It's before 7 a.m. in Los Angeles when Common calls for an interview on Saturday morning. Few emcees do press on weekends and even fewer before lunchtime. However, just like he is on records, Comm is fully focused on the moment. After all, it is a momentous season for the veteran emcee and Chicago Hip Hop trail-blazer. Later this month his ninth album, The Dreamer, The Believer will release after a three-year album hiatus while the musician further pursued acting, moved to Warner Brothers and reunited with crucial collaborator No I.D.
True to his music, Common's mind is a balance between abstractions promoting his lived observational experiences and actual facts proving them. The re-energized rapper asserts his place at the top of "best emcee" lists, also breaks down some of the lines from yesteryear that earns him that spot. He states that The Dreamer, The Believer is "forever" music, and reveals the process that created it. When it comes to Common life, his music and his place in Hip Hop history, dreams have met reality.
HipHopDX: I must say, The Dreamer, The Believer after just a few days of hearing it feels like my favorite album of yours since One Day It'll All Make Sense, which is one of my favorite albums ever.
Common: That's incredible to hear. For me to hear that it makes me [want] to make music. That's 12-13 years ago, probably, One Day It'll All Make Sense - '97. For me to have an album out that you feel that strong about right now is just showin' me that things are growing and improving.
Common Says That He Believes He's One Of The Greatest Emcees
DX: On "Sweet," you said "A lot of y'all forget who I am." How much did you feel from Hip Hop, where the conversation seems to move so fast, that you'd been "forgotten"?
Common: It was one of those scenarios where I'm in the studio. When I hear people talk about the top emcees, I would never hear my name mentioned in that category. I was like, "Man, I gotta let people know that I'm one of the greatest to ever do it." In my mind, I am the greatest. I have to announce that and bring that awareness. When you start talkin' about the Top 5 and look at careers and look at albums, verses, lyrics and all the diversity that creates an emcee, I feel that I know that I should be mentioned as one of those guys. That was the inspiration and motivation behind when you do a song like "Sweet" .
DX: You have another line, "Rap music you want to jam in traffic." I think that's funny, because a lot of the music - including records I like, doesn't have that windows-down feel. It's guilty pleasures, a long way from the days of Radio Raheem [in Do The Right Thing] scaring people off the block with Public Enemy tapes...
Common: You interpreted it a different way than I was [meaning], but I love what you just said. I'm actually talkin' about how the Rap game is just congested with some of the same music. I said, I'm comin' to un-jam it from the situation. When you think of a traffic jam, it's not really movin'. It's movin' slow.
[Laughs] But I would like to jam my music in traffic no matter what. What you're talkin' about is somethin' that I do like - when I'm in my truck and the music, I gotta blast it. I just rhyme and sing the song, and feel like that song is speakin' to me. Man, I love that feelin'. When I was able to drive, that's what I'd get outta Hip Hop. I'd ride. We'd have N.W.A. [albums] and just go out and get into trouble, but it was fun, it was good. Or I'd have Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One [albums], and we'd go out and just enjoy life. It was fun. Just rappin' to and knockin' that music.
DX: To flow off of what we were saying a minute ago about One Day... Some artists don't listen to their older works when making a new album. Because this is a reunion with No I.D. and because it feels in line with Resurrection and One Day, and that you were at work on a book, dealing with your career, I'm very curious to know if while recording The Dreamer, The Believer, you spent much time revisiting your '90s work?
Common: Really, I didn't listen a lot of my old music. I rarely listen to music that I create. I hear it in different environments when someone is playing it. But it was just, "remember what we started this music for. Remember why we wanted to be artists in Hip Hop." That's all we really did was go in with that spirit. We love the culture. We love the art of Hip Hop. I love emceeing, man! I love when I say some raps that's really fresh, I love the feelin' that I get and other people get from it. I love stylin' on beats. No I.D. loves music and loves makin' beats. I love hearin' those beats. I like makin' great songs. We just went in rememberin' what we're here for. [The Dreamer, The Believer] is what we were able to create and come out with.
It was very natural and organic for No I.D. and myself to make this type of album. This is just the roots of who we are. This is where we come from. This is just a comparison, but it's not hard to be a Black dude from Chicago, because I am a Black dude from Chicago. It's not difficult to make Hip Hop music, you just want to make it at its highest level. That's what we strive for, that's what we do.
DX: You said, "a Black man from Chicago." At two different places in your career, you've given this image of you making these moments where you try to blend in with society to get the pulse of the people. On Black Star's "Respiration," you said, "Sometimes I take the bus home, just to touch home," and on "The 6th Sense," you said, "Some days I take the el to gel with the real world." I love both of those lines, but you're also in films and on AMC shows. Do those experiences really happen?
