Taken from Music Monitor (Dec, 1997)
Rollin' On Down The Highway
Michael Franti's Spearhead
by Adam Jackson
Four full length albums and a decade into an incredible career, Michael Franti has finally gotten around to making a "second" record. You see, both of his previous two bands made only one acclaimed, ground-breaking record each before breaking up. So finally, Spearhead's brand new Chocolate Supa Highway, the follow up to 1994's Home, is here to prove Franti can master the encore as well as the debut. Each band of his career has been significantly different in their musical approach, but truthfully, Franti has always been the focal point. That he has emerged as the natural leader of three very different, truly original bands only hints at the scope of his talents.
His first band, The Beatnigs, put out an eponymous record in 1988 that melded chainsaw-on-metal industrial noise to tight and furious percussion, threw in densely sampled "found" sounds and topped it off with a hip-hop/punk attitude. In 1992, Franti and fellow Beatnig alum Rono Tse formed Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Their album Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury took the Beatnigs' radical politics and set it to funky, P.E. on steroids rap tracks. Disposable Heroes scored their biggest "hit" with a reworked version of a Beatnigs song, "Television (The Drug Of A Nation)," and toured with U2 on their Zoo TV extravaganza. Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury is a classic. In fact, the only criticism you're likely to hear of the Disposable Heroes is that their relentless, in-your-face politics distracts from the music. While I found the energy of Franti's political anger to be an ideal match for the Heroes' furious sound, his next move rendered the argument moot. He reemerged in 1994 with Spearhead and Home. Spearhead, while still very political, focused on how society and government affect the individual. But Franti's greatest growth was musical. Instead of the constant chaos of slamming beats and enraged raps, Home caught a groove, adding real R&B, touches of reggae and plain old pop--a huge step forward for Franti. With yet another great album, everyone was prepared for Franti to end Spearhead and start all over again.
Which brings us to 1997, the year Michael Franti catches everyone off guard by releasing Spearhead's second album. Recently, Franti was kind enough to share a few thoughts on Chocolate Supa Highway and the direction his fertile muse has led him. I asked if making his first "sophomore" album felt strange. "It kind of happened by default. I usually work with other people, but I built my own studio last year, so we just started doing stuff we thought would be demos and they ended up being the album. That's how I ended up on production, too."
Chocolate Supa Highway contains such a broad spectrum of sounds, I wondered if Franti had planned to incorporate more influences than ever before. "No, it pretty much just came about because of people that just come and hang out, smoke herb and listen to the tunes. So what everyone is feeling at the time is what we go with. We just work until we get the beats just how we like, then we pick the best beats and add vocals."
It was starting to sound like Franti had become a real studio addict. True? "This time I really concentrated on becoming a 'recording artist.' In the past I really just felt like a performing artist. Now when I'm on the road I like being in the studio and when I'm in the studio I really like being on the road."
That Franti is never really satisfied should come as no surprise, considering his politics. I decided to ask how he managed to create songs that sound so positive, yet describe the endless problems of our world. "Here's the thing: When people talk about 'revolution,' they talk like it's an event that's going to occur and then everything will be nice. 'Revolution,' the word, is 'revolve,' to move in a circle. A revolution is always taking place; we're just trying to accelerate, to move forward with the revolution. It's not like there's a place that we ever attain, and retire, and stop dealing with shit. We have to keep revolving and my way is through the music."
Whether with a dozen Spearhead albums or a dozen new bands, Michael Franti's musical revolution is certain to continue. If he continues to
evolve as rapidly as he has with Chocolate Supa Highway, there will be a revolutionary party worth joining for a long, long time.