#HowIGotHere is a video series that brings career stories to life, highlighting people from a variety of industries and professions with unique stories to tell about their path to success. Subscribe and be inspired.
Common came of age during hip-hop’s golden era. He wrote his first rap at 12 years old, and by the time the rap duo Eric B. & Rakim dropped their 1987 debut album, Common knew he wanted to pursue rap as a career.
“As a child I wanted people to know I existed on this planet,” Common told me during an interview at LinkedIn’s studio in the Empire State Building. “I wanted to impact people. I didn’t know how I would do that, [but] eventually, music became that thing.”
The Chicago native got his start rapping in a group called C.D.R. along with childhood friends Corey Crawley and record producer No I.D. By high school, the group was opening up for acts such as Big Daddy Kane and NWA.
Common signed his first record deal as a sophomore in college at Florida A&M University after being named the Source Magazine’s Unsigned Hype, a coveted title for new, unsigned rappers. (Other Unsigned Hypes have included The Notorious B.I.G., Eminem and DMX). He dropped out ahead of the release of his debut album “Can I Borrow A Dollar?” in 1992 under his then moniker Common Sense. But it wasn’t until his second album, which featured his classic track “I Used to Love H.E.R.” that people took notice.
Now at 47 years old, Common has made the indelible mark he longed to make as a child. He’s released nearly a dozen albums and has more than 60 acting credits, including roles in films such as Selma, The Hate You Give and Girls Trip. He’s also an author, producer, and activist, and he’s one Tony award away from becoming an EGOT, which is a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
“There’s no way you could’ve told me, at that ‘Can I Borrow A Dollar?’ release, that I would be going to the Oscar stage or going to meet President Obama and rapping at the White House,” said the critically acclaimed artist. But despite all his accomplishments, the artist says he never feels he’s completely made it. “I’ve always felt like I’m going to be better.”
In this #HowIGotHere season finale, watch as Common talks about how he got to where he is, including the disappointments he faced and the lessons he learned along the way.
Want more inspiration? Check out some other career stories from Season 2 of the series:
- How Shark Tank’s Daymond John went from waiting tables at Red Lobster to investing millions in entrepreneurs
- This millennial PR executive shattered the glass ceiling—but it came with some cuts
- A tragic injury helped this former athlete find his why
- This master barber and ‘man weave’ pioneer shares how he found his niche in a billion-dollar industry
Here’s a transcript of the video featuring Common:
Common: ♪ Well let me tell you about a trip. A time ago. I was goin’ there to run a cold-blooded show. When I was there, I saw some people jammin’ too. They called themselves the Bond Hill Crew. Dr. Ice, Romeo, and Master E. All of the Bond Hill Crew rappin’ to a T. I asked them could they rock with me? ♪
…I don’t remember the rest, but that was it. That was my first rap I wrote.
Maya Pope-Chappell: Common came of age during hip-hop’s golden era. He wrote his first rap when he was 12 years old. By high school, he was opening up for the renowned rap group, N.W.A. Since then, he’s penned some of hip-hop’s most classic rhymes, and expanded his career to include acting, producing, writing, and activism. This is how he got here.
Common: The influence of Chicago on my career and life is one of the greatest reasons why I’m an artist. I lived in a Black neighborhood that was teaching me about everything from Malcolm X to gang-banging culture. Everything from jazz music to church. As a child I didn’t know how I would do that. Eventually music became that thing.
When Rakim came out, that’s when I was like ‘man, I want to be a hip-hop artist.’ I want to be an artist making videos and have a career. It was something about how cool he was and the way he rapped and just the music and what he was saying.
Pope-Chappell: Common got his start rapping in a group called CDR along with his childhood friends, record producer No I.D. and Corey Crawley. In 1991 he was named The Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype, a title that would jump-start his career as a solo rapper.
Common: ♪ Easy, easy like Sunday morning, I can kick a stupid nervous joint when I’m yawning. Ahh ♪
Pope-Chappell: His debut album “Can I Borrow a Dollar” was released in 1992. But the record didn’t have the impact he was hoping for.
Common: Man, it was discouraging. I was hurt that my album didn’t get that recognition. I looked at that as part of the struggle of just being a new artist. It still was embarrassing. I was like I got to get better. I remember it was a summer where A Tribe Called Quest had the album out “Midnight Marauders” and they put everybody on the cover, like new artists: Souls of Mischief. They put Pharcyde. They put Large Professor. All these artists that were like my age and I wasn’t on that cover. That cover was hanging up in my room for two reasons: ’cause I loved the album and ’cause I wasn’t on the cover. It was motivation.
Pope-Chappell: Common’s next hit, which used the metaphor of a woman to describe the evolution of hip-hop, garnered critical acclaim.
Common: ♪ I met this girl when I was 10 years old, and what I loved most she had so much soul. ♪
So, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” it changed my career in a way that the people who didn’t know of me, started to know ‘oh, this is Common. This dude is actually… He’s dope.’ The record label still was pushing me for the next album. ‘Man you should make something more radio’ and that was a fight. That was a battle for me, because I only know how to make art that’s like really from my heart and spirit. That’s when I thrive. And if you put as much energy into the craft of what you’re doing and you do that from the purest place and a sincere place with the right intention then you know all that you are supposed to get, you will get, and even beyond.
Because it’s no way you could have told me at that “Can I Borrow A Dollar” release that I would be going to the Oscar stage or going to meet President Obama and rapping in the White House or even going to Japan just to perform.
Pope-Chappell: Common has more than 60 acting credits including roles in movies like “Selma”, “The Hate You Give”, and “Girls Trip”. He’s a Tony-award away from becoming an EGOT, which is a winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
And he’s an outspoken voice on mass-incarceration and criminal justice issues. He’s authored two memoirs and runs a production company to promote more diverse narratives on the small and big screen. But despite all these accomplishments, the 47 year old says there’s still room to grow.
Common: I never felt like I’ve made it. Never. I’ve always felt like ‘I’m about to be better.’ Any awards that come, I love those awards, I appreciate those awards, I value them, but I do my best to focus on the art and put my passion into that and let all the great things come as they come.
Pope-Chappell: But do you want the EGOT?
Common: Yes, I want the EGOT. I do want it.