Common's 10th album Nobody's Smiling focuses on the trials and tribulations of his hometown Chicago. Produced entirely by frequent collaborator and childhood friend No I.D, Nobody's Smiling features sombre narratives and foreboding ambience with Common giving space for Chicago's new generation of hip-hop artists to express themselves. Now in his 40s, Common goes out of his way to not to be the preachy overbearing voice to Chicago's youth. Exclaim! spoke with Common, a few days after the album's release and found his interest in social change and opportunities for youth rooted in a Chicago state of mind.
I believe you were recently up here in Toronto or at least in Canada in the last week or so.
I was in Calgary.
I had heard that was where [AMC series] Hell on Wheels was shot. How was [working on] that [series]?
It went great. I had a fun time working there. It was a lot of work, but I love the show. You know I love the people I've met from Canada. In Calgary, the Alberta area and Saskatchewan and I meet people from the Ontario area, too. I was pretty much staying out there every summer in Calgary and it was a great experience. It is a great experience, I'd say but yeah, I was out there filming for this season, but I completed the work I needed to for this season.
You being there might have coincided with the Stampede.
It actually did. Yeah, I actually I was at the Stampede. I've been there four years, so I've been to the Stampede twice.
I could ask you more questions about Calgary, but your focus on your new album was on another city, the one that you are from, Chicago. What made you want to focus on doing a whole record about Chicago at this point? You've made records in the past about Chicago and it's been a part of your work from the beginning, but to do a whole album on it, why now?
That's the city where I'm from. It shaped me and it helped raise me and I see a lot going on in Chicago that's not good. It's like people are in need and there's a lot of violence there, people killing. It's a tough time for Chicago. So I felt like more than ever I needed not only to speak about Chicago, but to be active in the process of making things better for the city. And on the album there are definitely Chicago themes as far as the titles and some of the subject manner but Chicago is really an example of a lot of inner cities that you find in America or places that are impoverished and dealt with drugs and guns, so I don't think it's limited to Chicago but it's like when Nas took you to Queens in Illmatic or Cube took you to L.A. on Amerikkka's Most Wanted. They might be telling you about the place they're from but you relate to them because of universal stories of struggle and progress.
I could tell from the beginning of the record you were trying to make specific references. At the very beginning of the record there's a Curtis Mayfield sample, someone who was born in Chicago. I'm assuming that's why he's there at the beginning of the record. It's just for the people who know I guess?
Yeah, it was honestly just that was a sample that No I.D. had. I was hyped when it was playing. He knew what it was saying. We decided what the thing would be and we discussed the whole "Nobody's Smiling" campaign and movement. So, having Curtis Mayfield was one of those man…it was like divine order, you know sometimes things just line up for you and that was what that felt like the fact that Curtis Mayfield is from Chicago, his sample is starting off the whole album. It's like you're getting all these generations of Chicago. From Curtis Mayfield, to myself, to Lil Herb.
I was gonna say that's quite a leap from Curtis Mayfield to Lil Herb. A lot of people might be surprised to see an artist like Lil Herb on your record. What made you want to incorporate him on the track "The Neighbourhood."
Well I just felt like he's a good artist, he's a good rap artist and I appreciate what he does and what he brings the perspective of [being in] Chicago and the rawness he has. I'm a part of that movement, as I care about the artists that's coming from Chicago. We don't have to have the same type of music but I appreciate some of the work they're doing. I thought he could give what I was saying in the first verse, like this is how I grew up in Chicago and that was my perspective, I knew that Herb could give a new perspective, another perspective but you could see the correlations between the two and the whole time I wanted it to be… I wanted it to be like, "What?!" Things have changed a little bit, they haven't changed completely. There's still some of the struggles that Common or Curtis Mayfield went through.
Obviously Lil Herb is part of the scene called drill music that's coming out of Chicago. Where do you see the music and the sound and the lyrical messages of that in terms of the lineage of Chicago music?
Well, I think the thing that I see that links the drill movement to music that we have done throughout the years is just the honesty in it and that the purity, the rawness. Like when you listen to me rapping on [debut single] "Take it EZ" or "Heidi Hoe" on my first album [Can I Borrow A Dollar?] It's like that, a certain Chicago accent, raw young dudes who ain't thinking too hard [about it] they give you that Chicago, y'know. So I think that's the similarity I find and when I hear the drill movement it's the Chicago… we're telling the story and it's like unapologetic. Just real, just true.
