Chicago rapper has cure for common hip-hop
ASPEN He’s at work on one of the most anticipated albums of the year, has already wrapped production on his first two Hollywood films – including next fall’s “American Gangster,” in which he co-stars with Oscar-winner Denzel Washington – and just launched his own signature line of handmade Italian tweed hats.But Common’s thoughts are far from any of these significant business matters Monday night while waiting to board a plane in Los Angeles for a show in Las Vegas.His Bears won the NFC Championship the day before, and Common is so happy he’s on the verge of doing his own version of the Super Bowl Shuffle right in the middle of the terminal.”Ah, man, that’s all we’ve been talking about,” says the 34-year-old rapper, who was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side. “It’s been 21 years. Now our team is back, and we supporting ’em. What’s even greater is for two black coaches to make history like that. It shows the progress the world has made.”Progress is a word Common uses often in conversation. It is a recurring theme on all six of his albums, beginning with his little-heard 1992 debut “Can I Borrow A Dollar?”On the opening track of his third CD, 1997’s “One Day It’ll All Make Sense,” he raps: “At times my going forward seems like retreat … Growing into my britches, outgrowing the streets.”On “The 6th Sense,” from his 2000 classic “Like Water For Chocolate,” he raps: “I’m the truth, across the table from corporate lies, immortalized by the realness I bring to it / If revolution had a movie, I’d be theme music.”And on his most recent single, the lifting “A Dream,” from the soundtrack to the current film “Freedom Writers,” he says: “Hold the same fight that made Martin Luther the King / I ain’t using it for the right thing / In between lean and the fiends, hustle and the schemes, I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one.”The stage name is misleading, to say the least. Common – formerly Common Sense – writes rhymes that are provocative, introspective, soulful, anything but ordinary when compared to most commercial hip-hop records of late.Watch enough episodes of MTV’s “Cribs” and it’s easy to surmise most rappers measure career advancement through record sales and how much they have in their bank accounts.As an artist, Common says he’s always wanted to be a commercial success, but for purer reasons. The greatest reward is to sell records without selling out, to remain sincere in a business that is often anything but.The same principle applies to his other creative ventures, including his recent foray into acting, his Soji (The Rebirth) line of hats, the three children’s books he has authored – even serving as a pitchman for The Gap and Coca Cola.”I think my goal always is to make things that are quality, and have as many people be able to appreciate my message while staying true to who I am,” he says. “I ain’t never come out like, ‘I only want to sell 100,000 [records.] I only want to go gold.’ The underground was what it was, and it’s how I came up, but if I wanted to stay there, I would just work out of my basement and get a second job.”The reason I can still look in the mirror and hold up my shoulders is that I’m still being true to myself, even in a Gap commercial.”When it comes to acting, that’s different. That’s about staying true to a character. The opportunity to step into another person’s shoes is energizing, addictive even, Common says. It’s something he says he now loves just as much as making his music.He plays a hired killer in “Smokin’ Aces,” which stars Jeremy Piven and Ben Affleck, and opens nationally today.”It just was so exciting to do, such a creative experience,” he says. “Jeremy was excellent to work with, and I got to work with Alicia Keys, which was wonderful. Shooting those guns was fun. It’s fun to get to be somebody and be able to be free and do what you feel they would do.”After he auditioned for a role in “American Gangster,” Common says he prayed every night hoping he would get cast. He saw working with Washington and director Ridley Scott as a divine, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”Denzel is one of my favorites, so for me to even be around him was a blessing,” he says. “Just being in his presence, I learned a lot. He’s one of the kings. He’s like De Niro.”Truly, it’s a great time to be Common.The only problem with making movies, marketing hats and working on a new album with A-list producer Kanye West, with whom he teamed on his biggest commercial success to date, 2005’s “Be,” is that Common doesn’t have much time anymore just for hanging out.That has an upside and a downside.”I love to work and create,” he says. “I love to know that progress is being made, to be able to read a script, hop up and be working on the album, then go to a hat launch and release. Just to be able to experience those things, to see your dreams coming closer and closer, you just pray and keeping going for it. What I don’t have time for now is just hanging out with girls and shit, and going to get drunk with my guys. I got other things to do. I just ain’t gonna be sharing my time with frivolous girls.” The women Common does spend quality time with are his daughter and his mother, Mahalia Hines, a former primary school teacher who now serves as his business manager.It’s Hines who raised the young Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. after his father, a former