C: There’s definitely a new sense of hope with Obama being elected. I felt that the night at Grant Park when I was there — just the diversity in the crowd and the hope you could see in people’s faces. That’s where we are in this country and in this world, hopefully — that people are starting to feel better and have faith in the fact that God is going to take care of us and there’s going to be a better day. And my music, I was making it at a time when it felt darker, but I wanted people to feel that hope. Instead of saying, “Hey, man, we in troubled times,” I wanted to say, “Hey, it’s going to be better, y’all. Look, it’s a good day.” Speaking things into fruition in a way, you know?
AVC: Speaking of Obama, you grew up in the Trinity United Church of Christ. Can you talk about Revered Wright?
C: Since I was eight years old, I went to Trinity. I mean, I listened to Reverend Wright since I was a kid and I always heard him preach sermons of love and inspiration. And of course he would talk about the community and about the ills that were going on in the community. And if the government did something that we all at the same could see was not good for our community or for people, then he would speak up about it. But he never was an advocate of hate or putting out negative things about people. It was just more like, if the system was oppressing people, he would speak about it. His sermons were sermons of love and that’s why he was able to inspire a book for Obama. That’s why Obama went to Trinity, obviously — he was inspired himself that Reverend Wright was a man of love and a preacher of good word.
AVC: Did you know Obama from Trinity?
C: Not from Trinity, but I met him at one of the hip-hop summits that Russell Simmons had.
AVC: Were you immediately impressed with him?
C: Man, definitely. Immediately. That’s why I went out and — I had never supported a political figure — and I went out and supported Obama. I immediately went out and in one of my songs, in the song on the “Why?” remix that I did with Jadakiss in 2004, I said, “Why is Bush actin’ like they tryin’ to get Osama? Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?” This is in 2004 on the “Why?” remix and I said that because I really had belief that Obama was the right person to be president. I didn’t know it would happen in 2008 [laughs], but I just felt when I met him, I just felt in my heart [that], “Man, this is a person that I in my heart feel like could lead this country and do well and will do right by people.”
AVC: In the 90s 2pac famously rapped, “Although it seems heaven sent / We ain’t ready to see a black President?” What do you think has changed between 1996 when Tupac said that and 2008?
C: Well, I think one of the things that changed is — we went through a really rough time, you know. We’ve been through some hard times, not that times weren’t hard then. But once the Bush regime came in and this country went to war and the economy just started getting continuously worse and times became rougher, people went through so much. Whether black or white, they wanted somebody that was going to come in and do right by us and do right by the system and do right by the poor, the middle class, the rich. Black, white, yellow, brown — we wanted somebody who would do right by us. And I think because Obama was that person, whether he was black or white, he was chosen and I think the world was able to see that because of the rough times that we went through. It’s like at a certain point, say if you were a prejudiced person, and you’re drowning in the middle of the ocean and someone comes with a lifesaver — you don’t care if that person’s black or white. You don’t make that kind of distinction when someone’s coming to save your life or just making things better when you’re drowning. You know, when things became that drastic, color doesn’t matter that much.
AVC: You also worked with The Neptunes on Electric Circus, which again was a big departure, especially production-wise from any other albums. Can you talk a little about what was going on in your life that led you to take those chances?
C: Well, at that time I really felt like, man, I really need to find something else to do in hip-hop, because I was becoming bored and felt like the same thing was going on. I really was trying to establish a new sound and a new voice in what I wanted to do. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, because that was new music for me. I really hadn’t been up on them. I mean, I’d heard of them, but I wasn’t up on their music. And I kept listening to Radiohead, and I was like, Man, I want to make hip-hop that feels like Radiohead. I want to make hip-hop that can use guitars and soul and jazz and just fuse it all together. And I want to make this whole new sound that’s going to shock the world. Unfortunately, the masses didn’t receive it. A lot of the critics didn’t receive it with a lot of love. They didn’t hold it high, but I’m still proud that I did what I did and I wouldn’t change a thing about it, to be honest, because that’s all part of the growth and Electric Circus was just a reflection of where I was at the time. And now, I’m able to come and do a new sound and grow even more and make greater songs because my song-making abilities have grown. And I like challenging myself. I like the challenge of rapping to fast beats, rapping to beats that are super slow, whatever. I like the challenges, so I’m not afraid to take on any piece of music and create a song to it if it feels right to me.
AVC: Because Electric Circus was such a departure, was it hard getting your record label to respond to it?
C: They definitely didn’t… They was not trying to hear it. One of the presidents at the time said, “Man, it’s like you’re a restaurant and people came one day and ate soul food, and then the next day it’s like you’re cooking Japanese food.” He was saying I went so different that people wouldn’t be able to get with it. Obviously, that’s what they were feeling. They weren’t at all convinced that people were going to be able to get with it. But, hey… I just had some of the same journalists that panned Electric Circus at the time, they just listened to Universal Mind Control and they loved it. And then they went back to tell me that Electric Circus, if it came out at today, it would’ve had a different reception. One of them told me, “Hey, man. You need to bring it out again.” And I said, “Hey, it’s cool. It is what it is.” You make art for… You create it and people can respond to it if they like it. If they don’t, then they can go to the next artist or your next album or one of your previous albums. That’s what art is all about.
-- Interview with Common, by Nathan Rabin for the Onion AV Club, December 28, 2008.