The first time hip-hop fans heard Japanese lyrics by the artist Common Sense (simply referred to as Common) was in his ode to pimpin, "Heat" off "Like Water For Chocolate" (2000). The phrase, "chiyoshi wa doe?" which literally means, "how ya feelin?" invited excitement when it echoed throughout Osaka's Club Quattro on a clear Friday evening in mid-September. The crowd's attention was instantly grabbed when Common jumped on stage and began the show with a vibrant rendition of his most recent opus' soul-clenching title track, "Be".
While Common uses passionate lyrics like, "The game need a make over/ my man retired/ I'm gonna take over" (from Be's Chicago-pride anthem, "Chi-City" to declare his position in the today's rap game, his dominance is primarily solidified through an ability to profoundly captivate crowds during live shows. Japan was no exception, as Common assumed the role of hop-hop maestro and transformed Club Quattro into his private "basement" and took the liberty of educating audience members on the art of getting down, "b-boy" style. Some of these lessons included a staged phone interruption by famed rapper Talib Kweli (although a bit far-fetched to think Kweli would even be awake during this show, since New York is 13 hours behind Osaka); a salacious beauty from the crowd replacing Mary J. Blige during Common's suave rendition of "Come Close" from
"Electric Circus" (2002); and a surprise freestyle from another Chicago native in the crowd who brought the ruckus with a quick-witted sharp tongue.
On stage, alongside Professor Common was his wrecking crew of sonic manipulators: Kareem Riggins (drums), Omar Edwards (keyboard), and scratchmaster DJ Dummy (turntables). Having both Riggins and Edwards in his corner gave Common's "b-boy" tutorial that same live band edge which has become synonymous with groups like The Roots. Riggins, adding lush tribal-like beats to songs such as "The Corner", "Faithful" and "Go" off "Be" (2005), accompanied by Edwards' majestic keyboarding only further accentuated the jazzy atmosphere that embodied Common's set.
Breaking away from Riggins' and Edwards' instrumentalism for a brief stint, Common took a moment to express his appreciation for DJs across the globe: "The foundation of hip-hop is the DJ". Following his homage to the DJ, Common handed the stage over to Brooklyn born DJ Dummy; and as soon as the spotlight flashed upon Dummy's turntables, the scratching/beat juggling extravaganza was underway. Not sparing a moment, Dummy started slicing and dicing old school hip-hop tracks, one after another, each with impeccable timing complimented by smooth transitional techniques. His showcase came to a climax, though, when a beautiful young woman emerged from backstage and strategically placed herself between Dummy and his decks; thus forcing him to blindly beat-juggle two records. As if that was not enough, the woman then started hugging Dummy while he was mixing. Even with arms wrapped around his body, Dummy still did not skip a beat; instead, he showed the crowd his Mr. Fantastic impersonation by extending his arms around the woman's slim body to help keep the fluidity of his set unscathed.
Although talented musicians were at every corner, Common's fire did not lose its flare. In fact, one of the most radiant moments of the evening came during an energetic 10-minute freestyle, that Common began by lashing out at critics who have denounced his musical direction since the experimental sounds of "Electric Circus" (2002). Set to the beats of classic jams (mostly 90's hits) ranging from that of Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M" to classic Snoop Dogg tracks, Common displayed some bona fide skills by including various objects from inside of Club Quattro into his slam-poetry-esqe freestyle. He started rapping about the spotlights, balding white people in the crowd, and, of course his love for Asian women. To complete this audio barrage of enthralling lyricism layered with a collage of old school hip-hop beats, DJ Dummy gave Common a re-mixed cut of his very own seminal classic, "I used to love H.E.R." from "Resurrection" (1994); and immediately sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Later in the show, Common took a few moments to express his feelings and concerns about the recent tragedies in New Orleans. Since Common attended college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he is quite familiar with the harder hit areas. This gave his heartfelt sentiments a sense of urgency that exceeds those coming from entertainers far removed from the situation. He also voiced his belief that all people around the world possess the power to help each other during times of despair. After opening his heart to the audience, Common took a seat behind the piano and introduced his finale with an enchanting solo before going into "Be"'s motivational final track, "It's Your World" to conclude his 90 minute set.
During his passionate finale Common's words seemed to melt into each other as the lighting combined with the band's gentle sound sent ripples of warmth drifting through the crowd. Lighters were raised and audience members swayed as Common's emotional story conveyed an inspirational message about people being controlling their own destinies.
Then, at the song's closing moments, Common jumped off stage, ran through the audience like he was Bono from U2, and crowd-surfed his way back to the front. The song came to a smooth close concluded with each member on stage one-by-one silencing his instrument and exiting stage left. The silence was cut short; however, as an encore chant summoned all four members back on stage to cap the evening off with a crowd-pleasing sing-along version of "The Light" from "Like Water For Chocolate". As soon as the house lights illuminated Common's private "basement" immediately transformed back into Club Quattro, signifying the end of the evening's schooling session. With some guidance from Common and his band, everyone in attendance that night left Club Quattro officially b-boy certified.
Thanks to the recent success of "Be", Common's unique method of storytelling combined with esoteric undertones has become a means of reaching a new global generation of hip-hop fans; a generation too young to remember significant contributions that artists like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls brought to the world of hip-hop. Although today's hip-hop is saturated with multi-talented entertainers such as Kanye West, Blackalicious, Nas, Outkast, and Ludacris to name a few, Common's uniqueness lies in the style and word choice he uses to illustrate his reality, which gives audiences a greater chance to relate and empathize with his stories rather than merely listening and sympathizing with them.
Similar to Tupac and Biggie, Common is a storyteller who raps about life's trials and tribulations while simultaneously incorporating all the many facets which surround hip-hop culture: DJing, freestyle (poetry), self-expression, fashion, and most importantly, oneness. However, while Tupac and Biggie's stories dealt with grim tales of survival through apocalyptic means, Common's stories exhibit pivotal circumstances that not only force listeners to question their own limits as individuals, but also encourages them to examine possible methods for improving their own world. Each song perpetuates the story of a man confronted by many of life's challenges; and only through intellectual prowess does he become victorious. It is these underlying moments of clarity that are constantly broadcast throughout Common's emotionally charged stories, and each moment holds the potential to make a difference in his listener's lives.
Following the show, the opportunity to speak with Common backstage arose; so, I used it to ask Common about his feelings regarding the Japanese fans in attendance who might not have fully understood his message about people helping each other. Common's response was that it did not matter to him because he knew people were feeling the vibe of his message. No answer could have been more accurate; and the proof was all the Japanese fans that night who wore white bands around their wrists in support of the White Band Campaign (a campaign devised to end world hunger and help victims of disasters, such as hurricane Katrina).
It is today's technology that has given this new generation of hip-hop fans a global voice which seemed non-existent during the days of Tupac and Biggie. Alongside this global voice; the internet and other media outlets have given fans a suitable way to flex their global ear muscles, and it is these muscles that have been aimed squarely at Common since he vowed he was "gonna take [rap] over". After witnessing Club Quattro's zealous crowd as they sang and danced throughout the show one thing became apparent: Common has not only taken rap over but he has also transcended the status of normal emcee to become one of hip hop's most poetic prophets. And the crowd's enthusiasm that evening was the global voice acknowledging the splendor of Common Sense.
So, the next time Common pops the question "Chiyoshi wa doe?" ("How ya feelin?"), do not hesitate to respond: I'm feelin your message.