Common & Questlove Share Stories About Bargaining For Beats From J Dilla & D’Angelo

On January 25, Common was the guest for the first live audience recording of Questlove Supreme. At Manhattan’s Gramercy Theater, Questlove, Laiya, Suga Steve, and Boss Bill interviewed Common for nearly two hours. Ambrosia For Heads was front and center for the event.

Today (February 21), that interview is available on Pandora for fans everywhere. The conversation included Common revisiting his days as a Chicago Bulls ball-boy (and his father wearing some early Michael Jordan game-worn sneakers), recording elements of Electric Circus at Prince’s Paisley Park, and his wilder days as a student in Florida.

In the “From No I.D. To Dilla” chapter, Common remembers moving from Chicago to New York City. The move, following 1997’s One Day It’ll Make Sense, would mark a creative pivot for the MC. Common left longtime production partner No I.D. In the future executive’s place, The Roots’ Questlove would take on a deeper role, with fellow Soulquarians J Dilla (tka Jay Dee), James Poyser, and D’Angelo. Moreover, the relocated Common would closely bond with Hip-Hop peers such as Brand Nubian, Black Star, and Gang Starr. “I came out to New York with like two weeks worth of clothing, maybe less than that, thinking I was just gonna stay for maybe two weeks. I never went back [to Chicago].” Comm’ later made California his home in the 2000s, during a budding Hollywood career.

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“[Moving to Brooklyn] was one of the best things because I got to go to the studio with [The Roots], bump into [DJ Premier],” says the MC. “I was introduced to [fashion designer] Ashaka Givens, who [dressed me] in the crochet [style]. I would go see a Gordon Parks [exhibit] at a museum in New York. Me and Bilal would go to Jazz clubs and just listen.”

Common set up creative shop at Electric Lady Studios. As he worked on Like Water For Chocolate, The Roots were making Things Fall Apart, and D’Angelo was recording Voodoo. Other artists such as Erykah Badu, Bilal, Black Star and more also were in the circle that became known as the Soulquarians.

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At this part of the chat, Questlove points out that Common allowed him to watch J Dilla “work in real-time.” Quest says, “He was one of those people who was really [socially] uncomfortable. He would always say ‘geek down, geek down.’ You weren’t allowed to praise him. You weren’t allowed to call him up at 5am and ask him [about a snare drum sample].”

Common details his own meeting of Dilla, in the mid-1990s. “I met [J Dilla] with Q-Tip. We had went and did this VIBE Conference that Quincy Jones [hosted]. We left the conference and went to Q-Tip’s house. At Q-Tip’s house, Dilla was down fingering through these records. He was real quiet, so I didn’t know Dilla’s Detroit ‘hood side to him, ’cause he was just a quiet, good dude. Then Q-Tip started playing me all of these beats that Dilla did and I was like, ‘Wow, this dude is incredible.’ So I got a beat tape from him. I was on the road with De La [Soul]. I said, ‘Jay Dee, can you come lay some stuff?’ He flew himself to Chicago [and we recorded tracks]. This was before One Day It’ll All Make Sense; I never used the beats.”

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That changed during mapping out the next album, Like Water For Chocolate. Outside of Jimi Hendrix’s former Lower Manhattan space, Common recorded in Studio A in Detroit. “I think it was ’98, I went to Dilla’s house with you all: The Roots, while you all was goin’ to do [‘Dynamite!’]. I had just got to Detroit; we were all on the same label [MCA Records]. I’m hooked up with Dilla now, with y’all, so at that point it’s like, ‘We gotta do some music.’ So I would make those trips to Detroit. It was a combination of me just watching ‘the greatest,’ to him going to the strip club and then him comin’ back and makin’ beats, to us goin’ to Korean barbeque and chillin’, us goin’ to [arcades]. Dilla used to love [playing] those basketball games. Or [we would] go watch The Matrix. All of this was part of our bonding and relationship. None of it was planned, it’s just what we did.”

When Common  returned to New York, Dilla and his mom, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey were mailing “batches” of beats. Keeping the baking analogy going, Dilla later called his creations “donuts.” Common details, “Jay Dee would do what he wanted. I wanted him to rhyme on the song ‘Funky For You’ [with] Slum Village on Like Water For Chocolate. He sat in the studio trying to come up with something, but I don’t think his heart was into rhyming on that one. I thought he was done for the day, but that night he came back. He picked me up the next morning and had the beat for ‘Thelonious’ with the hook: ‘Yeah, yeah, play at your own risk / Act like you know, b*tch / Yeah, I’m on some grown sh*t.‘ He said, ‘I think we should do this one.'” Dilla had his own vision, and Common embraced it.

