Images: Joao Canziani
RESPECT. Founder: Jonathan Rheingold
Story Copyright Musinart LLC
Originally Published in RESPECT #9
“With Resurrection, it was like, I’m going to really make these things happen. People will know me forever. I wanted to leave a mark on this culture and this world.”
They make movies. They write books. But a true rapper always returns to his roots. So it’s no surprise Rashid Lynn is reveling in his return to the rap game. Tonight is the end of a lengthy press run where he’s peddled his new product, The Dreamer, The Believer, to a multitude of media outlets. But thankfully, Com has saved the best for last as he’s settled in at Jay-Z’s Roc The Mic Studios with a glass of rosé champagne to talk candidly to us about his life and new album.
He’s been in this game since ’92, but the artist formerly known as Common Sense doesn’t look like he’s aged much. His two female personal assistants hold court as Com gets a beard shape-up for today’s photo shoot. At 39, he’s still the ladies’ man, a humble heartthrob who’s single again—fresh off of past rumored romances with Erykah Badu and Serena Williams. Yup, lucky guy.
But still, what’s lit the fire of hip-hop heads is that his ninth solo album is solely produced by No I.D. The master beatmaker, who taught Kanye how to chop up samples and hone his craft, provides a potent punch to Com’s latest work. At their best, it harkens back to the excitement when they first joined forces on 1994’s Resurrection. That’s an undisputed classic album I’ve long admired, even though Common is one of the few veteran rap artists that I hadn’t ever interviewed. Well, that’s about to change.
Close to 20 years in the making, let’s have a conversation.
“I can admit that through some of my career, some of my song-making hadn’t been at the level. Sometimes I might’ve over-rapped on beats…but when it comes to the core, I know I can MC.”
RESPECT.: This is an honor—I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed you.
COMMON: I’m honored.
I went to your book reading with Sway and was impressed. You’ve lived a high-profile life, though you maintained being low-key. Was it hard to give up some of that privacy for the book?
When I was approached about doing a book, the first thing that came to my head was, Man, I’m too young to do a book. But as the talks went on, I thought about some things that I experienced. I started thinking about my mother, telling her perspective about what was going on in my life, and how she raised me. I felt like it could benefit other people. You know how sometimes you could be watching a movie, or listening to a song or reading a book that says something to your life? I had to tell the truth. I couldn’t be playing with it.
You’re also like the only hip-hop artist who would consistently put their father in their music. So many of us in the urban community don’t have fathers, but you always celebrated yours. But your mother was the stronger force, right?
First and foremost, my mother—because my father and mother didn’t stay together—provided a real, true foundation for me as far as starting to understand life: “I’m making you go to church. I’m making you study and do well in school. You got to value these things and respect these things.” At the same time…that love sometimes came in a whooping. She literally knocked me down one time with a punch. I was at a young age when I fell, but man, she has done that.
But she was never connected to the music part of what you were doing.
My mother was so far removed, she didn’t even really know—this is 1990—what rap was. When I told her I wanted to do it, she was looking like…she only knew what she knew, which was: Go to school, get an education, get a good job and live life.
What was the turning point that made you feel like you could be a recording artist?
I started wanting to make records when Eric B. and Rakim came out. I started writing raps in high school, my freshman or sophomore year. I started writing songs that people liked, a small group. I liked the way it made me feel. It gave me a true voice and a chance to be boisterous. It was really a dope way to get attention and respect, and to be like, Yo, I got a voice. But it didn’t click for me ’til my second album, Resurrection.
Wow, not your first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?
That was just raw energy, the hope of putting out a record, not even knowing what the future held. I wanted to be on TV. My first appearance was on BET’s Rap City. I was so nervous that when I did the taping, my hand was shaking when I pointed to the camera to say, “We’ll be back.” My boys was just calmly laughing, like “Dawg….” But Resurrection, that was the coming of age, the beginning of me starting to realize myself, like, I’m 21, going into being 22. Fuck, I’m starting to be a grown man.
You were independent, too, making your own money.
I started learning about new things. I grew up as a Christian, but I was starting to read different things, like the Quran. Also, listening to jazz—something I’d never done—that was the beginning of me opening up. Even if things didn’t go well, I started seeing that this was what I wanted to do. This is what I dreamed of. I believed I really could have a career.
What made you determined to make it?
The confidence. That’s why I do call myself a dreamer sometimes, because I don’t really think about every concrete thing that happens. I was just like, I don’t know exactly what every artist has done, but if these artists show me glimpses of having a career, I can have a career. When I came out with Can I Borrow a Dollar?, nobody really knew about Common, and even once it was out, nobody paid much attention. With Resurrection, it was like, I’m going to really make these things happen. People will know me forever. I wanted to leave a mark on this culture and this world.
You’ve done that as an MC and even moved on to movies, but you’ll still spit a 16 even in 2011 and shut everyone up, right? Is there a certain power to that?
That’s the essence of it. Because there’s so much that comes out in raps. So much is expressed. When I listen to rappers, I’m appreciating how they think of things. You get to hear just how intelligent a person may be. You get to hear their life story, how their imagination can go beyond yours. When you heard Nas on Illmatic, or Andre 3000 kick something, you’d be like, “Damn.” There’s power in a verse. I do feel, no matter what, that I can stand with any MC and feel like I can come out on top.
Don’t hurt ’em, Com.
