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Q&A: Common Tells The Stories Behind 'Like Water For Chocolate' For Its 20th Anniversary

Common

Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

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Q&A: Common Tells The Stories Behind 'Like Water For Chocolate' For Its 20th Anniversary

20 years after its release, Common acknowledges his fourth studio album as a major career high, and he spoke to the Recording Academy on the phone about why

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2020 - 10:43 pm

Lonnie "Common" Lynn has been putting out rap records for almost 30 years, but he spent almost all of the 1990s looking for his audience after an initial taste of fame with 1994's metaphorical "I Used to Love H.E.R." garnering buzz among backpackers. Immediately after, he found it: His fourth album Like Water For Chocolate, which just turned 20, boasted an incredible roster of producers (J Dilla, DJ Premier, Questlove), rappers (Mos Def, MC Lyte), and non-rap musicians (D'Angelo, Jill Scott, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Fela Kuti’s bandleader son Femi). The star support cast, in turn, brought out the best in the headliner, giving him his first hit ("The Light") and his most memorable turns yet on the mic, like when he bucks his woman-friendly reputation to play a villainous pimp opposite MC Lyte, who makes a fool of his character.

Most of these names were joining forces as the Soulquarians, and releasing an unprecedented number of great hip-hop and neo-soul albums between 1999 and 2000; Like Water For Chocolate not only shares company with D'Angelo’s classic Voodoo and Erykah Badu's equally amazing Mama's Gun, but tracks from one could’ve ended up on another. Being around greatness made Common greater, and soon he was gracing Neptunes (Electric Circus, Universal Mind Control) and Kanye West productions (Be, Finding Forever). He found his audience. But 20 years later, Common acknowledges Like Water For Chocolate as a major career high, and he spoke to the Recording Academy on the phone about why.

What do you think when you look back on Like Water For Chocolate two decades later?

I feel very happy and grateful for the artists I was around. That was such a joyful, creative experience, moments like Jay Dee creating "Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World)" or me hearing "Heat" on a beat CD or just him playing "The Light" for me. Flying back and forth to Detroit, getting to spend that time with Dilla, then going to Philly to work on stuff and having Ahmir ["Questlove" Thompson] oversee the whole thing, being around Tariq ["Black Thought" Trotter], going to Electric Lady and being able to walk into a D'Angelo session, and Erykah! Man, this was one of the greatest times in my life.

It’s astounding how many great albums came from the Soulquarians collective during this period: Like Water For Chocolate, Mama's Gun, Black On Both Sides, Things Fall Apart, Voodoo

It was inspiration, it was competition, it was support. Black Thought was the person that was playing me Fela Kuti, who was a real influence. That was my first time working with DJ Premier, so that was a blessing; I was like "Whoaaaa, I have Premo beats!" And I met Jay Dee with Q-Tip at his place back in '95-'96, but I reconnected with him and The Roots while they were working on Things Fall Apart. Mos [Def] came in and did "The Questions" with me. Hearing what Erykah [Badu] was doing was inspiring. We were really iron sharpening the iron when I say we were competition. I obviously wanted Dills to create what he was feeling, but wanted it to be different from everything else he was giving to other artists. But he did that naturally anyway. "The Light" might have been the second song I wrote for that album.

Did you have any idea "The Light" was going to be a hit when you wrote it?

Nah, I’ma be real clear. I never could say I know what a hit is. I write from my heart, and my spirit, and my imagination, and what I think is fresh. I want to touch people’s experience and their hearts and to translate to a feeling for them. And that's why i even called it Like Water For Chocolate, because the concept for that movie was people cooking food and showing their love and how they felt for each other through food. And I was like, "man, I’m showing it through the music and I want people to feel that love and energy to create something within them to find their own inner passion and light." So when we did "The Light" I was really just writing a love song and being really optimistic and candid. I knew it sounded great but I never knew what it would get to be. That was the first song that I had on the radio, on mainstream radio. I was performing at Summer Jam and that was the first time I remember seeing young black girls singing my song. Teenagers to adult women. I was like, wow, this is amazing. Most of the songs I created prior to that were so hip-hop-oriented and weren’t as catchy.

