February 15-21, 2006

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The Human Highlight Reel

The essential mixtape of Michael Franti's greatest moments

By Todd Inoue

MICHAEL FRANTI'S body of work touches a wide variety of genres—from industrial and punk to soul, hip-hop and reggae to R&B, rock and folk. A master alchemist, Franti is able to weave these styles together into a comforting quilt. Sometimes, but not often, he stumbles when trying to make the uncomfortable stretch. The following is a quick look at Michael Franti's recorded highlights and lowlights, past and present.

Essential Listening

'Burritos,' The Beatnigs (from 'The Beatnigs,' Alternative Tentacles, 1988)
This early cut shows a young Michael riffing on the link between poverty and burrito consumption. In the liner notes, a recipe for the "Beatnig Burrito" is included, which contains nontraditional ingredients like pizza, applesauce and Do City Bar-B-Q Sauce.

'California Uber Alles,' Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (from 'Virus 100,' Alternative Tentacles, 1992)
Michael assumes the identity of Gov. Pete Wilson and rides a Dead Kennedys hook to eviscerate Mr. Prop 187. Sample line: "I'll give my friends a giant tax loophole/ I'll leave the poor living in a poophole."

'Language of Violence,' Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (from 'Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury,' Island, 1992)
A hate crime and its karmic retribution are told in bone-chilling fashion. One of Franti's most compelling narratives arrived when homophobia and machismo ran rampant in hip-hop. Also check out: "Music and Politics," "Famous and Dandy," "Television, the Drug of the Nation."

The entire 'Home' album, Spearhead (Capitol, 1994)
Freed from Disposable Heroes, Franti allowed his commanding baritone to soften and what came out was a voice buzzing with clarity and perspective. He spoke his mind about issues ranging from homelessness ("Hole in the Bucket"), blackness in America ("Dream Team"), AIDS ("Positive"), the criminal justice system ("Crime to Be Broke in America") and relationships ("Love Is Da Shit," "Piece of Peace," "Runfayalife") in a way that was elastic and natural. Franti paints a wide canvas with multiple colors, hues, textures and emotions without wasting a drop of ink. With the classic Spearhead lineup featuring Mary Harris, who proved an able foil, there's not a bum track on here and Home stands the test of time.

'Oh My God,' Michael Franti and Spearhead (from 'Stay Human,' Six Degrees Records, 2001)
The Capitol Records debacle behind him, Franti relishes in hard-won creative freedom. After years of emulating Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, "Oh My God" offers hard evidence that Franti's songwriting, guitar work and production could match up with his heroes.

'Bomb the World,' Michael Franti and Spearhead (from 'Everyone Deserves Music,' Boo Boo Wax/iMusic, 2004)
Hip-hop heads might paint Franti as a granola folkie when they hear "Bomb the World," but he condemns war crimes with an eloquence that 100 "Vote or Die" celebrities wish they could. Notable for the line "You can bomb the world into pieces but you can't bomb the world into peace."

'YELL FIRE,' Michael Franti and Spearhead (from 'I Know I'm Not Alone,' Boo Boo Wax/Epitaph, June 2006)
Similar in structure to "Oh My God," Franti opens with a simple yet piercing couplet ("Revolution never comes with a warning/ Revolution never sends you an omen") before setting his microscope lens on American culture, revealing uncomfortable truths and situations. "TV commercials for a popping pill culture/ Drug companies circling like a vulture/ Ameraqi babies with a G.I. Joe father/ Ten years from now is anybody gonna bother." Fire!

Everybody Deserves Music: Bay Area musician and activist Michael Franti of Spearhead braved Baghdad two months after its fall. Then it was off to Israel and the West Bank. Now, the story can be told in the documentary 'I Know I'm Not Alone.'

Not So Essential Listening

'Everyday Life Has Become a Health Risk,' Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (from 'Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury,' Island, 1992)
Environmental issues are set to a cacophonous industrial scrapheap with ax grinders, scratching, big bass and rapping about the effects of hazardous cargo parked outside of Hunters Point. DHH used to open their concerts with it. After all, nothing sets a party off more than call-and-response to a hook that goes "Medical racist social statistics/ Has everyday life become a health risk?" Go! Go! Go!

Most of 'Chocolate Supa Highway,' Spearhead (Capitol, 1997)
Stumbling with too many herb references, overenunciation, production more fitting for TLC, Mary Harris' defection and unappealing love songs (never a Spearhead strength), Chocolate Supa Highway seemed like a stale plate of leftovers after the sumptuous meal that was Home. Case in point: "Why, Oh Why" should have been the greatest song about fallen basketball comrades, but it suffers from a wordy hook that might have sounded better on poetry night. On the plus side, "Tha Payroll" is an intense story of single motherhood, and "Food for the Masses" gave an advance peek at Franti's impending growth as an ace storyteller. And thankfully, the touring group was a machine, playing some of the most intense, fulfilling Spearhead shows ever.

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