Common: Yes. I just do my best to live amongst real life. I can't act like I've been on the bus just recently, but the point is, you know, when I go home, I just go and do what I do, whether it's walkin' to the store with my guys or it's hangin' out at a certain club, bar, whatever. When you go back to your neighborhood your mother sends you on errands. [Chuckles] You do those things and naturally are able to absorb life. I used to write... I would go home to Chicago, just drive around and absorb life. It's not like I have to, "Okay, I'ma work this nine-to-five for three days and..." That shit is like... I have enough experiences of life and every day life and just to go around it. I can see where we are and see what I need to talk about and rap about. [Also], having people close to me that work everyday jobs; my friends are not in the industry. The majority of my friends don't know about car service or per-diem or a publicist. They know what it is, but they don't live that lifestyle. Even when I get around my friends it's [about] issues and things that they have goin' on with 'em and things that they want to talk about just reminds me of Chicago and everyday people around the world and the blue collar life.
DX: When "Ghetto Dreams" came out, people went crazy. Yet the collaboration makes sense in that you and Nas both made '94 classics, you've been experimented with your music since, you both came up under veteran producers on the debut albums and so forth. You come from that pre-Internet era when Chicago and Queens felt light-years apart, but did the chemistry feel so strong that it made you both look at it as if it should've happened sooner?
Common: I definitely feel kindred with Nas. I think he's a true visionary, writer, street experienced-but-cultured, profound person. He's like somebody who can talk about Queens and drug dealin', but in the same token but can talk about John Coltrane and tell a story backwards [in "Rewind"]. He can tell a story about him bein' a gun [in "I Gave You Power"]. This dude makes legendary music. That's what my vision and goal is, to do music like that. I come from a background of Southside of Chicago, where there's gang-bangin', hustlin' and struggle. At the same token, I was able to seek different things in life; I'm into John Coltrane myself. The reason I rep for John Coltrane is 'cause sometimes me and Nas be talkin' about we'll do an album the way John Coltrane was on Miles Davis' album. These are two legends that eventually worked together - just the way musicians in Jazz and other genres would do a whole album together. That's what we were referring to, and sometimes just sittin' down and just buildin'. Eventually, we did. There is some [career] parallels, but he's still his own individual. At the end of the day, that's definitely one of the greatest emcees to ever do it. I hold that respect for him. We definitely have a lot of things, where I feel at the core, we both have a love for Hip Hop, a love for the culture and a love for bein' young Black men that want to put out some music that not only has the street vibe, but also inspires and moves people.
Common Says That A Full Album With Nas Is Possible
DX: Whether it's Kanye West and Jay-Z this year with Watch The Throne, or what you and Q-Tip have spoken about, or what you and Nas are toying with, as somebody who's been in the game for 20 years, do you see that Jazz-spirited era of collaboration coming forward, where we'll see stars working on full projects together?
Common: I think it's a great addition to Hip Hop, for artists to be able to collaborate and do albums. I think it gives the audience a nice change of somethin' new, a new experience. For the artist, it has to be inspiring. For me, it's inspiring. I love to be able to collaborate too. That's one of the greatest things about working on this album was No I.D. and myself, we'd build on the songs! He'd make a beat and I'd be like, "What if I did this?" or "What if you added this to it?" We'd build, and then have James Fauntleroy, who sings on a lot of the songs, and Makeba [Riddick] come and add what they wanted to add. It just made it more of a collective of creativity. That always adds to making great art, 'cause you're not just held to your perspective. You're getting all these other talents bein' able to add on.
DX: You said you wanted to inspire. You were talking about N.W.A. earlier too. It's crazy that N.W.A. made music without knowing that the L.A. Riots would soon happen. Yet, when they did that event had a soundtrack. 2012 is an election year. We're in a Recession, there's Occupy, there's winds of change throughout the world. When I hear tracks like "The Believer" , I'm curious, do you see The Dreamer, The Believer going on to becoming an appropriate soundtrack?
Common: Yes. When I create music it's always inspired by life. Of course, there's always that plus-sign, which is imagination. You use your imagination to create certain stories, songs. Life is at the core of the music I'm makin'. I'm observing and experiencing life and tellin' that experience in this music. I believe it will provide a backdrop and a background for music in what's going on in 2012 and also for years and years beyond. When I make music and I make art, I look for it to be timeless. I look for it to ageless, breaking any income barrier, breaking geographic barriers. I make music that I feel like will touch the world, the universe. It will be here for good, for years, forever. When I [named my seventh album] Finding Forever, that's what I want.
DX: This is The Dreamer, The Believer. One of my favorite all-time records in the Extra P remix to "Resurrection." On there you said, "On the rocks of reality, dreams get splashed." It's only fitting, 17 years later, what does that line mean to you and your career?
Common: Aw man! That line is... that line is just sayin' that sometimes reality will try to interfere with your dreams. But you have to let those dreams soar above that reality that exists right at that moment. Because really, the dream is the prize. When they say "keep your eyes on the prize," the dream is the prize. The dream is the vision of where you're gettin' to. You might not be there right at that moment, but you just have to see the dream, and you'll get there. You just have to see it. The "rocks of reality" sometimes seem to crash the dream. But you gotta know, on the rocks of reality, the waves gonna keep it goin'. Don't let it split the whole dream. That's basically what I would say to somebody who references that lyric now - the dream still goes on. Dream on.