Archive: John Legend and Common
Some choice words from the archive from the winners of this year’s Oscar for Best Original Song
On Sunday night, John Legend and Common stepped up to the stage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to accept the Academy Award for best original song for “Glory” taken from the soundtrack for Selma. It was a righteous moment and the duo’s acceptance speech (below) rounded up some of the reasons for that. It was also a reminder that all good things eventually come to those who wait.
Both Legend and Common have been around the houses over the years and it’s always a moment worth saluting when their endeavours are marked and acknowledged. Below, you’ll find interviews with the pair from 2005. Legend was just starting out on his own career at that stage with the release of “Get Lifted” (he plays Live at the Marquee in Cork on June 23), while Common was interviewed after a show in Dublin on the “Be” tour. Both, as you’ll see, had a fair bit to say, especially about the common link between the two of them, Kanye West.
JOHN LEGEND INTERVIEW
John Legend has lost count of the number of times he has done this. A small room, a big piano, a crowd of people looking at him. This kind of thing got him through his last year in college back in Philly and got him on the bill in clubs in Washington DC and New York. This kind of thing persuaded various industry big-hitters that he could be more than just a hook singer who came in to add some gospel and soul to blockbuster R&B and hip-hop albums.
This kind of thing? Could do it with his eyes shut, man. Been playing piano since he was four so he knows where the keys are. Been singing in a choir since he was eight. Been writing songs since he could put lines and rhymes together. No bother to him.
This kind of thing has brought him to another city and another industry schmooze. For some reason, Usher is sitting in the front row. Hell, Usher made sure he was sitting in the front row. Even tried to move some Irish hacks to make sure he was in the front row, but they weren’t budging. Someone else moved so he could be right in Legend’s sightline. Maybe Usher thought Legend might be intimidated seeing a million-selling R&B short-arse in the front row. Maybe Usher couldn’t see from the back.
This, his pal Kayne West told him, is how it will go down. This, said Kayne, is how you sell albums. Go out there, Play the piano. Sing your songs. Do some meeting. A little bit of greeting. Let the songs do the rest. Play the game. Kayne is one hell of a salesman. Legend spent ’04 watching Kayne blow up worldwide. Now, he thinks, it’s my turn to give the sales pitch.
John Legend walks over to the piano and starts to play and sing. A few songs from his “Get Lifted” album. A little bit of chit-chat. Get the room hollering in the right places. Play a few snatches of songs he’s worked on for Alicia Keys and Jay-Z and Kayne. Let them see his credentials. Leave ‘em wanting more. Hey, if they want more, they can buy the album.
“Get Lifted” is already one of 2005’s sweetest gems, an album loaded down with soul and gospel, an album with jazz and funk embroidered in the stitching. You can hear all of this in Legend’s voice, a silky, graceful elegant thing which can conjure up majestic, gospel-charged hallelujahs and sweeping, swooning epic moments without even trying too hard. Why, if you look hard enough, you could even imagine Marvin Gaye flying high in a friendly sky to some of these cuts.
About a year ago, Legend picked up a copy of “Mercy Mercy Me”, Michael Eric Dyson’s fine book on the life of that most troubled of souls. It opened Legend’s eyes and ears. “I was reading it when I was finishing off the album and it made me go back to Marvin’s music and realise I could do some different things with my own recordings. You know those airy background vocals at the start of “Get Lifted”? That was Marvin-inspired. I think that’s the kind of thing he’d have done.”
Born and raised as John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, he always had music in his ear. There was a piano in the house, his grandma making sure he had plenty of gospel songs to sing and Pentecostal church choirs and school musicals to keep him out of trouble. “Pentecostal music, it’s very animated and upbeat and important to the service. There’s no stodgy old hymns so when you were a kid, it was fun to do music in church because it was good and exciting music.”
After leaving school, he got in a car and drove nine hours to sign up for college in Philadelphia. By day, he studied literature. By evening and night and those hours in the day when he didn’t have his head in a book, he studied music.
The Bethel AME Church in Scranton hired him to run their music department, giving him dollars and a church home. He worked with Counterparts, a student acappella group in the University of Philadelphia. There was a lot of new music in Philly and Legend the outsider watched the likes of Jill Scott and the Roots coming and going and took notes on what he saw. Literature? It didn’t stand a chance. “I was more passionate about the music, a lot more passionate.”
Every couple of months, Legend would head to New York to do some work with a producer Dave Tozer. He’d be doing shows in clubs, releasing a few live CDs and keeping the wolf from the door, but he wanted something other than the small victories he was racking up.
One night, a friend of a friend called Kayne West turned up to a show and liked what he heard. The two clicked and Legend’s journey out of the shadows began. By the end of 2003, Legend had credits on such albums as Alicia Keys’ “Diary of Alicia Keys”, Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Elephunk”. He was ready for the next level.
