Common Talks About Using J Dilla Production on New Album: "I Had to Make Sure...I Wasn’t Doing Something He'd Be Against" [Interview]
We caught up with Common to discuss his friendship with J Dilla, linking with Swizz Beatz, and how he feels about “I Used to Love H.E.R.” 25 years later.
Common is an actor, writer, philanthropist, and activist. While his accolades are vast, hip-hop will always and forever be at the core of everything he does.
The Grammy-award winning recording artist recently released his memoir, Let Love Have the Last Word, in which he pens about family and relationships. He even opens up about his experience being molested as a child. Days after the book’s release, Common announced he was releasing a new album, Let Love — out August 30th — inspired directly by the content in his book.
The new album serves as the Chicago native’s first solo project in over three years, following 2016’s spotty Black America Again.
Let Love is a return to form for Common: collaborating with artists he worked with over 20 years ago — including Jill Scott and Bilal. But it’s also an album where we see him evolve and experiment, doing songs with Swizz Beatz and Leikeli47.
The best marriage of the old and new comes on the first single, “Her Love,” which is a continuation of the “I Used to Love H.E.R.” series — his iconic ode to hip-hop. On “Her Love,” which features Daniel Caser, Common comes to grip with hip-hop now, realizing he can’t hate the genre and artists who are expanding the sound, namedropping Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Cardi B, and more. The song was produced by the late J Dilla, who Common refers to as “one of the greatest to ever produce.”
The two shared a special bond, crafting countless classics during the Like Water for Chocolate, Electric Circus days. Near the end of Dilla’s life, the two were living with each other. An experience Common looks fondly upon. “It was incredible to wake up and hear Dilla beats,” he said.
With a couple of weeks until the release of Let Love, we caught up with Common to discuss his friendship with J Dilla, linking with Swizz Beatz, on how he feels about “I Used to Love H.E.R.” 25 years later.
What inspires you to create music today?
Music is a way for me to connect to myself, in a lot of ways: a way for me to express myself; a way for me to go into my imagination; a way for me to find divine creative things about me; a way for me to talk about my life. But the next level of what music does for me, it inspires other people. It connects me with other people, that’s one of the things I love most about it. From the first rap I wrote to what I’m doing right to this day, it’s the joy I get out of it and the joy it brings others.
Let Love is based on your memoir. How difficult or easy was it to transition into album form?
It was a spark in me to create music because of the fact I’d been writing the book and really doing a lot of soul searching. A lot of self-discovery and self-work. When I’m in that raw place, I love being creative. I still got a lot to say. It also gave me a baseline or theme to already go on. It’s not like every song is going to be based on a chapter. I started writing songs about things and starting putting them in the book too. It fed each other.
You say “Her Love” is the follow-up to “Used to Love H.E.R.” How do you feel about that song now?
Honestly, I’m happy I wrote that song [laughs]. I’m grateful because of the fact that people responded to the song. Throughout time, people still refer to it as something that meant something to them. It was a great way for me to talk about how I felt about hip-hop at that time. I feel like my perspective has evolved now, but the love is still there.
Do you regret any of the things you said at the time?
Oh nah. That’s the beauty of it, a lot of it is you speaking your mind — speaking your truth. I wouldn’t deny what I felt at the time. I still think hip-hop in its purest form is incredible. That’s the music I enjoy now: people who are pure in hip-hop, who just love what they do and the art of it. Even if their vision is to make a lot of money, they still have love for the music, so I still feel that way. I evolved in that I understand music and people are going to change. They’re going to grow, and don’t have to necessarily grow the way I want them to grow. I guess my understanding of love grew.
How nostalgic was it to record “Her Love?”
Definitely nostalgic. Really, almost extra nostalgic. The day I recorded “ I Used To Love H.E.R.” one of my best friends was in the studio. While I was rapping he was frowning his face. We were young dudes, he thought I was rapping about a girl. When I said I was talking about hip-hop, I remember recording and seeing his face.
Twenty-five years later, he’s in Brooklyn at my house in my apartment. I was about to record it the next day, but he wasn’t able to stay. I kind of wanted him there, but I wasn’t even going to tell him what it was.
