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Conscious Party

Spearhead returns with Chocolate Supa Highway

By Todd S. Inoue

It took two years of constant touring and a spot on the Smokin' Grooves lineup, but Spearhead finally earned accolades for Home, a brilliant album that wove hip-hop, soul, funk and social consciousness. The group is back with a more R&B and reggae-influenced album (Chocolate Supa Highway), with similar conscious values but a special focus placed on the Internet. The Palookaville show will be the first date of a nine-month sojourn to test the freshly-laid pavement.

I spoke to Michael Franti who called from the Capitol Records office in New York where he was on a short spoken word tour.

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From the Metro archives: Spearhead on tour, Franti talking about the technology and Todd Inoue's review of Chocolate Supa Highway.

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Metro: You're doing spoken word right now. Tell me about that.

Franti: Yeah. It's like Richard Pryor does Lenny Bruce. I'm funny. I rap some songs from the album. I did this spot in Brooklyn last night. 100 people and there was only one white person in the whole room. It was all these poets from Brooklyn. There's a big scene that I'd really never tapped into. It's going off here. The spoken word thing has helped my live performance a lot. It's gotten me to use different parts of voice, to use other dynamics of voice--loud, soft, whisper, shouts.

Metro: After Home was released Spearhead toured like crazy! How does it affect the band's chemistry?

Franti: Well, we're about to spend nine months on the road. There's always breaks in between. A staple of my career are the people who turn up to the show and that's keeps things cool.

We're not played on every radio station so I have to bring music directly to people. We have made a commitment to make the best live show we can do. We know they're coming to see us rather than the new Tom Cruise movie. They're choosing us over Mission Impossible.

Metro: Spearhead gets lost in the playlists. You don't get played on rap radio or the rock stations...

Franti: It's frustrating sometimes. I wouldn't want to be a music programmer for a commercial station. You live and die by how many 12-18 year old kids are listening to your pimple cream commercials. They don't want to take chance on music that's a little outside of their rigid formats. This is the first time we have 64 stations--urban, R&B, hip-hop--playing "You Can't Sing Our Song." Stations in the Bay Area will give it love. But I don't live and die by whether a station plays it.

Metro: You addressed some music industry issues in "Tha Payroll."

Franti: It deals with frustration on a lot of levels. There's people who are doing stuff on an underground level. They get signed maybe. 'Here's my work. Here's the fruits of my labor,' they say. And the label says, 'Oh, it's cool but I don't hear it in the format. Where's the single?'

The fucked thing is when someone puts their emotions into their work, the same emotions exist in people out there. Those emotions are going to come out and (label) people don't want to take the chance to make it heard. It took me 10-11 years to defy those odds. And there's days when think that I should go put out some Snoop Dog shit, or just chuck it all and work in a youth shelter.

But my deal with the label allows me to work with whoever I want to. Like Mutabaruka or Shinehead. We're going to put out some white label 12" singles. That's how I satiate that urge for me. The label knows that they can't prohibit me from doing what I want to do.

Metro: Where is your studio?

Franti: It's between Potrero Hill and Hunters Point in San Francisco. It's become a hangout. People come after work and smoke herb and enjoy the music. It's great to have our own spot and that we don't have to go and beg the record company to book us a studio every time we have a creative impulse. We've recorded other artists like Mutabaruka and Shinehead.

Metro: From your travels, where does the Bay Area stand in the hip-hop world?

Franti: The Bay Area is probably the most creative spot in the world. The second spot is Italy. There's a lot of DJs in Italy who's doing what DJ Shadow is doing. What's going on around the Bay is hot. The reason it's so fresh is that we have our platinum artists 2Pac, Too Short and E-40. Then you have the underground artists who ain't in it for making loot, it's for the love of sound. It breeds healthy creativity. For instance you can see Charlie Hunter or Josh Jones playing jazz one night and the next day they're working with rappers in the studio.

Metro: How much time do you spend on the computer?

Franti: It goes in spurts. I'm usually check my email at the studio at 8:30 in the morning. Then I use the computer to do the work. When I'm on the road, sometimes I get online and won't get email. I'll take off and write but I won't beam it off for a couple weeks. I checked it last night. 45 emails since last Thursday.

Metro: Now that your email address is in the liner notes, has your mailbox been blowing up?

Franti: Hell yeah. People are emailing me: "This is dope. This song is awful. Thanks for the music." I can write them back right away. Next. Immediate connection. I try to write everybody back. As long as people don't write really long letters, I'll write them back. Sometimes people want to write me long pieces and I have to say, "Not to be rude, if you keep letters short I can get back to you much more promptly."

Metro: What's the most interesting thing someone has sent you?

Franti: Somebody sent me stats about who owns computers in the world. If the world was a village of 100 people, how many would have computer? The answer was less than one. So nobody in this village would have a computer because you can't have less than one person! That got me thinking of the world wide web. It's as "worldwide" as the World Series. That blows out the myth of worldwide liberation through the Internet. There really is so few people with computers!

We have to be realistic how wonderful and liberating computers are. I think that's a powerful thing.

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