Denver's Lonnie Lynn hadn't been planning to make his debut as a rapper. After all, Lynn's game was basketball, not hip hop--and it had been nearly two decades since he'd shot hoops for a living. His son, Rashid, was the Lynn who specialized in rhyming: Operating under the name Common Sense, he had received raves for the raps on his first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and seemed ready to establish his native Chicago as a comer on the hip-hop music scene. So when Lynn traveled to Chicago last year, during a period when Common Sense was cutting the tracks that would wind up on the impressive disc Resurrection, he certainly didn't expect that he'd soon be behind a microphone, freestyling for all he was worth.
"I was just in town visiting," Lynn says, laughing. "And Rashid asked me to drop by the studio. When I got there, Rashid was in the booth working on a song with some engineers, and there was pizza and soda lying around. He and I embraced, and then he said, `Dad, why don't you go out there and do something?' And I said, `What, you want me to get you some more pizza?' And he said, `No, go in the booth and say something.' So I did."
What popped into Lynn's head were the themes he focuses upon in his current job as director of the Colorado branch of the Amer-I-Can Foundation, a life-skills-management program started in 1988 by football legend Jim Brown. As he puts it, "I stressed peace, love and harmony. I figured, how can you go wrong with peace, love and harmony?"
Common Sense certainly liked what he heard. "I felt what he said had so much soul," Rashid notes from Atlanta, a stop on his current tour. "After listening to it one time, I said, `Nobody can tell me I'm not putting this on my album.'"
Nobody did. Resurrection concludes with "Pop's Rap," a cut that mates a sly beat and dancing keyboards with Lynn's throaty rumble of a voice. More surprising, the number doesn't seem like a throwaway. Rather, it serves as the perfect conclusion to a CD that dares to be different. "I knew putting `Pop's Rap' out there wouldn't be considered the `in' thing," Common Sense concedes. "It was kind of going against the grain--but that's what I wanted to do. I thought, this is my father, and he said something I liked. A lot of his stuff is instilled in me genetically. I'm an extension of him."
Families don't make many appearances in hip hop these days--unless the families are falling apart, that is. Common Sense's folks aren't together, either: The Lynns divorced when Rashid was only two. But Common Sense's mother and father remain vital parts of his life, and over the years they've helped him develop his own voice. What he's got to say isn't all G-rated--when he's in the mood, he can throw down street language with the best of them--but it's fresh, intelligent and genuine compared with what passes for wisdom in rap these days. As Common Sense puts it, "I get tired of hearing the same old stuff. There's so much potential in hip hop--it's the voice of black and Hispanic youth. It's our communication. And I feel like we've got to expand on it. Keep it going and keep it growing."
This sentiment is shared by Lynn, who, like his son, isn't shy about climbing onto soapboxes or leaping for what might seem out of reach. A Chicago native, he was a strapping kid who eventually reached six feet, eight inches in height. As a teenager he became something of a schoolyard basketball legend due to his ability to play like a muscular center one minute, a shooting guard the next. Because he was also into African-American pride and empowerment, however, he decided to pass over better-known basketball factories in favor of Ohio's Wilberforce University, founded in 1856 as the nation's first all-black college.
In 1963, shortly after enrolling, Lynn met Mary, a fellow Wilberforce student who would become his wife upon their graduation in 1968. By then, Lynn had made enough of a name for himself on the basketball court that he was drafted by the St. Louis (now Atlanta) Hawks. He didn't make the team, though, and when he failed to catch on with another franchise, he opted for semi-pro leagues. "I played in Trenton, New Jersey, and Binghamton, New York," he remembers. "And I held the scoring record for Springfield, Massachusetts."
But Lynn didn't spend his entire four-year professional basketball career in the minors. He was briefly on the upstart American Basketball Association's Pittsburgh squad and spent the 1969-70 season with the Denver Rockets, the precursor to the Nuggets. With greats such as Spencer Haywood on the Rockets' roster, Lynn didn't get a lot of playing time, but he was charmed by the city, which he had visited when he was a child. "I fell in love with it here," he says. "I knew that I'd live here someday."
Relocating to Colorado was delayed by Rashid's birth, in 1972, and Lynn's divorce from Mary two years later. Lynn remained in Chicago, where he was employed by several local youth programs. "I did a lot of work with gangs," he recalls. "People forget that there were gangs back then, too. And a lot of the ones I dealt with--the Vice Lords, the Blackstone Rangers, the Cobras--are still together today." After moving to Denver in 1979, he continued counseling kids at risk at the Lookout Mountain School for Boys, where he was employed until last year.
