Taken from grid-magazine (May, 1997)
Highway to Heaven
by Maria Rhodes
photo by Tyler Gourley
Spearhead's Michael Franti discusses the head-nodding factor of social consciousness.
Spearhead, a hip-hop group best known for their jazzy, soulful flow and thoughtfully political messages, are a long way from Home. Their first album dealt mostly with the personal subjects that arise in the places you are closest to: food, love, issues of health, and community. Spearhead's second effort, Chocolate Supa Highway, resembles more the first few months after someone first moves into their own apartment - full of new ideas and a sense of freedom.
Rather than personal themes, Chocolate Supa Highway deals more in a broad, narrative approach. The music and beats of Chocolate Supa Highway sound more a product of studio work than before; the loops seem more computer-generated than performed live, as they were on Home.
Michael Franti, the lyricist and front man of Spearhead, explains the changes this way: "Basically, on this album, we wanted to up the head-nodding factor," he says with a chuckle. "I've been dealing with social issues in my music for ten years now (through Spearhead, as well as his previous bands, Beatnigs and The Disposible Heroes of Hiphoprisy). When you write something that's socially conscious your first time around, people expect it from you. If you don't do that on your second record, people are like, 'Well, it didn't mean nothin' to him.' But if you keep doing it the same way, people are like, 'I'm tired of hearing that motherfucker! Shut him up!'"
The political messages are still strongly apparent on the new album. It's Spearhead's music that has changed subtly. This could be a result of the band's move to their own recording space, Blak Militia Studio, in Northern California. There, the band was able to put more time into the mixing of the album, giving it a slicker sound.
"In this album, I increasingly looked to the people who have inspired me," Franti says. "Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone. I found that they all made beautiful music, but were not shy about expressing their views on the world. That's what I tried to do--to make music that you just enjoy listening to, but eventually, you'll really understand what's in the lyrics. On this record (Chocolate Supa Highway), we built the studio, which really influenced the sound of the songs. The room is a really warm room and it gets really hot and sweaty in there. The speakers are loud and full of bass. That's the experience we wanted to pass on to the people who listen to it. Like how and where we were when we made it. We wanted the bass to surround you, like when you're in your mother's womb, and the drums to be like a heartbeat. The voice is like when your mother speaks to you when you're in the womb."
The sound of the record does have that feel, with enveloping, vibrating bass chords and Franti's smooth, rumbling delivery. As in Spearhead's past works, Franti's vocals blend seamlessly with the music. At one moment penetrating and another velvety, Franti's voice is able to convey meaning as much by the sound of his words as the words themselves.
"I always do the same thing, I sit and write [lyrics] at the mixing desk with the beat blasting in my ears," Franti says. "This time around, I really feel like we spent a lot more time trying to find that place in my voice that fit best with the track, as opposed to just what the lyrics were literally saying, the nouns and the verbs. I feel like I've become a better recording artist, as opposed to being just a live performer. That's how I've always been before. It used to be that you'd be on the road for nine months, and then go in the studio for one month and you'd have to turn something out. Now we're in the studio year-round."
At the time that the interview was done, Spearhead were recording a tune with Mutabaruka, a Jamaican poet famous for his dub-infected activisim. "He was doing a spoken word performance at the University, so my crew went and kidnapped him and brought him down here," Franti laughs. "He was a big inspiration to me when I was coming up, like 15 years old. He's a very powerful poet."
Franti is known for his poetic talents, too. As on Home, Chocolate Supa Highway features Franti's lyrical gift at its full strength. Franti has also started to do his own spoken word tour, but is quick to point out that it's not what one traditionally considers spoken word or poetry reading.
"I don't write poetry for the page," Franti explains. "I write material that is meant to be orated. My spoken word performances aren't like someone reading from a book sitting behind a desk smoking a cigarette with a glass of water. What I do, it's more like Richard Pryor meets Lenny Bruce."
Like Bruce, Franti's social commentary can oftentimes be acerbic. But it is also humorous, thought-provoking, and intellectual, traits that are important to Franti. The root idea behind Chocolate Supa Highway, he says, is the concept of the transfer of information and ideas.
"It's the other side of the information super highway," Franti explains. "The Black Realm, the way we as black people communicate...through music, voice, ideas. Hip hop is our worldwide Internet. If the Internet is the white line going down the middle of the road, the Chocolate Supa Highway is everything else on either side. It's the things that are communicated through thoughts and emotions and spirits rather than through wires and modems and hard drives. It's those things that you can't change into binomials. It's vibrations and feelings and sounds."
Unlike the Internet, or "Information Superhighway," says Franti, the Chocolate Supa Highway is accessible to all. "If you think about it, less than 1% of the world's population owns a computer," Franti says. "So obviously, it's not really accessible to all people. We have this thing called 'The World Wide Web,' but it's like how we say 'The World Series.' It's only in America and a couple of cities in Canada. Unfortunately, the end goal of technology in this century is to get us closer to a consumer utopia, everything you want at the touch of a button. To me, any technology is useless and is really nothing without content. The content is what's important, and I think it's the content that's really missing from the Internet right now. It's important for people who aren't white men in their forties to get on the Internet. And it's really important for all people to seize the opportunity that we have today, as the Internet grows; that we be the ones to chart its course, and set the code of ethics and the standards for what it is or is not going to be - rather than the Bill Gates of this world deciding all that for us."
Social and personal responsibility seems to be a recurring theme in Spearhead's music, from the concept of being tested for AIDS for the safety of another ("Positive"), to thoughts on the ramifications of giving money to the poor ("Hole in the Bucket"), to birth control and how responsibility starts at home ("Water Pistol Man"). These ideas come from Franti's deep sense of cultural identity. His message, he says, is indicative of a broader trend evidenced in cultural beliefs, especially in those of people of color.
"The 'Chocolate Supa Highway' is the spirit of consciousness that goes through especially black people, but also all people of color throughout the world," Franti says. "We've had our wars against each other, we've had wars between tribes, but we've never really had a war against Mother Nature. That's what I see as we get closer to the year 2000 - that people are looking to indigenous cultures and saying, 'How can we stop what we've started here?' There's a big difference between native homelands and places where the West has colonized. I was just recently in Australia. You see aboriginal people who have been there 40 and 50 thousand years, and have lived in peace and harmony with their environment. And in just the last hundred years, the West has succeeded in screwing things up there incredibly.
"It's like when you go to Mexico, and you see a beautiful little village, with beautiful tropical weather and palm trees, and there's this big garbage dump right in the middle of it. And this garbage smells so bad, and you wonder, 'What is this? Are these people just dirty? They don't care? They just throw their garbage everywhere?' But what you don't realize, is that they have no garbage men, and they're getting all these products from the West that they're told they need to exist. They use them once, and then throw them away. Then, you see a kid eat a mango. He drops it on the ground, and it regenerates, into a tree, or fertilizes the ground or whatever. With the garbage, the best we can do is recycle, and it's still gonna be around for a million years. That, for me, is a metaphor for what is going on in my life. Like, I really have to think: What are the things in my life that are like mangoes, that are gonna regenerate life, and what are the things that are like Coke bottles, that are gonna be dead objects? When I make my music, I try to keep that in mind."
Spearhead's latest effort bears the mark of this kind of thinking. A mixture of social commentary, smooth, soulful music, and personal revelations, Chocolate Supa Highway is organic, life-affirming, and ultimately satisfying. Log on.#