Jam Sandwich

Electric Circus, the new album by the Chicago-bred rapper Common, is a late contender for hip-hop album of the year: It's a wildly textured, lovingly drawn tapestry of urban psychedelia that, like Meshell Ndegeocello's recently overlooked Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, imagines the form as a febrile mixture of funk, soul, R&B and plenty of out-there sound effects. Featuring production by the Soulquarians and guest spots from Prince, the Neptunes, Stereolab, P.O.D., Mary J. Blige and more, the disc ably follows up the MC's 2000 breakthrough, Like Water for Chocolate. Common called from his new home in New York last month and spoke about it.

Dallas Observer: The new album feels like one long jam. Were you aiming for that kind of a feel?

Common: Yeah, definitely. I definitely wanted to paint a whole picture, and I feel like the songs are just colors that I use within this picture. And I wanted it to feel like an experience--each song, even with its own difference and own uniqueness, had to have some type of continuity with another song.

DO: You sounded like you were heading in that direction on the last one, too.

C: Yeah, definitely. When I do albums I want to put out a sound; I want it to be a vibration, and I kind of try to stay on that vibration.

DO: With that in mind, how does the songwriting work? Is it a different process than just writing individual songs?

C: Well, yeah. Not differently, but I just kind of learn more about songwriting, so I don't just try to make the rhymes dope. I try to be an instrument with the music, I try to deal with subject matters, I try to make sure that the choruses are good, I try to make sure that it's textured to the songs.

DO: You worked with quite a few different players and producers. How do those collaborations work?

C: What I do on my own is just listen to new music. Once I got new music in my spirit and in my head, I bring that music to the producers, and that gives them a direction. Once that direction is given, then they know where I want to go, and obviously they always take it somewhere past where I would want to go. They know how to interpret it in a whole new way; they come up with some whole new fresh sound. Then I take the music and sit and think about, "What could I write to it?" Sometimes I write a song and it don't come out right; I gotta rewrite the song two to three times.

DO: It's cool how everyone's work sort of came together to form a unique sound. I didn't even know the Neptunes produced "Come Close," the lead single, the first time I heard it, which for them is pretty remarkable.

C: Those brothers, we on a similar vibration. I got a lot of love for their creativity, and they came and knew me, they knew my music. I think we from the same planet as far as music goes. That N.E.R.D album [2002's In Search Of...] was something that I wish I would've done, you know what I'm saying? So it's like we got a lot of similar tastes, so they knew which way to go with me. And they definitely gave me something that didn't sound like what you would expect from the Neptunes.

DO: A lot of your other collaborators have very identifiable sounds, too: ?uestlove, Stereolab, Jay Dee, Prince, Cee-Lo. How important is it to you to get a sound from them that's atypical in some way?

C: Oh, man, that's what producing is for me--they gotta come and give me my sound. The sound that ?uestlove produces on my album with Jay Dee and James Poyser is mine; it's generated by the things that I'm attracted to. And though they created it and they attracted to it, too, producers are sounding particular for Common. I think the Neptunes did that same thing for me. And people know; when I'm working with cats they know I wanna go in this certain direction. Like, for the second song that I did with the Neptunes, I played them a lot of my album, so they could hear where I was going. So we just came up with something else. I give them a direction, and I'm attracted to different things, so they kind of know that and go from there.

DO: During recording did the group of people you'd assembled begin to feel like a single body?

C: Yeah, it felt like a group. Everybody that performed on it, they got love for each other; they respect each other's art. There's a song called "Heaven Somewhere," and everybody that performed on my album performed on that song--that brought it all together even more for me, it felt more like a group. People really wanted to be a part of this; they not only did one song on my album, they did their song and then came and interpreted "Heaven" so everybody would be together on that song. There were songs that people enjoyed that they weren't even on. Put it this way: I think I could've asked any of those artists to be on another song, and if the song kind of fit them, they would've done it, too.

DO: Do you want to keep making records like that?

C: Well, I usually just try to work with people that I think is fresh, people that I think are leaving a mark on music and leaving a mark on the world. That's who I try to work with: people that I see going in the same direction as me, people I really admire and think is fresh.

DO: Was involving artists not typically associated with hip-hop--like Stereolab, for instance--important to you?

C: Oh, yeah. I definitely felt that I was trying to push the boundaries by bringing in new people. And I also felt like I was trying to be a bridge to people who ain't familiar with Stereolab and different artists like that, because it's like I'm discovering this music, so I want other people to hear it and see if they enjoy it, you know? That's what I felt like, whether it be some inspiration from Jimi or Stereolab or Fela, for that matter, or whoever it may be--it's like I want people to feel that and hear it and say, "Yo, I like that, too." But I'm just interpreting it in my own way, and being a bridge for the music that I'm listening to.

DO: Where were you trying to go with your writing?

C: I was just like, man, it's time to inspire freedom. I've been listening to Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix and listening to Miles Davis, and it's like they was creating music and writing songs about experiences. It wasn't like they were trying to appeal to a certain audience; they was just writing their songs because they felt them. And I just really wrote my songs because I felt them, and I really wrote things that were free in my mind, you know?

DO: How has moving to New York affected that?

C: It definitely had a big effect, because it's different artists and different creative people and energy in New York, and it comes from all over the world, but you get it here in New York. And you know, you experience it: People from Africa, people from France, people from St. Louis, people from Detroit, they coming to New York, and you get to play and deal with artists and musicians. All of it is a big influence, all of it is influences from New York. It kind of freed up the restrictions. Obviously in Chicago we got gifted people, but it's also people from Chicago out here doing work. The point I'm making is it's so much art going on and so much kind of freedom within it, that you can just do what you wanna do, dress how you wanna dress, do whatever, you know?

DO: What about September 11?

C: We felt the effects of it, and I remember during that time when that happened, I wrote a song--it didn't get on the album--but I just felt it, and so did the band that I used. We all felt the effects of it, and it was an intense effect that we felt. Of course, me being here in New York when it happened, I felt it even...Like, I seen the smoke. But somewhere during the course of time it kind of freed us up, too. We think about what's going on in the world now, but we still wanna create something that feels good and can uplift.