This is an interview I did with Common back in 2011 for Steve Stoute’s site The Tanning of America where we discussed race and hip-hop. The site no longer exists, so I wanted to share here as an exclusive Westcheddar throwback. Enjoy…
There was a time in Common’s life when he was known simply as a rapper. Well, that young man from Chicago has come a long way since the release of his breakthrough album Resurrection in 1994, expanding his visibility from the Rap City countdown to the silver screen, appearing in films alongside Hollywood’s brightest stars, such as Just Wright with fellow rapper turned actor Queen Latifah, and Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. He even landed himself a role in the new AMC television drama Hell On Wheels, playing a post-Civil War freed slave, which has welcomed in a whole new audience for him as well. To boot, his memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, was just released to stellar reviews, creating different opportunities for press and public appearances. And quite impressively, Common has successfully managed to maintain a reputable presence in the hip-hop community throughout his transformation from rapper to rapper/actor/author. In fact, his new LP The Dreamer, The Believer is one of the most anticipated albums dropping in the fourth quarter.
We spoke to Common about the various “tanning” moments he’s had in his professional career as a rapper, actor, and now an author. We also got his take on the recent backlash he received for his poetry reading appearance at The White House, type-casting in Hollywood for black males, and his friend and collaborator Kanye West’s VMA incident with country music star Taylor Swift.
I wanted to start off by talking to you about your Chicago roots. Tell me about the racial makeup of your hometown.
In the South Side area of Chicago that I grew up in, it was predominantly black. I was raised around black people, which provided me with a good sense of self, and [allowed me to] know my culture and where I come from to a great extent. Not far from my neighborhood was an area of Latinos. Most of the other nationalities were far away downtown. That’s the way we viewed it. Most of the white people stayed in downtown Chicago or in other areas.
Did you have any white friends growing up?
I didn’t have any white friends while I was growing up.
Can you remember any personal experiences with racism from when you were younger?
With it being so segregated, Chicago definitely had racial tension. It had stemmed from the ’60s, and probably before that. There was a time that I was with my mother and my god-brother, and we were going into a grocery store, and this little white kid was spelling B-L-A-C-K [over and over when he saw us]. He was kind of saying it in a derogatory way. His mother caught him, but didn’t really stop him. I couldn’t believe it. Like, “Man, why is he downing me for being black?” It felt bad, and I was hurt, but at the same token, I was like, “Man, forget him.”
You were still in high school when you started performing, opening up shows with your first rap group for N.W.A and Big Daddy Kane. That must’ve been thrilling. What were the crowds like for rap shows back then? Were they all black?
For sure. When I opened up for Big Daddy Kane and N.W.A, there were all black audiences. The shows weren’t far from where I lived, on the South Side at The Regal Theater. The hood was there to see those shows.
When you got signed to your first deal, did you have a hard time dealing with the white employees and executives at your record label?
Nah, because by the time I came in to the industry, the business [of hip-hop] was starting to become lucrative. It was definitely growing, and most of the corporate people working there that were not black had been dealing with black artists, so they knew [how to interact with me]. But don’t get me wrong, I definitely felt the dynamic of, “You work for me.” They really felt, in many ways, more intelligent. You had to prove your intelligence.
Did they have a stereotype about you as a rapper? Like, maybe you didn’t understand certain things?
They had a stereotype about young black men, because of the language we used, the style that we spoke with, and the way we carried ourselves. Until you proved it to them, they didn’t know if intelligence was within that.
Your first album was dope, but didn’t sell many units. But the success of Resurrection certainly gave you more national exposure. Did you notice your fan base start to look different after the popularity of that album?
Yes. I definitely noticed that at my shows it was becoming multi-cultural. I started seeing different nationalities [in the crowd], like white and Latino. It wasn’t funny to me, but it made me smile. I kind of would chuckle at it.
What do you think the appeal was?
I think the truth in hip-hop. There’s something about hip-hop that is really heartfelt and true. There’s people sharing their experiences that don’t filter and don’t try to be politically correct because that’s not the environment we come from. With hip-hop, it’s like you’re having conversations with your friends, with your people. So you don’t change the way you think and talk. And I think other nationalities are able to respect that truth. Truth is the universal language. You could be speaking in another language, but if it’s true, it still resonates with people.
What would you say was your first major “tanning” moment in your career?
I would say it was after the Resurrection album [was released]. I went on tour with The Beatnuts, Organized Konfusion, and The Artifacts, and at our shows there were blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians. And I would go back and tell my friends [at home] that there would be a lot of white people and Latino people. It felt overwhelming, but in a good way though. At a certain point, you realized that the music was what we were all embracing. It basically broke down some walls.