The album has this lush, dense soundscape of live instruments, and a dream team of guests. What was the most difficult thing to pull off?

I really wanted Femi Kuti on it and at the time I knew he really didn’t know who I was too much but somebody on our label—he was on MCA too—hit him up and i guess they played him some of the music and gave him a briefing of who I was. To get him on it was incredible. It also wasn't easy to get D'Angelo because he was working on his own projects, and D is one of the greatest ever, he was a master. But it worked out, I got him on "Geto Heaven." and that was a beautiful thing. What initially happened was the song on D'Angelo’s Voodoo, "Chicken Grease," was for me, and "Geto Heaven" was actually created for D'Angelo. But D'Angelo really loved “Chicken Grease,” so he was like, "Can I get 'Chicken Grease' and I'll give you something."

Have you ever regretted letting D'Angelo have "Chicken Grease"?

"Chicken Grease" would have been for me in the same lane as "Cold Blooded" to a certain degree even though it’s not the same vibe or whatever, but "Geto Heaven" added another color to the album and "Chicken Grease" added another color to his album. But it all connected and part of that connection is in the expertise or skill of Ahmir and people who really know how to put together albums. Ahmir is a visionary, D'Angelo too, so "Geto Heaven" fit where it should. Ahmir did the sequencing for Like Water For Chocolate, he truly executive-produced that album.

One of the best things you've ever done is the back and forth with MC Lyte on "A Film Called (Pimp)," truly playing characters. Did anyone give you pause for portraying a pimp?

Yeah. [Laughs.] At the time I was watching a lot of a documentary called Pimps Up, Ho’' Down and it was interesting to see the characters of people that were living that life. They had a pimp that was named Mr. Whitefolks, he sound just as black as anyone else, and they had a female pimp. I thought, let me write my own film and also be able to make fun of myself. The truth of the matter is somebody who’s "conscious" is not always serious. Women would approach me, they thought the conversation was going to be based in what books I've read or astrology, but I still like basketball and hanging out with my friends talking sh*t.

That song "Payback Is A Grandmother" added a cinematic quality—you can hear the influence on something like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d city years later. Did this album have anything to do with you wanting to delve into acting later?

Yeah, this album helped lead me into acting. I took the music somewhere I had never been and I didn’t know where to go musically anymore.  I was really thinking about another creative outlet and i was literally taking piano lessons from Robert Glasper for a second, not long, he came by and taught me for a couple of times but I wasn’t that good. And I was like working on vocal lessons to try to be able to sing, and I was not good at any of these things. But I went to acting class and something about it resonated with me. My A&R Wendy Goldstein actually introduced me to my acting coach when we were in the last leg of promoting Like Water For Chocolate.

Have any surprising people told you they were a fan?

So many different musicians come up to me like, "Man, I listen to Like Water For Chocolate” and I'm like, yo, these are musicians who play something: saxophone, guitar, bass, drums, flute, piano, they listen to it and that’s the honor right there. 18-year-old kids come up to me like, "That’s one of my favorite albums ever." Chris Rock just in the last year, told me "I was just riding and listening to it, that was an incredible album." And I’m like, what? Chris Rock? He's one of the greats.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

From Childish Gambino's "This Is America" to James Brown's "Say It Loud," these racial justice protest anthems demonstrate the ongoing—and still deeply relevant—sound of activism

GRAMMYs/Jun 19, 2020 - 08:00 pm

From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the streets of Ferguson, activism certainly has a sound. Whether it’s the slow hum of Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" or the energetic repetition of YG’s "FTP," when the chants of freedom slow, we often hear an emotional outcry about political issues through music. The current state of unrest in the United States surrounding the violent treatment of Black people and people of color at the hands of police has caused a resurgence of music addressing the current state of affairs directly in lyrics and tone.

As we celebrate Juneteenth (not to mention Black Music Month), a date that signifies liberation for African American people as Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the enslaved people there were free in 1865, we have to recognize the importance of music when it comes to freedom, protest, survival and celebration in Black culture. 

