Of all the artists on G.O.O.D. Music, Common and Kanye West have the longest history. They've known each other since the '90s (an inebriated Common Sense even battled Kanye once on the radio in '96) and they've worked together on numerous projects. Their relationship has evolved over the years, with Kanye going from a complete unknown to a one of the biggest stars in hip-hop and Common expanding his repertoire from rapping to acting. But the highlight of their working relationship remains crafting Com's classic Be together in 2005.
Since then, they've both been busy working on other projects, but their friendship remains. And they still get together for projects like G.O.O.D. Music's upcoming album, Cruel Summer (set to be released on September 4th). Of course, Common still graced the cover of Complex alongside his G.O.O.D. Music brethen. During the cover shoot—while 2 Chainz showed off his collection of chains to the rest of the crew—we got down with Common for a one-on-one (just like we did with Big Sean, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, and 2 Chainz) to talk about his relationship with Kanye, the process behind making Cruel Summer, and why he's never been complacent.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
Complex: I see you being a politician, saying what’s up to everyone in the crew just now.
Common: I mean, that’s really respect that everyone’s around. It’s good. I don’t know everyone as well as I know Kanye and Q-Tip. 'Ye, I know the most obviously. I learned a long time ago to be honest when I’m talking to other artists. Up-and-coming artists used to come and say something, they would have a demo reel, and I would try to tell them the truth. I don’t go up and say something unless I really feel it.
It’s interesting that you bring up young artists, especially since you’re more of an older rapper than some of these guys in the beginning of their career like Big Sean and Kid Cudi. How does that relationship work?
I come in and approach it like I’m about to learn from these guys. Seriously, Sean’s doing it, Cudi’s doing it. They’re doing it in their way. They’re establishing themselves as artists, they have a presence, and they’re just beginning their careers. They have something fresh to bring to the game.
When I say learn, I get to watch and respect their process and get inspired by their process. I have started rapping and evolved into different things. I have my own process of creating. When you get around other artists that are creating different ways, you’re like, “Damn, you may not take that long to write a verse.” [Laughs.] “Why am I taking that long?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve witnessed that with 'Ye too. I’ve been around him enough to be like, “Damn, man, this dude just made a beat and did a song in 15 minutes. It shouldn’t take three weeks to do my song.”
It’s also adapting and learning and coming in and having fun. You say I’m a politician but really it’s like, I’m glad to be in this environment. I have other aspects in my life and I pursue those things heavily so it’s good to come around. When we’re talking about rap music and whether we’re talking about the newest thing to stuff that used to give us chills, it’s all relevant to hip-hop and what we love. I love being in that environment.
That reminds me of when we were doing “The Making of Resurrection” and talking to No I.D. and he was like, “We were around each other and steel sharpens steel.” That to me sounds like the same thing—you’re watching these guys and they inspire you to be great and I’m sure it’s the same for them.
One thing I have throughout my career, it felt like I did my best to align myself with quality artists, quality work, and it is a situation of steel sharpening steel. Hopefully, I’ll bring something to some of the artists that I work with and they’ve been doing the same for me.
When I heard 2 Chainz on one of the songs I was doing, I was like, “Play his verse to me again, play it again!” because he gave me inspiration. It’s like when you get around your friends, you get reminded. With No I.D., I got reminded of who and what my essence is and why I love hip-hop music. Working around him would remind me like, “You just gotta bring your shit and have fun.”
The beauty of the G.O.O.D. Music movement is that you have Q-Tip and you have 2 Chainz. You have an artist that has released music before one of the other artist’s was born. Big Sean probably wasn’t born when A Tribe Called Quest came around. That’s amazing, really.
This is Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Virginia, Cleveland. It’s a real good expression of what hip-hop and G.O.O.D. Music is. It’s real good perspective on the fact that Kid Cudi does a style of music and you can’t really label it. Me as an artist, I’ve ventured off into doing all types of music. I’ll do a jazz album, you know what I mean.
I always thought that was a hallmark with you and Q-Tip-guys who are left field artists back in the days. It’s funny how far the culture has shifted to the left. Nowadays, what you and Q-Tip have been doing for years is the cool thing to do.
