Michael Franti, former leader of the brilliant hip-hop duo Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, still isn't thrilled with all the ways of the world. But in his latest group, Spearhead, he's found new ways to express his displeasure.
"One of the things that I've always wanted to do with the political side of my lyrics is to talk about things that are important to me and that came from my experiences," he says. "But in the past I might have just said, `Fuck the government' or whatever--and I found that I wasn't really reaching as many people as I wanted to that way. Either they'd tune out what I was saying or they'd shout along with the words because they already believed the same things that I did. So I decided to make some changes."
And he has: With Spearhead, Franti has made a point of upping his music's accessibility quotient. Certainly, there are tracks on Home, Spearhead's debut on Capitol, that are built upon topical references and calls to action; examples include "Crime to Be Broke in America," about the inequity between the nation's haves and have-nots, and "Dream Team," which uses a phrase associated with Olympic basketball and the O.J. Simpson trial to promote the need for greater African-American representation in the U.S. government. But these exceedingly direct observations are balanced by subtler than usual compositions--"Caught Without an Umbrella," concerning an attempted suicide, and "Positive," an intelligent AIDS drama-- and outright party numbers symbolized by the extra-funky "Red Beans and Rice." Those who suspected that Franti was too uptight and doctrinaire to write and perform songs that aspired to nothing more than providing a good time will find Home a very enjoyable way to be proven wrong. Or, as Franti puts it, "This band is really a band. A funky band."
With a physically imposing frontman. At 6-foot-6, Franti was a hoops player good enough to have started for the squad at the University of San Francisco, alma mater of Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, during the mid-Eighties. While at USF, Franti also began to explore his own political consciousness. He credits Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist who recently worked as a consultant to the NFL-champion San Francisco 49ers, with opening his eyes and inspiring him to look at issues beyond the basketball court.
In short order, Franti was performing in a four-piece called the Beatnigs and writing striking, frequently strident songs. This material eventually came to the attention of former Dead Kennedys provocateur Jello Biafra, who signed the Beatnigs to his Alternative Tentacles imprint. The act managed to stick together long enough to release one album, in 1988, but creative tension split the act in two. By the dawn of this decade, Franti and fellow bandmate Rono Tse were operating under the name Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. 4th and B'Way, an Island Records subsidiary, snapped up the twosome, who began releasing singles in 1991. Their opening blast, "Television, the Drug of the Nation," was an immensely powerful warning shot fired across popular culture's bow--and there were plenty more to follow. The 1992 album Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury collected the best of them in an incendiary package that was easily among the year's finest releases.
In spite of a truckload of critical accolades, however, Franti is decidedly lukewarm on Hypocrisy. "I don't hate that record, and I give thanks for all the nice things people said about it," he insists. "I'm very grateful. But that record was really about words and politics. It wasn't really about the music."
This shortcoming took a while to dawn on Franti. Disposable Heroes toured throughout 1992 and 1993 with acts such as Arrested Development and U2 (the Heroes appeared in most of the country on the massive Achtung, Baby stadium trek), and they collaborated with production auteur Hal Willner on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, an intriguing experiment that starred Beat legend William S. Burroughs. But Franti's frustrations eventually led to the dissolution of the band.
Unsure about his future, Franti returned to San Francisco and began listening to albums by many of his favorite artists--Al Green, Chaka Khan, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder. "When I'm at home, I just like to kick back and relax," he admits. "I guess I don't like to think about everything all the time." Realizing that others likely felt the same way, he decided that his next musical project would put more of an emphasis on beats, melodies and funk than the Heroes had.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to make statements anymore," he says. "I always thought it was the responsibility of the artist to shed light on certain situations. But when I was a kid, I got into the music first, and then later, after I'd listened to the songs for a while, I started hearing what the artists had to say. And that's what I wanted to do."
When Franti went back into the recording studio, he had no intention of assembling another band; he thought he would employ various sidemen to work on individual songs. But as the sessions continued, Spearhead began to coalesce. The membership eventually solidified around Franti, singer Mary Harris, rapper Ras I Zulu, keyboardist Liane Jamison, guitarist David James, drummer James Gray and bassist Keith MacArthur, nicknamed Spooky. "We spend a lot of time practicing and working on new material," Franti reports. "We try to be a really disciplined funk band where we lock really tight and just groove."
Others are beginning to notice the strengths of Spearhead on stage. That's important, Franti believes, because broadcasters have been shy about embracing Home. "I've never gotten any love from radio programmers, from the Beatnigs to the Heroes," he concedes. "So whenever I get played on the radio at all, I'm really happy. But because we've started to get a reputation as a really good live band, we don't live and die by radio."
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Of course, life on the road isn't always that hospitable, either. "We haven't made it to Denver yet, but we tried," he says. "We were supposed to open up for the Brand New Heavies, but our bus broke down--we threw a rod in the middle of Utah. So we called the guy from the bus company, and he said he didn't have any buses nearby, so he sent his daughter out to pick us up. There were ten of us waiting, and finally she pulled up a couple hours late driving a Suburban or something like that.
"She was blond and all dressed in Spandex," he remembers, "and I think she was a little disappointed when she saw us. I think she was expecting to pick up Whitesnake or something. And when we got in, we started playing hip hop on her CD player. We thought we could turn her on to something new, but it didn't really work." He laughs. "I think she was really ready to get us out of there."
Despite this failed attempt at converting a heavy-metaller, Franti remains hopeful that Spearhead will prove an easier pill to swallow for music listeners than were the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. "We keep hearing that people are really liking this stuff," he says. "And to me, that's the shit."
Digable Planets, with Spearhead. 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16, 444-SEAT or 830-2525.