What inspired you to namedrop all of those rappers?
Those artists man, they’re talented and bring a lot to the culture. They’re advancing, moving things forward, expressing hip-hop in new ways. I wanted to honor them, give respect to them. Acknowledge them. I wanted to say “hey man, I respect and honor y’all.” To me, hip-hop is always about self-expression. Like “man, who are you?” Everybody I mentioned, I respect on that level.
You say you were hesitant in rapping over a J Dilla beat. Why is that?
Everything we released was when he was alive. We created together. That’s how I like creating a lot, just with the producer. I had to make sure in my heart I wasn’t doing something that he would be against.
What made you finally feel comfortable in moving forward?
My manager Derek [Dudley] and my lady were both like “man, you need to rhyme to a J Dilla beat.” My lady played this one J Dilla beat that’s already out. She’s like “this break part right here, listen. You would kill that!” We were drinking, it was around my birthday. I said “Kareem listen to this, what do you think about this?” Kareem’s like” Dilla made that for you.” That hit me. I’m like “aw man, this is OK.” Almost as if Dilla’s spirit was like “it’s cool, bro go do It.” Especially with this song paying homage to hip-hop over a Dilla beat.
Dilla is one of the greatest to ever produce.
Bring us back to the genesis of your relationship with Dilla.
I first was hearing his beats when I went over to Q-Tip’s house. Jay Dee was down in the basement digging through records. He was quiet. We start talking, he was from Detroit and I was from Chicago. Q-Tip had played me some of his beats and I think De La [Soul]. I was like “that’s Jay Dee?” So we started bonding.
He flew to Chicago and laid three beats for me just on his own. I love he did that. I never ended up using the songs. I wrote stuff to them, then recorded some stuff. Going into ‘99, I went to Detroit with The Roots. They’re working on a song with Dilla. It was us reconnecting. From that point, we started making beats. I’d fly to Detroit, go to his house, he’d cook up beats. We’d go get Mongolian barbeque, we’d go to Dave & Buster’s, we’d go see The Matrix. We just were family. He’d go to the strip club, I sometimes went with him. We had that bond. I really think of him as a true close friend and brother of mine.
When were you guys roommates?
We were roommates from 2004 ‘til he passed in 2006. We stayed in LA, we had this cool little apartment. He was definitely battling with a lot of his sickness, but he was a good roommate. It was incredible to wake up and hear Dilla beats. He’d always sit and watch TV, then go in there make beats. He’d be cleaning up, dusting off the speakers. He kept things all clean.
How did your relationship evolve over the years as you both began to gain attention in the rap game?
The thing with Dilla, our relationship evolved because we obviously gained a mutual respect for one another. Whenever I said I wanted to do something, he knew I was going to do it. When we were working on Electric Circus, he was trying to give me other types of beats. I’m like ”nah, Dilla. I want these joints. I need some stuff that’s a mix between Radiohead and hip-hop.” I just wanted to go out there, and he was able to deliver those things. Make music that didn’t sound like Like Water for Chocolate, didn’t sound like Resurrection or One Day It’ll All Make Sense. He was able to make very unique stuff. Our communication became more and more real and raw.
Also, I knew him. I could be like “man would you sample this?” If he didn’t want to sample it, he wouldn’t do it. We understood how each other worked, what each other was motivated by. Just built a good bond. I knew when it was time for me to just chill and wait for him to cook up a batch of beats. You get to know somebody and their ways. I got to know him in that way, know some of his habits. We were brothers.
What is it about Dilla’s beats that people love?
It’s got a spirit and an energy that’s so soulful and so unique. The mixture of who he is, where it’s super creative but still got some hood to it too. It’s got a honk to it. You could play it and it sonically sounds good, but it’s coming from different aspects of music. It’s put together so beautifully and melodically. He was innovating, doing things that people hadn’t heard in music. When producers or musicians talk about him, they equate him to a Charlie Parker of jazz. Or John Coltrane or Miles Davis, people who created a certain sound. That’s what he did.