Point blank, I think Kanye was the turning point. We had been doing this for a while but he was that person that came through the doors and busted it down. We had been kicking it before, opening it up a little bit, and Kanye just came and busted through that door. It was important that you are able to be an artist and be appreciated.
I’m very happy that the kids are listening to all the styles and different types of hip-hop. A$AP Rocky and them, they’re from Harlem and they’re rocking chains and they’re not limiting themselves. The fact that Big Sean is sporting his rings, his money, and he’s rapping in this way, it’s a diverse thing about him. It’s not like, “Well, just because I wear chains, I can’t do something that’s to the left and still rap over this beat." Kanye has always, to me, been the essential point to bringing that.
I remember seeing Kanye at S.O.B.’s—this was early in his career before his music ever came out. It was what people called the “Backpack Crowd.” It was the crowd of fans of Mos Def, The Roots, myself. Then it was the Roc-A-Fella crowd there too. That was when I was like, “This is incredible.” I felt good. At one point, that was what hip-hop was about.
I knew dudes in the hood that were listening to Rakim, but some of the most artsy people listen to him, too. I know dudes that sold dope and listened to A Tribe Called Quest, some of those dudes listen to Sade and Phil Collins, too. The arts are supposed to be something that can reach all types of souls, all types of people. I think G.O.O.D. Music is really expressing that in who we are and what we’re doing.
I once talked to Big Sean about his favorite albums and he was talking about how much he loved listening to Can I Borrow a Dollar? and how he grew up listening to your records. It’s funny now that you’re working together. Do you see your influence in them?
Not as much. I really I think I gave more inspiration to him. I feel like Big Sean probably has more of a direct connect to Kanye than me. But it’s good to know that he feels that way. I’m honored. He told me that too, that he listened to Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and I was like, “How did you listen to Can I Borrow A Dollar? That came out when you were 3-years-old.” But you know, he got to it, probably later.
I think there’s been times when I can say, I’ve been influenced by Kanye. I think Kanye has influenced me. I think Kanye had to be inspired by some of the things I was doing just from me being in Chicago. I’ve been influenced by Q-Tip and hopefully I’ve been able to influence Q-Tip. I hear Pusha raps and I’m like, “Damn, this dude can rhyme, let me go get on some shit.”
Speaking of Kanye, you mentioned before that you and Kanye have had the longest relationship of anyone. How has it evolved for you guys over the years?
I feel like we’re two artists and men that have our own things but when we come together we build on a higher level. We’re able to keep each other rising. When I went to his fashion show, I was like, “Man, we come from the Southside of Chicago and I’m in Paris.” The whole fashion industry is here to see this young black brother’s work and not just because he’s black but the point is, he come from where I come from, so I’m inspired by that.
I think our relationship is always based on friendship and a brotherhood and it’s based on our love for art, our similarities, and the same token differences. Our relationship has evolved. He’s in the fashion world and I’m an actor, but when we come together for music, he’ll come around me or he’ll present certain music to me and he’ll know, “Oh, that’s your type of shit.” I’m kind of growing too in my space. As we evolve as people and men, our relationship and respect for each other will keep growing and evolving.
Right, you guys have such a long history including coming together on Be and making a classic. So many peaks and valleys through the years, but you guys still come together for things like tht.
Yes. You know, when the time is right, I would love to get together [with Kanye] on some more music. It would be an act of passion, it would be a creative project. It would be fun instead of, “I ain’t gotta do it, he ain’t gotta do it.” It’s not like we had to do it then or when we first did it, but it’d be a fun thing for us to do.
No matter where you go, you get reminded and you’re like, “I got into this because I love making music, I love hip-hop, and I love being creative.” Being able to work together with Kanye would be one of those experiences for me. How with No I.D. I had an experience like, “This is what I do. This is hip-hop.”
It’s the return of the essence.
Yeah, the return of the essence. You get back to that. The thing with 'Ye is that when we’re in the studio, we get that essence and then he’s challenging it to go further. You can have something at a certain level and it’s great but he’ll be like, “This is missing something. I gotta add something to it that’s going to make it that next level.”
