Rapper Common Hasn't Lost His Sense
By: Matt Sonzala (Alpha -N- Omega Project)
Hailing from the south side of Chicago, but currently residing in Brooklyn, New York, Common is one of hip hop's most prolific, and engaging voices. His no nonsense approach to putting down his rhymes goes hand in hand with his vision for a more culturally aware world. His career has taken him around the planet, and on his new album, "Like Water For Chocolate," he shares his excitement and zest for positivity through rhymes that range from comical to revolutionary to inter-stellar. Matt Sonzala talks to Common about Cuba, Jazz, and life as a nomad.
ANO: WHATS ON YOUR MIND THESE DAYS MAN?
Common: Just you know, love and happiness. That's what I'm focusing on.
ANO: ON YOUR NEW RECORD YOU TALK A LOT ABOUT YOUR RECENT TRAVELS AND EXPERIENCES, MOST NOTABLY YOUR TRIP TO CUBA TO MEET ASSATA SHAKUR (former Black Panther living in exile in Cuba). CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT MEETING?
Common: Well I went down to Cuba to meet Assata Shakur and it was one of the most special moments of my life. It was like meeting my mother. It was like meeting a sister. Meeting a cool friend. She's a living martyr really, like somebody who sacrificed their life for freedom for all people. It was like meeting history, like meeting the revolution right there. She was cool. Just because she's a revolutionary it's not like she don't joke and stuff, cuz she is a person. She's got emotions like all of us. Cuba was such a beautiful experience. First of all it's a beautiful place. You see people there really fighting for what they believe in and sacrificing. They want socialism and they believe in revolution. They are not trying to succumb to the international powers that be. It was like that whole spirit and the spirit of the music. Man, music is everywhere.
ANO: WAS MEETING ASSATA YOUR SOLE REASON FOR GOING TO CUBA?
Common: That was the reason basically.
ANO: WHAT OTHER THINGS DID YOU DO OUT THERE? DID YOU STAY IN HAVANA? DID YOU PERFORM?
Common: I stayed in Havana. I went out there twice. One time I went out and performed at a hip hop festival. I went to a couple of jazz joints. Went to all the restaurants. Went to the hip hop festival last August. It was an experience man.
ANO: DID YOU GET TO GO TO CUBA LEGITIMATELY (The American government prohibits Americans from going to Cuba, but there are ways to get around it) OR DID YOU HAVE TO DO SOME TRAVELLING TO GET THERE?
Common: We had to travel
ANO: WHAT'S THE HIP HOP FESTIVAL ALL ABOUT DOWN THERE?
Common: Man what's so dope is you got cats who ain't had the opportunity to have MPC 3000s, or turntables, but they make it with whatever they can do. They get instrumentals from American hip hop artists or wherever they get them and they get up and they do what they feel. Talk about their culture and their struggle and they are really going through a certain struggle, they really have a story to tell. It was so beautiful man. It felt spiritual too. It was an event man where it wasn't just music being done. There were cats painting in the background. People was talking about certain political issues. The spirit was there. Assata Shakur was there. Other freedom fighters and political prisoners were there. So when I performed it was like "wow."
ANO: CAN YOU COMPARE THE PLIGHT OF THE PEOPLE IN CUBA TO THE PLIGHT OF THE POOR FOLKS LIVING IN THE PROJECTS ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO?
Common: To a certain extent but I think the Cubans got an agenda. They know that we are going through the struggle for this reason or we believe that our people should have health care and a good life. But I think like with the struggle in the neighborhoods, we all trying to get it but we all fighting over certain things. We don't have an agenda or a unified cause. I think that a lot of brothers in the ghetto, sometimes we lack that self knowledge. Just knowing who you are means a whole lot. And I can't say that every Cuban knows that, but they have an agenda. They behind Castro, they know what they fighting for, they know what Castro stands for, they just got a solidified fight.
Common: Brazil. They got a struggle going on too. We was down there and people was talking about how, yo there's people really going through some of the stuff that the American rappers be talking about, as far as the pure ghetto. Brazil was beautiful too, but Cuba was the best experience. I like Japan man cuz it's a progressive culture and you get to get in to a whole new existence as far as technology, language, the foods. I like it there. I actually like Stockholm, Sweden too.
ANO: YOU RECENTLY MOVED FROM CHICAGO TO NEW YORK. CAN YOU COMPARE THE CLIMATE OF LIVING IN NEW YORK TO LIVING IN CHICAGO?
Common: Well, I love home first of all, so ain't no place like Chicago to me. But being here for my career and my life right now is real dope. New York is like a melting pot of musicians. It's a melting pot of cultures. There's a lot of variety and the movement of it is so, not only competitive, but there's a certain, not only hunger, but a certain work ethic and hustle that they got out here that's dope. Chicago, we more laid back. We on our hustle, but we're more laid back. We're very observant. We more the type to sit back and watch. They'll observe, then make a move. But in New York, it's do or die. They'll make the move right there. Chicago is real segregated. I love Chicago for it's beauty and it's home and my family is there. But in New York you are exposed to a lot of culture. There's something to do all the time. I can go to an African restaurant, go to a Thai restaurant or go see somebody play jazz at three in the morning on Tuesday.
ANO: YEAH THE EXTREME SEGREGATION OF CHICAGO BOTHERS ME. BUT THERE'S AN INCREDIBLE COMMUNITY OF MUSICIANS OUT HERE AS WELL.
