Chicago's biggest rapper talks guilty pleasures, high school cliques and why he thinks true American icons come out of struggle
As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series.
Landing straight out of Chicago in ’92 with his debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Common’s rap game is 20 years strong and shows no signs of slowing. 9 albums, one record label imprint (Think Common Entertainment) and a burgeoning acting career later, Common Sense has lived up to his full name with every move he’s made. Album number 10, Nobody Smiling, dropped 22 July: inspired by the violence and high crime rate in his home town, it’s the latest recording to demonstrate the artist’s determination to extend his reach and influence for the better. We spoke to the Illinois king about his favourite superhero (the Green Lantern), high school cliques (he was obviously in the “cool” gang) and his ultimate guilty pleasure (yep, Common watches Scandal on the regs).
Which living American do you most admire and why?
Common: I would probably say Oprah Winfrey, because she’s a person that’s come from the struggles and the hardships of an early life and exudes growth and evolution. Now she’s a person that has a positive vibration and is really sincere about helping others.
Which living American do you most despise and why?
Common: Dick Cheney. Is he still living? Probably him, because to me he represents what’s totally against uplifting Americans from all walks of life. There’s a selfishness to him.
Whose face should be on the $100 bill?
Common: Jay Z.
What is your favorite quote about America?
Common: America: a place where anybody can achieve their dreams. I love that.
What three words define the States today?
Common: Progress, Struggle, and Originality.
Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?
Common: A guy named Peter Kang who worked at Relativity Records. But it came through The Source magazine, because they put me in this column called “Unsigned Hype,” where they would display an unsigned artist in their magazine and highlight that person. I was actually able to get signed because of the Unsigned Hype of their October issue of 1991. Peter Kang was the person who signed me. I haven’t spoken with him in a minute. He used to let me stay at his apartment in Brooklyn.
Ultimate American album?
Common: Nas’ Illmatic.
When + where are you the most happiest?
Common: When I’m driving out to the ocean. When I get to spend time with Omoye, who is my daughter, having fun. When I’m making the best music I ever made. When I’m with my friends, and we’re just eating dinner having fun. When I’m in the church, and there’s a great message or a great service.
What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?
Common: I was in the cool clique that was out getting girls. Some of my friends that I grew up with, I went to high school with. They’re my family. They just came up for my birthday, and we celebrated. They surprised me. You wanna talk about happy moments, we went to the studio and listened to the album. I was just proud to be playing them my music. That’s how I got started in music, rapping and freestyling for my friends. So for them to be able to come out and celebrate my birthday and listen to the album and really love it was like full circle.
What food reminds you of home?
Common: Definitely collard greens, corn, candied yams. Honestly chicken too, even though I don’t eat chicken anymore.
What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?
Common: The smell of food, liquor stores. It sounds kind of abstract but I do smell it.
What's the best road trip you've ever been on?
Common: I went with my friends — we had just finished our first year of college, and we decided to go visit some of our friends at other colleges. We started road-tripping in Chicago, then went down to Louisiana. It was just a lot of fun. On the way to visit my girlfriend, I met some other girl and got in trouble with her. It was a fun trip though. We were heading to Atlanta, but ended up getting arrested at this grocery store for stealing. It was the best road trip though. Adventurous.
Where did you first fall in love?
Common: Around the age of 28, and it was like with a girl who was like one of my best friends. She was an artist, creative person, soulmate. It just happened. We had been friends for a while. That was the first love.
What would make you leave America forever?
Common: If there were poisonous things in the atmosphere, and if the government was outwardly physically attacking black people. Then I would leave.
What noise reminds you of the States?
Common: Car horns honking.
What is your favorite American building?
Common: The Field Museum down in Chicago. It’s because of what’s inside really.
Ultimate American film?
Common: Pulp Fiction.
Most overrated US tourist attraction
Common: All of them are pretty good though, I’ve gotta admit.
Most underrated US tourist attraction
Common: The City of Chicago.
Favorite slang phrase?
Common: “That’s cold.” That’s what we say in Chicago. You know how most people say “That’s hot”? We say “that’s cold.”
What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?
Common: A TV show called Scandal. That’s really a show that I know most women love.
What law would you change or invent?
Common: I would invent a law that required education in schools to include spirituality, emotional intelligence, and character development. I would also invent a law where poor places would get the same quality education as the rich private schools.
Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse?
Common: I would say Seattle, Washington. I’ve never spent a lot of days there, but I like the peace that it brings me when I’m there. There’s like mountains and water. Something about it makes me feel serene.
When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?
Common: Yesterday. It was more like the people at Customs. The guy was acting all authoritative like how people with power get. They abuse it, so he was condescending in a way and acting like a chump. I wasn’t answering his questions the way he wanted me to. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him “I breathe.” It was a run-in, but I didn’t get locked up or nothing.
If you could change one thing about the US, what would it be?
Common: I would improve the educational system in every area of the country.
Which fictional American do you most identify with?
Common: I would say the Green Lantern. I actually was about to play him in a movie. When I did, I got to learn about him. His name is John Stewart, Black dude, bald headed, had a goatee. But more than that, he was for the community, but was a superhero. His powers, if he put his mind to it, it would actualize. So I relate to that.
If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?
Common: Man, I would sit down and pray to God what’s the next step. Take a breather, and then start thinking about what to do next.
What will America look like in 2050?
Common: Definitely super mixed as far as cultures go. As much as we’ve got technology, I think things will go back in some ways as far as how we relate to each other. I think that some of these esoteric ways — whether it’s yoga or meditation — will be more evident in America. And we’ll see a greater basketball player that we’ve ever seen.
Does the American Dream still exist?
Common: Oh yeah, the American Dream definitely exists! Look how many people have come from nothing and become something. Not having much, but turning it into something great. You can look at Oprah Winfrey, you can look at President Obama, you can look at Jay-Z. You can look at all these people we know. Even on levels like if your American Dream is to do good in the world, you’ve got people out there like Wayne Dyer who writes books or T.D. Jakes who is a big minister. Shoot, I’m part of the American Dream. I saw Michael Jackson and wanted to be something in life. Everything I’ve done here in this country helped contribute to me being able to be something in life that would eventually become international.