Mary, a principal who received her doctorate last May, had custody of Rashid, but Lynn says he did his best to parent long-distance. "It's very painful to have to be standing in a line at UPS sending Christmas presents instead of being there," he says. "But I understood my responsibility and my need to be in his life." Rashid spoke regularly by phone with his father and spent extended vacations in Colorado. The twosome also had a standing date to attend the annual NBA All-Star game, no matter where in the country it was taking place.
When the contest came to Denver in the early Eighties, Rashid got a chance to hang out with David Thompson, the brilliant but erratic North Carolina State star who'd become the Nuggets' premier player, and other athletes Lynn knew from his playing days. The experience was so thrilling that Rashid soon expressed an interest in becoming a ball boy for his hometown Chicago Bulls. Lynn pulled some strings and landed Rashid a slot on the Bulls' staff for the next two seasons. "The next year, the All-Star game was in Indianapolis," Lynn remembers with pride. "And when I got there, it was Rashid who was introducing people to me. He'd be like, `Dad, this is Michael Jordan. Dad, this is Magic Johnson. Dad, I'd like you to meet Isiah Thomas.'"
Although Rashid was a basketballer in high school, he knew he had little chance to make it in the NBA. "He's six feet tall," Lynn says. "He always used to blame his mom for him not being taller."
Fortunately, Rashid had another passion. In the last half of the Eighties he put together a crew called CDR and began making his new name known around Chicago. Dollar?, his 1992 debut album, didn't make a big noise upon its release, but the remix of a cut from it, "Soul by the Pound," was a sizable club hit. And Resurrection, released on the Relativity imprint, has done far better, garnering strong notices in publications such as The Source and Rolling Stone and turning heads at R&B radio.
Among the Resurrection songs that stand out most prominently are the title track, "Watermelon," "Chapter 13 (Rich Man Vs. Poor Man)" and "Book of Life," which quotes Bob Marley and Grandmaster Flash yet remains very much a Common Sense production. But even these fine tracks can't compete with "I Used to Love H.E.R.," a successful single that metaphorically addresses hip hop circa 1994: "Now she's a gangster rolling with gangsta bitches/Always smoking blunts and getting drunk/Telling me sad stories/Now she only fucks with the funk/Stressing how hardcore and real she is/She was really the realist before she got into show biz."
Explaining the genesis of the tune, Common Sense admits, "I was fed up with the state of hip hop and how gimmicky it had become. And once that concept was there, the whole thing happened really quickly. I just kept flowing with it. After I wrote it, I thought, `I'm coming down on a lot of artists here.' But I knew that this thing had to be heard. This was how I felt, this was on my mind, and I wasn't going to hold my tongue.
"Right now, people are coming out and just being redundant--and not doing anything to add on to what hip hop is. To be honest, people are getting tired of that shit. That's why I find myself listening to a lot of other types of music--jazz, R&B, whatever. I'll listen to old-school hip hop too, because those tapes have a lot of soul, and you can hear people trying so hard to be heard. But now what people are trying hard to do is to sound like something they aren't."
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According to Common Sense, only a few contemporary artists--A Tribe Called Quest, the Beatnuts, Organized Konfusion, Nas--are making truly distinctive music. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and their gangsta brethren are conspicuous by their absence from Common Sense's list--and equally conspicuous by their presence atop many sales charts. But he believes their popularity won't last forever. "Everything in the world does the 360," he says. "What goes around comes around. It's only natural that this art form would go through a lot of changes. So it's up to us to take it forward--to take the elements from the old-school days and build onto them."
With Resurrection, Common Sense has taken a large step toward accomplishing this goal. And, coincidentally, he's provided his father with a strong, positive role model to tout to the at-risk students with whom he's working as part of a Denver Public Schools pilot program sponsored by the Amer-I-Can Foundation. "All of them are hitting me up for tickets to his show," he boasts.
In the meantime, Lynn is getting more media exposure than he's enjoyed since he hung up his basketball shoes. For example, he and Common Sense were recently interviewed by MTV (the conversation is set to air in late February). Still, he insists that he doesn't hunger for more attention: "I don't want to be extra baggage. I did mine already. It's his turn." He pauses before adding, "But this has been an awful lot of fun."
Common Sense, with Beatnuts, the Artifacts, Organized Konfusion. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 22, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $11.55, 830-TIXS or 447-0095.