3:46pm on a mid-June afternoon and Chicago-born rap favourite Lonnie ‘Common’ Lynn is tired. Rubbing his eyes as he picks himself up off a leather couch in the lounge of a London recording studio, the multi-talented 35-year-old MC apologises for his weary demeanour, assuring the journalist interrupting his short sleep that he still wants the scheduled interview to go ahead. Two hours beforehand Common had unveiled his highly-anticipated seventh album ‘Finding Forever’ to a roomful of media types, and it would appear that the day’s press duties combined with some jetlag have taken their toll on the Grammy Award winning artist. “If I yawn it’s not because of your interview,” the bearded lyricist says, apologising again for his exhaustion. Under normal circumstances said writer might’ve been quietly cursing under his breath, steeling himself for another conversation-with-a-rapper-who-can’t-really-be-bothered episode. But in this particular instance, the genuine warmth and sincerity of the moment reminds the scribe of three qualities that have remained constants throughout much of Common’s lengthy career. Honesty. Graciousness. Commitment.
From the youthful b-boy bravado of his ’92 debut ‘Can I Borrow A Dollar?’ to the mature life-affirming vibe of his last album ‘Be’, Common is that rare breed of rapper who has actually evolved with each of his releases. Not prepared to play-it-safe, Common has refused to be put into a box or remain creatively stagnant, even when his willingness to take his music in new directions has led to some fans temporarily abandoning him, as was the case with 2002’s eclectic ‘Electric Circus’ project. But regardless, the Windy City wordsmith has consistently practiced what he preached on his classic 1994 anthem ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’, ensuring his organic approach to his craft has always been grounded in integrity and a genuine passion for ensuring hip-hop’s artistic progression. More recently, Common’s open-minded career outlook has led him to write a well-received series of children’s books and also make the jump to Hollywood, debuting alongside Ben Affleck earlier this year in ‘Smokin’ Aces’ and currently filming the Ridley Scott-directed ‘American Gangster’ with thespian heavyweights Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
But if you were to view Common’s current interests outside of music as potential distractions preventing him from delivering the high-quality hip-hop he’s become known for, then think again. ‘Finding Forever’ is arguably the MC’s finest effort yet. A sequel of sorts to the critically-acclaimed ‘Be’, the new album once again finds Common examining life, love and hip-hop in a positive and thoughtful manner. Largely produced by fellow Chicago resident Kanye West and with guest-spots limited to vocalists such as Dwele, D’Angelo and the UK’s Lily Allen, ‘Finding Forever’ is a truly uplifting musical experience, proving yet again that the man formerly known as Common Sense is here to make a difference.
Since your debut in 1992 you’ve developed immensely as an artist. How do you feel the Common on your new album ‘Finding Forever’ differs to the Common heard on your first album ‘Can I Borrow A Dollar?‘?
“On ‘Can I Borrow A Dollar?’ I hadn’t yet developed a purpose. I just wanted to make music, be heard by my peers and be respected as an MC. There wasn’t anything wrong with that but by the time I was recording my second album, ‘Resurrection’, I started finding the spirituality which I always felt had existed in me. I was reading The Bible, The Koran, books on Buddhism, and through that I started to grow into a person who felt he had a purpose, which I explored more on subsequent albums like ‘One Day It’ll All Make Sense’ and ‘Like Water For Chocolate’. But another big difference between then and now is that I’m more grounded and I believe in what I do a lot more. I’m not so afraid of what other people might think about what I do. But although I’ve developed, there are still a lot of similarities between who I was then and who I am now. I still want my music to touch the people and I still want to make music that embodies the true spirit of hip-hop. Hip-hop is all about giving you that good feeling and it’s that energy that I want people to take from what I do.”
How would you describe that sense of purpose you’ve just mentioned?
“I wanna tell the story of the everyday person’s struggle and be their voice. But not only do I wanna tell their story, sometimes I want to try and offer solutions to the problems we all endure. I pray to God that I’m putting out the right energy and words to inspire people and lead them the right way.”
With that in mind, what do you say in response to those rap artists who claim their music is just entertainment that has no real influence on its listeners?
