Common on house, Hyundais, and 50-piece hip-hop orchestras

Written by Marion Hodges Interview by Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez

“When I started, I just wanted to be heard, I wanted to be recognized as the emcee,” Common says. “Then things started to evolve and open up. The more I got to see what was out there and see what I cared about, what I was passionate about, and what I thought I could be great at.” Photo by Seth Van Matre.

Common has been, in typical powerhouse fashion, a busy guy — last month, he swung by the Tribeca Film Festival in New York to pick up the prestigious Harry Belafonte Voices for Social Justice Award, before heading on tour behind 2021’s standout “A Beautiful Revolution Pt.2,” and then into prepping with a 50-piece hip-hop orchestra for last weekend’s mega-show at Burbank’s Starlight Bowl. But you wouldn’t know it from the quiet swagger and generous spirit he brought to Morning Becomes Eclectic the morning of rehearsal.    

From the moment his mic switched on, the good feels flowed as the artist went deep with hosts Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez on Roe, incarceration, activism, and the quite literally life-changing connections he’s had with fans. 

There are plenty of lighter moments to revel in as well. You already know that Anthony is coming through with 100% correct sonic surprises, and even through the airwaves you can see the gleeful look on Common’s face when the Chicago house classics enter the chat. The artist also reflects on his first headlining tour (around 2002’s “Electric Circus” album), driving through Chicago in his classic red Hyundai to De La Soul and Stereolab, and the all-important litmus test of taste: Cake or pie? 

Venture in for this extended tour into the psyche of one of hip-hop’s most influential statesmen. 

KCRW: How did you link up with the orchestra to do this show? How did that come together? 

Common: I started doing a few orchestra shows some years ago, in different cities. It started at the Kennedy Center. And that experience for me was like, wait, I never heard my music sound like this. And it stretched me in a way that I had to work under the structure of having the orchestra but still stay free into what I do as an artist and live performance. So I liked having to grow in that area, too. Performance is just a new dimension. And people who sometimes might not know the music or might not be as much into hip-hop still enjoy the show. 

Do you have to restructure your songs at all to go with the orchestra? Does it become a new song? 

It definitely feels like a new song. Songs that I have like “The Light,” I’ll hear it and I'm like, wait, I didn't even know it can sound like this. I respect symphonies and orchestras so much because the musicians are so committed and disciplined, and they'd like they come in and do their thing. The restructuring I had to get to was just being more structured. I'm used to being able to just go off and improvise a lot. And sometimes you can't do that with the orchestra.

The last artist we spoke with before you was Ambar Lucid. She’s 21 years old, and she just came back from her first headlining tour. What can you tell us about your first headlining tour?

My first headlining tour, it didn't come until later… when I was on my album “Electric Circus.” I did shows when I was the headliner, but not a full tour. That tour was with Gang Starr, and Talib Kweli. And funny enough, Kanye [West] was doing a guest appearance with Talib during that time. So it was 2003, and it was great. I remember DJ Premier from Gang Starr telling me  that he really didn't like “Electric Circus,” but the live performance made him like it. So it just goes to show you what live music can do.

“Electric Circus” has always felt like an album way ahead of its time. Is that something you were going for when you were making it?

I love you saying that. I got that reaction from one of my best friends who I grew up with, someone who's seen my whole career and just knows me. When he heard the album he said something like “Man, this needs to come out in 2012. Like, what are you doing?!” Now, for you to say in 2022 that it still feels like the future... I really appreciate that. I’ve had this love… and sometimes some embarrassment about that album. But I really came back to being so grateful that I was able to create that album, explore my artistry, and just push the boundaries. That’s what being an artist is about if you naturally feel it. I was so inspired by Radiohead and Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and Stereolab… So why not go there? It was this real feeling that I'm not gonna let hip hop, or being a black artist from the Southside of Chicago box me into what my sound should be or what I should like.

Can you give us more of a picture of what those early years on the Southside of Chicago were like? What was your first car? What was coming out of the speakers?

My very first car was a red Hyundai. And at that time I was bumping like KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, Biggie, Big Daddy Kane, NWA, Milk Dee from Audio Two, MC Lyte, Ice Cube… that was all in the late 80s. And then, my real car that defined hip hop for me was a Toyota Celica. At one point I had —  in Chicago — I had no heat. I would drive around this highway we got called Lakeshore Drive. And I would just write my songs in my head… sayin’ them out loud… And then I would have to scrape the inside of the windshields because they would freeze up. But it was a beautiful experience. 

