Common's memoir, One Day It'll All Make Sense, begins rather dramatically. The prologue reads: "When I was eighteen months old, my mother and I were kidnapped at gunpoint. My father held the gun. At least that's one side of the story."
Common, with help from co-author Adam Bradley, a University of Colorado English professor and co-editor of The Anthology of Rap, goes on to explain that his mother and father's versions of this incident, as well as their versions of many other events in his life, have great gaps between them.
He fills some of those gaps in the memoir, which went on sale Tuesday. The incident described in the prologue starts as a letter to the reader from Common, and each chapter begins with a letter from Common to someone instrumental in his life.
When Common was young, his father took him and his mother from Chicago with the intention of making it to Seattle, where he had a basketball tryout with the SuperSonics. As his mother tells the story, they were kidnapped at gunpoint. As his father tells it, the event was much more tame.
This is the premise behind the entire book: There are several true versions of many things that have happened to Common. Bradley, who met Common while working on The Anthology of Rap, helped lend a more academic viewpoint to Common's hip-hop storytelling.
We recently spoke with Bradley about the process of writing the book, helping Common create rhymes, Common's White House controversy and more.
Westword: How did the project originally come about?
Adam Bradley: Common had been thinking for a while about doing a book that would be about different aspects of his life, but fundamentally about his relationship with his mother. His mother is a very instrumental force in his life. The original idea was to kind of have it be a conversation between the two of them. I got involved around springtime of last year. He and I met and decided we would be working together. We started working really hard on the book at the end of summer and beginning of fall 2010.
What ended up evolving was a book that still had some elements of that mother/son conversation, but had really evolved into something much more personal to Common himself, the evolution of his artistry and a coming of age story about how he comes from the South Side of Chicago and ends up where he is today as an actor, a rapper, a celebrity. It became more of a story about a man as well as a story about his relationship with his mother.
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What was your initial reaction when he asked you to help him with the book?
When someone decides to get a Ph.D. in English, usually the expectation does not include working with a rap superstar. When you're reading four-inch-thick Victorian novels preparing for your general exams, it's not really on the radar. Luckily, I've been able to carve out a career that fuses my passion for literature with my passion for hip-hop and sees the connections between them.
I saw this as an opportunity to work with an artist whom I've admired for many, many years, really since the beginning of his career, with Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and also to work with one of the real minds in hip-hop, one of the thinkers in the culture, someone who is really cognizant of hip-hop's impact on the broader culture and someone who is really cognizant of what music can do beyond simply getting you to bob your head.
Can you describe the process of writing the book with him as co-author?
With the role of a co-author for a memoir, I like to think about musical analogies. Whether it's a DJ and a rapper or the jazz soloist and the accompaniment, it's kind of a reciprocal exchange -- kind of a groove one has to get into with the other person. It's really an intense form of collaboration. For us, the way it worked is it began with conversation, it began with words spoken rather than written. Ever since his second album, Common has composed all his lyrics without a pen and a pad. It's something that people kind of laud Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne for doing, but Common has been doing it since '93.
That's kind of the way we approached the book as well. It began as a series of extended conversations over everything from drives up the Pacific Coast highway to time in the studio in between recording tracks, or whatever it may be, and shadowing him as he lives his life and talking along the way. It really was an intense kind of collaboration that resulted in friendship and resulted in this book.
It's a combination of collaborative processes, and in every step, Common is involved -- whether it's the conception or execution. My job was to bring my expertise as someone who has both studied how books are written and has written some books, great or not, so I brought that kind of knowledge to bear about questions of structure, questions of storytelling and the development of character. Common, as an MC, is a storyteller in his own right, and of course brought his own expertise to those things. So it was more about me helping him to translate storytelling from a hip-hop context to storytelling from a narrative and literary context.
What was the most impactful story he told you about his life?
To me the most impactful story is the one we began the book with, which is, by different accounts, either a kidnapping or something less than that when he was only a year and a half old. He and his mother were either kidnapped at gunpoint, according to the story his mother tells, or something less than that, by his father. It's an intense tale because it gets at the core of what this book is about, which is relationships.
We begin each chapter with a letter Common has written to someone close to him in his life from past, present and so forth. This anecdote brings together so much of the complexity of what his family is. There are great stories throughout about how he got his first record contract, asking his mom's permission to leave college to get his start in music, all the way to the present moment.
