Taken from ACRoots - Spearhead - Interview (March, 1997)
Chocolate Supa Highway
by Scott Carlson
Michael Franti says he's a storyteller. That might sound strange, coming from a man who once led the politically charged hip
hop groups Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprosy. Late in 1994, Franti emerged with a new band -- Spearhead -- and released Home, a collection of earthy songs about everything from HIV to the ups and downs of romance. Overall, Home was less overtly political than Franti's previous projects.
"I found when you (are overtly political), people either agree with you right away or they tune you out right away," Franti told The Washington Post. "But if you write a narrative, people get caught up in the story. ... And that's how people change."
Spearhead's new album, Chocolate Supa Highway, will be out on March 25.
Where did you record Chocolate Supa Highway?
Pretty much in my house, most of it. I built a little studio right down the street from my house ... in San Francisco.
How did it go?
It was cool. The coolest part was that this time around we have our own means of production. We would just be up until 4 a.m. in a cloud of smoke, bustin' beats and then putting vocals down and then the next day come in a go, "Oh that sucks. Let's redo it ." You didn't have to worry about going, "Oh man, we spent all this money on studio time." We probably did about 30 beats and made about 20 songs out of those beats and then put about 13 on the record.
Did you feel pressure when you were recording Home?
No, but Home I did really fast. We recorded all the songs in three weeks and mixed all the songs in another three weeks. On this one, we didn't take our time -- we worked really hard and real solid -- but we had more time to change things that we w e're happy with.
Did that relaxed atmosphere affect the sound or not?
It definitely affected the sound. Our studio is like a little basement almost. It's very dark. It's got a nice, moody warmth to it. It was cool, because we would have just a lot of our homeys just hangin' out, just vibin' and saying, "Yo, I feel this beat or I don't feel this beat or that's tight, that's good." So when you have this atmosphere it's like a constant sounding board to reflect all of your beats off of to see what moves people and what doesn't move people. And that is really what we wanted to do with this record is just make stronger beats and really spend a lot more time with the vocals -- not just with me, but with Ras Zulu and Trinna Simmons who sang most of the stuff on the record.
So it was all a feel thing.
Yeah, it was just more developed. On the first record, the lyrics I spent a lot of time on, the music I didn't spend a lot of time on, like I wanted to. On this record, I really spent time on making great sonic beds for our words to come across on.
What sort of direction did you have for the lyrics this time around?
Well, I'm a storyteller, so I'm always writing stories in my songs about what's happening in life, about things that I see or fictitious stories that are metaphors for larger things in life. But on this album, I also did a lot more stuff that's just abstr act metaphors; things that aren't specifically stories with a beginning a middle and an end. Things that just evoke thoughts and moods and memories. But I just listened to the record last night. I was visiting with some relatives and I played it for them. This is the first time I really sat down with people outside my normal mix and listened to the record as a listener. You always wonder, are you goin g to be able to match what you did, improve upon what the last record that you did? This time, I felt really good after hearing it all at once 'cause it was like you could hear the depth of the lyrics and the flow was swinging further.
How does the more abstract stuff compare to the previous work? Was it harder to pull off? Have you done it before?
Yeah, for example, just the way that you say things and the way that you flow the rhythm of the words is like the way that a saxophone player like Coltrane plays his songs. For somebody that is just a normal sax player, they could play those notes in succ ession, in the same order that he did, but they might not bounce them the way that he bounced those notes. It's the same thing with vocals. As a rapper, you're like a jazz artist. The way that you bounce your words on top of the beat is as important as what you're saying with the words. I think this time around, I really concentrated on the actual sound of the words.
So you're stressing the words in different places than where they would normally be stressed.
You just have a basic beat, like the kick of a snare, and you say, for example: "Nine to five let me take you on a ride where a man is trapped up in his self suicide," which is one way of saying it, which is real straight. Or you could say (pause or "bounce" at every slash), "Nine to five / Let me take you on a ride / Where a man is trapped up in his self suicide / The graveyard shift / they got us in the ditch ..." The way that you bounce the words, you can make people's heads bounce from the words alone, without the beat. I really spend a lot of time studying that, studying the way other rappers and other types of music do that.
Can you give me a sample of the new album over the phone?
O.K. ... I'm trying to think of what would be typified ... Yes, I remember/ The time in Oklahoma/ You tried to blame an Arab/ But the Whitey was the bomber/ You be jumpin' to conclusions/ I think you spent your whole life watching cable in seclusion/ Allusions about what's outside your door/ One nigger, two nigger, three nigger, four/ Robbin' every house and every liquor store/ Run for your life, we'll march you one million more
You're playing mostly big arenas on the Smokin' Grooves Tour. Are you concerned about losing the connection with the crowd?
It's interesting. One thing about hip hop shows is that it's a communal relationship between the bands and the audience. It's not like we have all these pyrotechnics and special effects going off that are there to put the audience in awe. It's about movin ' and dancin' and call and response and smoking herb and enjoying the sunshine. So far, it's been nice. Every show, I go out into the audience. We're on second, so I go up and sit in the grass and just vibe with the audience and enjoy the rest of the show . It's a good time -- a good way to spend my summer.