Back in 1997, Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead released their second studio album, “Chocolate Supa Highway.” It was yet another slice of socially conscious funky hip-hop mixed with shades of reggae, along with the odd storytelling rhyme. Fans waited with baited breath for the next installment, which unfortunately took a lot longer thanks to record label politics, including a record executive suggesting Franti collaborate with Will Smith, as he was the biggest rapper at the time. Franti retaliated by leaving the company and setting up his own record label, “Boo Boo Wax.” Eventually Spearhead released their third full-length album, after a solely credited album to Franti, “Live At The Baobab” was exclusively released on his website back in 1999. However, his former record label owned the rights to the band’s name, hence, its credit to “Michael Franti & Spearhead.” The album was also packed with spoken word interludes, which told the fictitious, yet incredibly believable story of “Sister Fatima,” an activist facing a death penalty via lethal injection. Here are some thoughts on each song:
Oh My God: “Slam, bam, I come unseen, but like gasoline, you can tell I’m in the tank, I smell appealing but I’m toxic…..” Evidently, this is quite a good indication of exactly how amped up Franti truly is, especially about black folks being unemployed, cloning, deaths via lethal injection, the fact that marijuana is being outlawed and of course, politicians screwing their wives behind their backs. The acoustic guitar riff that runs all the way through this song is lifted from “Devotion” by Earth, Wind & Fire, but alas, there is no mention of samples or replayed elements in the credits.
Stay Human (All The Freaky People): Franti lightens the mood with this next ode to humanity that features so many great lyrics, in particular: “I speak low but I’m like a lion roaring, baritone like a Robeson recording, I’m giving thanks for being human every morning.” He even makes light of his older lyrics: “If television is the drug of the nation, satellite is immaculate reception.” Clearly, its chorus is a take-off of Julie Andrews singing the theme “Sound Of Music,” but of course he makes it his own: “The streets are alive!!! With the sounds of boom! Bap!!! Can I hear it once again? Every flower got a right to be blooming……every box got a right to be booming…..every child got a right to be…..scooby doin’.’ All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.“ Indeed.
Rock The Nation: A very old school-sounding hip-hop tune that literally sounds like we’re back in the “Krush Groove” era. He was incredibly angry about the fact that he saw his friends working their butts off, yet never getting ahead of paying their bills, but he still managed to feel their pain. He was even angrier at the political system in the United States, shouting out: “Fuck the constitution!,” which was even what he called one of the remixes of this song. Another rapper by the name of RadioActive appears on this track, expressing his feelings about dyslexic critics getting things backwards in the world of rap music. In the years that followed, he would become a regular member of Spearhead. The video for this song was a take off of the Robert DeNiro movie “Taxi Driver” and it even featured Radio imitating the world famous “Are you talking to me?” scene.
Sometimes: Evidently, Michael Franti wrote this song from a personal stand point, informing us of exactly how he feels on certain days in his life. For instance, he occasionally feels like “zooming across the sky” and like he can do anything. Other times he feels “so alive” and whenever he’s feeling down, he feels as if he wants to cry. Not too many rappers or men in general would ever dare to admit such things, but that’s what makes Michael Franti so different from all the others. He isn’t just talking about his feelings, but also the fact that he grew up playing basketball and not really knowing that he could reach so many people all over the world with his socially conscious messages. Musically he’s decided to make it funky again, which is a great way to go about it.
Do Ya Love: Time to smooth things out a little with this next number, which was another one that he wrote a couple of years before the album was released. The song’s main message is that it doesn’t really matter who you love and that it should be more about DO you love. An awesome message and one that most definitely needs to be celebrated. “Do it at home, or on the street with a drag queen don’t matter to me. It ain’t about sex or having degrees, your pedigree don’t matter to me.” Indeed. Towards the end, he gives a shout out to his sons: “Sweet little baby Ade…..and Cappy.”
Soulshine: A joyous, acoustic-based song that reminds us all that life can be a little hectic sometimes, but at the end of the day, “We all need little soul shine.” Perhaps this was his own personal way of saying sunshine. It’s quite a positive message regardless. Admittedly, Franti’s singing voice is not exactly the greatest. Even the man himself will tell you that. Mind you, he was a bass player before ever he learnt to play the ordinary guitar, so he probably picked it up pretty easily. He mentions his son’s name in this song as well: “Clap your hands, Ade, Ade.” You can almost imagine Franti performing one this with a big smile on his face, walking through the grass barefoot, strumming his guitar.
