From the beginning, Common fit squarely into the "conscious" or "political" branch of hip-hop. He spent two years studying business at Florida A&M University before leaving school to work on his music full-time. In 1992, he put out an album called Can I Borrow a Dollar?, which earned him a fair amount of fans. His real breakout, though, was his 1994 album, Resurrection, on which "I Used to Love H.E.R." is featured.
"I Used to Love H.E.R." walks us through the evolution of hip-hop culture through an extended metaphor. On the surface, Common Sense—now known as simply Common—was rapping about a woman he knew, but he was actually telling the story of hip-hop. That story, as Common tells it, is the story of a New York creation becoming a popular, pro-black phenomenon but eventually selling out and turning gangsta in Los Angeles, becoming practically unrecognizable and perhaps even unlovable.
In the song, Common says that "met this girl when he was ten years old," which would have been 1982. Up to that point, hip-hop had been brewing primarily in the South Bronx. DJs like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa had struck upon the hip-hop formula in their dance parties in Cedar Park and elsewhere. Hits like 1979's "Rapper's Delight" had proved that hip-hop could be popular; whether or not the style was a fad was yet to be seen.
And then "Planet Rock" hit the dance floors. Afrika Bambaataa's funky rap single sold 650,000 copies and took hip-hop global. Bam's song mashed up an eclectic group of records from the new age "Trans-Euro Express" by Kraftwerk to songs with "so much soul" like "Do You Like It?" and "Give It To Me Baby" by B.T. Express and Rick James. Suddenly the world seemed to be paying attention to this inner city culture.
Then hip-hop "did a couple of videos" in Hollywood. The Rock Steady Crew had danced b-boyin' (breakdancing) into popularity with a 60 second scene in Flashdance (1983), "but once the man got to her, he altered the native." Common must have gone to the movies during the summers of 1984 and 1985, when Hollywood tried to cash in on hip-hop with gimmicky, watered-down, blaxploitation-esque flicks like Breakin' and Beat Street.
Meanwhile true artists like Run-DMC were revolutionizing hip-hop's sound and providing crossover appeal with hits like "It's Tricky." The popularity of hip-hop made it a powerful voice in the rising racial tensions of the 1980's. African-Americans across the country were fed up with America's inability to follow through with the promises of the Civil Rights Movement legislation. Police brutality toward blacks was rampant, blacks could not get the quality housing that whites enjoyed, and inequality was at its highest point since the Great Depression. Blacks found new hope in Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson, Afrocentrism, and a new black power emerging in rap music. Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype" depicts this rising anger.
Unfortunately, rappers had a problem advocating against the cruelty of society towards blacks when it seemed, to many, that hip-hop culture was also gang culture. From the beginning, hip-hop's intention was to provide an alternative to gang violence. The very first hip-hop block parties were thrown by Afrika Bambaataa when he left the violent Bronx gang The Black Spades to form a peaceful Zulu Nation society that advocated for "peace, love, unity, and having fun." But that message needed to be reiterated. Gang violence disrupted rap concerts for many acts, including, infamously, Run DMC. Common mentions "that tip about stoppin' the violence;" rapper KRS-One started the "Stop the Violence" movement in 1988 to do just that. The movement led rallies, marches, and released the single "Self Destruction" to raise money and awareness for the cause.
But for all the pro-black work that had been done in the 1980s, unemployment had skyrocketed in black communities in L.A. Factories had been shut down, police brutality was becoming more and more intense, and public services had ceased in Watts and Compton. Meanwhile, arms and drug dealers involved in the Iran-Contra affair like "Freeway" Ricky Ross were millionaires. Gangs seemed like the only way to get ahead. L.A. rap followed suit with the style that would dominate the '80s and '90s: gangsta rap. Ice T, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, and others would found the violent, gang-inspired genre with songs like "Six in the Mornin'" and "Straight Outta Compton." Gangsta rap seemed to be the magic recipe for a new punk revolution of American's disenfranchised youth. Where black power seemed to fail, guns, gangs, and drugs offered up a way for youth to react to police brutality and take their lives into their own hands.
But for Common and others, gangsta rap wasn't the right path. Its language seemed to dissolve decades of work by blacks to disassociate themselves from negative stereotypes. As Dr. Dre said, "I wanted to make people go: 'Oh shit, I can't believe he's saying that shit.' I wanted to go all the way left. Everybody trying to do this Black power and shit, so I was like, let's give 'em an alternative." While Common never disagreed with gangsta rap's self-empowerment, he realized that once Straight Outta Compton set the stage for the gangsta rap decade, every rapper started to become a gangsta. 'Hoods like Compton were bad, but other rappers started to rap about their hoods, "stressin' how hardcore" they were even when they grew up in middle class suburbs. In that sense, gangsta rap made hip-hop all about image and less about substance and art.
Of course, not everybody was happy with Common's assessment of the situation. Although he hadn't named names, his song took a pretty direct jab at gangsta rap, accusing it of being superficial and contrary to the spirit of true hip-hop. Ice Cube in particular took offense to Common’s lyrics, which was ironic, since Common thought of the NWA rapper as a kind of hero. Anger and violence fueled gangsta rap’s lyrics, though, and that was how Ice Cube responded with his diss track “Westside Slaughterhouse.” In a way, Ice Cube helped to make Common’s point for him by way of his unnecessarily violent lyrics. With "I Used to Love H.E.R." Common lamented this transformation in hip-hop and pledged his commitment as an artist to taking hip-hop back as a vehicle for blacks and social change.