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Common on Hell on Wheels | Interview

Common gets what Common wants. For now, it’s AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Photo imaging: Jamie DiVecchio Ramsay

Common finished shooting the first season of AMC’s new Western series, Hell on Wheels, in Calgary at the end of August. Shortly afterward, he published his memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense (Atria, $25). Next month, the Chicago native completes this year’s trifecta with his ninth studio album, The Dreamer, the Believer. On the phone from Manhattan, stopping en route to the airport to pick up a bottle of wine, the 39-year-old discussed being both ex-slave Elam Ferguson, working on the transcontinental railroad in Nebraska, and the best MC, period.

What’d you learn from researching the role of a recently emancipated slave?
I learned that the relationship between black and white people wasn’t just all hatred. I learned there were some slave masters that weren’t treacherous. I had studied in elementary school about slavery, but it was a whole new understanding getting to read slave chronicles and do due diligence in the research of it.

In your memoir you write that, with Hollywood roles for thirtysomething black men, “You’re either bouncing a ball or busting a cap.” This must be a more fulfilling role, then?
Yeah, this is definitely the most fulfilling. When you look at the roles that black actors are afforded, some of them are just, like, the heavy guy or the muscle-in-the-street guy. But what was so interesting about the writing of Hell on Wheels is like, man, this guy, he’s a freed slave but just because I’m oppressed doesn’t mean that I’m not strong, just because I’ve been through one of the biggest hells that you can go through doesn’t mean that I’m not intelligent.

You write that, growing up on the South Side, you’d get into street fights with your friends, you’d carry a gun. Could you draw on that period to understand Elam’s anger a bit?
Definitely some of my life experiences I can utilize to channel certain things for Elam, but it’s a difference [between] feeling injustice in 1989 than in 1863, man. That’s a different, like, delivery of hate, a different delivery of racial prejudice, man. It’s, like, it’s so out there and outward. Hell on Wheels, it’s not trying to hide the prejudices. It’s like, man, you have people calling people niggers, you have people calling people Injuns. During that time, things just seemed more to the point. I’d rather know where I stand than to not know.

Your memoir has a very self-assured tone. You call Kanye West “a self-illuminating star,” and then say, “I know that I am such a star and always was.” There’s a pretty strong sense of ego in these pages.
Nah, I would call it belief, man. If you don’t believe in yourself, then who will? If I don’t believe that I’m, like, the greatest MC, then how can I make other people believe in that? You have to be able to believe in yourself and what you do as an artist. That doesn’t mean you’re better than anybody else just because you might be the greatest painter ever. That doesn’t make you a better human being than somebody else. You’ll never hear me say, man, I’m a better person than you.

Are you the best MC?
Yes. And if I didn’t say that to you, then I would ask of you to maybe hang up on me.

In your new single “Blue Sky,” you’re rapping, “From up high I shine / Suited in Prada.… I’m the top of the class / Black Wall Street so my stock will never crash.” What happens to hip-hop’s political roots when it becomes about material success?
The song is about, like, reaching your dreams and aspirations. And me saying “suited in Prada,” I mean, I want to wear nice clothes, and I work very hard, and I work so that I can also be able to wear the things that I like, and I don’t put materials over humanity, but it’s just, man, I work and I want to live a good life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to reach a high level financially.

So what happens to the politics remains a question.
Well, I mean, I’m not really a political person.

Or consciousness, to use your term.
I think the consciousness exists. If you check out the majority of songs on my album, you will hear the consciousness. Awareness, love, spirituality, good vibrations will always override anything materialistic, anything that deals with your lower self. So the consciousness and awareness? I’m saying, “I see the blue sky, say the Lord’s coming through.” I say on that song, “Given what I ask, pure religion and cash / From the windows that open, I’m raising my glass.” That’s like saying, man, ask and you shall receive. That’s a spiritual reference. And I’m saying pure religion, I want the pure religion. And the cash. You know, nobody said that you shouldn’t live well.

What about the eye of the needle?
Yeah, I mean, that definitely exists, but that’s up to the individual to say, hey, I have achieved in life and I’m gonna take the things that I have gotten and make sure that I don’t put that before my values and my spirituality. The Bible says it’s hard for a rich man to reach the kingdom. But it doesn’t say it can’t be done.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels premieres November 6 at 9pm.