Common: Man there's super musicians in Chicago man. Super soulful, artists, musicians. You got a lot of it, but another thing with New York is they got access to a lot of things because it's an entertainment city too. It's so much going on so that's one of the big differences.
ANO: ALL THE CATS OUT HERE IN THE RAP GAME BLAME THE LACK OF MUSIC INDUSTRY IN CHICAGO TO THE LACK OF ARTISTS WHO ACTUALLY MAKE IT. DO YOU THINK THAT'S THE CASE?
Common: That's part of it, but you know, for an artist to make it he's gotta be heard and get it to the world. There's a lot of artists out there that's dope but they ain't been able to get signed or they album didn't get released correctly because they didn't have the proper label, proper management, proper plan. There's a lot of artists out there that ain't been exposed to the world because they haven't had the opportunity to utilize the best resources. I mean point blank, New York and LA are the capitals for entertainment and being out here is like a benefit for that. Unless an artist can get to a certain level financially, and status wise, there's only so much he gonna be able to do for people in his city. The only thing he can do right then and there is put them on his album or try to help them get heard by an A&R.
ANO: ALL OF YOUR ALBUMS HAVE HAD A CERTAIN JAZZY TONE TO THEM, BUT ON THIS ONE YOU'VE GOT SOME DEEP GROOVES RUNNING THROUGH IT. IN BETWEEN SONGS, THROUGHOUT THE SONGS. I THINK THE JAZZ SCENE IN CHICAGO IS INCREDIBLE. WERE THERE ANY CHICAGO JAZZ ARTISTS WHO YOU CAME UP AROUND WHO MIGHT HAVE HAD AN INFLUENCE ON YOU?
Common: Well I can say this. Coming up, I didn't hear jazz as much because I don't think that that's what my mother was listening to. So I didn't hear it a lot, but I did get into it. The artists I appreciate is like Ahmad Jamal, I don't think he was born in Chicago but he came up from there. Gene Ammons, this saxophone player. Herbie Hancock is from Chicago and I definitely love his stuff. But coming up, I got into jazz later, like going to the jazz festivals and stuff like that. So that came later in life, but as far as now what I'm really digging, I mean it don't even be cats that you would know.
ANO: I MIGHT KNOW THEM.
Common: O.K. Well like, Roy Hargrove. It's this guy Kenyatta who I went to see the other day but I forgot his last name. I seen Max Roach here. This sax player called Teodrous Avery. A lot of these young cats. I mean I just know some of them by first name cuz I just go see them and check them out. I like this piano player named James Hirt. Stefon Harris, this vibe player. Ruben Rogers. Chris McBride. Greg Hutchinson. Kareem Briggans.
ANO: TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE BAND YOU TOUR WITH.
Common: The band is called A BLACK GIRL NAMED BECKY and we have five pieces in it. Two keyboards, DJ, bass, drums, and I'm gonna add some horns to it and sometimes some congas. Man we just try to give y'all a soulful show so you feel like, man, I felt them brothers playing. We want you to feel each spirit that comes through the instrument.
ANO: WILL YOU CONTINUE TO TOUR WITH THE BAND? WILL YOU EVER RECORD WITH THEM?
Common: Yeah as a matter of fact we just started rehearsing again. We gonna do A BLACK GIRL NAMED BECKY album, but it's not gonna be a Common Sense album. It's gonna be tight. I'd only rap on one or two songs and we would get other artists to come bless it.
ANO: ON "APHRODESIAC FOR THE WORLD" YOU SAY YOU WENT "FROM BASHFUL, TO ASSHOLE, TO INTERNATIONAL," WHY DO YOU SAY ASSHOLE?
Common: Well I mean at times some people have looked at me as being like, being an asshole. I used to be out with my guys sometimes doing dumb things. Disrespecting folks to a certain point, so I mean, that's an asshole to me. I wasn't totally asshole, but that was part of it.
ANO: ON "THE SIXTH SENSE" YOU SOUND LIKE YOU ARE SAYING THAT YOU TAKE A CERTAIN RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE MESSAGE YOU SEND OUT. DO YOU THINK THAT MORE RAPPERS SHOULD THINK MORE RESPONSIBLY WHEN WRITING THEIR RHYMES?
Common: I don't know if I can tell rappers what to do but I feel like, I would ask that as young black men and women being able to speak to the world that we at least take some responsibility for our youth. If we gonna talk shit, then we should explain it and let them know the different sides to life. About whatever you might be basing it on that might be perceived as negative, but it ain't in connection with the Supreme Being. Put it this way, if you got the opportunity to speak to the world, and God gave you that platform, and you know what's right then you should reflect what's right through your music. It ain't gotta be preachy. It ain't gotta be all about that, it could be balanced. At some point in time you should definitely acknowledge the righteousness that you know and you should live it too. That's what I'm striving for. I'm not saying I'm perfect but that's what I'm striving to do. We as MC's affect the children. We affect peoples lives, even old folks. It means a lot. Hip hop is one of the biggest catalyst phenomenon's right now in the world. So you gotta be responsible with your stuff.
ANO: TELL ME ABOUT THE COMMON GROUND FOUNDATION.
Common: It's basically established to help children get computers and help take them on trips around the world so they can see different parts and get exposed to different cultures. A lot of our children don't get to see nothing besides their neighborhood. We also set up programs for day care, little league, but it's in its incubation stage right now. As we speak everything is coming together.
© 2006 VANESSA BYERS, Vanessa: Unplugged