Taken from Express Night Out (November 19, 2008)
Liner Notes: Michael Franti on 'All Rebel Rockers'
by Tony Sclafani
MICHAEL FRANTI'S STYLE has morphed from rap to hip hop to reggae since he appeared on the music scene as part of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1992. But the substance of his music hasn't varied all that much: he's always sought to bring a politically-charged message to the masses.
His dedication to social causes is evidenced by his film about Middle East politics, "I Know I'm Not Alone," and anti-poverty protests. He was recognized in 2002 by the human rights organization Global Exchange, which gave him the Humanitarian of the Year Award
Major radio play might have eluded him, but that's starting to change with the release of his new album "All Rebel Rockers." Its lead single, "Say Hey (I Love You)," has been all over college radio thanks to an infectious chorus and knowing lyric that references classic oldies like Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell" and the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko."
On his previous release "Yell Fire!" from 2006, the reggae rhythms of his band Spearhead became more pronounced. But on "All Rebel Rockers," Franti and company make the transition to reggae complete. The album was recorded in Jamaica with the legendary reggae rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare producing and playing.
"Sly and Robbie are incredible," Franti says. "The two of them together have this experience of working with hundreds of artists and making thousands of songs, and they're so willing to impart it onto whoever they're working with. They'll tell you exactly why something might work or why in their experience it hasn't worked for them. If you just listen you just learn so much."
Franti talked to Express about the ideas behind the tracks on his newest work.
» "Rude Boys Back In Town"
That's a song that's about the experiences of traveling and coming back home. I come back to town and everybody's like "Michael, where have you been? What are you doing? You look like you've lost weight. Are you eating OK?" So I explain my stories to people. Traveling is the blessing and curse of being a musician. It's afforded me the opportunity to see so much of the world that I never imagined I would see — like when I was a kid I used to spin the globe in the library and stick my finger down on Bora Bora or someplace. But it's also the curse in that it takes me away from my family and friendships.
» "A Little Bit of Riddim"
If you listen to the verses, it talks about all the things that are happening today. It says "Do you remember a time before every day was the news of a holy war?" It goes on and on and cites all the things that are happening in the world right now. But in the chorus, it's an uplifting statement: A little bit of rhythm makes the world go round. I always say I don't know if music can change the world overnight, but I know it can help us make it through a difficult night.
» "Life in the City"
Again, it's one of those songs that's an expression of everything that's happening in street life. But it's also an expression of "Throw your hands in the air and let's have gratitude for what we have."
» "Hey World (Remote Control Version)"
» "Hey World (Don't Give Up Version)"
The "Remote Control" version is kind of a call to stand up, to rise up and say, "Let's throw away that remote control and let's take action." The "Don't Give Up" version is an internal message to myself for the times when I feel weakest and most worried about the state of the world. I'm asking the world "Please don't give up on me, and if you don't then I won't give up on you."
» "All I Want Is You"
"All I Want is You" is just a pure love song about desire.
» "Say Hey (I Love You)"
When I first wrote that song I had a very complicated chorus for it. I was in the streets of Brazil and I was singing the song for people with my guitar. I realized the only part they understood was the "I Love You" part. So I ended up just repeating [sings] "I love you, I love you, I love you." That melody really caught on and soon kids were dancing and singing. So we ended up going back to Brazil to make the video in the same way that I had written the song on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
» "I Got Love for You"
It's a song that I wrote for my son. When he turned 21 he left home and I was 21 when I had him. He was getting on a Greyhound bus, going from San Francisco to New York City, so I went into my studio and I wrote the song for him, and I gave it to him on a CD. I remember him calling me. He was sitting in the back of the bus listening to the song and crying a little bit, and I was crying. It's really a song of letting go and it's saying it's OK to let go.
"Soundsystem" is a song that came from my experiences of listening to music in the early '80s. As a teenager, there was the Clash — they were taking sounds from everywhere, from reggae, from funk, from rap, and they were putting it all into this one thing. Then you also had a group like Blondie who were doing the same thing, or the Police who were doing reggae, or Queen who was doing a Chic [bass] riff on "Another One Bites the Dust." You had all these great combinations of music. That one came from that musical memory.
» "The Future"
"The Future" is a song that I wrote and [put] on a demo and I gave to a friend about seven years ago. One day I was at a show of mine and I hear it coming out of somebody's car. I go up to their car and I'm like, "How did you get that song? We never released it." And he's like, "Well, I got it from somebody who got it from somebody in Hawaii." My friend lives in Hawaii. So I called him up and was like, "Man you can't let my demos out like that! But thanks, man, because it's a good song and I'm gonna rerecord it and put it on this album."
» "High Low" (featuring Zap Mama)
That's a song that I wrote with Marie Daulne from Zap Mama. We were in Belgium at Marie's house. I picked up the guitar, and we both started talking about our mothers. That song is about the experience of me meeting my mother — my birth mother, I should say. I didn't know her, and I met her when I was 22. It's about the highs and lows of going through the emotions of meeting my mom, who I never knew.
» "Nobody Right Nobody Wrong"
That's a song I wrote in Israel and Palestine. After having spent time traveling there and talking to people on both sides of the conflict, I realized the only way there's gonna be peace there is when both sides come to agreement on solutions that consider the other side. It can't just be "My side is right your side is wrong." You've gotta consider the needs of both sides.
» "Have a Little Faith"
This [John Hiatt song] is a kind of a self-descriptive title. I really believe that's what we need today in this world — the optimism and something that helps us hold onto the optimism. Yes, the world appears to be in chaos, but there is a possibility that through everybody uniting we can address some of these issues that we face today.
» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Wed., Nov. 19, 7 p.m., $35; 202-265-0930. (U St.-Cardozo)
Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani
Photos by Michael Schreiber