It was, in fairness, a mighty fine apprenticeship. “It was invaluable being able to work on those big records”, he says, “because it taught me a lot about how to go about making a record in the first place. I’d watch the session players, the producer and the engineers and just see what they were doing. It rubs off, you learn a few tricks here and there.
“Being around a lot of MCs really influenced me and I think my writing is wittier and punchier now than it was before. There’s a lot of good one-liners in there which I don’t think you get with other R&B artists but which MCs specialise in.”
Legend’s lyrics are another reason why “Get Lifted” stands out from the new-soul pack. Sharp and witty, they take in all the foibles, fallacies and fancies of love, life and everything inbetween. As Legend puts it, there are two sides to this story; “there’s the infidelity and the misbehaving side and then a side to reconcile all that”.
He knows he’s taking a chance with some of the lines, especially “Number One” with its tale of cheeky philandering. “I think women in particular will scoff at some of the lyrics, especially “Number One”,” he says. “But I wanted the album to feel true and feel real so I talked about real stuff that people talk about. Sometimes I talked about it in the way that I talked to my guy friends.
“On “Number One”, it’s things that me and my boys would talk about that we might not necessarily want our girls to hear. But we talk about it so I don’t feel bad putting it on the album because it shows a side of a relationship. It’s intended to be funny so I hope people take it lightly.”
It sure is a far cry from the Pentecostals. “That was an environment where there were a lot of taboos about what you could do morally or sexually”, Legend recalls. “The Pentecostal church may be very charismatic on the music side but it’s very socially rigid. There is always that conflict when someone grows up in that situation because there are other things in life which are forbidden but are tempting because of that. That conflict, that struggle, between the sacred and the sensual makes for fruitful exploration and great art.”
The crowd back in the London club recognise great art when it starts to sing. Legend closes his eyes and the chords to “Used To Love U” start up. The song fills the room and you can tell that it will fill many, many rooms in the months to come.
Legend probably knows that too, but he’s still too modest a guy to admit it. “I’m reserved and laidback and less given to hyperbole. I know I’m not the only artist who’s witty or mixing hip-hop sensibility with R&B and gospel. I don’t think I’m the only one taking it to a new place because everyone has their own unique combination of elements which they put together. It’s not groundbreaking but it is pretty well executed.
But, like Sam Cooke said, a change is gonna come. “It’s amazing how many records we’ve sold already after a few weeks and it’s cool that it’s my record and my name that’s out there.” He pauses for a moment. “You see, when it’s necessary, I can talk the talk.”
Common takes another sip from a glass of red wine. It’s creeping towards 1am and he wants to get into the mini-bus parked outside the venue, drive back to his hotel and fall into bed. The day began in London and ends in Dublin with dozens of interviews and a show taking up all the time in-between.
Earlier, there was a full room hooting and hollering along as Common gave it socks. What Dublin witnessed was a 90-minute set with more punch and vigour than most lame hip-hop shows will ever muster in their wildest dreams.
Common swung from one banger to the next, kicking out back-catalogue vintage cuts from his six albums like “Invocation” (from 1997’s “One Day It’ll All Make Sense”) and “6th Sense” (from 2000’s “Like Water For Chocolate”) and watching the crowd lap it up. One guy in the audience kept waving a 12-inch record sleeve at him. Common figured that must be how they show mad love for you in Ireland. Strange people, man, these Irish hip-hop heads.
Mostly, though, Common stuck to the script and plugged the new album. Not that that was a chore. “Be” is the album, after all, which has pushed Lonnie Rashid Lynn from the South Side of Chicago back into the limelight.
Produced by hip-hop’s current ruling grand poobah Kanye West (who also signed Common to his Good label), “Be” is a sparkling, funky, feel-good behemoth. Your 50 Cents and Eminems may be shifting more units and flogging more tickets, but this is the real deal. Anyone in the room tonight who heard “Testify”, “Go”, “The Food”, “Faithful” and “The Corner” will tell you that.
A few hours after the show, that audience has gone home, the chorus to “It’s Your World” bouncing around in their membranes. The bar staff are now doing their cleaning thing, the production staff are doing their packing thing and Common, well, he’s doing his talking thing.
It’s been a long journey for the Chi-Town rapper. The then Common Sense first lit a spark back in ’94 with his second album and underground classic “Resurrection”. In its wake came a major label deal, a truncated name and an upwards momentum. After 2000’s “Like Water for Chocolate”, all eyes were on him, but 2002’s highly experimental “Electric Circus” saw many of the rap community running away in horror and switching their allegiance to less adventurous MCs.
But it was always on the cards that Common would bounce back. Ever since he dropped that timeless commentary on hip-hop life and culture, “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, Common has had game like no other rapper.
