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Taken from Braincase-Ideas (January 8, 2000)
Michael Franti
by Camo Davi, Adrian Martinez and Giles O'Dell
Michael Franti Michael Franti is the lead vocalist of San Francisco-based Spearhead. He has been involved with two other groups during the course of his career to date - groups whose musical styles might seem quite divergent at first, but reveal a remarkable continuous evolution if listened to chronologically. His professional music career began in the late 80s as one of the vocalists for the seminal industrial group, the Beatnigs. The Beatnigs produced one self-titled album on Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label (1988). They also shared a practice space with Consolidated, who were strongly influenced by the Beatnigs' relentless barrage of noise and political lyrics. Consolidated would emerge in the early 90s as the foremost innovators of the blending of hardcore industrial styles with politically charged hip-hop.


The Beatnigs broke up after the release of their album, but original members Michael Franti and Rono Tse - a noise musician who uses such implements as angle grinders, tire rims, chains, and sheet metal to add rhythmic textures to beats - went on to become the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The mutual inspiration between bands continued as Mark Pistel from Consolidated produced their acclaimed debut album, "Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury" (1992). The continuity from Beatnigs to Disposable Heroes is also evident in the updated version of the Beatnigs' song, "Television, the Drug of the Nation." Another nod to their origins was their cover of the Dead Kennedys' recurring song, "California Uber Alles."


A second Disposable Heroes album was a collaboration with William S. Burroughs - Franti and Tse provided the beats for Burroughs' spoken word on "Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales" (1993). Musically, the Disposable Heroes leaned heavily toward hip-hop with an understated element of industrial noise. Yet this didn't stop them from collaborating with jazz great Charlie Hunter on some mellower songs.


Following the discontinuation of the Disposable Heroes, Franti has since worked with Spearhead, producing two albums: "Home" {1995) and "Chocolate Supa Highway" (1997). The musical style has continued on its arc and is now in full bloom as a mixture of hip-hop, soul, old school R&B, reggae and dancehall. Even as the styles have moved into what could be described as a more "radio-friendly" sound, the songs are never predictable and the lyrical content remains undiluted, politically-focused and socially-oriented. Franti has described Spearhead's music as a "seduction" as opposed to the aggressive barrage of sounds in the Beatnigs. Yet he has never forgotten the foundation he laid with previous projects, as evidenced with the Spearhead update of the Disposable Heroes song "Water Pistol Man."


When we met with Michael Franti at Spearhead's most recent Seattle show, he took time in the midst of their set to give thanks to the fans not only of Spearhead but also to fans of the Disposable Heroes and the Beatnigs. He obviously still believes in the music that he made as much as a decade ago and appreciates the support he's gotten at every stage of his journey.


Interview conducted by Camo Davi, Adrian Martinez and Giles O'Dell of Braincase Collective. Thanks to Heidi Love and Andras Jones of the City Limits, and Ty Braswell for helping to make this interview happen. </I


Adrian: We're real glad you could take time out. I can tell your schedule looks pretty busy.


Michael: Yeah, I got soccer to play, I got basketball to shoot, I've got some relatives to visit... [laughs] Touring life, you know what I mean? We're actually coming from a week off. I was down in LA working on some soundtrack stuff for a couple of movies. I've been spending time recharging with family because we've been out for about 5 weeks. This is the last leg of this part of the tour. Then we're going down to play an Indian reservation in New Mexico, then we're going to Europe, then I'm doing a spoken word tour in Australia &amp; New Zealand before doing another US tour.


Adrian: I was wondering about the label you're on, Capitol Records. Has their been any conflict with them about the political content of your music? Have you had to compromise anything?


Michael: It hasn't really been such an issue of being on a major label, because I was on Island Records before with Disposable Heroes. Every time I've gotten involved with a label, I've made sure up front that I know what I'm walking into, and they know that I'm going to be saying the kinds of things and doing the kinds of music that I want to do. So I've never had any problems like that. One of the things that we are going through right now with Capitol is that last year they dropped their entire black music division. So we've been on a label now but have had to use independent promotion people who deal with urban music. It's funny, the relationship between race and music. With beer companies, they do this: they target specific communities by race. They have a "black" beer division and a "white" beer division. And there's public outcry about that kind of thing. But it's never questioned in music. There's "black" music and "black" radio stations. and they try to call it "urban," "mainstream," "alternative," whatever. Really all it comes down to is race. And, pardon my French, but it's really fucked up.


Camo: Music is on a human level, it's not racial.


