‘How powerful music can be’: Common tells us 7 songs that shaped him

Photography by Durimel

What do you even say to introduce an artist like Common?

A legend of hip-hop, the Chicago rapper has made a name for himself not only through his (Oscar and Golden Globe winning) music, but also through his activism, acting and philanthropy.

In person, he’s got a calm and warm presence about him. We’re sitting in his central London hotel where he’s staying to do some press bits ahead of his new album, Let Love, which lands this week. To celebrate we sat down and looked back through his musical memories. From Stevie Wonder through to Shuggie Otis, Common talks us through seven songs that shaped him.

The first album I bought: Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

“It had the song ‘Happy Birthday’ on it, for Dr. Martin Luther King. And I used to really play that record a lot. I loved it. It made me feel good. But little did I know that record was helping to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday in America. I just played it because I liked it –  but that’s just how powerful music can be. As a kid, I’m just playing it because it felt good but it was also having a social impact. I walked to buy it from the record store in my neighbourhood, it was on 87th Street on the south side of Chicago. It was called Metro Music. In fact, I would go get all my music from there. I started to get all my hip-hop from there, too. In fact, I would go there just to see what was out in hip-hop and I would just buy the stuff.”

A song that makes me think about family: Frankie Beverly and Maze – ‘Before I Let Go’

“Everytime I hear that song it’s in a family environment. If you’re black, it’s one of those songs that makes you think of barbecues and good times. But also there’s a song called ‘Zoom’ by the Commodores. It makes me mostly think of my cousin. But also about all the family. My cousin passed, and that was one of his favourite songs – so the song has sentimental value to a lot of us in the family.”

My go-to karaoke song: Lauryn Hill –  ‘Ex-Factor’

“I love that song! That song makes me feel… I don’t know, it’s just so soulful. I can’t really sing that good, but I’ll be trying to do it. It’s an incredible album. Man, that album was so big – it affected the world when it came out. Some music doesn’t age well, but that music is still great.”

A song for when I’m in my feelings: Stevie Wonder – ‘It Seems So Long’

“He basically says, it seems so long since I’ve been able to love or be loved in the best way. I feel like most of the times when I’m in my feelings, it’s in that manner. The song really brings out emotion – it’s very soulful.”

A song I wish I had written: Nas – ‘The World Is Yours’ 

“I was working on one of my albums, and I heard Nas. When I heard him, he was actually rapping some of the raps from Illmatic on this radio show called Stretch and Bobbito, and when I heard how good those raps were it made me be like, man, I gotta step up. I knew I had to work because when I heard Nas rapping at that level – it was poetic, it was street – this was some of the greatest rap I ever heard in my life. There’s just a flow to it unlike anything else – he changed the way people rap.”

A song that always gets me out of a bad mood: Kamasi Washington – ‘Ask Him’

“I’m a jazz dude, so I’m gonna go with this. I could be in a crazy mood, but it makes me feel good. It centres me in a way. That, and gospel music too. I grew up going to church so that’s part of me.”

A song I think has been slept on: Shuggie Otis – ‘Aht Uh Mi Hed’

“He is super dope. I don’t know if he influenced Prince but, before Prince, Shuggie Otis was playing all these different instruments, and there’s a funk soul to him.”

Common’s new album Let Love comes out tomorrow

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