promising basketball star, left Chicago when Common was 6 years old and moved to Denver.According to a column written by the Denver Post’s NBA beat writer, Marc J. Spears, Common’s father played 52 games in the old American Basketball Association during the 1969-70 season, including 12 games with the Denver Rockets.But he never reached his full potential as an athlete, a fact he partly attributed to drug use, according to Spears’ column.Common kept in touch with his father growing up through Saturday phone calls, and visited him in Denver when he was 12 to take in the 1984 NBA All-Star Game. It was there that Common’s father introduced his son to Chicago Bulls general manager Rod Thorn, who soon after asked Common to be one of the Bulls’ ball boys.That first touch with celebrity – the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan in 1984 – foreshadowed what was to come, although Common’s destiny wasn’t on the basketball court.He suffered a serious eye injury in high school, which cut short his basketball career, and subsequently pushed him toward music.Spears’ piece recounted how Common’s father had fallen on hard times after losing the Denver home he owned for 21 years to foreclosure, and made a plea to Common to help.According to the column, Common offered to pay rent on his father’s new apartment, but didn’t offer to buy back the house.Common says he and his father – whom he calls Pops, and who makes appearances on four of his albums – are on good terms. He’d rather his personal business remain out of the public eye.”We all love,” he says. “We didn’t ever have no problem, and any problems we did have, we wouldn’t handle them out in public. That’s my dad. What could I do not to love him? He gave birth to me. Anything that was wrong, we can correct. Anything that goes wrong, there’s always a way to fix it.” Since he was raised by his mother and his grandmother, Common says he has the utmost respect for women – a statement reflected throughout his music.”Maybe it comes from my mother and I being so close, because she taught me so much,” he says. “She taught me to be sensitive and caring. I love and respect them. Creatively, it’s good for me to keep friends and inspiring females in my life.”Critics first took serious notice of him for “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” off 1994’s “Resurrection,” where Common rapped of an estranged lover who had fallen in with the wrong crowd.Sample lyrics: “Slim was fresh yo, when she was underground / Original, pure untampered and down sister / Boy I tell ya, I miss her.”The woman in the track was actually a metaphor for hip-hop, and its creative deterioration. Common was fed up with the gangsterism and virility that had saturated his favorite form of music, and promised to try and take “H.E.R.” back.Some 13 years later, Common says he’s still conflicted about the state of hip-hop.”It’s gotten better, but in certain areas it’s worse, just because of today’s technology and the products that are out there,” says Common, referring to the digital music revolution. “There’s not as much attachment to music in general. With technology the way it is, people get everything so quick, and if you offer something they don’t like, they’ll just flip to the next song. I loved albums, because you would listen to the whole thing. Certain songs you would like right away, but others would grow on you. You could understand a person’s journey more.”I can’t complain, though,” Common adds. “Hip-hop is also generating a lot of economics, and providing jobs. It’s still a voice for the youth. You’ve got to appreciate those things. It’s not perfect, but it’s not terrible either.”The rapper says he grew up listening to soul and jazz at his mother’s home, a childhood soundtrack that was full of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.When asked about his hip-hop influences, he mentions Big Daddy Kane, KRS-1, Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest.Common says his new album, “Finding Forever,” which is set to drop in June, is hip-hop in its newest form – something he calls “futuristic boom-bap.””It’s progressive, raw hip-hop,” he says. “There’ so much room there. There’s new sounds, and different keyboards that we added to the soulful samples we use. We put something else into it. I’m just real hungry, real creative as an artist, and this album is shaping up to be something special. You feel like it’s a true piece of work.”His first album produced by West brought him back to his hip-hop roots after his adventurous 2002 release, “Electric Circus.” Co-produced by The Roots’ drummer, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson – whom he also teamed with for “Like Water For Chocolate” – “Electric Circus” explored rock ‘n’ roll and a range of new sounds, but a number of critics complained it lacked focus.Some fans – West among them – wanted Common to ditch the crochet pants and sweaters and get back to making music that would stand up in the streets.Common says he has no regrets about the creative turns he’s taken.”As an artist, you just make music, and you want people to get into it,” he says. “All you can do is just create. There’s times where people won’t be into what I’m doing, but I always want to make something I’m into. I can’t be mad at the people for not being into it. That’s just part of life.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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