Zilla Rocca’s rhyme is better than yours.
When you think “Face Tatted Henchmen” under the thumb of Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad, you naturally think of Common. Never has a more sensitive, smiling rapper been cast in such projects as John Wick 2, Terminator: Salvation, Wanted, Street Kings, American Gangster, and Smokin’ Aces. Common is also currently filming a movie called Hunter Killer because you need a guy who wore afghan mittens and scarves to dig deep into his blackened heart as he pretends to break someone’s legs.
What created Common: Reliable Nose Chopping Actor was the breakthrough of Common: Platinum Rapper back in 2000. The J Dilla produced hit “The Light” led to his first platinum plaque for Like Water For Chocolate, which led to Gap and Coca-Cola ads, which led to the Neptunes and Mary J Blige hit “Come Close”, which led to the Kanye assisted Be and its follow-up, Finding Forever (both went platinum).
Since hitting the small screen on the TV show “Girlfriends” in 2003, Common has been more famous but musically spotty. His last two No-ID assisted LPs The Dreamer, The Believer, and Nobody’s Smiling yielded no radio hits and minimal sales, but restored grit to a catalog chock full of painful pop culture references and odd experiments (Universal Mind Control, anyone?).
But there was a brief moment in time before Common jumped a tax bracket, when he wasn’t a Soulquarian, an Okayplayer, or an unofficial spokesman for Nag Champa. Back in 1998, Common was a middling rapper in between record deals. In 1997, his third album, One Day It’ll All Make Sense sold 250K units at a time when Funkmaster Flex’s 60 Minutes of Funk Vol. 2 went gold. Common, of the classic songs “I Used to Love H.E.R” and “Soul by the Pound”, was being outpaced by a retail mixtape. He had no major co-signs, no dominant crew, and repped Chicago. Needless to say, Def Jam wasn’t blowing up his pager as he neared free agency from Relativity Records.
But what Common lacked in Soundscan returns, he more than made up for with the True Heads, the diehards who bought Resurrection first week (all 2,000 units sold), who thought rap HAD moved to the suburbs and dressed hippy, who played “Resurrection (Xtra P Remix)” on mixshows and college radio, who thought Ice Cube got cooked on “The Bitch in Yoo”. Common in 1998 wasn’t getting a million dollar advance from any label – he would have to double down on the backpackers and purists to survive into the new millennium.
The quickest way to stack some change and titillate his hardcore fans was to align himself with Rawkus Records, Hi-Tek, Pete Rock, The 45 King, Dug Infinite, and The Beatnuts. The following group of records mark a bridge between the workmanlike boom bap of Common’s first three LP’s and the neo-soul makeover he would maximize from 2000 and beyond.
“Live From the DJ Stretch Armstrong Show with Bobbito the Barber” feat Black Thought, Common, Pharoahe Monch, and Absolute. Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1. 1998.
In 1998, lyrics were a hot commodity. From Canibus to Big Pun to Jay-Z to The Lox, you could have a huge buzz strictly off your rhymes. Today, rap songs are 4 minute hooks, but back in 1998, this song, a 10 minute cipher of technical wizardry, would put people in a tizzy. The supposed super group “The Incredible Force” of Black Thought, Common, Monch, and Absolute (I still have no idea who he was) never materialized beyond this cipher. Common kicked his rhyme from “Making a Name For Ourselves” off One Day It’ll All Make Sense before going off the head. This is one of the few posse cut moments in Common’s career. It also made the backpackers raise middle fingers in unison to Puffy.
“Respiration” Black Star feat Common. Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are…1998.
Say what you want today about Kweli and Common, but nobody thought this song was cheesy in 1998. Black Star were the Avengers of the underground, and Rawkus was Marvel. Common’s verse isn’t that much different from what he spit 7 years later on “My Way Home” off of Kanye’s Late Registration – basically, Chicago is fucked up. The beat by Hi-Tek proved that he and Common had strong chemistry, which would flourish over the next year.
“Verbal Murder 2” Pete Rock feat Big Pun, Noreaga, Common. Soul Survivor. 1998.
Pun and Nore were members of the 1998 All-Rookie First Team Rappers, making Common’s buzz substantial on mixtapes simply by tacking on a battle rhyme next to the guys who made “You Came Up”. Common held his own next to the It Guys Of the Moment over a grimy Pete Rock banger: “I peeled some raps back that peeled his cap back, fucker thought I was abstract, now his life is backtracked.”
“Maybe One Day” Brand Nubian feat Common. The Foundation. 1998.
This is the quintessential Common guest appearance – an uplifting conscious record. Buckwild laced the beat for the fully reunited Brand Nubian. Eighteen years later, I’m watching The Night Of and wondering why Lord Jamar got the part of a crooked prison guard over Common. Fun fact: Common was an extreme homophobe who reconciled while Lord Jamar became the hip hop Curt Schilling. I’m sure they have awkward small talk now when they audition for the same gun-toting roles.
