"Rock rock y'all Spearheads comes alive
on the eve of two triple O
eleven forty five
no jive we be survivin'
singin' praises to jah
every time we throw down and every time we puff La
Haaaaa!!!, well you can roll my way
on the chocolate supa highway!!!"
- from "Chocolate Supa Highway"
Making his way through Vancouver this past February on his Smokin' Word Tour -- an evening of "poetry, humour, and music"-- was one Michael Franti, the musical and spiritual leader behind San Francisco's Spearhead and former partaker in much heralded projects the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Now, I'm sure many of you may be familiar with some of Franti's records both past and present (take your pick -- they're all decent), but you might not have been one of the lucky ones invited to catch this man's incredible performance at the Purple Onion. Pity, that, as those in attendance were witness to a joyous and provocative celebration of music and culture... the kind of self-promotion that the western world needs more of.
Sitting opposite the 6'6" Franti in his classy, albeit tiny, suite in the Waterfront Centre Hotel (a room with a view!) the next day, I began questioning him on his intentions with the solo Halifax-Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver spoken word tour. "I started off doing a capella stuff [way back when]," he states. "My first times performing words that I had written was during, like, anti-apartheid rallies in the mid 80's. This trip I'm on now is something I wanted to do because when you say the words without the music, you really get the meaning of the words more. Make them come to life in a different way."
As for his tour taking place during Black History Month (February), Franti offers that he's taken a different approach to the month this year. "It used to be a time to look at heroic events that have taken place with black people, but it's the shortest month of the year -- that seems like a dis to us, y' know." He pauses, then continues: "I look at the time as African liberation. This is a time to say, 'Yo, where are we going in the future?' The reason we recognize Black History Month is to use it as inspiration -- to be inspired by the leaders that came before us, to empower us. [In turn], I'm trying to inspire, also."
After I admit to missing the second half of his intimate show due to work commitments, Franti instinctively brings up a Bob Marley song about working the night shift. Not since Ben Harper's Marley-esque stance (or seat, actually) has an artist seemed so enamoured with the late Marley father as Franti is, and with Franti having recorded a song called "Rebel Music" with Stephen Marley... well, how'd that go? "It was an honour, because in our studio [Blak Militia in San Francisco] we have a lot of pictures on the walls of Bob Marley for inspiration. And to have his seed [Stephen] walkin' in and turn on the riddims... his voice is so close to Bob's, the emotion. It was like Bob was in there with us."
"The single is gonna come out on Tuff Gong [Bob's record label]. I recently got the artwork for it and saw the little label on the inside of the record with 'Spearhead and Stephen Marley' on it and I just went, 'Man, this is one of the biggest thrills of my career' -- to see my name on the Tuff Gong label."
While Spearhead's stellar Home album from 1994 was a jazzy, soulful rap experience, Chocolate Supa Highway, released in March of this year, takes aim and connects with more of a musical club-groove, à la the Fugees. "I produced the record, created a lot of the music," he explains. "We've always been in search of the groove, y' know. We're trying to find the grooves that move you and hold your attention while investing as much emotion into the lyrics as possible."
"Our studio's a cool spot... a lot of people just come by after work, hang out, smoke herb, listen to the tracks. We can see whether they're groovin' to it -- or not groovin' to it."
Spearhead play the Rage on June 11th with Camp Lo and Coolbone.
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