Sonically there's definitely a difference to the drill sound to what you would do and on this record No I.D. has come up with a different sound for you. What were you drawing on for the sounds of this record?
No I.D., part of creating the sound there was a certain thing that he did on this album that I never had in most of my production because I usually choose beats that are very melodic and just soulful. What he was able to do was to take the classic sound of just the spirit of what we create in hip-hop with that classic sound. He really created something that was fresh like, it didn't sound like anything that was out there right now, but it still competes, y'know it's comparable to things that are dropping. Meaning you could play "Diamonds" with me and Big Sean after a Drake song or after a YG song or any song you hear in the club. It doesn't sound like we tried to do anything and it still gives you something fresh.
He also created music that allowed me to be… like my vocals to be in the forefront and I usually didn't have that on a lot of my albums just because by nature the beats that I chose — I always gravitated to the soulful samples. So, with that being said I was really feeling something about styling and vocals, so he really created that sound. And also, when you hear things like "Speak My Piece," I never rhymed on a beat like that with just drums and that Biggie sample filtered the way you hear it. You hear it going through the track and just the swing of the beat. I like rapping in different ways you know cos I like styling. I like getting into different styles when I get new types of beats. It just sparks new style and thought.
You mentioned Lil Herb. Dreezy was also [another MC] on the record too. How did you go about selecting artists. I know Vince Staples isn't from Chicago but most of the people on the record are up-and-coming Chicago MCs. How did you think about bringing those people in, 'cos it seems like you wanted to make sure that happened maybe more than you had done on your other records? Why was that important?
It was important for me because I hadn't done that on any of my records, putting people on. Most of the artists I've been blessed to work with on my records have been people like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu or Kanye, artists that have already started their momentum. I mean not that these — Dreezy has a buzz, Lil Herb has a buzz, Vince Staples has a buzz, y'know they got movement going — but it's obviously it's an audience that I'm introducing them to and I also gotta recognize that some of their audience is going to be introduced to me too [laughs], y'know, me as a musician. Like some of their audience only knows me as an actor or some of them don't even know me. So it's like it's not just me, but I did want to give on this album and you know this is a selfless project for me. Of course I want to be heard and I want to make dope music, but I wanted if anything to like motivate people, just everyday people, to motivate them to inspire them to do great things whatever that may be and at the same token give some of the new artists, Chicago artists and just some of the new artists an opportunity, a platform. And we did that with the songs and with the album covers and the insert of the album.
And I get that, but I have to ask a devil's advocate question. There are other artists coming out of Chicago and I think you are aware of them. Like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa. How about those guys as well? Was there a reason that someone like that couldn't get on the record?
I'm cool with Chance and I've met Vic Mensa and I've definitely got respect for both of those artists. But in all truth, I actually called Chance but he was out of town. It was kind of… not a spontaneous thing, but it was crunch time for us to do it. And you know the good thing is that Chance is kind of out there anyway [laughs] he's out there like he's doing international shows, I'm not saying it wouldn't help him or whatever we can just exchange our energy, but maybe we'll go out and do some shows together or do something else because Chance is somebody that I like and I think in the future we'll do something.
I wanted to also ask that you've said that you wanted this to be more than just a record and you have a foundation, you're linking with Donda's House I believe and you're doing a show in Chicago in September. What are the goals of the things you would like to achieve on this record once you're done touring and promoting it, what are the things you'd like to see come out of this record.
I would like to see some opportunities, specifically jobs was one thing we've already been working on. I'd like to see jobs for the young, for the youth, for young people. I'd like to see more programs that nurture the children's gifts and desires, even when it comes to either artistic things or academic [things]. I just like to see improvements in the conditions of the people in Chicago and people all over, really, to be honest.
