Spearhead New Brand of Hip-Hop

In the world of music there are stories that need to be told. The story of Michael Franti and his hip-hop band Spearhead began almost a year ago, with the release of the group's debut album, Home. A groovy, adult-friendly record that juxtaposes rock, reggae, blues, rap, hip-hop and jazz with socially relevant lyrics about AIDS, crime, politics and black culture, Home transcends genres and labels. Spearhead's grassroots success has been developing because of the group's diligence. They have toured extensively over past months with several different bands-Digable Planets, the Brand New Heavies and Ben Harper -- and continue the pace this summer with the acid-jazz Brooklyn Funk Essentials. By increasing record sales and radio play, Spearhead's black and white fan base continues to build, cracking the consciousness of the alternative nation while maintaining hip-hop credibility. With "Hole in the Bucket," a song from the album about homelessness that adds a modern moral dimension to the Jamaican folksong, the band has come to represent a stream of intelligent music that challenges several critical and musical assumptions. Spearhead is broadening the definitions of black culture and providing a redefinition of what alternative music means. Several months ago before a sold-out, racially mixed audience at Trammps in New York in which they opened for Digable Planets, Kim Buie, the Capitol Records A&R Vice President who signed Spearhead, optimistically told me "Michael's music appeals to a multicultural audience. It's soulful, unique and intelligent." But lamenting the sad state of urban radio, she added "I have no idea what kind of radio will embrace it." When the critical and popular musical polls were tallied at the end of 1994, several issues were guiding the direction of music. One unsettling issue was that radio programmers continued to subscribe to the idea that if black people weren't rapping about getting high or killing punks or each other, then they had limited artistic and popular appeal. The other issue was that Kurt Cobain blowing his brains out had alternative programmers scrambling to play every Nirvana wanna-be with a record. With hip-hop radio creatively tapped out and not yet ready to embrace Spearhead's alternative, less-than-hard-core vibe and with generic grunge rampant on modern rock radio, Capitol Records' marketing efforts brought Spearhead to the alternative and Triple A formats, and MTV added the haunting sepia-toned video of "Hole in the Bucket" in heavy rotation. Those efforts gave the band entry into the mainstream, allowing for real artistry to be heard on the airwaves. Searching for durability in his songwriting like that of his heroes Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, Michael Franti's songs from Home such as "Positive," "Crime to Be Broke in America" and "Dream Team" (which imagines a day when African-Americans wield as much power in Washington as they do now on basketball courts) all carry a message of social change. One of the few recent hip-hop releases to contribute to the evolution of this decade's most provocative musical art form, Home's politics of self-discovery bring a subtler approach to "the message" than did Franti's outing with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. While message rap isn't anything new, Franti is one of the few rappers who we've actually come to know as a real person. "I've always felt that as an artist of conscience in an industry that has no conscience I had to decide how far I would go in perpetuating double standards and stereotypes to become successful," says Franti, whose career started with The Beatnigs. "I relate best to political issues on a personal level. Politics ultimately begins in your heart, and we should become political because we care about each other. I make music because when I can relate politics to the personal then perceptions take on a different reality and a sense of urgency." Looking beyond the sloganeering, the message of Spearhead's music transcends the image of mainstream rap. The group has worked with the National Coalition on the Homeless and has contributed to a public service announcement campaign for AIDS testing in Los Angeles and an MTV sex-awareness program called "Think Positive." Ultimately, Spearhead's music could have social, educational and political implications that go far beyond the MTV generation. Recorded and co-produced in Philly with Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo at Studio 4 -- with contributions from guitarists Vernon Reid, Charlie Hunter and a handful of funky locals - - Spearhead's Home is black pop without a real home however. Although they've been adopted by a handful of adventurous radio programmers and have appealed mostly to the populist white MTV/VH-1 nation, Spearhead speak for such new black artists as Ben Harper, Dionne Farris, Shara Nelson, Massive Attack, Omar and Des'ree who don't conform to prescribed musical and visual status quo for black artists. Spearhead's story is important because they're doing something original and doing it on their own terms. Remember, it was Aerosmith's collaboration with Run DMC on "Walk This Way" that brought hip-hop to the malls. And it wasn't until the funky and talented Me'Shell Ndegeocello filmed a video with John Mellencamp on "Wild Night" that she received any mainstream attention at all. I mean, wassup with that?

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