ABOVE: COMMON. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVEN TAYLOR
Common's a man of many pursuits. The 39-year-old is best known as a hip-hop heavyweight, his signature style having churned out such classics as the Grammy-winning "Love of My Life" (a collaboration with soulful songstress and former flame Erykah Badu) and the Grammy-nominated Be. But the Chicago native is also an author, after his recently released memoir One Day It'll All Make Sense, and an actor, thanks to his memorable roles in films like Wanted, American Gangster, and, most recently, his turn on acclaimed TV show Hell On Wheels, in which he plays emancipated slave Elam Ferguson. The AMC drama, a railroad Western set in the 1860s, finds Common's character working on a rail system, all the while attempting to discover his true self and gain genuine deliverance in a prejudice-stained society.
But the Renaissance man hasn't forgotten his music, and is prepping his new album, The Dreamer, The Believer, for a Dec. 20 release. With appearances by John Legend, Nas, and an original work by Maya Angelou, the project will also feature a new song called "Sweet," which many have claimed is a clear shot at Drake and his sensitive-sounding contemporaries. We spoke to Common about the track, Hell on Wheels, and his memories of living with his late colleague, celebrated producer J Dilla.
ALEX CHAPMAN: I think the first time I ever saw you acting was on Girlfriends.
COMMON: [laughs] Yeah, man.
CHAPMAN: Did you act when you were growing up?
COMMON: I acted when I was young—there was one play that I did. I felt I did well, but I remember my mother raving over my friend's performance [instead]. I kinda lost my faith at that point in acting, and I had interest in other things. I loved plays, I loved films, but I had no desire to act until I had just put out my album Like Water for Chocolate. Creatively, I felt like I'd hit a ceiling, and I needed something else to express myself, and I just decided to take acting classes. The first opportunity that came up was with Girlfriends—someone that I work with was just talking about that, saying, "See how far you've come, from Girlfriends to Hell On Wheels. We're very proud of you!"
CHAPMAN: But you've also done some acting in your videos.
COMMON: Yeah. Technically, my first acting job was in one of my videos for a song called "Retrospect For Life," which Lauryn Hill directed and featured an actress by the name of N'bushe Wright, who played my girlfriend who was about to be pregnant. I remember being so nervous about it, but now I feel like I can conquer the world with it. I got a long way to go—I want to keep growing, but it's something that I'm very into.
CHAPMAN: What drew you to your character in Hell On Wheels?
COMMON: I just thought it was one of the most rich characters I'd ever come across. Especially being an African-American actor—this character has so much depth. To be of that time period was already interesting to me, but to be strong, intelligent, having the conflict of being mixed race and deal with your parent being a master... The struggle and actual spirit of black people in that made me want to be this character.
CHAPMAN: What's your favorite part of being on the show?
COMMON: Being up in Canada with the cast, having fun. Honestly, the actual work that we're doing is my favorite. The powerful scenes we get to do, the challenges of it is my favorite part. We're in Calgary, Canada, where we feel like we're out at college or something—we do work, which is like going to class, but then we'll go out to bars or have a barbeque or something. I really like that part.
CHAPMAN: Have you guys done anything outdoorsman-esque?
COMMON: We went to the Cavalia, which equivalent to the Cirque du Soleil with horses. It made me gain a new respect for horses. My character hadn't ridden a horse yet, so it was good to start get that affinity going, because that day may come where my character has to ride a horse.
CHAPMAN: What made you decide that it was time for you to write a memoir? You're quite young.
COMMON: I felt like I had experienced a lot of things in the first chapter of my life, and I wanted it to inspire and motivate people, so I just started writing.
CHAPMAN: There's a part in the book where you talk about living with J Dilla.
COMMON: Yeah, we had an apartment together in LA. It was incredible to have J Dilla in your dining room making beats—it was one of the greatest experiences I've had. I used to get really, really excited when I was getting a JD beats CD. But to have that access and see him create things live every day. There were times when he was sick and couldn't work as much, but every time he was able to, he would work. He loved music.
CHAPMAN: Do you have a favorite Dilla beat?
COMMON: One of my favorite beats that he ever did for me was "Thelonius." I love the song "You Know What Love Is" by Slum Village.
CHAPMAN: What do you think made him so special?
COMMON: God gifted him with that talent, and then he just loved it so much—he was born to be that creative. One thing that allowed him to continue to be special was that he wasn't controlled by the industry. He didn't care if it was the popular rapper calling him or the label telling him they wanted something, he really did stay focused on the music. He had a unique perspective—he was brought up in the hood in Detroit, but he was into jazz music, and sampling Bobby Caldwell and people like that. He had a wide variety of information and talent.
CHAPMAN: Tell me about the track "Sweet." What do you like about the emotional style you describe?
COMMON: One thing I always loved about hip-hop music was the raw, boom-bap element—it felt powerful and manly. I think when I'm talking about soft, there's just certain aspects of hip-hop that inspire you to be a man and be strong, and I think that some of that sweeter stuff feels like it's based on what is popular. It's not that it all lacks talent, but sometimes you don't feel like hearing that. That music's just not speaking to me, that's all.
COMMON'S THE DREAMER, THE BELIEVER IS OUT DECEMBER 20. HELL ON WHEELS AIRS ON AMC SUNDAYS AT 10 PM.