On Monday, September 22, Common and No I.D. held a discussion in conjunction with the Los Angeles chapter of the Grammy Academy. Author, screenwriter and HipHopDX News Editor Soren Baker facilitated the conversation at Apogee Studio in Santa Monica, where Common and No I.D. discussed their respective approaches to music, their friendship and how the aforementioned elements impacted their work on Common’s latest album, Nobody’s Smiling. In addition to Common performing selected tracks from his catalogue, both No I.D. and Common also took questions moderated by Baker.

“I was particularly pleased that Common provided specific ways for people to improve themselves when asked,” Baker says. “A lot of people like to shed light on the problems, but it was refreshing for Common to provide some concrete ways for people to potentially better themselves.”

Ten albums into a career that includes a Best R&B Song Grammy Award win for the 2002 collaboration with Erykah Badu, “Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop),” Common is still both a student and a teacher. Here, we cast both Common and No I.D. in the latter role and run down six key takeaways from their Grammy Pro Session.

Common Calls “Nobody’s Smiling” A Return Home

The initial reports of Common’s tenth album, which DX got word of in the summer of 2013 at Rock The Bells Los Angeles, were that the Chicago emcee was moving away from his more esoteric fare and back to his musical roots. As the retail release of Nobody’s Smiling drew nearer, it became clear Common and No I.D. based the album around more of a geographical and conceptual return to Chicago.

“I felt like this album was a way for me to return home in many ways,” Common said. “Me talking about gangs… [“The Neighborhood”] was really about how we were raised. It’s not only from a gang perspective, but I actually was able to go to a private school. My mother worked hard. It was gangbanging still in the best of neighborhoods. It still was gangbanging and drugs, so I just talked about what I been through.”

Common added that he got a youthful perspective working with kids in his Common Ground Foundation. In addition to newer vernacular, he was able to draw a connection with listeners of various ages between prominent Chicago figures such as Curtis Mayfield, El Rukn leader Prince Malik and President Barack Obama.

No I.D. Approaches Music From A Position Of Being Of Service

In his current role as Executive Vice President / Co-Head of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, No I.D. has had a hand in the careers of artists such as Jhene Aiko, Vince Staples and Logic. He’s also lent his production talents to hit songs such as Jay Z’s “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)” and Kanye West’s “Bound 2.” Such accolades would lead some to assume No I.D. views his job as an administrative or managerial role, but he described it differently.

“A person who serves people the best is usually taken care of, loved and respected at the end of the day,” No I.D said. “That’s just one of my personal keys to success—to be able to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this music.’ But it’s in the spirit of service. It’s not in the spirit of self-glorification or preaching about information we feel we know that makes us smarter.”

No I.D. also explained that even in his role as an executive producer on Nobody’s Smiling, he still hoped to be of service to his friend and collaborator Common. He essentially compared himself to a boxing trainer referring to Common as a messenger and saying his role was to get him hype.

Twilight Tone’s Criticism Made No I.D. A More Diverse Producer

A central tenet of Hip Hop is its competitive spirit. Call it capitalism or call it personhood, but someone calling you out on something you take pride in gives you two choices. You can either get out there and prove them wrong, or you can let them define you. No I.D. chose the former, when, after the success of Common’s debut album, Can I Get A Dollar?, Twilight Tone claimed he, “didn’t have any good samples after the first album.” Tone laughed, saying, “Ha, ha, ha. You don’t have any samples. You’re not good.”

That, “someone told me I fell off / Oh, I needed that,” moment led to No I.D. scouring the country for the samples he’d eventually bring to Common’s followup Resurrection. It also changed his life. The super-producer had this to say:

“I bought so many records. I shopped all around the country, and I came back, and that was like some of the Resurrection energy. It was really me trying to prove my value and fighting my own insecurities. That within itself was my motivation.” Let that be a lesson to all of you who would rather give up than re-up. Disappointment always eats first, and it eats alone.

