The rapper Common has played his share of unconventional shows. There was the Pebble Beach gig and an acoustic set in front of Maya Angelou. Just last month, he rocked the house at the Israel Cancer Research Fund benefit in Montreal. “It’s all about figuring out what’s right for your audience,” says Common, who is standing with his buddies DJ Dummy and Smurf in a dressing room deep in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. “You have to be accessible to them.”
The 38-year-old is simultaneously trying on multiple pairs of shoes and determining the set list. Tonight, he is playing at halftime at the Jordan Brand Classic, an all-star game featuring the best high-school players in the country.
Common suggests opening with his best-known song, “Go!”
Dummy, his D.J., groans. “Oh, man, what about the content? These are kids.” “Go!” features lines including “Ooh baby she liked it raw / And like rain when she came it poured.”
“We’ve done it for church groups,” says Common. “I can take out the bad words, I’ll do the clean version.”
Dummy looks perplexed. Common whispers a line from the song: “ ‘Freaky like the daughter of a pastor.’ ” “See?”
He also has to work in a way to plug his new film, Just Wright, in which he plays a New Jersey Nets player who must decide between his conventionally sexy girlfriend (played by Paula Patton) and his trainer, Queen Latifah. “We wanted to have him play for the Knicks, but the Nets offered a lot more cooperation,” he explains.
There’s some time before the show, so Common tries on some more shoes and watches the game on ESPN2. Common, whose real name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His dad once played in the ABA, and helped get him a gig as a ball boy for the Bulls just as Michael Jordan started.
These days, Common’s girlfriend is Serena Williams, but back then, his life wasn’t so glamorous. “I had to work my own hustle,” he says, which meant trying to parlay the Bulls connection into cash. “I told a friend I’d get him Michael’s autograph for $5. But then I couldn’t find Michael, so I just signed it.” He pauses for a moment. “My friend looked at it and said, ‘You spelled Michael wrong.’ I totally played myself.”
It’s five minutes to halftime when they go on. Time for a prayer. “Lord, we know the media shows us a lot of bad things,” says Smurf, Common’s keyboardist. Common teeters a bit because he’s wearing one high-top and one low-top. “But we know there’s a lot of good things, and they are all because of you. We can’t do it without you.”
Common gives an amen. He settles on the high-tops and ties the laces tight.
“Okay, remember you only got eight minutes,” says Smurf. “There’s no stage, no spotlight, just you.”
“Got it, cool,” says Common.
Heading to the court, Common fights upstream through the retreating players. Once there, he goes into a freestyle rap that works in a movie plug and a Harlem shout-out and ends with the crowd-pleaser, “No drama, I don’t give a damn about Bush, so I voted for Obama.” The crowd whoops, and Common ad-libs, “Yeah, I’m a rebel.”
He then launches into a sanitized version of “Go!” The crowd’s energy momentarily flags until Common grabs a basketball and starts dribbling between his legs. He then tosses the ball aside and goes into an impromptu break-dance ending with a vintage eighties windmill at center court. The audience roars. Common heads off the court slapping hands. He towels himself off back in the dressing room. Dummy comes in and gives a high-five. “That windmill was real! You are crazy!”
Common watches the second half from courtside. He poses for pictures and shakes hands. “Women who see this movie have been telling me it makes them feel like they could get the prince,” says Common. “Beauty don’t come in just one size. It’s a positive message.” He oohs at a reverse dunk. He doesn’t mind the whole movie-promotion thing. “I come from a background where you spread the news yourself. You go to clubs, you go to restaurants, you hand out posters, and you talk to people. They want to meet you, touch you, feel connected to you.”
The game ends, and Common is swarmed at mid-court. He exchanges phone numbers with NBA all-star point guard Chris Paul. As he walks toward his dressing room, a polite woman grabs his arms and coos, “I’m telling all my girlfriends to go see the movie.”
Common turns around and points at me. “See? It’s all about the grass roots.”