Michael: Yeah. Music is to be absorbed. Music is for the emotions, for the heart.


Giles: I wanted to talk about the progression of musical projects you've been involved in going back to the Beatnigs, where it was really aggressive and pretty discordant. And then, it seemed like from there to Disposable Heroes to Spearhead it has really smoothed out to where now the music has more of a really soothing rejuvenative vibe to it. But even back with the Beatnigs, it seemed like you were trying to find that balance between a political outlook and inner spiritual growth. How has that developed through the years?


Michael: You hit the nail on the head when you said spiritual growth. For me, life and music has been like growing a tree. You plant a seed, and then the seed takes root, and you grow a strong trunk that has a lot of branches and those branches extend to a lot of areas. You have leaves that catch sunlight and then the tree, in time, bears fruit. And when it bears fruit, you can either eat it or you share it with your friends or use it for fertilizer, or you can plant the seeds again. But if you put it on the mantelpiece like a statue it just stinks up your living room, ya know what I'm saying? That's like how my career has been. I try to keep myself really open to try new things, working with other artists. Everybody from William S. Burroughs to Stephen Marley to Prophets of the City to Joan Osborne to Jello Biafra, all the different people that I've done music with in the past, and I try not to just get pigeon-holed or say, "this is what I do and I ain't gonna try something new."


Adrian: So you feel like the change that's been reflected in your music has been like internal as well as external? I mean, have you grown as a person through your music?


Michael: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I get to go around the world. And every day I get to meet people who are thinking about progressive thoughts: how they can advance spiritually, mentally, politically. Coming into all that contact gives me a lot to think about, a lot of food for my soul, inspiration.


Adrian: Having access to all the resources you have now, like having your own recording studio and being sorta, you know, like a big name, do you keep in contact with smaller underground bands around your area?


Michael: Yeah, my studio is in an enormous complex where there's lots of other rehearsal spaces and other studios. I'm there every day usually until about 4 or 5 in the morning. Usually I'm there in the morning to let people in and I shut it down at night. In the meantime, there's a constant flow of people through our room and through our studio. A lot of them are young hip-hop bands just starting out, a lot of rock bands, a lot of people just in there playing blues or whatever, you know? We pretty much have an open door policy at our place, if you know the correct knock .. [all laugh].


Camo: I have a question about your family. Do you have a child?


Michael: Yeah.


Camo: What does he do while you're on the road?


Michael: Very good question! That's one of the hardest things about my job -- to be able to maintain contact with my family while I'm gone. And there's so much stuff that takes place in my day. Today has been a very light day, but on a normal day, I might start doing press and interviews from 9 in the morning all the way up until show time and then if I'm not in same time zone - like the last couple of weeks, I've been on the east coast. So by the time I'm done with my day, and then I go do the show it's like 1, 2, 3 in the morning. And I won't have time during the day -- unless I create that time -- to keep in contact with my family. And that's something that I've really had to learn. It's one thing to be dedicated to your life and to your career in music, but it's another thing to yourself as a human being. And, if you don't be careful, you can get caught up in not creating time for the people that are your support, who you care for. So that's the thing, one of the things that I've been concentrating on this year- like when we do a schedule with the interviews and stuff- that we put in time for me to go get the soccer ball, or we put in time where I can have two hours on the phone touching down with back home. And then e-mail has been a good thing too. Because sometimes there are serious things that are taking place -- emotional issues that you can't deal with on the phone. You can sit down and write a letter and they can read it and they can take care of it and send it back. So e-mail has been a pretty cool thing especially for my family. And then, my family as people who are listening to my music.


Giles: Can I ask you about how marijuana has played a part in the music?


Michael: No! [laughs] Well, these last couple of years in San Francisco -- it's hot with the issue of medical marijuana. We passed Proposition 215, which made medical marijuana legal. To me, I think that the discussion of herb needs to be a lot broader than what its been, cuz for a lot of people it's like, "yo dude, course it should be legal man, I get up every Saturday and watch cartoons and do bong hits," and like for me, if that's what you choose to do, that's your own business, you know what I'm saying? But to me, herb is not something you use to forget about the world. To me, herb is a thing where in the midst of this big old rat race all the time, herb takes the speed of everything down a little bit and slows things down so you can look at the rat race for what it is. Without getting absorbed in it. In school and throughout life, they always teach you how to become more successful at this rat race, so you can win this rat race. And to me it's like, yo, if you win this rat race, at the end of the race, you're still a rat. I don't want to be a rat. I want to be a human being. So herb is one of those things that it has medical uses, it has environmental uses - rather than cutting down trees, we can use paper from other products, hemp clothes, hemp rope, stuff that they use cotton and trees for. It's also a straight source of a renewable fuel that only burns water vapor. It doesn't emit all kinds of crazy toxins. So there are a lot of purposes for it. I think the discussion has to be a lot broader than, are we gonna get high?


