Talking Revolution

A quarter of a century ago, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron informed us that "the revolution will not be televised." This year, with a soulful baritone and a revolutionary consciousness that echoes hip-hop's forefather, Michael Franti is here to tell us the revolution isn't going to be on-line either.

"I've been excited to see how much influence hip-hop is starting to have on the Internet," Franti says, "but at the same time I say, 'Yo, less than 1 percent of the world has a computer,' so this idea of the World Wide Web is bullshit. The World Wrestling Federation is probably more places than the World Wide Web."

Still, as the voice of Spearhead -- one of the few politically inclined hip-hop groups currently thriving -- it's Franti's job to keep his critical eye on the media that shape our culture. That's why Franti chose to put an Afrocentric twist on the new technology in naming his band's second CD Chocolate Supa Highway.

The name shouldn't suggest that Franti has any particular affinity for surfing the Web, though. Rather, he means it to highlight the need for black communities to widen their perspectives, to branch out and establish connections between each other. To progress, if you will, from George Clinton's "chocolate city" to Franti's "supa highway."

"I've always been somebody who's been afraid of computers," Franti admits. "A computer for me is something that when you walk into the fast-food restaurant and say, 'Can I have extra ketchup?' they go, 'No, you can't, because we don't have a button for that on the fucking computer.' So I've always been kind of a technophobe."

"But at the same time," he adds, "I realize that box -- the computer or television or radio -- is just a bunch of metal and wires, and without us putting our creative input into it, it's nothing. So if we don't, as black people, put our creativity into it, it's just going to be a place where we are further ghettoized from, and we can't afford to have that happen at this stage of our liberation struggle."

More than buying into technology, Chocolate Supa Highway appropriates it and imbues the computer age with the same playground vibe that made Spearhead's debut, 1994's Home, such a success. For all his talk of electronic gadgetry, Franti is clearly less concerned with the way ideas are transmitted than he is with the ideas themselves.

"The information era is over, it's come and gone," he claims. "Where we're at now is the inspiration era. People are not just trying to find things to write about, to be creative about, they're trying to find reasons to get up in the morning. We live in a fucking ugly world, but it's a world that a lot of us feel is still worth fighting for. I think that in the near future, you're going to find music that starts to take a stand on issues, that doesn't just say 'Hey, this is what's happening on the streets and we're just going to report it.' It's going to say, 'This is what's happening on the street and this is what we think about it.' "

That, at least, is what Franti aims to do. In fact, it's pretty much been his goal from the start. After a stint at the University of San Francisco, where the six-foot, six-inch adopted son of white parents played basketball, Franti became inspired by the tradition of black political expression that led from Malcolm X to Linton Kwesi Johnson to Public Enemy. He then formed his first group, the Beatnigs -- an industrial music/ guerrilla theater project masquerading as a rap group -- and in 1988 established an important link between the Bay Area's activist punk scene and blossoming hip-hop community by releasing an album on Alternative Tentacles, the label run by the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra.

By the time Franti released his next album in 1992, he and Beatnigs percussionist Rono Tse had transformed into a more overtly hip-hop unit called Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, their sole album, introduced Franti's booming agit-prop to a wider audience, particularly on the overtly Scott-Heronesque "Television, the Drug of the Nation."

By 1993, though, it began to dawn on Franti that by focusing his creative energy on political statements, he'd allowed the music to be an afterthought. For all their passion and smarts, the least his groups had going for them was their songs. And as Franti matured, he began to understand that by forsaking the music, he had been limiting his listeners' ability to hear his message. He also realized how liberating music could be on its own.

"There was a time when I thought [the purpose of] music was, like KRS-One said, 'Edutainment,' " Franti explains. "And then I started to realize that people get a lot more education out of books, from talking to their grandparents, from going to school, than I could ever give them in a song. What music is great at is finding emotional places in people's hearts and allowing things to come to the surface that don't often have a chance to be heard and felt. That's what I set out to do: not worrying so much about what people were thinking about the lyrics, but thinking more about the way people were feeling when they heard the music. That's what I do now. Music is the first thing, the sound of the voice is the second thing. If people are intrigued by those two things, then they'll want to hear what you have to say."

With Spearhead, Franti has by no means given up on social commentary. But instead of the cold polemics and industrial beats of his past groups, Spearhead personalizes the depth and variety of black life in songs that blend the warmth of soul music with reggae's spirituality and hip-hop's sense of wordplay. Home placed songs about homelessness and AIDS next to celebrations of family, love and soul food.

On Chocolate Supa Highway, Franti continues tempering his activism with humanism, such as on "Gas Gauge," a humor-filled tale of brotherly sparring that turns tragic as a result of police racism. Two songs in particular are perhaps the most personal Franti has ever written: "Why Oh Why," which mixes playground basketball nostalgia with off-the-court realities, and "Water Pistol Man," which serves to remind us, and himself, that society's problems must first be confronted at home. "Water pistol man, full of ammunition," the chorus goes. "Squirtin' at fires on a worldwide mission / But did you ever think to stop and squirt the flowers in your own back yard?"

While Home was largely a collaboration between Franti and a collection of studio musicians, two years of touring with similar-minded groups such as the Roots and the Fugees solidified Spearhead into a tight-knit five-piece that was recently augmented to become a six-piece. "It's more a family unit now," Franti says. He wrote much of Chocolate Supa Highway with Spearhead bassist Carl Young, while Franti's interplay with vocalists Trinna Simmons and Ras I Zulu adds a new dynamism to the music.

Though songs such as the first single, "Why Oh Why," make Chocolate Supa Highway sound more hip-hop oriented than Home, in other places the CD is actually more diverse. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Fugees (who themselves learned a few things from Spearhead), Chocolate Supa Highway contains as much singing as rapping, and much more live instrumentation -- even violin and acoustic guitar -- than samples. And with guest appearances by Zap Mama, Stephen Marley (on a hip-hop remake of father Bob's "Rebel Music") and Joan Osborne (on the country gospel/rap of "Wayfarin' Stranger"), Franti seems more willing than ever to have Spearhead venture into other genres.

In concert, Spearhead's full band approach attempts to translate the group's musical richness and communal vibe. "A lot of times hip-hop has a bad reputation for the shows not being that great, just a DAT [tape copy] or whatever," Franti says. "We are a live band that kicks butt and keeps up with every step of what's going on in hip-hop."

Spearhead performs at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 11, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $22.50 and $27.50. Camp Lo opens. For info, call 869-5483.

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Roni Sarig