In 2002, Common released his fifth album, Electric Circus, which pulled rock, rap, electronica and soul into an ambitious set. It began much like its predecessor Like Water for Chocolate, with easygoing melodies that set a tone for the music to follow. But unlike Chocolate, which dabbled in spacious rhythms and J Dilla’s percussive boom-bap, Electric Circus was a far-reaching journey through electro-pop (“New Wave”), bebop (“I Am Music”) and psych-rock (“Jimi Was A Rock Star”).
The results were divisive. While some critics lauded Common’s ambition, especially since his previous album was such a commercial success, others chastised him and blamed the MC’s then-girlfriend Erykah Badu for the recording’s sharp creative shift. I loved the album and assumed most people would feel the same. Yet Electric Circus is the most scrutinized album of Common's golden era. You either loved it or hated it; nothing in-between. This December marks 20 years since the album's release. I spoke with Common a while ago about its creation, impact and legacy. This feature first appeared on MTV Hive in 2012.
What was your creative process going into the Electric Circus sessions, given the commercial success of Like Water for Chocolate two years prior?
My process was like, “Let’s do something fresh. Let’s do something new.” I just really wanted to push the envelope. In 2012, it definitely would’ve been more accepted and more understood.
I was challenging myself creatively, so it started with me connecting with J Dilla, ?uestlove and James Poyser. We had [bassist] Pino Palladino there. It was really just saying to them, “Man, let’s do some other stuff.” We were going to the Fender Rhodes. We were using keyboards that you’d hear Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin working with. I was listening to Stereolab, Radiohead and Jimi Hendrix, so I was more like, “Yo, let me create something different, nothing that feels like anything that was done on Like Water for Chocolate. Let’s not even use some of those instruments.” I just really wanted it to have a fresh sound.
What were the internal and external factors that influenced you to create such an ambitious album?
Internally, I was bored with doing the same things. Part of the excitement of making art and music is to do something that feels fresh and new. It’s like when you’re doing something creative where you’re still using your imagination, and you’re still being challenged. A guy said something to me at the gym the other day. He was like, “If you just keep working out, after about two weeks, your muscles will become acclimated to that routine.” You’re not challenging your body at that point. So for me, I needed to challenge my body of work. I needed to challenge myself. I got excited when I knew we were getting Stereolab on the album. I’ve always wanted to be known in music as someone who was true to his art and really did creative work.
Were you surprised by the reaction it received?
It’s kinda funny, I was surprised by people who were like, “Ah man, this is the worst!” and “What are you doing?! I can’t believe this!” I don’t approach my music like, “Man, I’ve gotta please these people over here.” When I first started making music, I felt my homies needed to react to the song before I knew it was good. At a certain point, I realized I’m an individual and I have a connection with everyone who’s out there listening. We’re all human beings, but at the same token, I’ve gotta express my individuality. And whether it’s accepted or not, I have to be true to who I am. I knew not everyone was gonna celebrate it, but I was surprised by people saying, “Com fell off.” [Laughs.] We were using different time signatures and going into a whole ‘nother world like, “Man, I can rap on anything and still be true to who I am.”
I recall an interview where you said that EC would’ve had a greater impact if it came out in 2012, as opposed to 2002. Do you still feel that way?
One of my good friends said that exactly. I do feel that way, especially since music is so hybrid now. Hip-hop albums have electronic sounds and keyboards, and a lot of people are making music on computers. They have that futuristic feel to it, no matter what. Even when you think of trap music, some of the actual keyboard sounds are futuristic keyboard sounds in a way. I think yeah, in 2012, it definitely would’ve been more accepted and more understood. DJ Dummy, who DJed for me for so many years and is still a part of my collective, called me the other day was like, “Man, I listened to Electric Circus, this album is cold!” It has some of the stuff that people do now. It’s not exactly what people do, but some of the feel of it and how hip hop isn’t afraid to embrace all types of musical genres. From a musical standpoint, that’s what Electric Circus was about.
It also seemed like EC tinkered with that hip hop/EDM hybrid years before it became so popular. Do you think that the album gave newer artists the creative license to experiment with sounds?
I do believe it helped opened some doors for that. Even pre-Electric Circus, I think OutKast was pushing the envelope and they opened doors for me to do some of the stuff that I was doing. And even though it wasn’t as well received as the OutKast albums, I think some people felt that it was fresh music. There were a lot of people who received that kind of sound, but when I did my record, people saw me as a “hip-hop guy,” so I shouldn’t be rapping over these things, ya know? Creatively, I was seeking other things anyway. That’s when I started studying acting, so I felt like I was going for something in general.
If you could revisit that time, what would you do differently?
I would definitely record a lot of the music the same. The only thing maybe I would do differently is release “I Am Music” as a single. I might not have needed the song “I Got A Right Ta.” Overall, I would’ve done the same things, but at the same token, I might’ve done some of the hooks better because I think I’ve grown in knowing what songs I’m making. Like even if it is different, it’s still something that hits.
It’s been a decade since the album’s release. What is the legacy of Electric Circus?
Music is made for you to enjoy and take you to a place. I think it’s one of those albums where, if you look at Miles Davis and you have a Bitches Brew in his repertoire. Look at Marvin Gaye and you have a Here, My Dear. Those are dope projects and I liked when they took it out there. They did projects that weren’t the traditional sound you’re used to hearing from them. I think people will be able to listen to Electric Circus and be like, “Man, this was a quality piece of art.” It might’ve been ahead of its time, but you can listen to it now and feel like, “Man, that was a dope song” or be like, “Yo, that was cool.” It’s one of those albums that people can discover at some point in time. It’s like when you listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, then you go to an album like Band of Gypsys. It’s different from the others, but you still discovered it. Somebody might hook you up to that one, though it might not be the most popular album that artist has done. I think that’s what Electric Circus is to me.