Common is one of hip-hop's true legends.
The Chicago artist has been in the game for over 25 years now, building a truly imposing catalogue, one that balances international success with true meaning.
One of the few hip-hop artists to have genuinely crossed over into Hollywood, he somehow balances his music and acting commitments with his commitment to family life.
New album 'Let Love' comes in the aftermath of his autobiography earlier this year, and with Common set to embark on a world tour - including some UK shows - next month, he's clearly in a positive creative space.
Clash caught up with the rap icon to discuss fatherhood, hip-hop, and his fantastic new album...
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Are you excited to be coming back to the UK?
I’m so excited. I came back to London just recently, and I was talking about the music, it reminded me – first of all – how much I love London. It’s been such an important place for me in my journey, in terms of the appreciation for music, and the artists that have influenced me from London.
But also, what I hear going around London – musically – is just amazing. The way people appreciate music is another level. When I was talking about my album, it was like, y’all in London have a different understanding. I feel I can go deeper when I talk about the music in London.
This record is your first since the release of your memoir, did that sense of self-analysis influence the way you approached making music?
Yes. Because when you’re writing a book you open yourself up, and you’re raw – in a way – because you go through a lot of soul searching. I talked about moments in my life that I had never explored. It left me more courageous to be open in my music, and always open in my music.
I’ve always been personal, I’ve always talked about life – whether it’s abortion, or me talking about God, or my family. But it was even more introspective in the moment of writing the book, and it allowed me to go deeper in the music. It led me to share at a certain point.
I hadn’t finished the book when I started writing the album, and they both kind of sharpened each other.
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You can really hear that in the music – the way Jill Smith augments your own voice on ‘Show Me That You Love’, for instance.
Jill Scott is the most of the most talented artists that I have ever been able to work with. She can do so many things – she’s a beautiful writer, an actress, but an incredible vocalist. I’m thinking about the songs that she’s appeared on with me, and how different they sound. Like ‘Funky For You’ or ‘I Am Music’. And now, ‘Show Me That You Love’ she just conveys a whole other energy. Some people didn’t even know it was her.
But I love working with her – we had a beautiful conversation before she recorded this. She was telling me some personal family things that she was experiencing, so it was like the song was a healing thing for her, in a way. She really sang it from a pure, honest place too.
The song explores families and fatherhood – what kind of changes does fatherhood bring? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a father?
The biggest I face as a father is figuring out how to really express my love and be present and still be in pursuit of dreams and responsibilities.
And that means having to figure out how to go for my dreams and still evolve and still dedicate my time to what music takes, and acting takes, and business takes, but also recognising that, hey, I have to balance that out by making sure I am giving quality time to my loved ones. Especially my daughter.
Does music remain the primary love in your life?
I would say music is the first love. I wouldn’t call it just the primary. I would say it’s a foundation, for sure, as far as art goes. I think acting has been something that I really love. I want to do theatre – there are some great writers there, and the whole theatre scene is really fresh. I really want to do that. I want to do more films, and television. I’m not a person that can say: music is more important than acting to me. I can’t say that.
But I thank God for the gift of music and acting, and I’ll pursue them both with all my heart and all my soul. I give myself to both. I know at times I can do both, but I very rarely try to do a film and work on music. But I have done music and still worked on a film.
This is the first album I haven’t been working on a film or doing anything else besides focussed on the album for this amount of time. You can feel that love. It’s like spending quality time with your first love – it’s like, let me make sure I can give you the attention to detail that you deserve.
It’s a very focussed album, quite intense at times. What does it feel when you finally finish a project as involved as this one?
It’s definitely rewarding. It’s transcendent in certain ways because you immediately start transitioning into the next project. I didn’t honestly get to celebrate the completion of the album because I was on the book tour. I was constantly talking about my experiences in life, talking about what this book was about. But I was enthused that I had the album complete, and I loved being able to listen to it and think, this is a complete project but I still haven’t taken it all in!
Usually when I complete an album it’s like the birth of a child. But now, it’s like: it’s complete, and I felt reward, but I felt like it’s a long way to go. We want to get this music to the multitudes of people.
I was still in creation mode, too. Meaning that although I wasn’t writing a song – yet – I was working on visuals, and artwork, and thinking about the book. And also working on the live presentation, which was based around theatre. I think I’ll get to really enjoy the aspects of celebration in December… but for now, I want to get it out there to people, I’m enjoying performing, and I feel blessed. This is one album I can look at as a monumental piece for me.
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Well, the tracks are really connecting with people – just look at your Swizz Beatz hook up on ‘Hercules’.
I love Swizz, man! His energy is crazy, it’s positive, it’s fun… it’s raw. I love it, man. And it’s him! That being said, going to the session was Swizz… we both was like: man, this is how we gotta create! We have to be in the same room.
It’s a different thing when somebody is in the room with you. I was glad because he had been listening to different things, and we had a lot going at that time. It was right after Nipsey Hussle had died, so there was a lot on everyone’s mind. But Swizz, we sat in that studio with a couple of our friends, and we was all vibing, listening to the music. Then he just got the vibe of the album, played ‘Hercules’ and he came up with the hook.
It reminded me of how much I love collaborating, and I love working with dope people. He took it somewhere where only he could take it. When we perform this song people who don’t even know it, by the time the second chorus comes around they’re singing it.
Collaboration runs through a lot of your work, like last year’s August Greene record (with Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins), for example. Could you imagine yourself returning to that project?
Oh yes. I really would love to. We had a lot of fun doing it. It’s such a natural flow with us. I’ve worked with those brothers for a long time now. Obviously not as a group, but in different facets. We’ve been intertwined for a long time, and we definitely plan on doing another August Greene.
Do you feel that your experiences in film, television, and theatre have expanded the way you approach live shows?
Oh yes. For sure! It’s funny, I always wanted concepts for my shows, because the first show I witnessed growing up was Jackson 5. It was their Victory Tour. So I started off at one of the highest levels of entertainment you could ever see.
I got to see Big Daddy Kane, Eric B & Rakim, KRS One… all these artists that had concepts to their shows, or just had a great presentation. Throughout the years I’ve always had different concepts. But as I began acting and studying acting… for the past 10 years I’ve wanted to make my show like a play. And this is the first time I’ve started to figure out how to do it.
I think part of that was in the collaboration of me evolving as an actor and a storyteller, but also me saying: let me connect with some theatre directors. So I got involved with people from the theatre world, who work on the show. It’s not like me saying ‘yo, I’m gonna do theatre!’ we actually went and got somebody from that world to figure it out.
To finish, are you already looking at your next project?
Well, more I’m looking ahead for things we can do that would be great content surrounding this album. And we just shot a short film, which is kind of semi-connected to this album. I’m looking for different ways to do content connected to the album, and I’m looking to do the next film project for sure. But I’m going to be working on music.
I feel like this is a new start, a re-birth in music. I’m introducing myself to new audiences as a musician, I’m also rekindling and reconnecting with the audiences that knew of me. So I feel like there’s still a long way to go, and when I get like that I get excited for the journey.
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'Let Love' is out now. Catch Common at London's Shepherds Bush Empire on September 10th, and Manchester Ritz on September 12th.