If the trajectory of Common’s rap persona were mapped out on a flow chart, you’d see a line climbing steadily from “Borderline Thug” to “Truth-Seeker Reborn”. Back in the day, Common’s otherwise intelligent rhymes were soiled by misogynistic and homophobic taunts. But with each new release, he has shed more of the hang-ups that had fenced him into reflexive belligerence. Nowadays he’s dropping a beatific mix of introspective philosophizing and ‘60s idealism that would make Jimi Hendrix, his latest obsession, proud.
Having never actually seen Common in the real, I had little idea what to expect once he hit the stage. Would I spy an old-school disciple prowling the stage back and forth, or a pogo-happy hopper bouncing between every verse? Before I would find out, Grammy-nominated Floetry and hip-hop progenitors Gang Starr would have to do their thing.
I hadn’t heard much of Floetry, but what I had heard resembled premium acts like MC Lyte and Angie Stone. So I was disappointed when poor sound management brought down their set. With distortion so thick it hurt, only the bar vultures in the back had any hope of discerning actual music in the mountain of noise that blasted from the speakers.
When Gang Starr took the stage, the distortion gave way to reverence. Despite their milquetoast image, Guru and DJ Premier have quietly fronted one of most enduring and respectable acts in hip-hop for over 15 years. They crafted the template which rappers like Common, Talib Kweli and the Roots use as their foundation. Though Gang Starr’s music lacks the ineffability of greatness, their contribution to the current shape of hip-hop is great in itself. Gang Starr’s performed a solid set, and prompted the shaking of many a head. But there was never any doubt that they were warming us up for something bigger.
After Gang Starr wrapped things up, a 30-minute interval followed. The intermission was finally interrupted by the faintly eerie carnival music that starts out Common’s Electric Circus. The DJ who provided the between-set jams invoked the audience to get on its feet and prepare to be rocked. As the DJ pushed things to a crescendo, Common exploded onto the stage wearing a tight-fitting red warm-up jacket with white racing stripes, a knitted cap, and a brown and yellow striped scarf. Not your typical b-boy get-up.
And that’s cool, because Common isn’t your typical b-boy. From the first word he rapped, his enthusiasm was mesmerizing. On tape, Common sounds brusque and brooding. But on the stage he was alight and aloft, not so much bouncing as bounding—a positively charged ion moving intuitively to the music of the band. It was the kind of entrance that immediately draws the corners of your mouth toward your ears and your chin toward the ground. It was worth showing up for that feeling alone.
Common started his set with “Soul Power”, a track from Electric Circus that sounds grim on the album, but came off as effervescent on stage. Later, an account of a phone call with Talib Kweli (who couldn’t make it to Indianapolis) evolved into a vivid rendition of Black Star’s beautiful “Respiration”. Respect was then paid to Biggie Smalls in the form of a tight performance of “Big Poppa”. Much to my delight, he even performed his stinging evisceration of Ice Cube with the classic diss track “The Bitch in Yoo”.
The zenith of the night, however, was the performance of “Electric Wire Hustle Flower”. Yet again, Common transformed one of the weakest tracks from Electric Circus into something wholly different, unleashing the titular chorus with so much blissed-out fury that the audience collectively felt that all-too-rare sensation of total coalescence, moving and feeling together as one. A big, happy mob.
That’s the thing with Common, though: it’s an intense ride, but it’s also a happy ride. At one point in the show, he gave an impassioned, if reductive, monologue about the impending war in Iraq. He said the things you would expect a neo-hippie to say: war is evil, our leaders are corrupt, peace is the answer. Decidedly not world-shattering ideas. But Common left no doubt about his sincerity in expressing them. Likewise, his music leaves no doubt about the honesty in it. Thanks to the likes of Common, there is a joy and idealism in hip-hop that has been on hiatus since the demise of the Native Tongues. Seeing him live is to experience, if only briefly, the passion for peace and love that most artists are too cynical or too self-absorbed to share.