Common Soul By the Pound
Published Nov 22, 2008On the cusp of releasing his eighth album Universal Mind Control, Common has proven himself to be one of the most durable and versatile MCs. Hailing from Chicago, Common was an instrumental figure in broadening the city's recent reputation beyond house music, before the arrival of Kanye West. Initially respected for his lyrical flair and refreshing honesty about his own weaknesses, Common has gradually matured into the role of an incisive and thought-provoking observer, while steadily gaining wider recognition. Through his ongoing personal evolution and associations with artists such as West and J. Dilla, Common's demonstrated longevity is atypical to the career path of many mic wielders and has allowed him to remain relevant in the often fickle and unforgiving world of hip-hop.
1972 to 1983
Common is born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. to primary school teacher Mahalia Ann Hines and ABA basketball player Lonnie Lynn, but is often called Rashid, the Islamic word for "Guide to the Right Path." Rashid's father had been out of the ABA since 1970; battling drug problems, he left soon after Rashid's birth, only seeing his son on weekends. The possibility of Rashid's parents reconciling ended when his father attempted to take his estranged wife to a tryout with the Seattle Supersonics to prove he had rehabilitated himself, without telling her where they were going. Lynn eventually moved away to Denver when Rashid was six years old. Rashid was raised primarily by his mother in the Camulet Heights neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago near gangbanging and drug activities. His uncle was the coach of the school basketball team but Rashid was often on the bench. Through perseverance he eventually got to play regularly. He would often spend his summers in Cincinnati with family where he would attend a private grammar school.
1984 to 1989
In seventh grade Rashid's cousin in Ohio introduces him to the music of Run-DMC. Rashid also meets Bond Hill crew, a popular Cincinnati rap group. Inspired, Rashid writes his first rhyme and is buoyed by the positive response he gets. Rashid visits his father in Denver to attend the NBA All-Star Game and is introduced to then-Chicago Bulls manager Rod Thorn. Rashid becomes a ball boy for the Bulls, which had just drafted Michael Jordan to the team. In his junior year of high school, Common finds himself on the bench again at games and soon after his basketball career is curtailed when he suffers an eye injury. He soon starts to put all his focus into music. Rashid quits the basketball team and starts to hang out, get into fights and becomes even more interested in music. He forms a group with a friends Cory and Dion, a friend with whom he often played basketball and attended church. The group call themselves CDR. They travel to New York to the New Music Seminar and Rashid is in awe being surrounded by the artists he respects. CDR are slated to perform but unfortunately there is no time for their slot.
1990 to 1993
Rashid enrols at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, majoring in business administration, and he continues to write rhymes under the name Common Sense when he isn't in class, drinking heavily or wooing girls. Calling his style of rhyming "avant-garde," Common Sense describes himself as "the greatest un-American Hero." Childhood friend and manager Derek Dudley sends a three-song demo of Common's work to The Source, the most popular hip-hop periodical at the time. The magazine features 19-year-old Common Sense in the October 1991 issue in their influential "Unsigned Hype" column. "He has a distinct, squeaky [sic] but likable voice and impressive rhyme skills especially for an MC coming out of Chicago." The article arouses interest from Relativity, a new Sony subsidiary label; they ask him to return home as soon as possible. Because he cannot afford a direct flight, Common Sense takes three cheap flights on propeller planes. He signs with Relativity and drops out of university, upsetting his mother, now a school principal. The two agree he will go back to school if he is not successful within three years. Common Sense begins work on his debut with his friend Dion, who produces under the name Immenslope. (He'll later change his producer name to No I.D., Dion spelled backwards.) The two decide to name the album Can I Borrow a Dollar? because they used borrow money every day for food because they were so broke. Common Sense appears on the front cover with a map superimposed over his panhandling stance, reinforcing his Midwest origins. The back cover features the rapper clutching a 40 oz. bottle in a brown paper bag. The album is mainly made up of songs Common made for his demo. The album's first single "Take It EZ" is a minor hit and the album's jazzy production is notable, but it is evident that Common Sense's playful rhyme flow is still developing and in the shadow of more established acts such as Das EFX. Subsequent singles released from Can I Borrow A Dollar? continue to have decreasing impact until a remix of "Soul By The Pound" is released. The hard-hitting remix exhibits Common Sense's witty wordplay, vastly improved rhyme skills and burgeoning individuality, garnering him much-needed attention and airplay. While the album itself is not a hit, it increases Common Sense's local profile at a time when Chicago's hip-hop presence (aside from Tung Twista, later known as Twista) was virtually non-existent. A woman named Donda West approaches No I.D.'s mother to ask if No I.D. can help her teenage son Kanye in pursuing a music career. No I.D. eventually agrees to teach Kanye the basics of music production in his basement studio.
