Common: The quiet man of hip-hop

Kanye West is his buddy, Stevie Wonder is a fan and he's the new Gil Scott-Heron. So, asks Andy Gill, why isn't Common famous?
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When the American rapper Common appeared at London's Rise festival earlier this month, his set was introduced as "hip-hop that educates... that isn't about diamonds and fur". So, intelligent fare, fitting for the free outdoor event that opposed racism and celebrated cultural diversity.

Also performing were Graham Coxon, Buzzcocks, The Wailers and Roy Ayers, and local rap stars Sway and Killa Kela. But it was Common, the articulate inheritor of the poetic-protest tradition of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, who provided the day's most potent observations from the sharp end of the racial interface.

And not just from the usual one-dimensional perspective associated with such issues: a few years back, Common received a sharp lesson in the inflexibility of America's cultural divisions, when he attempted to broaden the scope of hip-hop with his album Electric Circus, a psychedelic jazz-rap-rock-soul opus that drew on the heritage of Hendrix and Coltrane as well as Afrika Bambaataa, The Furious Five and Public Enemy. Acclaimed by white critics and fans, the album was brusquely cold-shouldered by Common's black hip-hop audience.

Already marginalised by his refusal to stoop to familiar gangsta cliches, Common's innovative flights of fancy drew a mostly baffled response from the American hip-hop community.

Since then, things have improved, with Common scoring a number two US album: the more gritty, urban edge to last year's Be clearly found greater favour among the core rap audience. "You travel, you go out there, but you always return home sooner or later... I used to tell that to Erykah [Badu, his partner], 'I'm gonna do a raw hip-hop album after this,' and she'd say, 'Why don't you do that right now?'. I was, like, 'Nah, I gotta do this thing now.'"

A contributory factor to the success of Be is undoubtedly the presence of hip-hop's golden boy Kanye West as producer of all but two of the album's 11 tracks. The two are friends. "I've known Kanye for nine years now, since back in Chicago," says Common. "I met him through No ID, who produced my first three albums, and who also served as Kanye's mentor.

"Kanye would come around, this hungry, excited, big-mouthed little dude - he was fun, and he was confident, but I think he's developed a lot since. He had some things to say then, but he has a lot more to say now." Working with his old chum was, says Common, fun and inspiring.

"It was like a combination of my fire with his fire," he explains. "We both had a passion to make something that was going to mean something; something that was good to hip-hop.... He kinda reminds you that you can dream."

The cool response to his attempts to emancipate hip-hop from its gangsta dead-end provokes commentary on a couple of tracks on Be. At one point, Common wonders, "Can a dude break free and still be honoured at home?"

He explains, "When I left Chicago I got a lot of ridicule... They said, 'You represent Chicago, why you wanna leave?' Also, I was talking about having a free mind, doing something free-minded - like, how can I do something different, and still get honoured at home, still get the respect at home?"

Tall poppy syndrome, I say. "We call it crabs in the barrel," says Common. "When crabs are crawling up the barrel trying to get out, if one crawls too far up, the others pull it back down." The efforts of all the crabs trying to drag him back into the barrel, however, are outweighed in Common's view by the approval and encouragement of one of his heroes, as happened when he met Stevie Wonder.

"It made me feel like I'm doing something beautiful, doing something right, because Stevie Wonder's telling me he loves what I'm doing, and he feels that it's important, and he enjoys it. He even started singing one of my songs! Just to be sat next to Stevie Wonder talking to him was something for me, but then to have this brother acknowledge me as this artist, that was an achievement."

Another towering influence was The Last Poets, the original black-consciousness rap troupe of the late Sixties, whom Common brought in to work on a track on Be. "I would wake up in the mornings and just read their poetry, listen to their songs, to get inspired to write - 'cos they wrote so potent, it resonates when they write." The track on which The Last Poets appear, "The Corner", seeks to redefine hanging out as an important cultural act, with the street-corner serving as a sort of community space for the urban dispossessed.

The track "It's Your World (Pts 1 & 2)" contains what is probably Be's most explicit message, "Self-esteem/We forgot the Dream", in which children talking about their dreams and ambitions are set alongside the latest of his father's uplifting poetic reflections, now a standard feature of Common's albums.

Common has not turned his back on the innovations and attitudes behind Electric Circus. "I haven't reached my destination yet, I still got a long way to go," he says. "My thought process is gonna be what it is - if you look at Electric Circus, one day it'll all make sense."

'Electric Circus' and 'Be' are available on Universal