Michael Franti & Spearhead: On point
Whether fighting for human rights, campaigning for veterans’ rights, ridding poverty or producing his 50,000-capacity Power To The Peaceful festival each year, Oakland, California-born rapper/poet/songwriter Michael Franti has occupied a unique position in American music over his 24-year recording career as an outspoken champion of social justice.
Thus the Stateside Top 40 success of Franti’s latest album ‘All Rebel Rockers’ is arguably long overdue for the man whose two decades-plus of trailblazing, socially-conscious music began way back in 1986. When - while attending the University of San Francisco - he put together his first band, the avant-garde industrial punk outfit The Beatnigs. With said band gaining local infamy on the Bay Area’s hardcore scene, Franti’s next move meanwhile was to form the bitingly-political hip hop duo The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. Whose 1992 critically-acclaimed debut LP ‘Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury’ prestigiously led to them opening in concert for fellow conscious acts-of-the time U2 and Public Enemy.
Meanwhile, in 1994 - having disbanded The Disposable Heroes - Michael’s next step was to hook up with several studio-musician friends and start the rootsy, funk-oriented group Spearhead. Whose ingenious fusing of hip hop, folk and funk has - via statement-making albums like 1997’s ‘Chocolate Supa Highway’, 2001’s ‘Stay Human’ and 2006’s ‘Yell Fire!’ - gradually incorporated more prominent reggae influences along the way; in turn leading to the outfit’s latest release - the aforementioned ‘All Rebel Rockers’ - being mostly recorded in Jamaica’s Anchor Studios with the island’s legendary “riddim twins” Sly & Robbie overseeing production.
Indeed, with its mix of feel-good vibe and pointed lyrical content ranging from the old skool reggae chug of the irrepressibly buoyant ‘Rude Boys Back In Town’ and robustly funky ‘A Little Bit Of Riddim’ to the acoustic folk-soul of ‘Nobody Right Nobody Wrong’, ‘All Rebel Rockers’ provides an ideal conversation-starter. As an ever-articulate Mr. Franti happily reacquaints himself with Pete Lewis for a brief, 10-minute transatlantic chat.
“Well, in terms of the title ‘All Rebel Rockers’, I was actually thinking about what it meant to be a rebel TODAY”, begins an instantly-personable Michael: “I mean, I’ve been making rebellious music for 24 years now. I’ve been involved from street-level activism all the way up to meetings in the boardrooms of corporations. But, while there was a time when I felt ordinary everyday folks railing against the system was enough, now I really do believe it does take a full consensus of ALL people to take care of the issues that we face in the world today. You know, the problems from global warming to the economy are so clearly universal that we need to address them TOGETHER - from ideas at grass-roots right through to involving corporations, politicians, governments, the resources of the corporate world, the knowledge that science has to offer... So yeah, it’s like in this age we have a new TYPE of rebellion. And - as a musician and as a man - I now have less interest in being part of the fighting between parties and more in being a unifier.”
Musically, meanwhile, Franti feels recording in Jamaica with reggae-funk legends Sly & Robbie did strongly influence the overall vibe of ‘All Rebel Rockers’: “Well, I’d worked with Sly & Robbie in the past, but I’d never done a whole ALBUM with them. So, when I contacted them about making this record, they said it would be great for me to come to Kingston to do it. And recording in Jamaica was definitely a unique experience, because there’s so much MUSIC there; plus there’s so many people who actually just come and stop by the studio! You know, they just walk in, stop and listen... And musically the main reason I loved working with Sly & Robbie is because, though they’ve made some of the strongest dance music ever, they’ve always made it with live INSTRUMENTS!. You know, they make music that can be performed LIVE. Which is exactly what I wanted to DO with this album - make a dance record that we could play OUT! Because I do feel that, over the last 10 years, Spearhead really has evolved as a live band.”
All of which is unquestionably evidenced in the infectious sing-along bounce of the album’s million-selling offshoot single - the uplifting reggae/dancehall hybrid ‘Say Hey (I Love You)’. Which - featuring Jamaican songstress Cherine Anderson - recently hit an impressive Number 18 on the US Hot 100: “That track came about after I’d written all the really heavy, political songs for the album and I was like ‘You know, I really need that one song that people can just laugh and clap along to’”, recalls Michael: “At the time I was actually staying at (US actor) Woody Harrelson’s house. And one day - after I’d already put the chords to this song on my I-pod player - I was in the shower, when I started singing some WORDS to them! So, as I was singing along, I was actually writing all these words on the window of the shower! But then, as I was getting out, the words started to EVAPORATE! So I quickly picked up my little video camera to take a PICTURE of them! Then, when Woody called and asked how the song-writing was going, I was like ‘It’s going great! I think I just wrote a hit song in the bathroom!’… And straightway he was like ‘So, is it a Number One or a Number Two?’!!”
Originally born to an Irish/German/French mother and an African-American/Amerindian father, Franti today attributes much of his musical eclecticism to his early upbringing in California’s culturally-diverse Bay Area: “Yeah, definitely. Because I grew up not only in a community that was very diverse culturally, economically, gay/straight… but I also was raised in a Finnish-American family that, in addition to having three kids of their own, adopted me plus another black son. So I do come from a very, very diverse background - and that in turn definitely affected what I LISTENED to. Because I never listened to music in terms of GENRES; I always just listened to things that I LIKED. It could have been Bob Marley, or Run DMC, or Johnny Cash, or John Lennon, or Miles Davis... It didn’t MATTER to me! I just loved great songs, period.”
Interestingly, Michael also feels said musical eclecticism has stood him in good stead in terms of his current, long-overdue US mainstream breakthrough happening at a time when music in general has become more diverse: “Yeah, I think the success of ‘All Rebel Rockers’ has been partly due to the record itself, and partly due to a change in the musical climate”, he asserts: “Because I do believe that downloading in music has changed people’s attitude towards buying records and music-collecting in general. You know, the average person today no longer has a record collection with just, say, hard rock in it. Instead they have an I-pod, and on that I-pod they have hip hop songs, dance songs, reggae songs, R&B music…”
“And that in turn has also changed RADIO in America too - especially pop radio, where at one time they’d just play Top 40 and nothing else”, he continues: “ I mean, we didn’t really expect ‘Say Hey’ to happen the way it DID! Because it was like the single had already been out a year, then suddenly a couple of stations started playing it - and next thing you know, it exploded all across the COUNTRY! So yeah, I definitely do think the way people listen to music these days has impacted on, and increased, the DIVERSITY in music period.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead’s album ‘All Rebel Rockers’ and single ‘Say Hey (I Love You) (featuring Cherine Anderson)’ are both out now through ANTI-/Universal Republic Records
Words PETE LEWIS