Music has always been deeply rooted in African culture. It only continued after men and women were captured and enslaved in the U.S through the Middle Passage. For slaves, it was a form of communication and later became so much more. That tradition of music has continued over centuries as each new movement—specifically involving the fight for self-love, equality, and fair treatment for Black Americans—creates its own soundtrack.

2020 will see its own host of songs that highlight the times, from Meek Mill’s "The Otherside of America" to H.E.R.'s "I Can’t Breathe," which she recently premiered in her performance for IHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert Series. But before this moment, there were a few of the songs that have been at the center of protest, revolution, and radical political change over the years.

"Say It Loud," James Brown (1968)

Being proud to be Black was almost a foreign concept commercially during this time and James Brown took the lead on empowering Black people all across the world. "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud," became an affirmation recited far and wide specifically in such a turbulent year as 1968. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.


 

"Comment #1," Gil Scott-Heron (1970)

A poem featured on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Heron was challenging the white left-wing student movement. In his estimation, there was no common ground based on what Black people had endured for centuries that college-educated students from the suburbs would understand. The song was later sampled by Kanye West in "Lost In The World" featuring Bon Iver.


 

"What’s Going On," Marvin Gaye (1971)

Based on the real-life experience of Gaye’s brother who returned from Vietnam with a much different outlook on life, this song asked what was happening in America. This was a turbulent time where Black soldiers were not receiving the same benefits as their white GI counterparts when returning home from the same fight. And much like Scott-Heron, Gaye was exploring the hippie era clash that, to many Black people, didn’t have a real grasp on poverty and systematic racism plaguing the community.


 

"Fk Tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)

A song met with much discourse including the arrest of N.W.A. members in Detroit during a 1989 tour stop. The group was apprehended following their show after being told by the DPD not to play the song in their set. Unfortunately, not much has changed and streams have skyrocketed amidst global protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor more than 20 years later


 

"Fight The Power," Public Enemy (1989)

The song originally appeared in Spike Lee's "Do The Right" thing, which explored racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood and would become Public Enemy’s most popular song to date. Later released on their album Fear of a Black Planet, the song was received with high acclaim including a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Performance.


 

"Changes," 2Pac featuring Talent (1998)

2Pac was seen as both an activist and a young man wise beyond his years, though his career was also marred by controversy and rap beefs. Songs like "Changes" are more representative of the former. Here, Pac was chronicling the fact that things have been the same in Black communities over the years. When listening back, you can hear how poignant his words were over 20 years later.


 

"Glory," John Legend and Common (2014)

The Oscar-winning song from the original motion picture soundtrack to "Selma" directed by Ava Duvernay came at the epicenter of the country’s most recent unrest. Two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the song was the perfect bridge from the Civil Rights movement of the '60s depicted in the film into today's current fight for equality. 


 

"Alright," Kendrick Lamar (2015)

To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s sophomore release, was a sharp contrast to the cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d. City but yielded the freedom song of a generation. Crowds at protests and university auditoriums across the country erupted into the song's potent lyrics, "But if God got us then we gon be alright!" The GRAMMY-winning song became the unofficial anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mich., and Sandra Bland in Waller County, TX at the hands of police.  


 

"F.U.B.U.," Solange (2016)

A nod to the 90s hip hop apparel company, the acronym stands for For Us, By Us. The song appeared on her third studio album A Seat at the Table, her most critically acclaimed and political album to date. Both the song and album highlight Black entrepreneurship, culture, and trauma.


 

"Freedom," Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar (2016)

This hard-hitting track samples "Let Me Try" by Frank Tirado and comes as a reprieve in the album sequencing but packs a powerful message. The ending also features audio from Jay-Z’s grandmother Hattie White. At her 90th birthday party she explains, "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade"—apropos in the discussion of the American Black experience.


 

"This is America," Childish Gambino (2018)

Accompanied by a captivating visual directed by Hiro Murai that paired dancing with African influence, and violent yet thought-provoking imagery, Gambino's effort made everyone pay attention. The song garnered the multi-disciplined artist a GRAMMY for "Song Of The Year," and his first No. 1 single while leaving both critics and fans alike in deep conversations about its political symbolism.

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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