Instead of glorifying black-on-black violence or gaining lyrical gratification from chronicling cartoon-like gangstas and street hustlers, Common has mapped out life as he sees it from his side of the street. Thanks to a smart political and social consciousness, Common’s canny verbals and sophisticated flow have kept him in the frame all these years.
Yet for all the critical acclaim and applause from his peers, Common’s albums are still not monster sellers. Sure they make the numbers, but not in the kind of quantity to trouble the big players to change their pitch. Respect is all well and good, but respect doesn’t pay the bills. As Jay-Z put in on “Moment of Clarity” from “The Black Album”; “I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mill/And I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”.
Common is sanguine about his lot when it comes to the commercial side. “Let those who hear, hear”, he says. “When it comes to popular culture, some people just want to cheer on the most popular person. They might be with this Cabbagepatch doll rapper at this point and then they move onto the next and then they move onto the Barney rapper. There are those who will really want to hear this and they’ll go out of their way to hear it.”
Of course, he wants more. “Yeah, I’d love to do arenas instead of small clubs, but I’m just glad that people are feeling the music. I’m not mad at it, I’m just going to be me. I do want to sell records but I don’t want to give up what I believe in or take away from the integrity of my music to do that. I’m worth more than that.”
The new album, he feels, is Common to the power of a thousand. “When I started kicking around ideas for “Be”, I had a goal to do some hip-hop which felt good, which felt raw. I wanted to get back to the roots of why I started out doing hip-hop in the first place, back to the things I loved. That’s where I started and I suppose I realised with this album that it still exerts an influence over me today.
“But don’t get me wrong man, it’s not about going backwards, I never want to go backwards in music or in life. You could do stuff that may sound like something you did before, but because you’re at a new place in your life, it’s going to be new. This album is about the spirit. I wanted to recreate that spirit which was there when I started out in ’92 or ’93. There was an innocence to the music back then.”
Common looks wistful as he talks about those early days, spitting lyrics and learning his trade back in Chicago alongside such local heroes as producer No I.D. “It was a very soulful place, very black, very blue collar”, he remembers. “A lot of my stuff over the years comes from me connecting with different people there and it has been a big part of who I am. I grew up middle class, I’ve been around the ghetto, I’ve been around preppy cats so I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I didn’t grow up around the industry so I think that has allowed me to come through with authentic everyday music.”
What Common never lost was a belief in what he was doing. “It’s why I’ve stayed around this long, I know I’m doing the right thing. After this album in particular, I know that wherever my music goes that’s supposed to be where it’s going. Right now, I’m getting more and more attention which is kind of strange on your sixth album. I take things just the way they come.”
Even when the tide turned in favour of gangsta cuts, Common held his ground. Nowadays, he’s still holding firm. “Criminal records are all about you getting shot or you shooting someone else and they’re the records which are getting the big push from the labels. These criminal records have become huge marketing things. But the funny thing is all that criminal talk has nothing to do with the music. It’s a lifestyle thing and people are trying to get into the lifestyle.”
As the father of an eight-year-old daughter, Common is acutely aware of how the images created by gangsta rap can distort reality. “As parents, we are responsible for what we allow our children to be exposed to. My daughter should be able to hear everything and be exposed to different things. I just need to be able to communicate with her and let her know what’s real and what’s fake so she can make proper decisions.
“But as rappers, we hold a big part of that responsibility as well. A lot of kids who listen to our music don’t have both parents around so we have to play our part for the good of our community.
The reaction to “Be” is all the sweeter when you consider how people reacted to his previous album. On “Electric Circus”, Common was the ringmaster juggling psychedelic guitars, flower-power singing, flutes and contributions from UK indie mainstays Stereolab.
Many thought he’d lost the plot. “I understood why the fans were feeling like they felt. It’s like they were used to a certain kind of food at their local restaurant and they turned up and there was something completely different on their plate. It was like ‘yo, hold on bro, this tastes strange.’
“I understood that but I chose to do what I did with “Electric Circus” because that’s what worked for me. I never look back and think ‘why did I do that?’ or ‘what would I change?’ No way. “Electric Circus” was me in 2002 and that’s what the people got.”
Afterwards, some began to wonder if Common was a spent force. “People where kind of doubting me, so that got me hungry when I started on the new album”, says Common with a smile. “Where I’m from and how I was raised, I never had to prove to anyone that I was hard. My music did that for me.”
Between albums, Common has had other things on his plate. He’s helped out with the “Knowing Is Beautiful” AIDS campaign and established the Common Ground Foundation to help children in Chicago. For him, it’s about putting something back. “I feel that it’s my duty to speak out on matters that are affecting our community a lot because I know that I do have a voice. I have a platform that means people hear me speak so why not speak out?”
He drains his glass of wine and rubs his eyes. Time to get some shut-eye before the Common show rolls out of town and onto the next city. He’ll be back, be sure of that. With Common, it really is just starting off all over again