Lots of musicians within our bands say they play the way J Dilla programmed. I’ve seen every producer from Kanye [West] to Pharrell [Williams] to D’Angelo to Questlove — these dudes all looked at him as “this dude is the god. He’s one of the greats.” I’ve seen Jay Dee give Kanye some drums and Kanye hold the records like it’s the holy grail. I’ve seen Pharrell, as soon as Jay Dee walked into the studio, start bowing down, giving him love. It’s Pharrell. It’s Kanye. These dudes are really successful, popular producers, but they know who Jay Dee is. They know how great he is.
What are some other collabs that mean the most to you?
The collab I had with Lauryn Hill, because Lauryn’s one of my favorite artists. “Retrospect For Life” meant a lot. Being able to collaborate with Questlove because I learned so much from him. Working with Erykah Badu, those collabs were dope. Now being able to work with producers I work with — Karriem Riggins, Samora Pinderhughes, Boom Bishop — it’s something real special, organic and pure.
What was your creative process in getting the features on Let Love?
A lot of our creation was just us in the studio: me freestyling, them playing. Karriem already had some drums he recorded, then we’d play and he’d orchestrate. When we come up with music, it’s like “oh man, such-and-such would sound good to this.” Like “Show Me That You Care,” a song that Samora Pinderhughes and Jill Scott’s singing on, Samora had already sung the hook. He wrote the hook. We thought that was great, but one of my collaborators was like “man let’s try a different voice. What about Jill Scott?” It’s like “yes! Let’s try that. Jill can do anything, let’s get that.” A lot of our ideas come from the sound of the music and us having a think tank and collaborating. I wanted Daniel Caesar on “Her Love,” because I love what he does. He’s super talented.
You knew right away you wanted Daniel?
Yes. To be honest — it sounds funny, but it was either H.E.R or Daniel. “H.E.R. Love” would have went. But they both are super really talented vocalists and artists. It needed to be somebody who could stay in a vibe. What made me even more excited to have Daniel Caesar was he knew about Jay Dee. He knew about Dilla, and he knew about “I Used To Love H.E.R.” too.
Well I can’t assume… you just don’t know. [chuckles] When he’s like “yo, I ‘Used To Love H.E.R.’ is one of my favorite songs you did.” I’m like “Dilla?” He’s like “man, come on. I’m young, but don’t do that.” That touched me, I was like “this is the right person.” He vibed that joint out. I just felt good.
Then BJ The Chicago Kid is someone who just has a soulful voice. For the songs I chose him to sing on, like “Forever Your Love” which is about my mom and “Memories Of Home,” it needed that soul. Now I have a collaborator named Jonathan McReynolds and Leon Bridges sing on the song “God Is Love,” it’s real special. Jonathan McReynolds is a gospel singer, but he can take the music anywhere. The collaborations are like a painting. You try a color and if that color doesn’t work, to be honest, you’ve got to paint over it. Luckily, I ain’t have to paint over much. [chuckles] The people we selected really worked.
The energy on the record with Swizz Beatz is crazy. Talk about the dynamic in the studio on “Hercules.”
So “Hercules” is produced by Karriem, Boom Bishop and Samora. When I heard that beat, I was like “Swizz would add some dope energy to it.” I had called him, sent him the beat. In less than two minutes, he sent me some hook he was doing. I’m like “yo this dude is dope.”
About a month and a half later, I’m like “Swizz what’s up, when we gonna do this?” He’s like “come by the studio.” I went by the studio and said “what about that hook you had?” He’s like “nah, I’ma do something else.” He put the beat on, I had the rhyme already written. He just started doing his adlibs. Then he sang the hook. I’m like “ooh I love that hook.” It was a new Swizz style of hook, still with his energy and ad libs.
Why is it important for you to put on for the younger generation?
The younger generation has so much to offer. I want to connect with the younger generation. The younger generation has so much to say that. I like to not only put on for them, but I like to listen and learn too. On the same token, I want the younger generation to connect with my music. I strive to make music that’s ageless and timeless. That’s good spirits, just great music.