DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The hip-hop artist known simply as Common is anything but. Sure, like many rappers, he has a line of designer clothing - hats in Common's case - and he's acted in several films. But he also writes children's books. And then there's Common's music. He shuns the popular trends in hip-hop and focuses on some of the art form's core principles: storytelling and presenting music with a message.
NPR's Brakkton Booker has this profile.
BRAKKTON BOOKER: When Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. came on to the hip-hop scene, it was the beginning of an era, just not his.
(Soundbite of song "Ain't Nutt'N But G Thang")
SNOOP DOG (Rapper): (Rapping) One, two, three and to the four. Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre is at the door, Ready to make an entrance so back on up. Because we know we about rip (unintelligible) up.
BOOKER: Common broke on to the scene in the early 1990s, just as gangster rap was starting its assault on mainstream America.
COMMON (Rapper): I was thinking about how hip-hop was losing its pure heart and its soul. And it is like a person, that, you know, has the opportunity to make mistakes, but can keep improving.
BOOKER: His music is providing the therapy many loyal fans feel is missing in mainstream hip-hop right now.
(Soundbite of song "The People")
COMMON: (Rapping) We do it for the people and the struggles of the brothas and the folks. With lovers under dope, experiment to discover hopes. Scuffle for notes, the rougher I wrote, times were harder. Went from rocky starter to a voice of a martyr. Why white folks focus on dogs and yoga. While people on the low end trying to ball and get over. Lyrics are like liquor for the fallen soldiers. From the bounce to the ounce, it's all our culture. Every day we hustlin, trying get them custom rims. Law we ain't trustin them, thick broads we lust in them. Sick and tired of bunchin it, I look on the bus at them. When I see them struggling, I think how I'm touching them. The People.
BOOKER: Common is a part of tradition of so-called conscious artists like Dead Prez, The Roots and Mos Def, trying to bring social and cultural messages back to the airwaves. Though he embraces being a conscious artist now, there was a time when he shunned that label because he says it put him in a box.
COMMON: But then, you know, I looked at music abroad like, man, when I think of conscious artists, I think of Bob Marley, I think of Marvin Gaye, I think of Bob Dylan, I think of, you know, Public Enemy. I mean, when I started thinking about it, I was like, okay, if throughout time I get labeled as a conscious artist, you know, I'll be very much celebrated in a way and honored.
BOOKER: A number of his songs deal with current and very real dilemmas people face, like the conflict a man has after his unborn child is aborted.
(Soundbite of song "Retrospect for Life")
COMMON: (Rapping) Knowing you the best part of life, do I have the right to take yours. Cause I created you irresponsibly. Subconsciously, knowing the act I was a part of. The start of something, I'm not ready to bring into the world. Had myself believing I was sterile. I look into mother's stomach, wonder if you are a boy or a girl. Turning this woman's womb into a tomb. But she and I agree, a seed we don't need. You would've been much more than a mouth to feed. But someone, I would have fed this information I read to someone, my life for you I would had to leave. Instead I led you to death.
BOOKER: Common is also unafraid to tackle a subject that is taboo in most hip-hop: love.
(Soundbite of song "The Light")
COMMON: (Rapping) I never knew a luh, luh-luh, a love like this. Gotta be something for me to write this. Queen, I ain't seen you in a minute. Wrote this letter, and finally decide to send it, signed, sealed, delivered for us to grow together.
BOOKER: Aside from this song and a handful of others, you probably won't hear Common's message on the airwaves. Alvin Blanco is music editor for allhiphop.com.
Mr. ALVIN BLANCO (Music Editor, Allhiphop.com): Just by the type of music he's putting out there, it isn't the type of music that is going to get a lot of radio play. So if you're going to be a Common fan, you're going to have to search it out.
COMMON: The popular masses are not in tuned with it for whatever reason. I don't have the right to answer to why but as the popular genre of music hip-hop has been lately having one sound and has become somewhat redundant.
BOOKER: Common is referring to the current dominance of Southern hip-hop, often criticized for looping the same beat under rhymes that are devoid of any substance. And even though his songs are littered with profane street language, he feels a lot of artists, not just rappers from the South, are not being mindful of how potentially damaging some of the lyrics can be.
COMMON: Man, if I get a chance to speak on the microphone, I've got to say something somewhere in there. You know, I'm going to laugh. I'm going to have some fun, too, but something has to be said that has some substance because this is a platform, and the power that we have with words and with this microphone is phenomenal. So make the best use of your time.
BOOKER: That's not to say he wants to remain underground and not make money.
(Soundbite of song "Go!")
COMMON: (Rapping) Go, go, go, go. And on a count of three. Go, go, go.
BOOKER: Chart-topping producer Kanye West is credited with polishing Common's sound and introducing him to a wider audience. In fact, Common was even thinking of dumping a song from his latest CD because it wasn't commercial enough. "Black Maybe" talks about the hardships endured by people with color.
(Soundbite of song "Black Maybe")
COMMON: (Rapping) I heard a white man's yes is a black maybe. I was delivered in this world as a crack baby. Hard for me to pay attention and I act crazy. Gotta get over from the tip I watch the fat lady sing a song on how the guerillas in warfare.
BOOKER: One of Common's early producers convinced him to keep the song on the album. No I.D. has known the rapper since they were both in elementary school together in Chicago.
NO I.D. (Music Producer): And I was like, why are you throwing this song off? And he was, like, what do you mean? And I was like, don't forget people look at you as a conscious rapper, as the, you know, rapper saying things like, don't stray away from it too much.
(Soundbite of song "Black Maybe")
COMMON: (Rapping) Brothers are starving with big mouths wide open. Floating across state, got the work, got plans so they can move weight.
BOOKER: Common's status as an underground conscious artist has helped him, he says, land roles in a Gap commercial and in the upcoming film "American Gangster."
(Soundbite of song "Break My Heart")
COMMON: (Rapping) She said, you know, I don't be dating rappers. I said, I got my SAG card, baby. I'm an actor.
BOOKER: Music, however, remains his first love. And he hopes his movie roles can also attract a wider audience to his music. And even if he never has a platinum record, he understands his place in hip-hop.
COMMON: The impact of a conscious artist is necessary, and it ripples through the world, you know? And it's people with platinum plaques that are forgotten. And in fact, that's why I named my album "Finding Forever" because that's what I was thinking about. What did I want to contribute to this world that would live beyond my physical existence?
BOOKER: There's no way to tell if people will be talking about it that far in the future, but many people are talking about it right now. "Finding Forever" debuts at number one on the current Billboard 200.
Brakkton Booker, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: To hear complete songs from Common's new album and discover other new music, visit npr.org/music.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
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