Every Single Soul: Michael begins this next song by painting us a picture of folks copulating, bringing forth a brand new life into this world. Then he reminds us that, “Everything in life can’t be nice and everything in life can’t be got.” As a result, a few folks out there could end up taking their own lives. Franti uses the line: “They make me want to go Sprewell every time I see my family locked in jail.” For those not in the know, Latrell Sprewell is a basketball player who strangled his coach in 1997. Anyhow, the main message here is to “keep love in your soul” and that every single human being in the world is a poem written on the back of God’s hand. Quite a profound statement from Michael Franti. It gets even better when he says, “I wanna show you something beautiful!” And his band go off on a Latin inspired type of jam while he dances around the room all jovial and shouting, “It’s lovely, it’s lovely!! Ha, ha!!!” Brilliant.
Love Will Set Me Free: Initially, the most skippable song on the album until a much more stripped-down version was released on his album “Songs From The Front Porch,” which caused this listener to appreciate it a lot more. Ex-band member, Mary Harris is featured on backing vocals, bringing forth a very soulful type of vibe. As usual, the message is brilliant: “Hate is what got me here, but I know love is going to set me free.” Franti’s vocals sound very smooth on this cut. Whether you’re listening to the acoustic version or this album version, it’s a great song.
Thank You: Michael Franti has decided to send out a huge thank you to all of his musical inspirations, whom he used to sit and listen to, in his bedroom, for hours on end, while people outside his door would tell him to stop dreaming and to come back to reality. He was obviously right in choosing not to listen to them. This was one of his first attempts at uptempo dance music, which never really seemed to do anything for me.
We Don’t Mind: Franti comes back and delivers a much more R&B influenced number. Essentially, the song is all about the fact that Michael is one of those people who is always speaking the truth and that he may very well be misconstrued in the process. Also, he tells us that his children were born without any fear, because all of his ancestors fought to get them to where they live now. The Fender Rhodes is in full effect and it will have you singing along in no time: “We don’t mind, see we’ve been doing it all the time, but if you want us to sacrifice, you will not get it without a price.” Great stuff.
Speaking Of Tongues: “You don’t have to be so scared to share what’s inside. Cos you’re daddy’s little superstar. And you’re mamma’s little butterfly. Fly high.” Perhaps he wrote that lyric for his children, and to let them know that it’s very important to express themselves in any way possible, but it’s one we can all relate to as it’s very encouraging and inspiring. So many great lyrics in this one: “Nothing compares to the voice from within, without it we might just be mannequins,” “Take off the rubber gloves, touch with your flesh……love like your life depends on it……because it does!!!” “Exhale from the heart, not from the lungs. Speak from the heart, not from the tongue.” Go on and marinate on those messages from Michael Franti. Bless.
Listener Supported: “Six foot six above sea level, I grab the microphone because I like to take you to another mental level.” Yep, he nailed in that very simple sentence. Presumably, this song was inspired by the fictitious radio station that is featured on the album, as there are a couple of outright references to pirate radio stations and not allowing the masses to shut such places down: “Live and direct we coming never pre-recorded, with information that will never be reported. Disregard the mainstream, media distorted, woot woot we coming listener supported!!!!” Michael Franti knows what’s up…..although these days his music is seemingly becoming much more accessible. Musically, this song has quite a reggae vibe and features vocal input from Marie Daulne, the lady behind the Belgian singing group Zap Mama, with whom Franti has frequently collaborated.
Skin On The Drum: As a result of this album’s title, Michael Franti has decided to begin this song with a sample of him sniffling through a blocked nose. ”I’m a little under the weather today,” he rasps. “Too much pepper spray can make a brotha congested.” Essentially, it’s another creative, slightly autobiographical piece of poetry, where Franti claims to have been born with the soul of an animal. He delivers romantic flowers and has quite a gigantic amount of love for people all over the globe. That is to be admired. It’s also quite politically-charged with its enraging chants of: “I’m fully marinated, and now I’m ready for the fire. So you can fire one, fire one! Fire two!” It’s a really great closer for the album.
Verdict: When Franti was working on this particular album, he asked himself what he would say if it were to be the last thing he left behind. It clearly shows, as it’s quite a solid, focused album with socially conscious, political messages as well as other great songs to make you feel uplifted. One of the best albums by Michael Franti & Spearhead.