Award-winning rapper, actor, and activist Common fell in love with hip hop and it changed his life. It started with the moment he heard “Sucker M.C.s” by Run D.M.C. around the time he was learning how to break dance and felt like, as a young black kid, he was a part of a culture that was confident and inspiring. It was the music video for “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. and Rakim that inspired him to not only love the culture from afar, but to be a part of it. And the album that changed his perspective on life and motivated him as an MC was A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory.
“I can remember being at Florida A&M and it was the start of my second year,” he said. “We were sitting down and I put that album on and I never heard anything sonically like that. The way they were using jazz music and the way Q-Tip and Phife Dawg rapped, it felt like hip hop’s Earth, Wind and Fire. Also they found an individualism that you got out of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and the whole Native Tongue family that for me it was like, ‘Wow, I can actually just be myself.’ It was the entryway as a black kid not having to always be hard, everything is machismo. That album The Low End Theory brought a fun energy, introspective type of raps, and just very soulful. So I go back and forth with Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory, depending on the week.”
Another inspiring record was De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate. Common says he revisited the recently reissued record all summer and it takes him back to the time where he was in-between his debut album, Can I Borrow A Dollar?, and the follow-up, Resurrection.
“That album changed my life because I had released Can I Borrow A Dollar? already and it wasn’t getting a great reception,” he said. “I was getting some underground love, but it wasn’t what I envisioned my album in my career to be at that point. I had to go through a whole journey of self reflection and digging deep within myself to figure out how to be better. There was several things influenced that. It was listening to John Coltrane and getting more into jazz music, reading not only the Bible, but reading the Koran and checking out different spiritual things that helped me grow. But Buhloone Mindstate was an album that showed me, we talking about going personal and soulful, they got a song called ‘I Am I Be.’ That allowed me to go, ‘Oh, I could be as personal as I want, introspective, and reflective as I want.’ They did it beautifully. That album is one of my favorite De La Soul albums and one of the greatest hip hop albums.”
As he celebrates the release anniversary of his first two projects. Common reflected on how those albums shaped him as an artist.
“What I remember about the time surrounding Can I Borrow A Dollar? was I was just excited, hungry, and I just wanted to be heard,” he said. “That album was a culmination of songs I made for my demo tape, songs I was making as I was waiting around at college, but just not fully going to classes because I had my record contract. Just me, No I.D, Twilite Tone, my manager Derek, just us being kids with dreams. We went into Calliope Studios in New York because De La, Tribe, Jungle Brothers, and these other groups that we loved recorded there, so we wanted to record there. I remember recording the album within a week or two. I had a lot of my friends come through and it was an experience because it was like a victory for all my friends that loved hip hop and grew up loving this. Wanting to be like KRS One, Rakim, Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane, and EPMD. It was a celebration and culmination of that, and also just a young kid not knowing what to do but having a dream and just expressing it.”
“With Resurrection, to me it was a resurrection because many people didn’t know me from Can I Borrow A Dollar? and I really dug deep,” he said. “I was working and I would be freestyling with these cats out of Indiana. I was listening to Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Souls of Mischief, Hieroglyphics, and just getting better. No I.D. was growing and Twilite was growing. So we ended up coming with Resurrection. What I remember from that album was feeling like, ‘Man, we actually are getting better,’ and I was coming with concepts, which the first song that ever got me on a more national and eventually international level was ‘I Used To Love Her.'”
“I remember writing that song feeling like, ‘Man, this feels good.’ I just thank God that he expressed that concept through me because that concept was something that became timeless. So many people use that metaphor for songs or even for films like Brown Sugar. So I remember that album being like Resurrection and me finally feeling like I was starting to be recognized. Like De La and Tribe told me they listen to that album. In fact, that’s how I got on ‘The Bizness’ by De La Soul because of Resurrection. So it was a full circle thing because Buloone Mindstate and Midnight Marauders influenced me. And that Midnight Marauders cover was one of my inspirations. I had it on the wall and it had all these different artists on (the wall) including The Pharcyde, Large Professor, all these hip hop legends was on that. You ever hear those athletes that look at the people who got drafted before them and they keep that list? That Midnight Marauders cover was on my wall partially for that reason. Like, ‘Okay, I didn’t make this album cover, I need Tribe to know who I am.’ So I think Resurrection was able to do that. I remember Notorious B.I.G., God bless his soul, gave me one of those quotes for the packaging of the album and he was like, ‘Man, we wish Common was from Brooklyn.’ So that was the ultimate compliment coming from one of the greatest. That’s what Resurrection ended up being, something that started getting me recognized by the hip hop community.”
Common has become a legend in hip hop in his own right with fourteen albums and a new record with legendary producer Pete Rock in the works that, he says, will capture the essence of the 90s hip hop that inspired him.
“It’s definitely got that spirit of what we talked about,” he said. “The spirit of that music we loved in hip hop, the energy, the joy, the light, the creativity, it has that from 90 era, but its still present, new, and fresh. I feel like Pete Rock sharpened his tools, and I sharpened my sword. We are coming together to create some greatness and joy out there. I’m excited about the project.”
This Friday, Common will perform his classic catalog at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center along with the Nashville Symphony.
“I’m grateful to be performing with the Nashville Symphony and to have Jonathan Rush as our conductor is something that I know will be special,” he said. “It elevates the music and it takes it to places where you didn’t even realize the song had this emotion to it. When you hear a symphony and you hear all these musicians connected, along with what was created already with my band and vocalists, we bringing a full band, drummer, bass, keys, it’s just the whole thing. I love music and that musicianship comes to life in a new way when we have a symphony. I’m looking forward to it.”
“People have experienced my performances with the symphony and have been like, ‘Man, we never knew that song resonated like that.’ A lot of my close friends who’ve seen over 30 of my shows have been like their favorite shows is when I do something with the symphony. So I’m very excited about and I got a lot of loved ones in Nashville. I know how much Nashville loves music and just the multi-cultural aspects of it, but also just getting our people into it and having black people come and experience this is a beautiful thing. So I’m excited about bringing the dimensions and dynamics that we will get with the Nashville Symphony and Johnathan Rush. We’re going to give them the hip hop and the hip hop is the basis, but we constantly elevating. With my performances, I want people to leave and feel inspired, feel changed, and I want them to feel joy.”