That’s a crazy tour line-up.
Yeah, that was a fun tour. It was really my first tour.
You tried out some new sounds on Electric Circus. That album has some gems on it, but it was criticized for not being accessible. Did people back home in Chicago or in the black community think it was a bit weird that you were fusing rock and electronica with your music?
In certain parts of the black community, but I wouldn’t say the whole black community. I would even say it was more of the hip-hop community, because it wasn’t only black people [Laughs]. They were like, “We think this is too far left.”
They were used to a more traditional, boom-bap sound from you.
Yeah. I have people come to me now that music has opened up a little more and say, “Man, Electric Circus had some shit on it.” It definitely felt like [more of a backlash from the hip-hop community in general] than anything else. I remember having white journalists saying, “Man, you really changed it up on us.”
Did your change in appearance and the way you started dressing around that time play a part in that?
My appearance definitely played a part. My friends were like, “Why are you dressing like that?” And they reflected some of the black community. The way I was dressing and presenting myself was really what made my community be like, “I don’t know about this, man.” The music just put icing on the cake. It left a bad taste in their mouth.
Did you notice other races gravitating towards you more after you switched up your style?
I don’t think any of it made any other nationalities warmer towards me. I look at acts like Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, and there were white and Asian people that loved them, and the way they presented themselves was street. I don’t think those nationalities were so keen on saying, “Well, you’re dressing a little more eccentric so we feel you’re more accessible.”
You starred in a holiday commercial for The Gap, featuring an original song you put together for them. Did you start being recognized by more people after it aired?
Yeah, different people started to notice me. I can remember this older lady who my mother worked with wasn’t familiar with my music, but when that Gap commercial came out, she was like, “Oh, I really like that!” But if I do something in that vein, I’ve got to be Common, and present myself the way I am. But at the same token, there needs to be a benefit from it. I need to be able to reach that new audience.
How is being in Hollywood different than hip-hop? Did you have an experience on a set when you first started acting where there was resistance at first to you being there?
I don’t remember specific incidents where people were outwardly saying, “Yo, who is this guy?” But I know that was definitely a concern. There was a stigma that came with hip-hop artists that were making a transition in to film that was like, “They do this, they do that.” There were some negative stereotypes. More than people saying something or turning up their nose, it would be more like they were keeping their eyes open to see how it would be. They came in with an expectation, and I could tell they would be like, “Wait. This guy is not like what we thought a rapper would be like.” It’s just America. No matter how much we know we’re progressing, people still have stereotypes.
You’ve played some bad guys, and starred in Just Wright as a basketball player, and now you play a freed slave in the television show Hell On Wheels. Do you find that you are type-casted with the roles you are offered because you are a black male?
I feel I have to overcome the stereotypes of not only being a black male, but also coming from a hip-hop background. They see you in a certain way when you do certain roles. And this exists not only for black people, but just for actors in general. Once they see you do a certain type of role, then that’s [who you are]. It feels like to me that when roles are written for a street person, a lot of times it comes to mind to get a black or Latino person. Some people in Hollywood feel like, “That’s what we’re going to do. Let’s go get that person.” And some people feel like, “We can’t do that because it’s stereotyping.”
So they’re purposely trying to avoid the stereotypes?
Yeah. There were times where there was a role of a drug dealer, and I wanted the role. And they were like, “We don’t want to put a black person in there because it’s too stereotypical.” And then there are times that there is just a good leading character, but they just don’t have a black person in mind for it. But you know that you can play that character, but because they are not picturing someone like you playing that role, you get looked past.
Have you seen that there is more diversity in the roles offered to black actors since you started acting? Has there been a shift in the past few years?
I believe it’s starting to grow. Even with the role I’m playing in Hell On Wheels, I’m playing a freed slave. The show takes place in 1865, so the majority of black males in America were slaves [at that time], so that was inevitable. But this character is written as a very intelligent, strong leader and thinker. And that’s something that I celebrate and honor. So I really love the fact that I’m getting to play that role.
Has being in movies and now on television broadened your fan base as a rap artist?
Yes. I notice the correlation of more people just knowing who I am. A 65 year old white man could be like, “Wait, I know you. Were you in that movie with…?”
Right. Just your fame in general has grown.
Have you seen that translate to more album sales?
It will. It does, and it gets me attention. I haven’t come out with an album in three years, but I think with The Dreamer, The Believer it will translate. Put it this way: the [quality of your] music is what is going to get you the album sales. The popularity though will help people be aware of you.
Getting back to the music, tell me about doing “Go” with John Mayer for your album Be. Was his friendship with Kanye West what brought him in to the fold?
