Story by Michael Drapa
Main photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

John Schauer admits that at the time, it didn’t seem that remarkable.

But the 1996 impromptu on-air battle at the UChicago studios of WHPK between future rap superstars Common and Kanye West has, in the past 15 years, grown to urban legend status among rap lovers.

To Schauer, AB’86, better known as longtime WHPK rap show host JP Chill, the 10-minute faceoff was just another night at a studio that once hosted Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Too Short.

“It’s strange that it’s maintained its legendary status,” says Schauer of the battle, recorded during an overnight show with DJ Twilight Tone. “We had people doing performances live on the air every week. A lot of those performances were amazing at the time. The Common/Kanye battle was only important in retrospect.”

And Schauer would know. In his memoir, Common credits JP Chill for being the first DJ to play his demo tape — back in the late 1980s when he was part of the rap trio C.D.R.

“That meant something because if you were wack, JP Chill would let you know,” Common wrote in his 2011 memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. “He wouldn’t play just anything. You had to be cold.”

In his memoir, Common talks about his early days, when he and his friends would sit outside the Reynolds Club studio from seven in the evening to one in the morning, hoping to “get on the live mic and spit a verse.”

Common, whose real name was Lonnie Rashid Lynn, was born and raised on the South Side and would come to the WHPK studios often.

“A turning point in my life and career was when I started going up to WHPK when I was, like, 15 years old, going on 16. First and foremost, that was where I heard all the hip hop I was getting,” he recently told Time Out Chicago. “Growing up in Chicago, you weren’t biased to a certain coast; you could just be a hip-hop listener, and they played it all.”

Common later embarked on a solo career under the name Common Sense, and garnered critical acclaim with the 1994 album “Resurrection.” At the time of the WHPK battle, Common was working on his third album, while the 19-year-old West was still unsigned — a fact that Common reminded him of throughout the battle.

“Kanye was cocky as hell, but you have to love him,” Common wrote of West, a fellow South Sider who also frequented the WHPK studios. “He could be like a mosquito in your ear though — straight get on your nerves.”

Much of their recorded rap battle is friendly fire, and although there’s no mention of the rap battle in his book, Common thought enough of it to include it as the last track of his 2001 double album “Common Classics.”

West went on to become a huge star with his 2005 album “The College Dropout,” which won him the first of 14 Grammy Awards. He and Common have since become friends, and West collaborated on Common’s 2008 hit “Southside,” which garnered Common his second Grammy.

Remarkable careers, as it turns out.

Originally published on December 5, 2011.