Exclusive: Common recalls his days as a ball boy with the Chicago Bulls and details why he refuses to separate himself from Chicago's current "Drill" scene.
When locating the word “common” in a dictionary, you will find various meanings of the word: “familiarity,” “pertaining or belonging to an entire community, nation, or culture,” “ordinary,” or “of frequent occurrence.” Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. has consistently made sense to the public embodying his moniker “Common” with each context of the definition per his work in music, film, and personal life. Whether it’s reporting the political sentiment of the youth and elders from his hometown of Chicago and the world community at large, detailing his emotional attachment and detachment to Hip Hop culture, or frequently evolving as an artist to entertain, and occasionally competing against fellow prominent emcees on wax, Common has kept a simple yet quite clever formula and approach to move multiple segments of the listening public with his words. He has seen peaks and valleys, yet still finds ways to reinvent himself and remain one of the music community’s most revered artists.
Long gone are the days since the release of Can I Borrow A Dollar? in 1992, where Hip Hop lovers the witnessed Common’s emergence as boisterous young street poet with humor-filled wordplay rhyming about life in the Southside of “The Chi.” His success as a Retro-Soul revivalist from his RIAA-certified gold album, Like Water For Chocolate catapulted him into mainstream stardom, and career opportunities in Hollywood with starring roles in award-winning films and television shows. Yet Common has shown plenty of the same dexterous styles on all his albums, sticking to his roots as a lyricist with a blue-collar worker’s perspective. We’ve also seen him become a sex symbol from his visceral commentary about romance on the Kanye West-assisted “Go” off his 2005 classic Be and the J Dilla-produced “So Far To Go.” He has stretched boundaries to help Rap become palatable to all music fans as a leading balladeer for the genre with successful singles like “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” “Retrospective For Life,” Grammy-award winning singles “The Light” and “Love of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop).” But his street manifesto “The Corner” is a prime example of the square root of Common’s artistry, with panache as a historian and motivational resource on wax for all generations to relate to the content of his musings.
Hip Hop’s positively-charged, quintessential “everyman” has completed his tenth studio album Nobody’s Smiling, set for release on July 22 on his new record label home Artium/Def Jam. HipHopDX spoke with Common about the creative process of his new album including reuniting with his lifelong friend/producer No I.D. and collaborating with rising star rappers out of hometown, a brief 20-year review on “I Used To Love H.E.R.” and how it relates to today’s climate in Hip Hop, his movie career and next starring movie role in the Oprah Winfrey-executive produced film Selma, why HipHopDX is on the short list of his favorite Hip Hop news sites, and his extensive basketball background in Chicago. If you ever have wondered how Common has managed to remain atop the Hip Hop community for this long, now check the method.
Why Common Calls “Nobody’s Smiling” A Dedication To Chicago
DX: There’s some great new things happening in your music career as of late: being newly signed to Def Jam; your next album is called Nobody’s Smiling, and you’re reunited with No I.D., who executive produced this new project. That’s something to smile about, right?
Common: [Laughs] That’s something to really smile about and be thankful for. It’s really special. I feel super grateful to work with No I.D. on this album and to be on Artium/Def Jam is like a dream and that I’m a new artist in a way. The inspiration that I have working with Dion in the studio and when I first signed my contract with Def Jam, I really felt like a new artist. Because I don’t take this for granted. I been rapping for a long time, and it’s not easy to even say, “I got a deal.” You know? It’s not easy to be like, “I’m gonna put out a record” and the label says, “OK. We can put out your record.” It’s not just easy to even get in the studio! So I don’t take those things for granted like being able to do interviews or hearing my record being played. Working with No I.D. is part of that inspiration, and being signed Artium/Def Jam is part of that inspiration. And I have to say that one of the biggest parts for me for this new album like this was a way for me to give back. I’m rapping with artists that everybody may not know. Like people do know Lil Herb, but everybody don’t know Lil Herb. Or people know Dreezy, but everyday don’t know Dreezy. Or people do know Vince Staples, but people will know Vince Staples. And I want the world to know them. I just connected with people that are super talented, super dope, and brought this energy to the album and there’s a freshness to it. It’s something new. I never hooked up with artists like, “Let me just work with these artists because they’re popular.” I always have to feel their talent. Whether it was Cee Lo or Lauryn Hill. These are great people—some of the most talented artists we’ve seen. I feel like this album Nobody’s Smiling is throughout all those times in my career that times I looked out and didn’t look out and overlooked some things. I’m dedicating this album to the city I’m from, the people where I’m from, and to the Hip Hop culture. It gave me a spark to know that an album is a piece of the puzzle in how I can give back. There’s some freshness to it like these may be some voices they don’t know yet, but will know.
