Adam Bradley, co-writer of Common's memoir, says book addresses White House controversy
Common's memoir, One Day It'll All Make Sense, begins rather dramatically. The prologue reads: "When I was eighteen months old, my mother and I were kidnapped at gunpoint. My father held the gun. At least that's one side of the story."
Common, with help from co-author Adam Bradley, a University of Colorado English professor and co-editor of The Anthology of Rap, goes on to explain that his mother and father's versions of this incident, as well as their versions of many other events in his life, have great gaps between them.
He fills some of those gaps in the memoir, which went on sale Tuesday. The incident described in the prologue starts as a letter to the reader from Common, and each chapter begins with a letter from Common to someone instrumental in his life.
When Common was young, his father took him and his mother from Chicago with the intention of making it to Seattle, where he had a basketball tryout with the SuperSonics. As his mother tells the story, they were kidnapped at gunpoint. As his father tells it, the event was much more tame.
This is the premise behind the entire book: There are several true versions of many things that have happened to Common. Bradley, who met Common while working on The Anthology of Rap, helped lend a more academic viewpoint to Common's hip-hop storytelling.
We recently spoke with Bradley about the process of writing the book, helping Common create rhymes, Common's White House controversy and more.
Westword: How did the project originally come about?
Adam Bradley: Common had been thinking for a while about doing a book that would be about different aspects of his life, but fundamentally about his relationship with his mother. His mother is a very instrumental force in his life. The original idea was to kind of have it be a conversation between the two of them. I got involved around springtime of last year. He and I met and decided we would be working together. We started working really hard on the book at the end of summer and beginning of fall 2010.
What ended up evolving was a book that still had some elements of that mother/son conversation, but had really evolved into something much more personal to Common himself, the evolution of his artistry and a coming of age story about how he comes from the South Side of Chicago and ends up where he is today as an actor, a rapper, a celebrity. It became more of a story about a man as well as a story about his relationship with his mother.
What was your initial reaction when he asked you to help him with the book?
When someone decides to get a Ph.D. in English, usually the expectation does not include working with a rap superstar. When you're reading four-inch-thick Victorian novels preparing for your general exams, it's not really on the radar. Luckily, I've been able to carve out a career that fuses my passion for literature with my passion for hip-hop and sees the connections between them.
I saw this as an opportunity to work with an artist whom I've admired for many, many years, really since the beginning of his career, with Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and also to work with one of the real minds in hip-hop, one of the thinkers in the culture, someone who is really cognizant of hip-hop's impact on the broader culture and someone who is really cognizant of what music can do beyond simply getting you to bob your head.
Can you describe the process of writing the book with him as co-author?
With the role of a co-author for a memoir, I like to think about musical analogies. Whether it's a DJ and a rapper or the jazz soloist and the accompaniment, it's kind of a reciprocal exchange -- kind of a groove one has to get into with the other person. It's really an intense form of collaboration. For us, the way it worked is it began with conversation, it began with words spoken rather than written. Ever since his second album, Common has composed all his lyrics without a pen and a pad. It's something that people kind of laud Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne for doing, but Common has been doing it since '93.
That's kind of the way we approached the book as well. It began as a series of extended conversations over everything from drives up the Pacific Coast highway to time in the studio in between recording tracks, or whatever it may be, and shadowing him as he lives his life and talking along the way. It really was an intense kind of collaboration that resulted in friendship and resulted in this book.
It's a combination of collaborative processes, and in every step, Common is involved -- whether it's the conception or execution. My job was to bring my expertise as someone who has both studied how books are written and has written some books, great or not, so I brought that kind of knowledge to bear about questions of structure, questions of storytelling and the development of character. Common, as an MC, is a storyteller in his own right, and of course brought his own expertise to those things. So it was more about me helping him to translate storytelling from a hip-hop context to storytelling from a narrative and literary context.
What was the most impactful story he told you about his life?
To me the most impactful story is the one we began the book with, which is, by different accounts, either a kidnapping or something less than that when he was only a year and a half old. He and his mother were either kidnapped at gunpoint, according to the story his mother tells, or something less than that, by his father. It's an intense tale because it gets at the core of what this book is about, which is relationships.
We begin each chapter with a letter Common has written to someone close to him in his life from past, present and so forth. This anecdote brings together so much of the complexity of what his family is. There are great stories throughout about how he got his first record contract, asking his mom's permission to leave college to get his start in music, all the way to the present moment.
Talk about ripped from the headlines, we were going to press at the moment the White House controversy over Common's involvement in a poetry event there was going on. We were able to add a really large narrative section that directly addressed that whole dust-up and what it meant for him.
It was a really natural story for him to tell because he was in the heat of the moment. I talked to him right before he went to the White House and right after. We got some stuff together and went back and forth on it and then got it to the editor.
To me, in some ways, it's one of the strongest parts of the book because it had a combination of different factors that makes it a good story to tell. It had an antagonist, a protagonist, an element of deception, and it had the highest levels of national politics and def poetry jam. We had a nice, big stretch of emotions. That was a lot of fun to work on.