once in a while, I’m waking up to realize that that’s De La Soul. I’m doing something with De La Soul, I’m up there with Biz Markie. When I was in high school, I was buying their albums, trying to be like them. I still honor and respect them.
Are you trying to bring more of a traditional musical approach to your music? I read that you are going back to studying music.
I want to do that because I need to know what’s going on, like if I’m in the music industry, I gotta to know something about music. The foundations of it. I want to be able to create music myself.
Has being on a major label had any sort of impact on your sound or had any sort of impact on how you do what you do?
Well, it gives me a little more confidence. It’s like joining a team that you know has won already. It’s like if I got traded to the Lakers, they’ve won a championship, they know what it feels like. You understand? Like basically, I knew MCA had more power, but one of the most important things was that they [were] allowing me to me to create and be myself.
Now that a lot of supposedly positive hip-hop artists are becoming “in,” do you foresee a commercialization of that sound, and that the music industry might try to exploit that sound for their benefit?
No, no. We put our souls in this music. So, when you put your soul and the spirit of God is in it, it can’t really be exploited, because each time it is going towards the good of the people. So if it is exploiting it, it’s exploiting it for good. I don’t feel that bad about it. If you’re overdoing things for the good of the people, then I feel like it’s good. The point I’m making is that because we create music from the soul, and our lives, and what we progress into, it’s not going to be a gimmick, because at different times, we’re going to feel different emotions, and we’re going to give it to you through song. There ain’t no way they can contain those songs, or contain that artistry. You understand what I’m saying?
How much of a role does spirituality play in your music? It seems to play a large part in your life.
Well, you know, I’m in tune with the supreme being, I’m in tune with the Creator, so I try to let him breathe though me through my music, and I definitely feel that music is a spiritual thing in itself, and it’s a way for me to communicate with people across the world. So, I see the significance of it, and it’s a way to bring people closer too. It’s a way to create bridges, and cut down barriers. So, I definitely let spirituality play a significant part in my music. My life, my music, I express my music by the way I live. If spirituality is a big part of my life, it’s going to be a big part of my music.
How would you define your spirituality?
I believe in a higher force, in a Creator who created all things, and I try to live by the laws of righteousness. And I respect all spiritual beliefs that follow those rules of righteousness.
Do you see spirituality as playing a bigger or smaller part in the world today?
I think it’s playing a bigger role. I think that we are at a time where people are digging for their spirit. They’ve tired of all this other stuff, materialistic, tired of dope, tired of losing their souls. People are digging for something, and they’re looking for something that’s refreshing and reviving for their spirit.
Yeah, yeah. That’s how I see hip-hop. It’s going back to something more pure, something more spiritual, something more righteous.
It is, it is. And it’s going to be a good thing, man. Like that question you asked me, whether they exploited it, and [if it’s going to be used as] a gimmick. See, if art isn’t doing it for a purpose, then, if it gets to the masses, and it’s done from the heart, then so be it. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s just that when you do it, and you do it strictly for monetary purposes, and you don’t have no love for the music, and you ain’t putting no love into the music, then it should be easily exploited, it’s like, artificial.
How do you go about producing a track? How does the Common creative process work?
Well, I love to – honestly – get the beat first, so I hook up with a producer that I’m going to be working with, and [I] just vibrate with them and tell them what I want or the idea that I have. And then they give me some music that they feel can get that thing across. I get to writing on whatever subject matter that I feel the music might help me create. Or if I already have a concept then I put it down, put it to the music.
What have you been listening to lately?
A lot of Fela, Pharoah Sanders, who else? Fela, Herbie Hancock…
So are we going to see a free-jazz sound on the next Common record?
Honestly, I’m going to let my new record take its course. I haven’t really thought it out yet. I’m just going to let the music come as it comes. All I’m trying to do is grow and make good music. God willing, all those things to come take [their] course.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
We’re going to release another single off of the Like Water for Chocolate album. I’m on this Bamboozled soundtrack, that’s it really.
How’d the album get its name? Did you take it from the novel?
Yeah, I got that from the book. And I chose that because I thought that it was interesting and funky, and I felt that the way that woman was making people feel those emotions from the meals she cooked, I felt that that was metaphoric to the music.