Washington Post Express contributor Alfredo Flores
YOU'D THINK THAT that playing a heroic futuristic soldier in the "Terminator: Salvation" blockbuster would be the highlight of Common's summer. But mention the upcoming Rock the Bells hip-hop festival he's about to be part of, and the calm and cool rapper becomes super geeked-out. "Oh, man! It's funny, every year they have Rock the Bells, I wish I was on tour [with it] because I've always felt it was such a great ticket," said Common during a break from filming the Steve Carell-Tina Fey comedy "Date Night." Rock the Bells — named after the LL Cool J classic — started out as a West Coast festival in 2004. But after its impressive debut, and a documentary that captured the chaotic efforts to get all of the Wu-Tang Clan onstage, filmed months before the untimely death of Ol' Dirty Bastard, the festival went global. Acts ranging from established superstars to reunited bands of hip-hop's past to new artists bring messages as diverse as they are: some hardcore, some pop and many who share Common's belief that hip-hop be used as an avenue to discuss socially relevant issues. In this "socially conscious" rap, artists sometimes sacrifice commercial success to speak their minds. "Guys like the Roots or Busta Rhymes — those are all people I really respect and love," said Common. "I can definitely relate, and I dig a lot of what they bring — uplifting and inspired tunes. Rock the Bells keeps the tradition of what we know hip-hop to be." For his latest creation, he pays homage to the "Planet Rock"-type funk music from the likes of Afrika Bambaataa in arguably his most club-banging track to date, "Universal Mind Control" (UMC) from the album of the same name. He enlisted the help of groovemasters and producers the Neptunes to create this futuristic reinvention of a party jam. "During a time when there's so much trouble, you want people to just let go, feel better about themselves," said Common. "That's what the goal was. It's paying homage to the early days of hip-hop." Common has never been shy to show his dexterity and take on different genres. This is apparent in his fascination with jazz, soul and R&B. "I'm a seeker; I go out and seek and learn as much music as I can," Common said. "Whether it's Earth, Wind and Fire, Pink Floyd, I go out and dig into the music and get inspired by new things." » Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.; Sun., July 12, noon, $51-$101; 800-551-7328.