He and Kanye were cool, and we were all hanging out. We went to the movies to see Ray, and then later on that day we went to the studio, and we were making all different types of songs. And Kanye started making the beat for “Go,” and John Mayer had the idea and put it on there. It was really organic. Just hanging out and having a good time.
Have you ever talked to Kanye about appealing to a wide audience but still keeping the content authentic when you’re creating music together?
We never discuss it, but I think Kanye is a genius for being able to make music that is pure and truthful, but he has the sensibility to reach the masses. It’s not only with his music. It’s in his personality, and things that he sees. It’s just a thing that we are creating this music that we love, and it just naturally has some things that will appeal to broader audiences. And I think Kanye is cognisant about making music that is not limited. He takes pride in that, and so do I. I want to make the purist art possible, but I want it to appeal to and hit as many people as possible. I want it to touch the universe. To me, that comes from being the most creative and being aware. As long as I’m in tune with and not far removed from what’s happening in pop music and hip-hop music today, and I have the pulse of what’s going on, I can go in my world and go create, and it will still be relevant, but it will be unique.
Do you think race played a part in that whole Kanye West and Taylor Swift VMA incident?
Yeah, I believe it did. As far as the core of it, anyone would feel a certain way about the way it went down, because it’s a young lady receiving an award, and a man comes up and disturbs it. Whatever color she was, some human being would feel a certain way. But I think it became more of an issue because she was “America’s Sweetheart” of country music. Race made it a bigger issue, but I think most people would say [to Kanye], “Man, that ain’t how you should do it.”
Are you aware that Taylor Swift’s a big hip-hop fan? She brought out T.I. and B.O.B on tour, and even rapped Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” during a recent radio interview.
Nah, I didn’t know about that. But I think that’s great. Hip-hop is a powerful phenomenon and force. It’s an incredible blessing. I’m proud that people from Taylor Swift to people in Japan to the President [of the United States] are aware of it.
How do you feel about white rappers? Were you a Beastie Boys fan coming up?
I definitely loved the Beastie Boys. When it came to hip-hop music, there were so many more blacks and Latinos expressing it. But if you were good and you were white, I liked you. I liked the Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass. If you make a fresh song, I like it.
What about Eminem?
Eminem is one of the greatest MCs to ever do it. His impact is well deserved. He’s a hip-hop dude to the core. I don’t care what color he is. He deserves it.
Are any of the new white rappers on your radar, like Mac Miller or Yelawolf?
I know the names, but I haven’t heard their music enough to comment on them at this point. I did see Yelawolf in the cipher on the BET Awards with Eminem and their crew, and it was dope.
You took a lot of heat when you were invited by the Obamas to read your poetry at the White House, specifically from Bill O’Reilly. What was your take on that whole backlash?
I can’t speak for Bill O’Reilly, because he is who he is. I think that when it came to him and Sarah Palin, they just weren’t aware of me. Because if they were, they definitely wouldn’t have portrayed me as a vile rapper and a thug. But I will say that I was honored to go to the White House, and able to say that poem that I said. It’s called “The Believer,” and it’s actually on the new album. For me, it was victory in the fact that the President and the First Lady, even through all the hoopla, said, “Look, we want you here. We invited you here. Please come.” That was an honor in itself.
With your memoir being released, are you finding that you’re being accepted in circles that may have not welcomed you before now that you’re an author?
Yes, truly. It’s not only being accepted, it’s being exposed in different circles. I was on this show called Morning Joe [on MSNBC], which was a show I wasn’t even aware of [before I was a guest on it], and I had people greeting me in the airport like, “I saw you on Morning Joe. It was so good.” Doing the book, I’m going to different places to do interviews, and it’s giving me different exposure.
I love your new songs “Blue Sky” and “Sweet,” and the collaboration with Nas, “Ghetto Dreams.” Tell me about the new album.
This is one of the greatest albums I have made. The single “Blue Sky” is out, and we just shot the video for “Sweet” in Haiti. This is pure hip-hop music that will hit your heart and hit your gut. This music is done with the love of hip-hop in it, and [sticking to] the basis of that and just making really fresh music.
Finally, what do you think of Jay-Z’s statement, “Hip-hop has done more than any leader, politician, or anyone to improve race relations.”
I think everything counts. Everything that has happened, whether it was Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, John F. Kennedy Jr., or Robert Kennedy. Even the negative things. Hip-hop is the ongoing catalyst for race relations, and it really organically just happened, it wasn’t like, “This is what hip-hop is about, bringing together races.” It’s lasted, and continued to help. But I think all those things counted.
Previously: The Tanning Interview with Action Bronson