DX: What can the new and longtime Common fans that have followed your career since the beginning look forward to hearing on Nobody’s Smiling?
Common: Well musically, No I.D. has never created the sound that he has on this album. There’s something about the Hip Hop spirit of it that feels like Hip Hop. But there’s something fresh in the actual sound and approach in the effects and nuances that he uses. It’s a brand new sound in Hip Hop that I never felt. So with that, it encouraged me to write in new and different ways. But the roots of everything, I kind of recognized and remembered that I’m a dude from the south side of Chicago. That’s who I am. I come from the streets of Chicago. So when people would either talk about Lil Reese, Lil Durk, or Lil Bibby, and try to say, “What do you think about the Drill movement?” I’m from the place they’re from, and I couldn’t separate myself from that. And I realize in my music you hear that it’s street, Hip Hop music. I’m doing films and I’ve achieved this or that, it’s like, “Man!” It’s that music that represents where I come from, but it has its own perspective. I’m not trying to be anybody else. I feel like I didn’t limit myself. Sometimes I can limit myself without even knowing it. But because I’m embracing being the motivator and progressive artist, I may stray away from some shit that I would say. This time I had that essence for styles, expressions, and the concepts, and the sounds are fresher we’ve done as a collective, No I.D. And myself. I was listening to the album and was telling No I.D. like, “I haven’t heard you produce like this ever.” And I feel like I had been doing styles on this album that I haven’t done.
Common Revisits “I Used To Love H.E.R.” 20 Years Later
DX: This year marks 20 years since you released Resurrection, with “I Used To Love H.E.R.” With all of your career success, you have seen plenty of H.E.R. changes as far as Hip Hop becoming a global phenomenon. Are you proud of H.E.R. growth, or what makes you lament about today’s Hip Hop in that regard since making that record?
Common: I’m super proud of H.E.R. growth. Because now I see that there’s no limits to the way that Hip Hop can be made and what people do with Hip Hop music. The influence that the music and the culture, how she has affected the world I have to appreciate. But there are times that she and I may be on bad terms like, “Psshh, aww I ain’t really into that sound,” but she always comes back to her roots. You get the newness of H.E.R. and you get what’s she is rooted in. I say that because you have artists like Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, or an artist like Lil Bibby or Lil Herb, who are really giving their expressions of Hip Hop in a streets-of-Chicago way. Point blank, I have to just be honest, I really do go to HipHopDX. There’s only two blogs that I check on for Hip Hop. And it’s great that I see a Lil Bibby song, or a Lil Herb, and I want to hear what it is. But on the same token you get a Chance The Rapper or Ab-Soul, and there’s a diversity about them. That’s what I always loved in Hip Hop.
Common Draws Parallels With 2014 Voting Rights & His Role In “Selma”
DX: Being an actor has worked out very well for you. How hard is it to prepare for a role, and what role was the hardest that you ever had to act in?
Common: It’s hard to prepare for a role. But the more I grow as an actor and the more acting work I do, it’s like becoming more like me, or more natural. I just become more confident. When I prepare for a role, it’s not as hard. You have to put in work and work hard, man. You gotta prepare. You gotta really dig in and do your work. And I didn’t approach acting like, “I’m a rapper that people are gonna put in movies.” I went to acting class and people didn’t know who Common was. The first film I got, the director didn’t want a Rap artist in his film. So I’m not approaching this like, “I’m Common, so I’m gonna get roles.” No, [the mentality was], “I’m an actor, so my work is going to have to allow me to get the roles that I’m doing.” I just finished a role in a movie called Selma. It’s produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt. It’s about Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the SCLC getting the voting rights for the people of America. But down South they weren’t getting it. But that movement changed the world really for people to get voting rights. The ironic thing is that some of those voting rights they are trying to take back now. This movie is really timely to be honest, and it opened my eyes to a lot of stuff that was going on just how everyday people had contributed to that movement.
