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Common – beef, rhymes and life

The Oscar-nominated rapper looks back on his formative years – from beefing with Ice Cube to sharing J Dilla’s last moments

Taken from the August 2007 issue of Dazed & Confused: 

“I was raised with my mother and grandmother on the South side of Chicago in a lower-middle-class area. I started in a public school and then my mum moved me to a private one when the schools went on strike. My mother remarried when I was eight. My stepfather was a plumber, a cool guy, but he was very strict – so I grew up going to church but at the same time experiencing different walks of life. I got to experience the hood, you know, gang life and street life. 

My father was definitely a part of my life, but from a distance. He left Chicago when I was three. He was a basketball player for two years in the ABA, but then started working regular jobs as the league didn’t work out for him. I guess my mother provided the educational foundations and my father was more of a spiritual voice – he was a little more open and not traditional. He gave me my middle name – Rashid. He put a Muslim name with a Christian name, which people weren’t doing a lot back then. The way he thought for himself inspired me to do what I do, although I don’t think either one of my parents ever thought I would become a musician.

My mother didn’t play music a lot in the house, but I vaguely remember my babysitters playing me music like Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores and Chaka Khan. But what really got me into creating music and being part of it was hip hop. I related to it from the very beginning. I started breakdancing and listening to hip hop; it felt like it was just something that was free, and a cool movement for the youth.

Chicago hip hop had more of an underground aspect, it wasn’t so prevalent in the culture as there were so many other things that existed in the city at the time, but me and my friends adored it more that anything. Whenever my boy Murray would come back from New York, he would always bring back tapes of DJ Red Alert. Only the cool cats got a dub of those tapes.

One of my first writing experiences was when I visited my cousin in Cincinnati, Ohio. I used to go there every summer and some cats that were a little bit older than him had a rap group called the Bond Hill crew, they were like Cincinnati’s Run DMC. They were so cool. While I was out there I wrote a rhyme and people seemed to love it, loads of kids memorised it. I was 12 years old. I then started making demo tapes with a group I started called CDR, it was me, No I.D and one of our friends from high school, a dude named Corey. CDR stood for Corey, Dion and Rashid. Or it could have been Compact Disc Recorder. Maybe it stood for Control and Dope Ride? I don’t know; we made up loads of acronyms. 

Somehow we ended up getting to do a show, opening up for Big Daddy Kane at the Regal. That led to getting a song played on a college station called WHBK, which was really the source for all our hip hop needs. I met up with a guy named Twilight Tone, who was an incredible producer and DJ. Between Tone and No I.D we put together my solo demo, which got noticed by The Source’s unsigned hype column. Relativity Records then heard my tape and called me. They bought me an air ticket to return to Chicago to talk to them as I was studying in Florida at the time. I remember that it took me three planes to get back home. It was the cheapest ticket available.

The day we signed was very memorable as it enabled me and my friends to go to New York and record a whole album. When we held the release party it seemed like I had reached the apex. It was a beautiful thing to know that I’d put out a record and I was from Chicago. I was only the second hip hop artist to have done that. When I released Resurrection, my second album, Ice Cube and his West Side Connection dissed me. 

I would hear them saying things about me on TV and it made me think that I had to defend myself. There’s only so many times that I’m gonna let it go by. They awakened the beast in me. It was one of those moments, as a man, as an artist, as a warrior, that you just have to defend yourself. I wasn’t really intimidated because as much as I’m a peaceful and creative person, I’m from Chicago and I’ve been through things that prepare me for those types of wars – if it had got to the physical level I felt like I would be okay. But I’m glad it didn’t.

It all got resolved thanks to Louis Farrakhan. I can’t believe that such a great leader actually cared so much, or even knew who I was. He knew that hip hop has a voice, and if we aren’t using the voice properly then it would contribute towards the destruction of the community. Today, I think that Ice Cube is a great person, a great man. At the time we both wanted to speak our minds, but in my heart it wasn’t like I wanted to take Cube off this earth. 

I’m open to growth, I’m learning everyday, and things that I thought on Resurrection have changed. I will change because I learn. When I first started I used to diss gay dudes, but now I can’t judge or disrespect them, they’re people, they make their own decisions. Solidarity and love should be respected whoever you are. In my career I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of amazing musicians and J Dilla was one of the best. For me, he is the greatest hip hop producer ever. We lived together for a while in LA, and it was just a dream to wake up and have Jay Dee making beats right there in the next room. It was also a very tough experience because he was very sick and I was seeing my brother going through a lot of pain, physically deteriorating and knowing that he could die. Those last few months of his life were so hard, but he never gave up on making music. I hope that I’ll have the same outlook as him. It’s like those old jazz greats; they never stopped making music until they stopped breathing. That’s when I’ll hang up the mic.”

Common's Academy Award nominated song for
Selma, “Glory” (feat. John Legend), is available now. Selma is released in the UK on Feb 2