Taken from RollingStone (April 03, 1997)
THE DEATH OF HIPHOPRISY
Spearhead's Michael Franti talks about listening . . .
Franti finds the perfect balance between the personal and the political.
Like Spearhead's 1994 debut, the just-released "Chocolate Supa Highway" turns hip-hop on its head -- only with reggae instead of Beatlesque pop or the cool jazz of Miles Davis. The group's leader, Michael Franti, has grown considerably as a songwriter and producer (he also produced two tracks on the new Zap Mama album), and his deep, unmistakable rapping is even more assured than it was in his days with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. On cuts such as "U Can't Sing R Song" and "Water Pistol Man," Franti finds the perfect balance between the personal and the political that he's always been searching for.
RS.com: Radio and MTV were initially uninterested in the first Spearhead album, but you managed to overcome their resistance by hitting the road for over a year. How do you think it'll work with the second record?
Michael Franti: Well, we're out hitting the road again. The single that we have coming out now, "U Can't Sing R Song," is the first single we've ever had on the radio the first week it came out. That speaks to two things. One, I'm always trying to find ways of making music. It also speaks to the fact that people out there are listening for different sounds.
Tell me a little bit about "Chocolate Supa Highway."
The first record was very jazz-influenced. This record is more coming from music that I grew up listening to, which is soul and reggae. I've always been inspired by artists like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone -- artists who would write beautiful music, but they would be asking the questions of the day, questioning what was going on in their hearts. It wasn't "I wanna lick you, baby, and get with you," and all this. They were asking questions of the soul. This
record is more driven by that.
So you're mining different sources for inspiration. What leads you to move from one artistic place to another?
When I first started, I had a group called the Beatnigs, and it was kind of like the Last Poets. It was very political lyrics put on top of drums. I was 19, I was trying to really educate people. The lyrics were very political, very outspoken. When I wrote the song "Positive," I thought, if I'm going to deal with a song that's about the AIDS crisis, is it better for me to sing lyrics that say "Fuck the government, 'cause they're not responding to this," or is it better to write the song from my own personal experience of going into a clinic and getting tested?
I really found that people respond with their hearts more than they do with their minds. So I just started growing with the music. I really started coming to understand how a beat and a few chords or a beat and a bass line can -- sometimes you hear a certain piano riff and it makes your hair stand up on your neck -- open up certain places in your heart, your emotions. So that's really what I try to do now on the records. I just try to tap into emotions and the sounds of the things more than with just the lyrics.
I'm really saddened by the death of Biggie (the Notorious B.I.G.) because I always felt that he was somebody that could take the flow of words in the way that a jazz saxophonist would take the flow of the sax and swinging it on top of the beat. Of all the rappers I've heard in the last five years, he's really taken that to a whole new level of phrasing and tongue-twisting.
With the death of Tupac and now the Notorious B.I.G., do you think people will wake up and see the futility of the East-West rivalry and violence?
One thing about music is that it reaches into people's emotions. When a music that's saying those things can be that popular, it's saying that there are people who have a lot of tension and a lot of frustrations. When you hear it on the record, it helps bring those emotions out. I don't know who's responsible for the death of those two or even if their deaths are really connected, but throughout our country -- not just in hip-hop but in our society in general -- consumerism is the driving force. People want things. When they lust after those things, envy and jealousy and ... (something is missing here)