Giles: I had a question about the song, "Language of Violence." [by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy] You told a story about a kid that was coming home from school and then gets beaten up and eventually killed by these other kids. One of those kids gets tried as an adult and goes to prison and he gets beaten up and raped in prison, and so at the end of it, you ask, 'Is this a tale of rough justice in a land where there is no justice at all? Who is the victim? Or, are we all the cause and the victim of it all?'


Michael: You know the song better than I do! [laughter]


Giles: Could you expand on that question? It's a pretty thoughtful question because it's dealing with the nature of Self in relation to the world around us.


Michael: Yeah, I mean, our world that we live in, meaning America and the West, is really into a thing of trying to run away from impermanence. Nobody wants to admit that they're mortal. Nobody wants to admit that they could be wrong. Nobody wants to admit that there may be another way of doing things. Dealing with questions of Self, there's always this fear of the unknown, you know? And that fear manifests itself in a lot of ways with a lot of ignorance. Out of that ignorance comes envy, jealousy, greed, violence. So that's why I wanted to leave that song open with a question. I didn't want it to be a thing like this cat did something really bad to this dude, he killed him, and therefore he got raped in jail and that was justification. Because I don't believe that. I believe that God created this earth in perfect balance. There's water that comes down from sky and it fertilizes and nourishes the grass and the cow eats it and a big lion comes and eats the cow, you know what I'm saying, and it regenerates and somewhere in there, man is involved. But the earth can function all by itself without man, you know. And, if we all do 100% good, it's not gonna make this earth any more perfect than as God created it. And if we all do 100% bad, it's not gonna make this world any worse than the way that God created it. All its gonna do is it's either gonna bring us peace and harmony in each of our lives, or its gonna bring us negativity and destruction in each of our lives. The earth keeps on. Once we die, it's just gonna consume us like it consumes anything else and its gonna regenerate it. And so, these questions of like you said, the Self, are things that are very important to me. Because we live in a land where there's no justice, none at all. But even like right now, I get caught up. I see someone like Timothy McVeigh. And you say, maybe this guy is like a white militia dude trying to bomb people he doesn't know about, and killing people, and he's responsible for the death of 150 people, whatever. And on the other hand, I look at him and go, yo, maybe this guy is just a patsy who is just part of this larger scheme, it's the same people who killed Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and are responsible for all those deaths. Maybe he's just a patsy? Maybe he's just in there, and maybe he has something to do with it, but he's not the only person. So who are we to judge if this guy that could be the patsy is gonna die and all the other people who are ultimately responsible for that are gonna live? One time, we were doing this show at the MTV offices and I asked this group of people (we were looking out over Times Square), "Yo, what would you say if you were here on New Year's Eve 1999 going into the year 2000 and the whole world was listening?" And no one said a thing. The whole room was deadly silent. Nobody said a word. I thought it would be like, "Power to the People!" "Kill McDonalds!" you know? Nobody said a word. And then finally in the back of the room, one small woman's voice said "Happy New Year?" And I was like, "Uh. let's go into a song!" [laughs] But then it later dawned on me that we are all looking for, like the Chinese say, a Great Leap forward. Like Gil Scott Heron said, 'The Revolution.' But there's gonna be no monumental event because a revolution is a circle. 'Revolution' comes from the word 'revolve.' That means it goes round and round and round. Some of us are up here on the circle, some of us are down here on the circle, and all it is, is for us to try and keep the circle turning so we can see where other people have been before us and they can see where we are. You know what I'm saying? So to say "Happy New Year" is actually a revolutionary act. With all the ugliness and hatred and unhappiness in the world, to say to somebody, "I wish you to be happy for this entire year," is a powerful statement and to me that's how things work. We don't have a goal. I don't have like this goal that one day the government will be overthrown and everything will be beautiful. My goal is that right now, with the people that I'm sitting with today, how can I make them feel something, and how can I be open to receiving what they're feeling? That's my goal. And so for me, the destination is not what's important. The journey is what's important. So, to wish somebody a happy New Year might just get somebody into the next day. If you help somebody get into the next day, man, I know a lot of people that don't even have the energy to do that, to get up out of bed in the morning. That's what it's all about.

 
 

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