“Act Too (The Love of my Life)” The Roots feat Common. Things Fall Apart. 1999.
Common first walked through the Okayplayer realm in 1996 on the supremely gully “UNI Verse (At War)” off The Roots’ Illadelph Halflife. The Roots maintained their record deal but realized they would be a tax write-off if they didn’t squad up and build a collective. “Act Too” served as a sequel to “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and as a press conference to announce the arrival of Comm Sense to Team OKP. The most memorable part of this song still is the line about performing mainly for “coffee shop chicks and white dudes”.
“1-9-9-9” Common feat Sadat X. Soundbombing II. 1999
Another well known Hi-Tek production, “1-9-9-9” got a lot of burn on Rap City. Rawkus was booming – they had signed Common and Eminem to do singles, Pharoahe Monch to a standard contract, and had a breakout hit with Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. Soundbombing II became an all-time classic compilation, and Common’s lead single peaked at #4 on the Rap Charts. If Common would’ve signed to Rawkus, he’d probably be Talib Kweli now. Sometimes it’s good to sell out.
“Like They Used to Say” Common. 1-9-9-9 single. 1999.
The B-Side to his collabo with Hi-Tek and Sadat X, “Like They Used to Say” sounds like a leftover from One Day It’ll All Make Sense in the same vein as “One, Two Many”. Dug Infinite handled the beat. He’s the kind of guy who made Common sound extra Chicago – the beat is bouncy and bright, but never corny. Even at his best, Common is always slightly corny and bumbling as a rapper. He over-explains things and shoehorns in phrases and words that mean nothing to set up his next line. He does that on “Like They Used to Say” but he sounds like he’ll smack the shit out of you if you bring it up to him. He carried that trait for the next few records on this list.
“Slam Pit” The Beatnuts feat Cuban Link and Common. A Musical Massacre. 1999.
Behold: the hardest shit Common has ever spit in his life. Every LP of the past 15 years, Common does the designated “I can still rap hard!” song but nothing compares to this (sans “Hungry” off One Day). “Slam Pit” reunites Comm and the Beatnuts from their promo van tours during their early days on Relativity Records. Cuban Link was bubbling from his affiliation with Pun and Terror Squad and his breakout appearance on The Beatnuts’ “Off the Books”. Common rips this shit and leaves no discussion for who had the best verse: “Picture a king, but heed the holy book and big rings, real n***** doin big things interpreting dreams off of Jim Beam, ain’t shit sweet but sixteens, my guys got the block sewn to the inseam.”
“Car Horn” Common & Mark the 45 King. White label. 1999.
“Car Horn” finds a mad rapper on the outside of the industry. Slipped out by Groove Attack records, “Car Horn” is another hard as hell record where Common flexes. It was also sampled for the hook on “Dooinit” from Like Water. He threatens to torture gay rappers… but blames rappers for talking about violent too much. He bitches about radio not playing him, enjoys shanking cowards for rapping soft, and rhymes drunk off Heineken. He’s a self-described “official raw n**** from the city of winds”. This version of Common is not getting the lead in Just Wright.
“The Truth” Pharoahe Monch feat Common & Talib Kweli. Internal Affairs. 1999.
Psycho Les of the Beatnuts recently said on a podcast that when he asked Common to jump on “Slam Pit”, he told him “I don’t want to hear you talking about Martin Luther King or some incense!” It’s interesting then to see how Common’s like-minded rapper friends would ask him to jump on the softest shit. “The Truth” is Pharoahe Monch making a conscious song on an otherwise enjoyably banging solo debut, where women were urged to rub on their titties on “Simon Says” next to songs titled “The Ass” and “Rape”. The harder songs on Monch’s Internal Affairs featured Busta, MOP, Canibus, Redman, and Method Man. Common, fresh off merking everything in sight, pissed off at the world with no deal, gets asks to rap about “truth” next to one of the most technically vicious rappers of all time. Sometimes you need ignorant friends like Psycho Les to guide you.
“Tekzilla” Hi-Tek feat Common. White label. 1999.
Back to that ignorant shit! “Tekzilla” is the real winner of Common/Hi-Tek collabos – a paranoid piano loop with melancholy horns that soundtrack one long verse. “Tekzilla” is a throwback to Common’s first three albums, a guy in his 20’s who loved getting drunk, getting in fights, looking for late night hook-ups, and wanting respect more than anything. On “Tekzilla”, Common is being followed by a guy who popped mad shit about him and his crew. Comm just had an argument with his girl so he’s looking to blow off steam anyway, riding around and rapping to himself. Common ends up squaring off with this guy, who is waving a gun around, then kicks the shit out of him while hollering about how dominant his block is. This version of Common is not being cast for The Wiz Live! But he’s a lot meaner than the dude who took an L from Drake.