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During Jay Dee’s Stones Throw Records tenure, he relocated from Detroit to California. The producer/MC lived at Common’s residence until his 2006 death. “Before Dilla passed, we were roommates. In my front room, I just got to see him sitting there, just makin’ beats. At the same token, physically, [he was] deteriorating, but still just making those beats.” Questlove states his belief that 2006’s Donuts album is really a living will of a man who knew he was dying. Common says, “His mind was still sharp. It was difficult to see someone you know who is one of the greatest—and one of your friends not be able to do the things that they would. Just years ago he was comin’ to pick me up in the Range Rover, or it might be the Escalade, bumpin’ beats and just havin’ fun. To see him layin’ on the couch not bein’ able to move—and whenever he’d get that energy, he’d go make beats—it was hard for me. I actually wouldn’t stay at the house as much [during those days], like, ‘Man, this is tough.’ But then it brought my own mortality into play. More than anything, I just felt for my brother. I remember him tellin’ his mother, one of the main things he didn’t want was to be in the hospital on his birthday. He died three days later, after his birthday February 7. He died February 10, in the physical form.”

Common, who was in the midst of a critical and commercial comeback thanks to 2005’s Be, says he saw a special exchange between that album’s two primary producers. “Kanye [West] came to the house, Jay Dee gave him a 45 of some drums. Kanye used to sample Jay Dee’s drums off his beat tapes. Jay Dee was like, ‘C’mon, man. How’d you take drums off my beat tape?’ Jay Dee gave him this record. I remember, me and ‘Ye went to the studio. ‘Ye was tellin’ everybody, ‘Yo, Dilla gave me these drums.’ Just to see people’s reaction when they saw Dilla, they knew he was the god. We knew he was the god.”

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Getting back to Like Water, Common recalls his biggest hit. “He had [‘The Light’] on a beat CD that was for Phife [Dawg] or something, God bless his soul. It was on a beat CD that I think Phife had got to. [The beat] wasn’t complete; he had just made it, messin’ around.” After Common showed interest in the Bobby Caldwell-sampling song, Dilla redid the beat with beefier drums and some scratching. Notably, Questlove adds, “Erykah [Badu] wasn’t the first choice for the video. We had Lisa Bonet for like a week.” Quest’, who was executive producing the MCA Records LP, wanted to avoid a potential Dungeon Family vs. Soulquarians situation. At the time, Badu and Common were platonic friends. However, Outkast’s previous collaborator (and André 3000’s child’s mother) was moving between two super-collectives. In the end, the Cosby Show star had to cancel, and Badu was reportedly eager to fill in.

As the two close out the Soulquarians chapter, Questlove asks his guest, “Do you regret giving D’Angelo ‘Chicken Grease’?” Common responds with a smile, “What? No.” Quest’ presses, “You’re fine with ‘Geto Heaven [Part Two]’?” Common responds, “I love ‘Geto Heaven.’ I’m fine with that trade.”

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Facing the audience, Questlove shares the backstory. “[For the Soulquarians it was] not like, ‘Okay, we’re working on this record. We’re working on that record.’ It was, ‘Okay, we make a jam, then sell to the highest bidder. Like, “who wants it? Who wants it? Who wants it?”‘ We were making the song that was ‘Chicken Grease’ for Common’s [Like Water For Chocolate]. Common was ready; he just started writing. Whatever. Then, D’Angelo kind of snuck in and had this scowl on his face, and called me out into the hallway [of Electric Ladyland Studios]. He’s like, ‘Yo. Yo. Yo. As I live and breathe, man, yo, you can’t give that ni**a that Funk, man. Yo, bruh. Yo, bruh. You know and I know that Funk belongs to me.’ I was like, ‘Yo man, you can’t just jack his song.’ He was like, ‘Yo man, he don’t know what to do with that Funk. That’s my Funk!'” D’Angelo had produced the song, which also features instrumentation by James Poyser, Pino Palladino, and Questlove.

As he prepared to have a difficult conversation with Common, Questlove had another idea. “We were still waiting for Lauryn Hill to come and do her verse on whatever song [her and D’Angelo] were gonna do. They had a trade-off: he did ‘Nothing Even Matters’ on [The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill] and she was supposed to do something for [Voodoo]. So we had made ‘Geto Heaven’ that morning for [D’Angelo]. So then I [suggested] the trade-off; y’all trade songs and it worked.”

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Common was in Brazil when he received the offer. He remembers, “I [said] yes because it was a funky joint…I already had a funky joint like ‘Cold Blooded’ was already kind of funky. And I’m not the Funk master to be honest. I like the Soul, jazzy [sound]. So it was the perfect trade-off. Plus, it had D’Angelo already singin’ on it, and you know it was gonna be tough for me to get D’Angelo. So I was like, ‘We good.'”

Listen to the entire Questlove Supreme episode with Common.

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#BonusBeat: Common, Robert Glasper, and Karriem Riggins are August Greene. The trio is the latest guest on NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series. Brandy joins as well:

The set-list:

1. Black Kennedy
2. Practice (featuring Maimouna Youssef)
3. Optimistic (featuring Brandy)
4. Stand Up For Something (featuring Andra Day)
5. Let Go

The trio will release their eponymous album on March 9.