Talk about ripped from the headlines, we were going to press at the moment the White House controversy over Common's involvement in a poetry event there was going on. We were able to add a really large narrative section that directly addressed that whole dust-up and what it meant for him.
It was a really natural story for him to tell because he was in the heat of the moment. I talked to him right before he went to the White House and right after. We got some stuff together and went back and forth on it and then got it to the editor.
To me, in some ways, it's one of the strongest parts of the book because it had a combination of different factors that makes it a good story to tell. It had an antagonist, a protagonist, an element of deception, and it had the highest levels of national politics and def poetry jam. We had a nice, big stretch of emotions. That was a lot of fun to work on.
As a hip-hop fan, what was your "pinch-me" moment when you had access to something great while working with Common?
I think the most exciting thing for me was being in the recording studio with him. We were in L.A. off of Sunset Boulevard, in an industrial space that opened into this beautiful recording studio. You had artists going in and out, and you had Common creating lyrics on the spot to beats. One time he was in the booth and he was spitting a verse and worked me into a verse. I don't think it will end up on the record, but it was one of those small moments to have someone who loves hip-hop and admires this great MC. I had to appreciate that.
Along those same lines, I was able to see him creating. The way he writes is he gets a CD with beats on it and put it in the player in his truck and just drives around and freestyles and tries to create things. He is really open to constructive criticism, so we would drive around, and he would have a beat going and he would be rhyming and he would ask me, "Adam, what do you think of that?"
I remember one song he ended up performing, and he did the verse he had been working on while I was driving around with him and he did one of the things I suggested, so that was another thing to see how a rhyme is made. That's something that, through my teaching, I like to bring to students -- these things we take as finished products, whether it's music we hear through our speakers or whatever, it's a product of composition and craft.
What was the suggestion you gave him?
I don't remember the exact line, but it was about whether he could fit a certain syllable in. He composes on the level of the syllable -- what can you say with your words in relation to the beat -- more than I ever realized. As someone who teaches a class on the lyrics of hip-hip, to see some of the things that my students and I view as theoretical, to see them in practice and be a participant in a very small way of that practice, was a very exciting experience.
His father is somewhat of a local figure who used to play basketball for the Denver Rockets. What was your impression of their relationship?
It's complex. It begins with the incident (where Common's father took him and his mother). We wanted to show from the very beginning that things may appear one way, but they are actually much more complex than any one person or story can tell. The title of the book, One Day It'll All Make Sense, speaks to this, that there are multiple truths.
One of the things we did was make sure we told his father's truth throughout and told his father's truth about that incident. His father's version is quite different from the version that Common's mother tells, and Common really wanted to have both of those voices in there to have what his father said about it, that it wasn't a matter of a kidnapping at all.
His relationship with his father was important because they shared a couple of essential things in common. They shared sports and music. Common imagined himself early on as a basketball player. A great story in the book is that his father helped Common get his job as a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan's rookie year. That kind of close glimpse at celebrity has had a direct and lasting impact of Common's own vision of what celebrity could be.
His dad would talk about every time Common would visit Denver, which he started doing when he was about twelve years old, his dad would let him take records, a lot of jazz and soul, back to Chicago with him with the promise that he would dub them and give them back to his dad. His dad said, "He took some of my deepest stuff."
What impression of Common do you think readers will take away from the book?
I think they'll see him as a man in full, a man of many parts. He's someone who is a thinker, but also a dreamer. From the earliest parts of the book, we see him as a young kid dreaming about who he can become and even today, his latest album is called The Dreamer, The Believer. I think those are aspects that are really crucial to him.
I see particularly how the role of love relates to his life -- love of God, love of family, love of friends and a love of hip-hop. You see someone moving from hip-hop to film, but never leaving hip-hop. You see someone who moved from Chicago to L.A. but the Chicago is still inside of him. Those are all elements of the story that Common has to tell right now, and it's just the first of many stories that he will have to tell over the course of his life.
What's the message you hope readers take from this book?
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I think both he and I want readers to find inspiration in the story. It's not the typical kind of tell-all Hollywood book. Nor is it even in the model of Jay-Z's wonderful book, Decoded, from last year. It's less a book about what Common does than about who Common is. In that way, it's also a book that reaches out to the reader and addresses him directly.
We tell ourselves our individual stories so that we can understand the collective version. I think Common started this book with the idea of it being a book that will get other people inspired to dream and to achieve in the way he did as a young person and the way he is still today.