“Rewind That” References Common & No I.D.’s “Mandatory Break”

By No I.D.’s estimation, he and Common have known each other since they were both eight or nine-years-old. That covers when Common had a full head of hair, when No I.D. was referred to as “Slope,” trips to the New Music Seminar, and when No I.D. (under the moniker Immenslope) was notching production credits on Can I Borrow A Dollar? But a friendship that covers over 20 years also requires some breathing room.

“If you spend a lot of time knowing somebody, it’s gotta be a time when you just don’t mess with each other [laughs],” No I.D. said. “It’s mandatory. You cannot go a lifetime in full friendship. It’s just the cycles of living. We were literally kids, and we found some music we liked in a city where we had no idea we could do this for a career.”

Their two respective careers led diverging paths, with Common collaborating with the likes of DJ Premier, J Dilla, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. The track “Rewind That” finds Common referencing his works without No I.D. rhyming, “My man who I started with, wasn’t a part of it / And his presence, I didn’t even acknowledge it.” With No I.D. handling the production on both The Dreamer / The Believer and Nobody’s Smiling, it’s safe to say the mandatory break was productive and possibly justified. Both men enjoyed success outside of their partnership and reconnected as both friends and fellow musicians.

Common Steps Into Character On And Off The Mic

It’s important to remember that Rap is an artform. Sometimes you’re spitting your own truths, but there are times when you’re portraying the thoughts and emotions of characters you’ve created to better speak to the truth of the topic you’re trying to shine a light on. Wherever that inspiration comes from, Common talked about fully embodying those roles, writing songs not only for himself but for the plight of those in his beloved Chi-town.

“Whatever songs I’m working on, I do the best to show the humanity in me or if I’m dealing with a character… If I’m writing a song in somebody else’s place, I just try to tap into those things,” Common said. “That’s really the truth of it. I just let the humanity come out. Whether it’s music, film or whatever, you just want people to know we’re all going through some of the same things.”

It’s that universality that separates Common from other emcees. He’s willing to dive into the minds of others (and his own) to preserve the sanctity of his sounds. He’s also not afraid to craft a message that shows a way out.

“One of the important things I like to do is talk about an issue I may be going through and also give a solution,” he added. “I like to give a resolution, because I get tired of music that just talks about, ‘Man, this is what we doing on the streets,’ but there’s no way to get out. I like light that the end of the tunnel. Even in the dark, there’s a song or moment.” Let’s call that the real universal mind control.

Common Believes Spirituality Is A Key To Improvement

Common Sense has never been shy about showing his spirituality. Sometimes his complexity intertwines to create holistic masterpieces like “I Used to Love H.E.R” and sometimes his dueling light and shadow spin out of balance and create work that strays in two different directions. But, it’s there, always, and on Nobody’s Smiling he made sure he pointed that spiritual energy toward an impassioned defense of the second city. He acknowledges, though, changing your community starts with changing yourself.

“I believe if you get in tune with your spirituality, I think that’s the first step for any human being,” Common said. “Whatever it may be, I’m not telling a person what religion they should choose or what spiritual path. But we all come from a higher being, and that’s the first step. When you work on that, you start gaining some love for self. You ain’t gonna always be perfect with it, and you understand that. Loving yourself is loving yourself in those moments where you ain’t good. You ain’t gotta beat yourself over the head when you make mistakes. Once you start loving yourself and really feeling confident, then I think you’re able to love others. That itself is the start to bettering the world.”

There’s a correlation there between bettering the world and bettering yourself that’s dangerous in Hip Hop. You don’t want to sound preachy and self-righteous in a world where gritty street tales sell well more than not, but Common’s found a way to be successful while growing in his spirituality. The Chi-city emcee had this to say:

“Whether you’re part of the Grammy Academy or a voter, you’re part of life, and we’re all here living and breathing. If you want to contribute to the world, you find places you’re passionate about in it, and just go for it. Figure out the ways, and don’t be lazy about it. It’s a daily activity, just like working on yourself is a daily activity. I ain’t gonna act like I got all the answers or I’m Oprah Winfrey, but I think we can improve [laughs].”

Photo courtesy of Andres Tardio. Additional reporting by Andre Grant.

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