DX: Yeah, damn that poll tax they used to have to pay to vote. For real.
Common: Exactly! My character specifically speaks about that in the film—the poll tax. My character’s name is James Bevel. And he is obviously a real person that was part of the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. He’s a very progressive, radical type of minister that was part of the Dr. King’s team. One of his pitches was, “Man, this poll tax, we gotta get rid of that.” But it just shows a lot of what’s going on, and like you just said some things are still around or trying to come back around. So many things these guys created and changed in the world, but some things still exist. Whether it’s racism, sexism, whatever of those things that did exist during those times, some of it still exists in certain places in America. [The film] is an inspiration...an eye-opener for all of us whether you black, white, or whatever nationality you are. It’s got great actors in it, and I think people will love it. That was one of the most fulfilling roles that I’ve ever done.
DX: You and Ice Cube are big box-office draws now. You had a brief squabble with him on wax in the ‘90s against each other, and squashed that not long after it began. Given the chance today, would you ever collaborate with Cube in a film or a record?
Common: I’d say “for sure.” I would collaborate with him. It would be fun to do a film with him. The right project, I would definitely be down with doing a movie with Ice Cube. You know, Ice Cube is someone that, point blank, before he dissed me I loved him, and through the diss, I still respected him. But I had to fight back, and I’m a fighter, so I did what I had to do. But then after we settled things, it was always like I still had admiration for him and honor what he’s done in music and film. He’s been incredible in both mediums. So I definitely would do something with him. It would preferably be a movie, because he does some fun different stuff. And I would like to do something, I don’t know, but it would be a great idea though.
How Ben Wilson Connects To Common’s Basketball Ties In Chicago
DX: A lot of your fans may not really know your basketball roots. During your teen years, you were a former employee of the Chicago Bulls as a ball boy during Michael Jordan’s rise to dominance in the NBA in the ‘80s. Right?
Common: Yup, I was a ballboy. I was just talking about some Jordan’s my father has that Michael Jordan gave me when I was a ballboy, and he signed them. And they’re collector’s items now [laughs].
DX: Chicago has a very rich basketball history, a la Hoop Dreams, Tim Hardaway, Doc Rivers, Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, and the list goes on and on. And you witnessed the city of Chicago’s mourning of high school basketball legend Ben Wilson’s death in 1985. Do you have any good personal stories from that time period coming up in Chicago, the other Mecca of Basketball besides New York City?
Common: Aww, man! I used to play basketball at this place called South Central Community Center. And I remember Benji Wilson coming in, because that was his neighborhood too. It wasn’t far from my neighborhood, so it was like he came up to the gym and we was like geeked up because at that point he was our Jordan. He was Ben Wilson, from Chicago, number one player in the nation. Had all this flare, he just had the “it” factor. I remember when he came up to the gym, and I was just geeked that he was there. He had on his Simeon [High School] jacket. Simeon is the same school that Jabari Parker, Derrick Rose, and all these guys come from. They produced a lot of great ball players. And I remember thinking, “I want to be known like Benji is!” I wanted to be something when I seen Benji. So that was definitely something. And then Isiah [Thomas] and Magic Johnson used to come for the summer leagues, and Tim Hardaway too—they used to play at this place called Chicago State. It’s a college. And they would play in these summer leagues and be killin’. Rod Strickland would be playing there too. I remember those days, and being a ballboy I experienced a lot of stuff, so my basketball roots are deep in Chicago.
DX: After 25 years in the game, what record and/or accomplishment are you proud of the most?
Common: Honestly, it’s being able to release a string of albums: it would be Resurrection, Like Water For Chocolate, and now Nobody’s Smiling. Those are the things that made me the most proud because I feel like those are the best moments that I’ve had as an artist in my music, and that’s what it starts with. When I feel like my music is at the greatest level, I feel at the greatest level.