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Ready for the Majors

Acclaimed but low-profile rapper Common is poised for his hopeful message to gain wide exposure with an album on a powerhouse label.

March 19, 2000|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker is a regular contributor to Calendar

There's nothing Common about Lonnie Rashid Lynn, even if that's the moniker the Chicago rapper has adopted. For eight years, Lynn has been one of the most acclaimed figures in hip-hop, a rapper with an insightful, socially conscious message.

The Source magazine has called him "Chicago's lyrical warrior," while Rap Pages said he is "notches above dope." He's collaborated with such respected figures as Lauryn Hill and D'Angelo, and his upcoming album is one of the most anticipated hip-hop releases in months.

But so far, Common hasn't enjoyed the massive sales and high media profile that those credentials should earn--primarily because his albums have been on a minor label rather one of the rap powerhouses. That changes March 28 with the release of his first album on MCA Records. The collection, "Like Water for Chocolate," is likely to bring him the wider forum he has long deserved. "The 6th Sense," the first single from the album, attempts to reach both the hard-core hip-hop audience (it has driving drums) and listeners familiar with his topic-driven songs (with its clever, uplifting lyrics).

Indeed, Common already has the aura of a star. His wardrobe--silver rings and bracelets, hippie-era paisley shirt--reaches beyond the rap staples of T-shirts, jeans and chains. And where many rappers scowl, he smiles.

But don't mistake the good-natured vibe for indifference. His music isn't as relentlessly political as that of such revolutionary rap acts as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, but he does stand with OutKast, Goodie Mob and the Roots as hip-hop's modern-day social critics.

"Common brings purity to hip-hop," says the RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan member who is one of hip-hop's best producers. "He sticks to his heart, not his pockets. A lot of these rappers are into money and the butt cheeks. He does a lot of things from his heart."

The 16 soul-searching songs on the new album aren't preachy. Common deals with a variety of themes--from pimping to love, from petty revenge to lofty idealism--in ways that are at once biting, accessible and sometimes humorous.

"I believe in balance," the 27-year-old rapper says during an interview in a Santa Monica office. "If you're going to educate people, you've got to entertain them too. It isn't like you've got to beat them over the head with, 'Yo, we've got to elevate.' That's not enjoyable."

Common and his producers refrained from sampling previous hits and relying on tried-and-true subject matter on the album, choosing innovation over imitation.

"I definitely feel that rap is plagued and hurt because of a lack of imagination," Common says. "Once we got to the 'real' stage, everybody became so literal and had to be so true-to-life that we forgot about the fun, imaginative stories that Slick Rick, N.W.A, Too $hort, Snoop [Dogg], Rakim and Schoolly D used to tell.

"Rapping about the same thing is boring to me. I'm able to take chances because I don't have any artistic fears. I know that whatever avenue I pursue, I'm going to make it as good as I can. I like being an individual and standing out in this game, not only to say that I'm 'Mr. Original,' but because I want to mean something, contribute something to hip-hop."

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Common is an easygoing person who laughs easily. But he's as willing to discuss serious subject matter as the shortcomings of the Chicago Bulls.

Born on the South Side of Chicago, Common was raised by his mother, stepfather and grandmother in a black, middle-class area where gangs were prominent. He describes himself as a loving kid who was too sensitive at times. If he had something, he wanted his friends to have it too.

His mother was a teacher, which may help explain his early affinity for school. Writing book reports focused some of his creative drive, while listening to music and playing sports satisfied others. A trip in the early '80s to visit his cousin in Cincinnati led to Common's fascination with hip-hop. His eyes sparkle and a smile fills his face as he recalls how he marveled at the moves of the break-dancers he encountered in clubs and in the city's parks and streets.

But it was the seminal 1982 recording "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five that hooked Common. He wrote his first rap in 1984, but at that point he didn't know that he'd become a rapper. He was on an academic track leading to college.

In the undergraduate business program at Florida A&M University, Common was around people from different backgrounds and parts of the country for the first time in his life. He quickly realized how limited his vision was.

An avid reader, Common became more interested in the work of black authors James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Despite his affinity for the college lifestyle, Common was also a die-hard hip-hop fan who was constantly honing his rapping skills and sending demos to rap labels.

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