Calling young conservatives: groovy beat music!
Michael Franti had been politically active long before most Spearhead fans had reached puberty. As the frontman of the Beatnigs, San Francisco’s answer to Gil Scott Heron on biker swimming-pool chemicals, this onetime Davis resident made considerable headway in bringing politics into music without dulling the content.
After the ’Nigs demise came the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose first and only disc for the one-time, independentally distributed Island Records subsidiary label 4th & B’Way neglected to dent the pop charts. However, the record got favorable press notices and landed the Heroes—which included Franti, Rono Tse and guitarist extraordinaire/future jazz star Charlie Hunter—a national tour with Public Enemy.
However, it wasn’t until Spearhead—a durable blend of hip-hop, reggae, soca and other world musics—that Franti finally became an activist who could sell records.
A recent Sunday show at Harlow’s turned out to be a gosh-darned swell homecoming for Spearhead, as the group parlayed that anticipation into a sweaty set that kept the 300-plus in attendance on their feet. Hot on the heels of Stay Human, Spearhead’s latest album on the San Francisco boutique label Six Degrees, the band’s performance was incendiary, and its 6-foot-7 frontman rocked the mic like no other. Even Franti’s a cappella raps on this particular evening salted any underground rappers’ material.
What makes Spearhead different from the typical reggae act, with its reverence to Jah and the Almighty I-and-I, are Franti’s lyrics, which seem derived largely from current events and his interpretation of them. Franti has rewritten the way reggae music should be played, and his band helps him deviate even further—with upbeat jams, jazzy breakdowns and hip-hop inflections.
Fans of Canada’s late, lamented Messenjah, Inner Circle or Bob Marley’s latter years should investigate Spearhead’s catalog and, most important, see the band live. If you’re looking for intelligence and grace within a reggae context, any of these fine artists will do. Fortunately, Spearhead actively tours and promotes its albums, and local promoter Renegade Productions’ Robby and Kaati always find a way to bring them to the area. Don’t miss ’em next time, OK?