The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الاثنين، تموز ١٩، ٢٠٠٤

Michael Franti on Bay Area hip-hop

By Charlie Russo

When it comes to music experiences around the Bay Area, you can’t help but have more than a few Michael Franti stories. Sunny day free concerts in Dolores Park, rousing spoken word at political rallies, rambunctious shows at the Fillmore, acoustic jams in a tightly-packed Baobab... the list is as diverse as it is long.

Little surprise really, since Franti has been a notable presence in the Bay Area for almost 15 years now. Like Santana and Jello Biafra before him, he has become a veteran musician that embodies the most prominent features of Bay Area culture—creativity, diversity, activism, and a firm willingness to take risks. These qualities have won him an audience as eclectic as his sound, from the jam band circuit to the main stage at blues and reggae festivals.

When it comes to the realm of hip-hop, Franti has always played by his own rules. Incorporating the best of his early punk industrial effort of the Beatnigs, Franti and co-collaborator Rono Tse threw the music world a ferocious curve ball with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. If Rage Against The Machine was Public Enemy meets the Clash, then the Disposable Heroes were like Gil Scott Heron performing in a steel mill.

Franti then went on to form Spearhead, an upbeat collision of roots reggae, hip-hop and live instruments. At a time when the music industry wanted more “Gin n’ Juice”, Franti and Spearhead instead offered up tracks like “Love is da Shit” and “Red Beans and Rice”.

SHOUT!: Can you give us some perspective into what characterizes the local hip-hop sound?
Michael Franti: Well, I hate putting names on it, but you have your Oakland sound—artists like Too Short... and E-40 in his part of the Bay. You got the kids around the Fillmore, and that’s kind of a more—I don’t even like calling it mainstream—but it’s more the commercial side of hip-hop: what’s really selling lots of records around the country. I hate the word “commercial” because it’s really roots... it’s really a roots sound... but it’s what’s selling a lot of records around the country.
Then you got stuff that’s been going on in the clubs for a long time—jazz cum hip-hop—with groups like Alphabet Soup and Midnight Voices, and our group.

I guess I was curious how you’ve seen it evolve over the years?
Well... just like rock music when it started out, you can narrow it to one place. You can say, “It was Chuck Berry... Bo Diddley or Fats Domino or Little Richard.” And then pretty soon it became as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Now you have Sheryl Crow at one end and you got Metallica at the other, and everything in between: punk rock and a lot of [other] offshoots.
And I see that that’s what has happen to a certain degree with hip-hop, especially in the Bay Area. I really wish it would have happened more, I really wish there had been opportunities—if hip-hop grew—for it to be more diverse in its sound and styles.
But I think there still will come a day—as the original hip-hop listeners grow older and are looking for different styles of music that represent where they are, and there are new kids coming up—that the diversity will hopefully occur in the same way that it has in rock music.

To what extent do you see Bay Area diversity—diversity of the culture politically and artistically—finding its way into the music?
The Bay Area has always been a hot bed for progressive politics. We had the movements of the 60’s over here: the Black Panthers in Oakland, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley with people like Mario Savio, gay rights, a lot of environmental activism in Northern California... and all of these things tend to find their way into the music.
In addition to that we’ve had a really broad diversity of music outside of hip-hop, like Sly and the Family Stone who were really combining a lot of different styles of music—same thing with Santana, and even Jimi Hendrix when he was around here. There is a lot of history and diversity here, and artists like myself and Paris and Boots from the Coup are really on the forefront of trying to keep the political voice alive in hip-hop.

In that sense, you’ve never pulled any punches with your political beliefs. Can you convey the reality of being an outspoken artist and how that factors in to also having a career in the music industry?
Well, first of all it’s very rewarding to me. I don’t get to be on the radio and TV all the time. But I get to meet and connect with, and sometimes even move people who are really in a difficult spot in their life.
We play in a lot of prisons, we go to a lot of schools, we travel all the time. You know... we spend more time out of America then in America. So we get to see a lot. I’ve lived a very unique life and I feel lucky for music to be the doorway to that.
So as each year has gone by I’ve been trying to expand my focus, and right now we’re planning a trip to the Middle East; going to Israel and Palestine, and hopefully Iraq (if things simmer down enough for us to go). We’ll be making a film of our experience. The focus of our visit is to try to hook up with musicians and artists—especially in hip-hop—but whoever is willing to meet with us, and see just how artists and musicians in places of great turmoil are dealing with making music in their life.

Before I ask about Spearhead, I was curious about how you look back on the Disposable Heroes?
I just met last night with Chris Blackwell (who we were on Island Records with at the time), and he was saying to me that of all the albums that he put out with Island—Bob Marley, U2, Traffic, Grace Jones—that the Disposable Heroes record ranks among the top 20 that he had put out. And I was really in shock to hear him say that. It seems that as each year goes by, I meet more people who are affected by that record.

What then prompted the transition from Disposable Heroes to Spearhead?
When we were in Disposable Heroes, Charlie Hunter was also in the band... and so he was playing a lot of real jazzy stuff and we were doing this real noisy industrial hip-hop.
I really liked the moods that you could evoke through chords and more musical stuff as opposed to just loud beats. I found that to write a song like ‘Positive’ (which we put out on the Home album), I couldn’t have done that over noisy beats. So I started working with Charlie making some music, and Rono really wanted to go in a different direction from that. So we parted ways and I started making the first Spearhead album.
I also have felt that in terms of my own personal creativity that hip-hop has been really stifled by radio, and that the demands of radio and the grouping of radio networks to form these huge Clear Channel bodies that control what’s on the air, this has made the music be less and less creative.

I was gonna ask you about Clear Channel... and as a professional musician, what kind of influence you see it having?
Today everything has to sound a certain way. All the music has to talk about being a player... and there is very little room for any dialogue about anything else on the radio. That sucks because they are preying on the lowest common denominator of young people, and that influences youth culture in a non-progressive way.
...I can’t speak for other artists, but I can just say that in the U.S.A. the easiest things to sell are sex and violence. So that’s what the record industry and their infinite lust for immediate hits... that’s what’s they want from rap artists. And because there is a lot of money to be made, rap artists jump in line to do it. Other forms of music don’t have that same onus placed on it. You don’t see the Counting Crows being obligated to make gangster music.

To close... I was curious that for all the traveling you do, what is it about the Bay Area that makes it home for you?
I don’t know. I own a home in Hunter’s Point and that is where I feel really comfortable. My neighborhood feels unlike a lot of other neighborhoods that I have lived in San Francisco. It is a neighborhood where people have lived for a generation in the same homes. You go outside and you know your neighbors. It’s not really a transient neighborhood like the Mission, or the Haight, ...
Then I really appreciate and respect that the Bay Area has been such a hot bed of progressive voices and also gives an opportunity for musicians to try and to fail and to have another shot at trying again. So there are a lot of artists and musicians and filmmakers and painters who have an opportunity to not get laughed out of town when they do something different. It breeds creativity and you see really unique art happening... not only in hip-hop but all around the city.