COMMON with TALIB KWELI, SAUKRATES, ROAM and REIGN at Kool Haus (1 Jarvis), Friday (April 4), $29.50. 416-760-3332.
Ever since Common dropped his Electric Circus record last winter, the hiphop community has been wondering whether he's lost his mind. On the basis of his four previous records, the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based MC had developed a reputation for crafting thoughtful, sophisticated hiphop. He was like a less playful, more political De La Soul, with complex rhymes that would rattle around in your head long after the tune had faded.
The backpack masses loved his conscious words enough to ignore the occasional hint of homophobia. Hardcore hiphop heads, never ones to stray too far from the established beat, also gave Common the benefit of the doubt, in part because of the classic I Used To Love HER -- an extended metaphor about falling out of love with hiphop -- but also because as far out as he and his peculiar hat fetishes went, he could still rhyme his ass off.
Electric Circus is one of the most perplexing records released last year. On this truly electrified rap record, Common embraces the world of rock, psych, space rock and jitterbug jazz with varying degrees of success.
Even in today's mash-up-friendly society, it's a massive leap to the left. And in a genre where experimentation is as common as Esperanto, Electric Circus is almost hiphop heresy.
"Shit, I knew people would be freaked out at first listen, but after a few they should embrace it," Common says from Los Angeles. "I've had people just laugh when I ask them about the record."
Actually, most people are just asking why. A cryptic sequel to the Roots' Phrenology disc and heavy under the influence of Prince, Electric Circus is not a great album. Much of the fusion with hard rock sounds awkward and at times forced.
But an established artist with a proven history's risking ridicule by parachuting blind into foreign territory is no small matter -- in any genre, but particularly in hiphop. To his credit, Common seems deaf to the fierce criticism.
"For myself, the challenge was to do something new," he drawls, sounding more like Gil Scott-Heron by the minute. "I've been rapping for a minute, so for me there was the chance to do something else. I wanted to go somewhere I'd never been and experience some new sounds I'd never heard before.
"Over the past few years, people began hipping me to certain bands or groups. It was a real eye-opening experience. I had an engineer at Electric Lady who would bring me new music every two weeks -- from John Lennon and Van Morrison to Pink Floyd, Traffic and Jimi Hendrix. Shit, I'd recorded at Electric Lady for years and I never knew that studio was named after Hendrix. There's beauty and soul in the music of Lennon and Traffic, and I wanted to get with their sound."
Aside from the eerie Jimi Was A Rock Star, a distorted psych duet with girlfriend Erykah Badu, nowhere is the influence of Common's new record collection more evident than on the track New Wave.
Midway through the making of Electric Circus, producer ?uestlove laughed to me about this track "fucking people up for real." He wasn't joking.
Midway through the rigid electro-funk tune, the track suddenly stops dead for two seconds and then turns 180 degrees into a Stereolab track, complete with overdriven organ and the Lab's own Laetitia Sadier cooing dreamily. You couldn't make this up.
"When we heard the music that James and JayDee created for New Wave, we all laughed and said it sounded like some Stereolab shit," Common insists. "?uest suggested we ask them to be on the cut, so I took the tune to Laetitia backstage at a Stereolab concert.
"She was, uh, surprised when I walked up to her. She had no idea who I was and had never heard my music, but that's cool. Because she listens to all sorts of stuff, she was able to slip in and rock it no problem."
Nevertheless, many in the scene and beyond have called Electric Circus an anti-hiphop record. Common, his voice finally breaking above a mumble, swats the accusation away.
"That's bullshit," he snaps. "This as a hiphop record, but it goes beyond that. It's hiphop-and-one.
"I wasn't listening to hiphop at all when I was making this record. I just believe that any album I do shouldn't repeat. If you stay along one line, you ain't progressing."
Perhaps if more MCs viewed experimentation as a career builder, not a career killer, Electric Circus wouldn't sound so shocking.
"More people should take the courage and chances to be innovative," Common agrees. "That doesn't mean they should go the Electric Circus route. They should follow whatever route feels natural for them.
"I didn't just say, "Ooh, I'm just gonna go wild.' I was listening to music that was taking me away from what I was used to hearing, and that's the kind of music I started creating. This was kind of like a bridge from the music I've done to the music I was listening to.
"As an artist, this is a major achievement for me. People have always been saying I'm some kind of out cat. Now they have the proof." email@example.com
Sauk it to me
When Saukrates last released a record -- the much-delayed, well-received Underground Tapes -- the Toronto MC and producer swore that his next album was already half-finished and would be out before we knew it. That was four years ago.
Since then, Sauk's profile has been positively Salingeresque. Despite signing a deal with Def Jam, our man has rarely been seen outside the studio. Rumours began circulating that he'd recorded multiple albums' worth of material, drenched in guitars and featuring the MC singing, but he wasn't talking. Now, finally, the end is in sight.
Saukrates's much-anticipated album is almost finished and set for release in the fall. Expect a preview when he opens for Common at Kool Haus Friday.
"I've got at least two and a half albums of material to choose from and I'm still working on joints," Saukrates offers from his studio. "There's, like, 47 songs or something, and we just keep adding. I leave every door open.
"People will be shocked. It's not just the straightforward underground hiphop record that people are expecting. There's a lot of melodic stuff, lots of singin' and screamin' and funkin', and we took it back to that black rock thing. We're thinking of calling it Bad Addiction."
Surely the record would have been finished quicker had Sauks not also been working simultaneously on a half-dozen other projects. Between writing and producing for Jully Black, hooking up with Nas and plotting the return of Glenn Lewis, Saukrates has his hands full and then some.
"I've got this production company called Big Black Lincoln that includes Ro Ro Dolla, Agile and Trax, and from that has spawned a bunch of shit," he nods. "We've got this group that's like the Four Tops of hiphop and a whole crew of MCs coming up, as well as all the Circle shit that's going down. Kardi's record is coming out this year, Choclair's coming out, Jully's coming, Solitair's on tap. There's a whole bunch of shit going on."
Based on that, he says, this is going to be the year for Toronto talent.
"This is a movement, and it takes a little patience to build that. Toronto's been building and growing, but with all these records coming out at the same time this will be the year that people take notice."