And at that time I was bumping Tribe’sMidnight Marauders” and Pharcyde. That was 93 so I was definitely bumping De La Soul’s “Buhloone Mindstate.” Yeah, I remember that. When I think about that car I think about how I still had tapes and CDs.

You’ve touched on how you take chances sonically, but you’re also known for being incredibly vulnerable as a lyricist. Is there ever a voice in your head telling you to hold back from that, but that you’re able to push through somehow?

You know, I don't think I even knew better… My mentality was that of a young black guy from Chicago who admires Muhammad Ali, Gil Scott-Heron, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone. And so I was okay with being a rebel. Even if rebelling at that moment meant being open and vulnerable, and able to be myself. I wasn't afraid of what repercussions would come from that. I think part of that was shaped by the environment I was in. It's funny, I grew up in a neighborhood where it's tough, but it's also progressive in certain ways. And my close friend group allowed me to be me. So by the time I was able to create music, I was okay with being me. 

The artists that I always loved… the Donny Hathaways, the Stevie Wonders, the Nina Simones… they told their stories. My song “Retrospect for Life” talks about abortion. I'm pro-choice, and I believe people should have their own autonomy to their body, they should be able to make the choice of what they want to do with their bodies. So let's just make that clear. I'm not afraid to talk about that. I stand where I stand on that, I believe in that, and we'll fight for that, too. 

But that particular song… a gentleman came up to me after one of my shows, and he said “Hey, Common, your song ‘Retrospect for Life’ made me decide to have my child. We were deciding if we were going to have abortion, and we decided to have our child because of that song.” 

That really struck me in this kind of opening of the heavens way for me to realize that this music has purpose. Me just telling my story actually affected somebody else's life in a big way. So I say just continue to, to be you. People aren’t gonna always accept it all the time. But there’s strength and empowerment in it. You just walk around with a little less fear.

You released your second memoir “Let Love Have the Last Word” in 2019. Did writing and releasing a book about life and love have a major impact on how you experienced what we all went through in 2020, and to an extent what we’re still going through now?

When you pay attention to yourself in life, each step is going to help you get to the next place. I didn't know that we would be still the way we were during the pandemic. In my book, I talk about my daughter saying things along the lines of “I don't think he was a good father here and there.” Obviously that was hurtful, and I’ve tried to decipher it. But through that process I learned more about expressing what love is, paying attention, and listening. 

Going out and talking with people about those experiences, and talking to people about therapy gave me more a sense of who I was. I pay more attention to my truth, and stop being afraid of hiding it from myself. Funnily enough, a lot of the things I was putting in music, I didn't even know I felt. It's a subconscious thing because the truth comes out. I'm not thinking so much when I'm writing [music], I'm just allowing the divine expression to come through. 

So being on the book tour in 2019 definitely helped get me ready. Nothing prepared me for what we would experience, but I do think those steps helped me to be stronger and to be more aware. So when I was in that moment of the pandemic, I was able to say; “Okay, this is what I feel… let me be present.” That was a lot of what the book was about, how do you love in the present way? How do you find yourself being present? What are the methods? 

This pandemic showed me a lot about myself. It awakened me to a lot of things. It made me feel more connected to humanity than I've ever felt before. My relationship with God grew stronger. As did my love for self and the simple things: my family, the sunshine, good food, green juice. All of these are the simple things that I want to keep in my life. It’s meaningful to me.

Another major thing that you’re known for is your activism. What’s your best piece of advice for anyone out there who wants to get involved, but is feeling overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start?

Activism seems like such a big thing to take on… like, what can I do to change the world?!  

But y’all [Novena and Anthony] are changing the world and being activists by the integrity, and the work, and the energy you put out with your show [Morning Becomes Eclectic]. To me, that's the kind of activism that people might not necessarily define as activism. But activism is broad, and it really starts with you having something that you care about. 

For me, I care about people. So I find places where I can help people, especially those who are in need. If I see young people dealing with difficulties, or just trying to find their dream… I'm gonna find out how I can help them. My suggestion to people who are looking to do something is always to look around and say; “What do I want to change?” It might just be creating a better garden in your neighborhood. 

I think for anyone who wants to participate in making the world better, it starts with self activism first. Working on yourself to be the best person you can be. Even in the smallest gestures of treating others with love, respect, kindness, and compassion is a great start. But then you find those things that you really might care about, and you can connect with organizations. A lot of the work that I'm doing now with prison reform, and criminal justice reform, I connected with organizations who do it. And then we formed our organization called Imagine Justice. I'm one of the people with the whole team. 