[Laughs] I can admit that through some of my career, some of my song-making hadn’t been at the level. Sometimes I might’ve over-rapped on beats. I might not have had the mentality that the masses could appreciate. But when it comes to the core, I know I can MC. Something I discovered in myself is that when I express the true fullness of who I am as a human being, more people relate to it. On the new album, I’m talking shit on songs—but that’s part of me. Sometimes when you create, you get caught up in people saying, “You’re this type of artist.” They put you in a box. As much as I’m saying, “I’m free,” I’m still boxed.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the acting, and I’m extremely passionate. I want to get better and to grow. But music brings a different feeling to me. It’s like, when I go around to these radio stations, you kind of remember who and where you come from. Actually, that’s what happened with No I.D. and myself. When we reconnected, it was like being around one of your guys you grew up with who knows you. Like, I seen you go through fights, I seen you stealing stuff, I know you. There’s still a man inside of you that has anger at times, that has love, that has spirituality, so don’t be afraid to show all those things if that’s what you are.
“I like a woman that’s strong. Like, ‘Yo, when necessary, I’m going out to achieve these things on my own.’ But still knows how to let a man be a man in the home, too.”
You also like to push the envelope and show your range. Even if the moves are later criticized. Why is that important?
If I’m feeling some shit, I got to express it. I wasn’t raised to function off other people’s thoughts. It was like, Yo, I’m on this crochet shit right now. This what I’m on. I may laugh at myself two albums from now, but this is what I’m on right now. Some shit I do is me finding my way.
How does fame fit into your equation? You used to rock hoodies and carry 40-ounce bottles of beer, and now you got paparazzi taking pictures of you and a ladyfriend on a beach.
People call you up, like, “Man, we seen you on the ’Net—you surfing, nigga? What you doing?” For me it’s been an easier path because things didn’t come so quick. It’s been that slow build. By the same token, I have seen times when things weren’t going as well. I appreciate this. I feel grateful that I can do interviews—even if I’m tired. I’m like, Man, I’m in this. Somebody’s gonna come listen to my music. I don’t take that for granted.
You definitely were under the microscope when you got with Kanye and his G.O.O.D. Music for your sixth album, Be. The result was incredible. Did you always feel it was going to go right?
I had never been part of a movement that was really—well, I guess people say Soulquarians was. But Kanye was hitting pop culture. I actually approached him with it because there was something about his drive and his passion, and us coming from the same place. I felt like, Man, we can really make some classic music together. I was really grateful to see how he was able to take two worlds and make it work. I remember being at his show at SOB’s in 2004 and watching him. People like Mos Def and Jay-Z were there. Those two worlds didn’t always intersect, and Kanye was a point that brought those worlds together. He was able to accomplish that. He was the first dude that was like, “Yo, I’m talking ‘Jesus Walks,’ but I want a Benz. I’m gonna buy this chain, but I’m still going to rap about some things that have substance.”
The new album, The Dreamer, The Believer, is strong—what’s the significance of the title?
I look at myself as a dreamer. Even from the days of looking at Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan, I wanted to be somebody and wanted to do something. And the believer’s more looking at the reasons why I’ve been able to grow and have a career. I believe in the music that I’m doing. I believe in staying true to who you are, and being true to what you do. And I don’t feel like I’m the only dreamer or believer. I feel like there are so many people out there who dream and actualize their dreams.
I’m sure No I.D. was geeked as hell when you were like, “I want you to do the whole album.”
Honestly, at first it was like, I’m going to do it with No I.D. and Kanye, that’s what I was thinking. But me and No I.D. were working so good, knocking it out, it was like—dang, this is becoming a special project. And these special projects don’t really happen like that. I started realizing there is a value in having one producer, there’s even a story to it in the end.
“Blue Sky” is a special record. One of the best rap songs of the year.
Thank you, sir. I was thinking about reaching and achieving things in life. Going higher. I just performed that song for the first time at a private Apple event. I felt like, Damn, this is a stadium song. I finally got a stadium song. This young doorman at this place today was like, “Man, that ‘Blue Sky’ killin’,” but then a young white kid comes to me and says the same. I believe that song could be my biggest record to this date, in terms of hitting radio on another level that I haven’t hit. Before that, “The Light” is probably the closest.
Everyone always thinks of your past relationship with Ms. Badu on that one. Are you lookin’ to settle down anytime soon?
I definitely would like to be married and have kids. I like family. I like that support. I want to be their support. I’m at a place in my life that I can want to be married. I’ve been to two weddings this year. That’s a big step. Yo, that’s a big step to take. And it’s an honorable thing…I respect that step a lot. You know, my relationships, I have talked to high-profile women at certain times, but that’s not all I’ll have.
Jay sometimes talks about how B’s more famous than him. Is that something you’re attracted to? Eye-candy era is dead. You want your girl to be fly, but she has to bring something to the table.
I do want a woman that is bringing something great to the table. She has a vision for herself, working and achieving that vision. It’s not that I only deal with women in the public eye, but you have to be doing something with yourself. You got to be at a high level as a human being. I like women who have fun. I like women who joke around, who like doing different things, but by the same token, I like a woman that’s strong. Like, “Yo, when necessary, I’m going out to achieve these things on my own.” But still knows how to let a man be a man in the home, too. I like that type of woman.
What’s the joint on the album that the ladies should check for?
My favorite song right now is “Lover Not Lost.” It’s talking about losing love, in a way. It’s real. It’s my bare heart in a song.
And the intro is for your fellow MCs, right? You lighting cats up with the bars, Movie Man?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s called “The Dreamer” and I’m taking it there. It’s going somewhere. The music feels good, and it really embodies what you’re about to enter. I’m the coldest MC out there, and then like, Yo, this is the vision, this is what this album is on right here. That’s what it does.