"It Was Like A Whole New Sound" - Common On Prince
Suppose we've all had that Prince-inspired eureka moment, when the man's genius finally clicks in the back of your brain and sends you down the purple wormhole of discovery. In fact, our Prince Day celebration has been littered with tales of that nature from Talib Kweli and Spike Lee, respectively.
Now we're pivoting our lens to the work of Common, whose Electric Circus has been characterized as his own personal Prince moment, delving into psychedelic rock and r&b akin to 1999 or Dirty Mind or any of P's more experimental steel-toed outings. Though the pinnacle of their encounters may have come during Com's historic appearance at the 2015 Golden Globe ceremony with John Legend, where the duo was presented the award for "Best Original Song" for their work on Selma by Prince himself....but that's far from where Common's paisley spark originated.
Below you'll read a first-hand account of just how Prince infiltrated Common's musical mind and left his mark there, like he has for so many artists before and after his time. And on Prince Day, what would have been his 58th birthday, there's no better way to celebrate the man who preferred to go uncelebrated. Skim through the pages below and learn just how profound even a few moments with His Royal Badass can be.
Okayplayer: Could you tell us about what Prince's music meant to you as a kid, as a music fan before you were ever an artist yourself?
Common: For me it was the first time I have ever heard any music that was God-driven and also sexual at the same time; it was like a whole new sound. When I was young, I used get excited to listen to his music because i didn’t know whether or not I was allowed to listen to his music. it felt like it was something new and fresh. It felt like it was something all our own because it was new. It wasn’t like he was an artist that came from the '60s, even though it was late '70s his music still felt like it was for the younger generation and ended up being for every generation. At that time, it felt like music that was on the edge. You didn’t really know if you were supposed to listen to his music but you did anyway. It was also like the name of his group, very revolutionary from the other music that I had heard.
OKP: Was there a memorable first time or association with his music from your younger days?
Com: My next door neighbor, who’s name was DeDe, was a little bit older than me and a beautiful girl who listened to Prince. I always wanted to hear him because she listened to him. She thought he was cool and sexy and I remember going over to her house and looking at the cover of the 1999 record and I believe it was a picture of a penis. Being a kid, I remember thinking "Wow, this dude put that on there." When you are a kid, you laugh at things, you make it funny because you just don’t really know how to react. My memories were really just going over to DeDe's house listening to his records. We even played them backwards because people would say that he was saying things and you could hear them if you played the record backward.
OKP: Did you re-discover his work at a later stage when you were making music yourself? When did you first meet him personally? What was your relationship like?
Com: I first met him at this event in Chicago at this place called the Rivera. I was just happy that he spoke to me and knew who I was. They told me he had asked about me and I was just grateful. He was just nice and open to talk. We talked about this song I did called "The Light." He said "It's in a major key and I like songs in major keys”. I said “Man, I don’t know what key it's in.” I was just honored that one of the greatest artist knew who I was and knew my music.
OKP: Because you delved into a more experimental pop or electric funk sound on Electric Circus, it's sometimes been described as your rockstar phase, your "Jimi-phase" or "Prince-phase." Do you think there's any truth to that description, even if its a little simplistic? Was the Purple One a big influence on that record in particular?
Com: Yes he did have influence on me and that record. I even recorded some of it at Paisley Park. At that time, I was being introduced to a lot of rock in general. I was listening to groups that were from different genres of rock, like Pink Floyd, Stereo Lab, and Prince was definitely a heavy influence. He even played on this one song called "69."
OKP: Last year Prince presented yourself & John Legend with the Golden Globe for "Best Original Song" for your work on Selma. Was that the last time you saw Prince? Can you tell us a bit about what the moment was like?
Com: It was the last time I saw Prince in person. It was one of the greatest moments I had, just simply to win the Golden Globe with John Legend for Selma and then for Prince to present it.
I remember some of my team members saw Prince walking and people's reaction to Prince was “That's Prince.” No matter how big of a movie star, everyone was amazed. To see him come out on stage and deliver the award to us made me so happy. I even remember going up to him and hugging him. People told me he had a look on his face that kinda said get off me. I am just incredibly grateful I got to share that moment with him.
OKP: That a tribute to MLK and other civil rights activist brought you all together on stage seems especially appropriate since Van Jones has just revealed how involved Prince was in supporting grass roots anti-violence and educational work. Especially in your hometown of Chicago. Did you all build on that level? Coordinate efforts or discuss the situation as a whole?
Com: Prince was always socially aware and willing to take a stand for love and equality. His conversations he usually had an important opinion to share. Some of it was just spiritual foundation and others were on how can we affect things socially and his thoughts and ideas.
OKP: Finally, everyone we've spoken to has that Prince story. That one moment that sums up what a badass, how mysterious, how knowing he was. What's your favorite Prince story of all time?
Com: Mine was going to Paisley Park and--I assumed he was going to be there...and to this day I never knew if he was there or not. Because he could be watching you, we were there hoping he would pop up, but he never did. I did end up hearing a song we did and laid keyboard on it. So it was the mystery of, Is he going to show up? But then he ended up adding to the record.