We've been able to get programs in prisons. I just came from SingSing, in New York. We were there just listening to incarcerated people so that we could figure out what we can bring them. A lot of them were talking about mental health, and they just needed therapy. So we’re like, okay, we need to be a part of bringing therapy to people who are incarcerated. 

The people I've met in prison have been some of the most insightful and enlightened people I've ever been around. It's just so telling to the fact that our country got so much potential and it could do so much better when it comes to punishment, and changing that direction into healing. 

I just spent seven months in London because I was filming a TV show called “Wool.”  I felt free over there. And part of that was just… the police didn't have guns. People weren't walking around with guns like that, and I didn't feel that danger. I didn't feel as endangered in my body. And people over there will say that there’s racism there too, but it ain't the same. You don't feel like you could be destroyed just because somebody don't like the way you look,or the color of your skin. I just felt a little less of the tension of us, going back and forth over everything. Just because I'm in this space, and I'm this political party don't mean that you're the opposite of me. I respect what you believe, do what you need to do. And if it comes to us strategizing for political things, I'm gonna stand up for what I believe in and speak to that. But that doesn't mean war against you. I believe that we have the potential to get there in this country. Seeing other countries really makes you think we could do better.

Tell us about how your career evolved from your work with collectives like Soulquarians.

When I started, I just wanted to be heard, I wanted to be recognized as the emcee. But I never knew that I could be a musician. I never knew that I could be an artist, I never knew I could be an actor. Then things started to evolve and open up. The more I got to see what was out there and see what I cared about, what I was passionate about, and what I thought I could be great at. I tried playing the piano and it wasn't there. I pursued acting because it's something that I love, and I feel like I can become great at it. 

So evolving with these musicians was part of the evolution of me as a person. No I.D. and Twilite Tone… we started together, creating albums. The first three albums were produced by those producers. Then eventually I connected with Questlove, J Dilla, James Poysner, and we were all around each other with Erykah [Badu], and D'Angelo. Soulquarians… Mos [Def], Talib [Kweli] and Bilal. That evolved into realizing that I was around all these different types of artists from different parts of the country all sharing the same desire to create something fresh and progressive. It was Black Thought who introduced me to Fela Kuti, and Questlove introduced me to all types of music. So that was evolving me, I was growing with them, and we were growing as people and as artists.

Then to get to work with Ye… who I knew, from, like, 1996, but I didn't work with him until 2003. He was actually around with No I.D. who was teaching him about production as he was also growing on his own. He would come around and want to rap against me, you know, cuz I was the dude from Chicago [laughs].

But, I think once we both evolved to a certain level it felt like the right combination. And I evolved in that relationship of production and creativity because he really was a producer. He would be like; “Change these lyrics,” or “This chorus is better,” and “Keep that take!” I'd never had somebody so assertive, so that was a beautiful experience. And then things just continue to evolve.

Your Rolodex already includes Stevie Wonder, the Obamas, and Questlove (to name a few). Who's a dream person you would want to add?

Quentin Tarantino would be somebody I would love to have in the Rolodex, because I love films. Kendrick Lamar is the first person that came to my mind because I love what he does as an emcee, and an artist. Also Barry Jenkins is a director that I really, really love. Those are the people that came to mind.

Is there a dream role that you'd like to play as an actor? 

One role I would like to play is Gil Scott-Heron. You would have to put a wig on me [laughs], but otherwise I feel like I would really dig into that character. Because I've grown up listening to Gil Scott, and I relate to him so much. His music has inspired me, and his life is dynamic. I got a chance to meet him and perform with him, which was a blessing. And we've sampled him in different things… but I just think he's a really unique and special individual. I would love to play him. 

Somebody mentioned to me playing Charles Mingus, who was also a dynamic character. The stories that my friends who come from the jazz world tell me about him being kind of a bully and  a tough dude. It seems interesting to me when you think of a jazz musician… I mean, not like they’re not fully shaped human beings. But I hear stories about him, and there’s probably a lot more to him even than that. So I would love to play him.

Now we have to ask you our most serious, and controversial question yet… Cake or pie?

Cake is just the best. It makes me think of the best birthdays I've had. Also, the stuff that people can do with cake… In fact, I want to shout out one of my great collaborators. Her name is Lauren Von Der Pool. She's a vegan chef and she makes some of the best cake I've ever had in my life. Cake!!! Cake, Cake, Cake!





Anna Chang