When you hear “Mercy” and that reggae sample in it, those little elements, those little spices on it, make it like, “Damn.” He’s the center to bring all those things together, he’s the one to bring that, to have that eye and ear for little things.
You mentioned when you were talking about Be, you guys didn’t need to do it. At the time, it felt like you didn’t need to do it. But both of you...
—We didn’t. We didn’t need to do it, it was something that organically just came. From the first time I got a beat from him, it was just like I was just going to meet him at the studio. He was producing for somebody else and that person wasn’t in the studio. When I got to the studio I heard the beat and he was like, “You want this?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Hurry up and put it on a CD and leave the studio.”
It was one of those situations where we didn’t have to do Be, that was just an act of true love for the music. 'Ye didn’t have to do those beats for me. It wasn’t like it was going to make or break his career.
At the time, I think the general perception was that Kanye was doing a lot of pop stuff when he wasn’t making rap music. And you made Electric Circus and people thought it was too left field.
We didn’t need it, but if you’re saying we needed it in that way. Yes, we needed it.
People were saying that both of you, in your own way, weren’t doing the essence of what you guys got into music for. I think that’s why people loved Be because it was such a true album.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. This is something that you can even see in Kanye’s career and you see it in my career and whether people enjoy those expressions or not. It’s like you go somewhere and wherever you are, you’ll be truthful, you’ll be honest to where you are as an artist. That’s what Electric Circus or 808s & Heartbreak were.
You’re just going there because that’s what you’re feeling you’re not thinking like, “Well, I gotta do what’s going on right now. I gotta do the hot thing. This person is the hot one, let me go get them on this song and this is going to get me to the radio.”
I think Kanye is much more savvy. He knows how to bring so many things together to make it more like a universal thing but he still stays true to the artist. When you think about Michael Jackson or The Beatles, those are really talented people and they made songs that are pop hits. I think Kanye is really talented and true to the art but can make pop hits.
When he goes and does 808s, it still has a catchiness to it. When I go do an Electric Circus, it’s very obscure and very to the left. It’s not as accessible but we both still do those things. It’s like, Gil Scott-Heron is not as well known as Stevie Wonder but they’re both legends.
Right, and you continue to challenge yourself and have never been complacent. Kanye either. Where does that drive come from?
I think part of that comes from our drive as artists, as MCs. I come from playing sports. I compete so I gotta be better than I was last year. I gotta get better and that better gotta come from just growing. From learning new stuff to working on it, experience it in life, and failing. It comes from all that. I think Kanye has the same yearning to continue to grow.
I never feel like, “Man, I made it.” For me, it’s always been like, “I appreciate the moment. Thank you, God. But I gotta climb higher. I gotta get better.” Not just from a notoriety and publicity and financial place, but just as an artist. I gotta get better. There’s people out here doing stuff that’s better than me. I could get better.
What’s the atmosphere in the studio been like during the making of this album?
To be honest, I’ve been in the studio and I was doing some recording, but it was mostly me, Big Sean, Cyhi, Pusha, and Teyana in there. For me, it was fun to just be able to rock with them and cats is smoking, cats is doing what they do, having fun more than anything. Just figuring it out. I can remember Big Sean being like, “You should get on this” talking about “Mercy.” I wanted to get on that. I wish I would’ve gotten on it.
Why didn’t you?
I was working, doing something. Eventually the record, it got done quicker than I could get my verse out. They put it out and it was banging.
Who’s the fastest writer of the crew?
From what I’ve seen, it would either be Kanye or I heard Tip was laying a verse down in 10 minutes. That’s what I was told. I wasn’t in the studio when he did. I haven’t witnessed 2 Chainz doing his verses yet. Sean is right there with it, too. Sean and 'Ye have been the fastest that I’ve seen up until now. Oh, Kid Cudi is really good at writing choruses real quick.
What is the the energy of the room like? It seems like, if you got a verse you can rap on the song. It doesn’t seem like it’s limited to anyone.