“I can honestly say that hip-hop inspired me to do so many things in my life. I became aware of the Nation Of Islam through hip-hop. I became aware of world issues in places like Africa because of hip-hop. And contrary to what others might say, hip-hop reaffirmed my respect for women through songs like ‘Shakila’ by Poor Righteous Teachers and 2Pac’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’. But even the gangsta hip-hop that existed back then like N.W.A. didn’t have a negative impact on me because the message in their music was being balanced out by other groups I was listening to like Brand Nubian. That’s what I say to people whenever I get asked a question about the negative influence hip-hop has on kids today; I tell them that all we need to change that is more balance in the art. For every Jay-Z there needs to be a Mos Def. There needs to be more artists like Nas, because even though he speaks on certain street-orientated subject matter, he also comes with the consciousness and we need more artists on a popular level who can achieve that balance. But I’ve got faith in the music, man. I believe that if we choose to be creative and work at it we can put out meaningful material that can touch different people from different backgrounds. I want to see people making music that will get passed on to our children as something that’s important.”
(Common – “The People” – Geffen / 2007)
Your 2002 album ‘Electric Circus’ was quite heavily criticised for what was seen as too much leftfield experimentation. But how important was that project to you in terms of your artistic growth?
“Man, that was one of my most important albums ever. Regardless of how ‘Electric Circus’ was received, that album came from my heart and if I’d have kept that creativity inside of me the music I made afterwards could’ve turned out very differently. ‘Be’ might not have sounded the way it did if I hadn’t made ‘Electric Circus’. So I’m very grateful for that album because no matter what the sales or reviews say, ‘Electric Circus’ was a big stepping stone for me and it really taught me not to be afraid to do what I feel is right for me as an artist.”
As with ‘Be’, Kanye West handles the majority of production on the new album. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
“Kanye and I are good friends and he’s like a brother to me, so to be able to work with someone so talented and share a real connection with them is a beautiful thing. When we’re in the studio together not only are we making music, we’re also building on life. I wanted to work with someone who’s passionate about what they do and who had the abilities to take things to a new place. Kanye is that person. Plus, he’s an incredible songwriter, so although I’m getting that raw hip-hop, with Kanye’s talents for hooks and song structure I’m also getting something that has the potential to be commercially successful. Which is good because I do want the world to hear my message and know what I’m about. I really feel that Kanye is one of the best producers of our time and the belief he has in himself is inspiring.”
(Common – “I Want You” – Geffen / 2007)
Recently you’ve made the transition from music into acting. How have you found that?
“It’s been so much fun for me because it’s been great to get involved in a new creative outlet. It’s like I’m starting from the beginning again and I’m enjoying that challenge. I’m as passionate about acting as I am about my music.”
Has anything you’ve learnt as an actor influenced your writing as an MC?
“It’s inspired my writing a great deal because now when I’m telling stories in my rhymes I can go into more detail because I’m thinking on more of a visual level. I can take on different characters within my writing a lot easier now because of what I’ve learnt from acting. Eventually I’d like to do some theatre, but right now I’m just concentrating on learning the craft of acting. As with my music, I’d like to become as big as possible in the acting world, but I want people to be aware of me because of the substance in what I do and not just because of the hype or whatever.”
Did you feel any pressure going in as a new actor working with established talents like Denzel Washington?
“Denzel is a master of his craft and he really embraced both me and T.I. who’s also in ‘American Gangster’. Denzel told me that, whoever it may be, you’ve just gotta be able to come in, do your job and be good at what you do. I was honoured to be around him and I watched and learned from him when we were doing scenes together. I was like, ‘Man, this is Denzel Washington’ (laughs). But at a certain point you let go of all of that and you just concentrate on being creative and getting into the character you’re playing. But everyone I’ve been blessed to work with so far, like Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, have all been good people. But not everyone’s aware of me as Common the rapper, so to them I’m just coming in as a new face, which I think is a good thing because I’m not being pre-judged. I don’t want to get work just because I’m Common the musician, I want to get parts because the people involved in the movie feel me on the strength of my acting ability.”
What’s the biggest difference between the music world and the movie business?
“In music, when you’re a solo artist it’s all about you and you’re the focus of everything. But in film you have to humble yourself because there are so many other important pieces that come together to make a movie. So as an artist in a movie you’re not going to be the centre of attention all the time.”
Where do you see your career going next?
“I want to make more albums, definitely. But God willing, I want to get out there in the midst of things and help people in some way. I already have the Common Ground Foundation, but I also want to do other things like go to prisons and talk to people. I want to go to Africa and get involved in things out there. I just feel like I want to bring brightness to the darkness I see in the world. I want to show people that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
(Common Freestyling On Sway & Tech’s Wake Up Show)