Eager to further establish himself as an MC, Common Sense continues recording and writing with No I.D. and releases the single "I Used to Love H.E.R." A metaphorical ode to hip-hop - H.E.R. is an acronym for "hip-hop in its essence for real" - the song wins Common Sense widespread acclaim and is now considered a classic. While recording the song "Thisisme" for his second album, Common Sense's father, who had been working as a youth counsellor for gang members, comes by the studio and the two joke about him going into the recording booth. Common Sense invites his father to speak over the song's instrumental and decides to include it on the album. The song "Pop's Rap" is the first of many appearances of Common Sense's father on subsequent albums. Common Sense's sophomore full-length Resurrection is released later in the year to critical acclaim and gains him industry respect.
Despite the positive critical response to Resurrection, Common is disappointed in the album's promotion, publicity and lacklustre sales, yet he has gained respect amongst peers and begins to spend time in Brooklyn. A ska band in California called Common Sense sues Common over the name and he's forced to shorten it to Common. California MC Ice Cube takes offence to references to West coast rap in "I Used to Love H.E.R."; he appears with WC on "Westside Slaughterhouse" by his protégé Mack 10 dissing Common.
Common initially ignores the Ice Cube diss, pleased that Cube even knows who he is. But when Ice Cube along with Mack 10 and WC (who've formed the group Westside Connection), appear on BET dissing him again, Common decides to respond. "The Bitch in Yoo," produced by Pete Rock, is a venomous diss track accusing Ice Cube of hypocrisy in his political and social standing and diminishes his artistic clout. Common first performs the song live with De La Soul at the Gavin Convention and gets a good response. Common eventually performs the song in L.A. - Ice Cube's stomping ground - at a time when the tensions between East coast and West coast hip-hop are particularly high. Back in Chicago, a teenage Kanye West repeatedly challenges Common to basement lyrical battles. One takes place on Chicago DJ and occasional Common producer YNot aka Twilight Tone's radio show on WHBK, and a slightly inebriated Common handles West's raw hunger handily. Common appears on the Roots' FIlladelph Halflife and begins working on his third album, Common fends off West's approaches to produce for him because he feels his beats are too commercial. Meanwhile, Common's girlfriend has an abortion and he writes about it.
In the wake of the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., a peace summit is called to end the beef between Common and Ice Cube. The summit is held at the house of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan. Common is ready to squash the beef but is wary of what Cube's point of view will be, the former NWA member announces he wants it to end. The two embrace on stage to applause and Common is brought to the verge of tears. Common reads the autobiography of exiled Black Panther Assata Shakur and is deeply affected by her story. Work on a new album continues with No I.D., but also incorporates work from the Roots, Q-Tip and Cee-Lo. He meets with Detroit producer J. Dilla, then known as Jay Dee, and rhymes over some beats. Common doesn't use them for the album, but the two strike up a friendship. He also collaborates with Erykah Badu on "All Night Long"; the first time Badu and Common meet they speak for five hours. Common also works with Lauryn Hill on the song "Retrospect for Life." The song deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding abortion and is especially poignant for the artists. Lauryn Hill recorded the song while pregnant and both she and Common's girlfriend are due to give birth on the same day in August. The song is released as the second single from Common's third album One Day It'll All Make Sense. The album cover features a photograph of Common as a child with his mother. The first single, "Reminding Me (Of 'Sef)" is dedicated to a childhood friend whose death affected him deeply. Yusef was shot and killed just as he was beginning to turn his life around from being a gang member to being an aspiring MC. Common's daughter Omoye Assata Lynn is born on August 13. Common launches the Common Ground foundation, to assist children in summer camps and day care as well as funding computer school programs. His mother, who assists with the foundation and acts as his business manager, also advises him to own real estate and Common buys a two-storey building and lives in the basement. No I.D. releases his own solo album Accept Your Own & Be Yourself (The Black Album) the same month as One Day It'll All Make Sense on Relativity. Common appears on the record but the duo's working relationship appears to end at this point.
