Interview with Common

Common on his difficult childhood, questionable career choices and Kanye West

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Common is an open book. He's never been one to shy away from tough, personal issues on wax. If you listen intently you could probably name most of the women in his life. His rough childhood and some of his questionable career (and fashion) choices have all graced his albums. But if you think you know the Chicago MC from his music, you're mistaken. On the heels of a memoir that boasts untold street stories among other things, I sat down with the elder statesman of G.O.O.D.

Music to discuss life lessons, self-doubt, and Kanye West. Get your pen and pad ready. School is now in session.

At what point did you realize that you've made it?
Common: I had different points where I felt like I had made it. But, um, one of those points was when Prince invited me to perform at his birthday event. It was myself and Erykah Badu. You know, he's such an incredible musician and a genius and a tastemaker in music. For him to select me, that was a moment when I felt like that I've made some steps from coming from Southside Chicago.

Another moment when it really struck me, like 'Man, I'm making progress' was when I got to perform in Cuba. And, it was representing the United States, but at the same time it was representing hip-hop and African-American culture and everything that I am. It was really a political and spiritual event to be a representative of that.

Many of the rappers who came up around the same time you started out are no longer in the game. If you could name one reason you've lasted this long, what would it be?
I know it sounds like traditional response, but I will have to say it's believing.

But it's the truth. Just believing what I was doing. That meant if my record only sold 250,000 units, I'll still believe that I'm a great artist. Or if my record came out and people were like, 'Man, this is a classic.' I'll still continue to believe. Through the ups and downs and the times that hip-hop has changed, I believed in what I was doing.

And within the belief, you have to have a vision of where you want to be. You have to have a vision like, 'Man, throughout all the things going on, I can see myself coming out with music that the people will respond to.' Also, you have to have creative vision and be able to keep growing. Those were the keys for me.

Have you ever doubted yourself or career decisions?
Yes, I've doubted myself. There are times I question myself like, 'Why doesn't my record get played on the radio?' And whoever is a hot radio artist at the time would raise doubt in you.

Like, when I did the album Electric Circus. Not only was it not commercially received but even the critics and hip-hop community was like, "What is this?" At that moment, I could've been written off. But I had to believe because I really love what I do. I'm passionate about it. If 12 million recognize it, that's beautiful. If 12,000 do, that's beautiful. But I'm always going to put my heart and soul in it and I'm going to shoot for the stars and go for the highest levels of recognition and creativity. I definitely doubted myself at the time. But it always come back to believing what I do.

Speaking of believing, that's also the title of your new album. So, you've got The Dreamer, The Believer coming out, but you also have a TV show, Hell on Wheels, and a book on the way. Busy year for Common?
Yeah, man.

I love these years. These are the years that I live for. For me, it's part of who I am. To have the album coming out and participate in the TV show which is really a great role...I'm loving it. I'm also working on some new film that's on the table.

What was the hardest story for you tell in the book?
I think it was the story of...you know, your dad not being around and...you know, really dealing with that and recognizing that that it's had an effect on your life. Some people who've heard my albums know that my father is present in my life now. But...you know, growing up as a kid, you yearn for that fatherly love. That was hard to deal with, man. Also, being able to be pure and honest about my love relationships and all the ups and downs I've had to conquer. Just showing everybody everything.

I wanted to be as honest as I can be. The book is meant for people to grow from. It's not just a memoir. It's kinda like: these are the ideas of things that I've used to help me in my life, things that were passed on from my mother and my uncle. And this is what I want to pass on to my offspring. When you read it, I hope you can get the vibe.

What will we learn about you from your book that we don't know from your music?
I think people will be surprised by some of my background and some of the things that I experienced on the street level. I mean, where I come from as far as my mother and my father, and also like the battles I've had trying to be the best father. The battles I've had in relationships, the heartbreaks, things that motivated.

The connections that I've had with producers and artists. Some of the fears I had to conquer of getting into film and acting. Some of my history as a person.

I never put out the things that I did coming up in Chicago. Not that you're gonna hear any murders or anything like that. Let's be clear. But I think it's important that you know all sides of me. I always thought it's important as an artist. And I think I'll do that in this book. It brings me into a more relatable area.

As a veteran on a label with so many young rappers, what's your relationship with the other guys in the G.O.O.D. Music camp?
When I hear the younger guys I get inspired. When I hear Big Sean kicking a verse, I'm like "Yo, that's ill," and it reminds me of why I got into it. I like the feeling you get when people say a dope rap. That's what I got into this for. I love that feeling. When I'm around Sean or hear Pusha T kicking something or, of course, Kanye's always got some cute verses, I'm always in that mind set.

And, then, I learn that one of the biggest ways I can influence them is by playing my music. That kinda wakes them up like, "Aw man, Common's coming with some stuff." But it's also the same way I respond when I hear Kanye's album or OutKast or when I hear Nas or Jay, it's like "Man, I gotta come with some new stuff." I think I set that example for the younger guys on GOOD Music.

I also talk to them about appealing to multiple audiences, being universal but in the most organic way. Being able to bring who you are to the table and never conform because society says so.

If you had a freestyle battle with everyone on G.O.O.D. Music, who wins that battle?
Me.

So modest—
Put it like this: If you put me in a battle with any artist, I'm going to win. If I took myself out, I will have to say Kanye will have it. Man, that dude is one of the greatest MCs out there right now. And he's been consistently growing. The thing about him is you gotta have a sense of humor, you gotta have a style, a flavor. You gotta say be clever. I think Kanye has all those qualities and he's really honed his craft. I think he will prevail in that circle.

You've watched Kanye evolve over the years. What's the biggest change you noticed in him?
I think he's just maturing, man. One of the greatest things he's done is allow himself to live and express himself. Without those experiences in life, you don't grow. That's the ups and downs of life. That's what creates character. That's what creates stress and that's what creates greatness. And anybody that ever became great had to go through those experiences.

And I think that's what he chose to do was go out there and make some of those mistakes. And that's how I live my life also.

What was your favorite album of 2010?
I'll have to say My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

There was somewhat of a consensus around that album.
I think it has that type of quality that we look for in music. That means innovation. That means soul. That means songs that make you feel like having fun and the breakup songs. He offered himself as one of the hottest artists in music that you can ask for today. And the rhymes, man. Good music, good raps, that's what we look for in hip-hop. That's what it boils down to.