This is something… I've been blessed to do this film called Selma and it's about Dr. King and how the SCLC were going getting voting rights and all the people gathered and galvanized with the strategies they came with to get voting rights. It's directed by Ava DuVernay and it's speaking about… basically to make a long story short they would come with strategies and they would move to different cities and make things happen. First Montgomery [Alabama], then Birmingham. I want the movement to like happen where we might be able to do it in Chicago and then we might be able to do it in L.A. We may need to do it in New Orleans and we might have to go to Atlanta, y'know. I would like to see changes but I can't sit here and act like I got all the answers and part of the process is actually knowing what a community needs and the reason why I say it's jobs is because the first conversations I had, this is like eight, nine years ago about what kids needed and the first thing they said is "Man, we need to get money. We want money." And of course I'm thinking, like, we gotta get them to get money in a legal way. I don't want them to get money and go hustle cos they ain't gonna lead to the best future. So these guys are being real direct, they ain't coming from… me knowing from the community what they need so some of that's gonna be just us going in the community but my point is I like to see the changes when it comes to the actual conditions of the people. I want a better life for people all over.
One thing you did mention there was Selma and Ava DuVernay who was the director, she was an MC back in the day and made this film Middle of Nowhere that I was really impressed with. With your film career, it looks like you're making some interesting decisions. With the role in Hell on Wheels and the role in Selma where you are playing James Bevel, I believe, and as you said he was instrumental in organizing events in the civil rights movement. Other roles you have played have been in the past and have been linked to historical black moments. How influential have these things that you've been doing in your film and television career been in your everyday life?
Oh, I can say when I get the opportunity to play individuals like James Bevel and get in the process of sitting down with [civil rights activist and U.S. politician] John Lewis or talking to Ambassador Andrew Young and find out some of the mindset and the strategies behind the philosophies of the people of the SCLC and the people of Selma and Montgomery, man. It's very influential, cos I'm looking at the things that I can do. When I look at that, not only does it make me want to do things but it also makes me see how intelligent they moved and how strategic they was.
Yeah it influences me, whether it's a role like Hell on Wheels or even sometimes playing a gangster. All of it is understanding. Like, for me as an actor, I get to understand human qualities more, human nature and the people. I think I learn from it all and it has definitely benefited me as a writer because I write more stories. I always wrote stories, obviously, but I'm kinda getting to the backstories now. And I feel more free as an artist. My live show is gonna be performance and it's gonna be like, theatre.
A project that was talked about in the past was a collaborative project with Nas. Is that still on the table or is not happening?
I don't see it happening right now. I know Nas has been touring Illmatic, which is one of my favourite albums ever. And I'm out promoting Nobody's Smiling. I don't think we'll get to it anytime soon. I will be doing something with Cocaine 80s, which is James Fauntleroy, No I.D. I'm like an honorary member of the group. D, who is the guitar player and Jhene Aiko is like somewhat part of the group also, but Nas.com hopefully in the future that will happen I feel like it should happen because that's one of my favourite artists and when the time is right I would love to do it.
What else is coming down the pike? Are there any other collaborations with Kanye we haven't heard yet?
Nah, I haven't done anything with 'Ye in a minute. That's just my guy, that's my brother I love him, but we haven't done any creating. But I do know he will be coming with a new album at some point that I know is going to be fire.
A lot of the songs came out before the release of this record, there was "War" and there was "Made in Black America." Is there any reason that these records didn't make the album?
There were just buildup records, they weren't records that I thought were going to make the album complete, to give the album that stellar sound and feel so it was records that I wanted to just release because I hadn't really never done that too much to just make music and put it out. It was good to do that and let people know what the album is going to be about, but y'know, I felt like I had other records on there that told the story and would help complete the album.
I have one last question and that's about the term "Chiraq." It seems to be something that's kinda controversial. Some people agree with it, some people don't. I just wanted to get what it means to you. Is it something that brings attention to the situation [in Chicago] in a negative way or is it something that brings attention so that people understand something is going on?
I think it's a term that people in Chicago use because that's what they feel is going on and that's what the city is like to them, it is like a war zone. I'm not one to stop expression, I believe in supporting expression. I don't have a problem with them using the term "Chiraq." I got more of an issue with the killings and the things happening in the city than using the name. And I don't think the people using the name; they're not the cause of the violence. I would never want to stop NWA from saying "Straight Outta Compton" or we N----s With Attitude. I wouldn't want to stop Chicago artists saying, "Yo, it's Chiraq."