Common spends increasing time in Brooklyn and eventually moves there with only a few days' worth of clothes. Connecting with New York artists, he appears on Rawkus projects such as Soundbombing II and the Black Star album with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. He bonds with ?uestlove of the Roots and the burgeoning Soulquarians collective, which includes producer James Poyser, J. Dilla and D'Angelo. He switches labels to MCA.
The Roots release Things Fall Apart and Common appears on the song "Act Too (Love of my Life)," which derives inspiration from his own "I Used to Love H.E.R." Work on Common's fourth album largely takes place at Electric Lady, the studio Jimi Hendrix built in New York's Greenwich Village. The studio is the creative nexus for the Soulquarians collective. Erykah Badu's sophomore album Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo are being recorded around the same time. "Chicken Grease," the song that begins D'Angelo's Voodoo, was originally intended for Common's record, but D'Angelo begs for it through ?uestlove. Common agrees to trade it for another song, which eventually becomes the album track and single "Geto Heaven." Common works with Jay Dee for the bulk of the album, heading to the producer's basement in Detroit a few times a month. Dilla's touch represents a sonic shift to soulful grooves, Tony Allen samples and collaborations with Femi Kuti and jazz artist Roy Hargrove. Lyrically, Common is increasingly influenced by spiritual books. He makes a trip to Cuba to perform at Havana's fifth annual Castro-funded national hip-hop conference. Common meets Assata Shakur and records their conversation for a song he is working on entitled "A Song for Assata."
Common's fourth album takes its name from the Laura Esquivel novel Like Water for Chocolate. The photo on the cover of the album of an African-American girl drinking from a coloured-only water fountain is a picture taken by legendary photographer and renaissance man Gordon Parks, Jr. "The Light" almost does not make the album because of the cost of its Bobby Caldwell sample, but turns out to be Common's biggest song yet, garnering a Grammy nomination, helping to push sales of the album past 700,000 copies in the U.S. A video featuring Erykah Badu stokes rumours about a romantic relationship, which turn out to be true. Despite the album's success, Common gets into hot water for some of his lyrics, including using a homophobic slur on "Dooinit" and a lyric fantasizing about Mary J. Blige on "Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World)"; Common explains himself to Blige. Meanwhile Prince becomes a fan, allowing him to record at his Paisley Park studio and the two agree to collaborate. Common quits drinking.
Common's relationship with Badu deepens and he spends increasing time in her Dallas hometown. They tour together as well, promoting Like Water For Chocolate and Badu's album Worldwide Underground. Continuing his affiliation with the Soulquarians, Common appears on Bilal's J. Dilla-produced "Reminisce" with Mos Def.
Common appears Brown Sugar as himself; the film features the two leads, Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan, rhyming lyrics from "I Used to Love H.E.R." Badu and Common record the hit collaboration "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)" for the movie's soundtrack. Common appears in a Coke commercial with R&B singer Mya. Recording at Electric Lady studios, Common is inspired by Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd and works with the Soulquarians, Prince, the Neptunes, Mary J. Blige and Laetitia Sadlier from Stereolab among others. The album features Common singing an entire song for the first time ("Jimi Was a Rock Star") and one song, "Between Me and You," touches on a close friend who came out of the closet. The experimental Electric Circus is released at the end of the year; first single "Come Close," featuring Mary J. Blige, is inspired by his relationship with Badu. The album cover features 86 people who were inspirational to him. The album gets a mixed response and suggestions that his relationship with Badu has affected everything from his music to his decidedly psychedelic bohemian dress sense are part of the criticism.
MCA folds into Geffen, effectively cutting off promotion of Electric Circus, which is already selling poorly. However, "Love of My Life," his collaboration with Badu, wins Best R&B song at the 2003 Grammys and the couple get engaged. By the fall, rumours circulate they've broken up. Badu makes an appearance on popular New York shock jock Wendy Williams' show with hip-hop group Dead Prez and claims that Common and Dead Prez are her three boyfriends with whom she engages in "mind sex." Badu's straight-faced interview is most likely a hilarious put-down of Williams, but some interpret it as a confirmation of Badu's weirdness. Eventually it's confirmed Common and Badu have split. Common appears on the sitcom Girlfriends as a slam poet. On the Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity" from Jay-Z's The Black Album, the hip-hop mogul shouts out Common, admitting he has dumbed down his music with the lyrics, "Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did 5 mil, I ain't been rhymin' like Common since."