It’s not limiting and that’s what’s really cool about it. I feel grateful because some of the challenges for me is I’m getting to have an opportunity to rap on something like “Mercy,” which I haven’t been in that world yet on the music side. That’s challenging. That’s what I like. If you do have a verse, you’ll have an opportunity to lay it down. You have to get it past the board to make it but you still get the opportunity.
Have you had verses that haven’t made it through the board?
I’ve had verses that have made it through the board, I’ve had verses that I’ve got requested that I need to change these lines, blah blah blah. I like the challenge of being like, “That wasn’t as dope so I’ll go back and fix it up.”
That makes me better, makes the song better, and that’s what it’s about. I think Kanye was one of the first producers that I had that did that. He did that during Be, we did that where, “I need your delivery to be a little more this” or “I like that take you did already so don’t even re-rap it.” That was, to me, really a producer.
That’s the thing you said before. You never got to the point where you were like, “I made it.” That’s the same with a verse like, “No, I can write a better verse." Writing is rewriting, giving it a second shot. That’s the process.
Yeah, that is the process that you write and rewrite. Getting to work on film, television, you see it don’t stop. Then, too, from a writer’s perspective, we get a script and when you get there that day to film, they’re still writing some stuff. It’s a continuous process. Until that joint has reached the point that you can’t change it anymore because of the release, or the filming, or whatever your deadline may be, that’s when it’s done. Otherwise you’re still going through the process.
Is having a deadline important for you?
If you tell me, we’re going to do this song and I don’t know when you need it done or when it needs to come out, then it’ll be sitting around. But if you’re like, “I need this Friday,” then I know and I’m gonna get it done.
How has the process been for this album? It seems like everything is sort of happening all at once.
For me, it was going in to work in the studio. It was a certain amount of time that I had to lay down my songs and work on it. I’m not used to writing in the studio. I’m used to writing on my own, taking a ride, going to do stuff and then writing. I love to write rhymes like that. So I had to write in the studio and it was a party. It was good times but I had to be able to focus and write. I worked on that and I went into my own little solitude place for a minute and then we got it done. That’s what some of the writing takes.
With this album, what is the success? What are you looking to get out of this?
To be a part of an album that people will say, “Have you heard this G.O.O.D. Music album? This is one of the freshest albums I’ve heard in a long time. I loved it.” One of those things where it’s like, that album is the movement, it’s what people are playing all around. No matter what area you’re in in the world, whether you’re in the U.S. or in the hood or in the coolest artsy place, that album is what people are focused on and into. That would be success to me for the G.O.O.D. Music album.
When I think of albums that have impact throughout the years, I look at Ready to Die or N.W.A.’s Niggaz4Life or Tupac’s Makaveli or The Fugees album or some of Kanye’s albums. When Biggie would come out with an album, the whole nation would be listening and I would love for our album to be a movement where, like I said, all these different people are into the music.
How do you think G.O.O.D. Music compares to some of the other rap crews you have like Maybach Music and YMCMB?
They all got talented artists within their crew. I just think we have a real diverse group. Diversity is the best word I can use. It’s a lot of depth to what we do so I think that’s how we compare. We bring a certain creative lifestyle to what we do and each person is truly established. They have established themselves as a presence within hip-hop music and culture. That’s what we bring. That’s what allows us to be very unique.
I was just having a conversation with Pusha. He owns a store and he was like, “The kids come in wanting stuff that Big Sean is wearing.” So he has an influence on culture, point blank.
Kanye has reached a level where you can go anywhere in the world and say Kanye West’s name. I was in a French store and this lady was like, “What are you here for?” I was like, “Well, it’s a fashion show.” She was like, “Whose is it?” I said, “Kanye West.” She said, “Oh, Kanye West? Tell him to come in here.” It was this older French woman. It’s like, his influence is felt.
The places that I have reached, beyond just music, as an actor too, the people that come up to me now, it’s just a different thing. It’s a lifestyle thing that I feel that we present that’s very unique, fresh, and authentic to who each individual is. But as a team, it just breathes true quality.