2004 to 2005
After the break-up with Badu, and disappointed with the reaction to Electric Circus, Common moves to L.A. and shares a home with J. Dilla. No I.D. protégé Kanye West has become an in-demand producer and artist and the pair reconnect. Common appears on "Get 'Em High" on West's debut The College Dropout and makes a cameo in West's "All Falls Down" video. West assumes the bulk of production duties for Common's next album and signs him to his own G.O.O.D. Music label. Common often wakes up in the morning to J. Dilla's music and also enlists production from him, but health issues curtail Dilla from contributing more than two tracks. Common gets an unlikely assist from John Mayer, who suggests the concept for the song "Go" after he, West and Common see Ray Charles biopic Ray. West and Common perform new track "The Food" on Chappelle's Show in an on-set kitchen and both perform at a concert Dave Chappelle holds in Brooklyn, later released as Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Common appears on the remix of Jadakiss's "Why?" with lyrical foresight: "Why is Bush acting like he trying to get Osama? / Why don't we impeach him and elect Obama?" Common also begins to release children's books, one of which, The Mirror in Me, deals with issues of identity faced by a South African boy moving to America. Common's Be album leaks online months ahead of its official release, to overwhelmingly positive response; many critics suggest it may be his best record since Resurrection. The album is also commercially successful, debuting at #2 on Billboard and nominated for four Grammy Awards.
J. Dilla dies in February from lupus complications and Kanye West vows to produce Common's next album in the style of the Detroit producer. The already-decided title Finding Forever, named for the type of long-lasting music Common wants to make, takes on added meaning with the death of his roommate. The album includes "So Far to Go," a J. Dilla production that also appears on the producer's posthumous record The Shining. West is on tour when Common begins to write; he joins West in Spain, New Zealand and Australia to work on the album while on the road. The album also features Lily Allen and will i. am of the Black Eyed Peas. Despite West's suggestions to rewrite lyrics, Finding Forever is completed faster than any other Common record. It is recorded between filming a role in Smokin' Aces starring Jeremy Piven and Alicia Keys and causes Common to drop out of some tour dates. Underlining his ever-growing popularity and marketability, Common wins lyricist of the year at the BET Awards and appears in an ad for Gap.
Common launches a hat line called Soji and is cited by PETA's as one of the world's sexiest vegetarians. He also appears on the Oprah Winfrey show to discuss the fallout over the firing of DJ Don Imus. Common releases Finding Forever and shouts out Barack Obama, who spent his formative political years in Illinois, on lead single "The People." Finding Forever debuts at #1 on Billboard and is nominated for three Grammys, scooping one award. Common appears in American Gangster and commercials for the 2008 Lincoln Navigator. Sony releases a best-of compilation of Common's first three albums. Q-Tip announces he and Common are working together in a group called the Standard. On New Year's Eve, Common attends the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago where often spent Sundays as a child. Common is invited on stage by Pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright to freestyle during the service, blending in themes from Wright's sermon and references then-member Obama before an ecstatic congregation.
Common is rumoured to star as the Green Lantern in a proposed Justice League movie, but it's put on hold; he does act in Street Kings with Keanu Reeves and Wanted with Angelina Jolie. Common publicly defends Rev. Jeremiah Wright in an interview after controversy erupts over online video of his speeches at Trinity United Church. Rumours persist around his romantic life; he and Alicia Keys appear in each other's videos, sparking romantic rumours and photos surface of Common hanging out with Serena Williams. Common appears at the U.S. Open with the tennis star, helping her practice, yet he remains coy about their relationship. Common begins work on an EP entitled Invincible Summer, but it soon becomes a full-length album project. The record does not feature production from West, who serves as an executive producer and appears on "Punch Drunk Love." The album is further delayed as Common films Terminator: Salvation with Christian Bale, so the album title is changed to Universal Mind Control. The record is produced by the Neptunes and Outkast contributor Mr. DJ and the sound is a departure from Common's last two albums, delving into electronic, house and dance-oriented tracks, reportedly inspired by Common's own desire to hear more of his own music in nightclubs. It also nods to hip-hop history in references to Afrika Bambaataa, the Jungle Brothers and Notorious B.I.G. As the December 9 release date for Universal Mind Control approachs, Common is rumoured to already be at work on a new album tentatively entitled The Believer, which may feature reunions with No I.D. and Kanye West.