Rap, soul group
The genre-defying music of Spearhead draws upon such influential R&B, soul, reggae and hip-hop artists as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and Public Enemy, but the band refuses to engage in mere revivalism. Singer-rapper-songwriter Michael Franti’s vision is at once political and personal; Spearhead represents a warmer, more approachable take on the issues of color and community he once tackled with hisformer bands, the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The band’s debut album saw some small-scale success, and the advent of viable “alternative soul” acts in the following years opened the possibility of mainstream popularity by the time Spearhead’s sophomore set hit the streets in 1997.
Franti told Ian Rogers of the online magazine Crash, “a lot of R&B and early soul music is what was in my house when I was a kid.” Yet inspiring as these records would later prove to be, they didn’t move the young Franti directly into music. Indeed, well into his days at the University of San Francisco, his mind was on hoops. “I was just a jock,” he recalled to Rogers, “that’s all I
Members include Michael Franti, vocals; Mary Harris (bandmember 1994-95), vocals, drums; James Gray, drums; David James, guitar; Oneida James (joined c. 1995), bass, vocals; Le Le Jamison (bandmember c. 1994-95), keyboards; Keith McArthur (bandmember c. 1994-95), bass; Trinna Simmons (joined c. 1995), vocals; Sub Commander Ras I Zulu, vocals.
Band formed c. 1994, Philadelphia, PA and San Francisco, CA; signed with Capitol Records and released debut album Home, 1994; song “Positive” appeared on GRP compilation Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool, 1994 and used in Red Cross AIDS outreach program, 1996; appeared on House of Blues Smokin’ Grooves Tour with Fugees, Ziggy Marley, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, 1996.
Awards: CLIO award for “Hole in the Bucket” video, 1994;Stolen Moments voted Record of the Year by Time magazine, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1750 North Vine St., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Website— http://www.holywoodandvine.com/Spearhead/. Fan Mail— Spearhead Intelligence Agency, PO Box 423480, San Francisco, CA 94142-3480. E-mail— [email protected] (online address for Michael Franti).
wanted to do: eat, sleep and think basketball. Then I started to get really disillusioned with sports and the whole business of it, so I decided to get into the music business—which is even more corrupt!”
His first foray into music was with the San Francisco troupe The Beatnigs, which Billboard would later describe as a “noisy, post-industrial junkyard band.” Franti’s attempts to move beyond the stubbornly underground ethic of the band led to hard feelings; by thetime he’d formed the more directly political industrial rap project The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, hisformer bandmates were already accusing him of selling out. “What Michael’s doing,” said ex-Beatnig Troy Dixon in Option, “is a calculated attempt to avoid disturbing his white listeners.” The Heroes—which consisted of Franti and DJ Rono Tse, with various guests, including guitarist Charlie Hunter—released one album, Hiphoprisy Is the Greatest Luxury, an imposing set of political treatises recited over edgy beats, noise and scratching. Option quoted hip-hop writer Michael Gonzalez, who opined that the Heroes “borrowed the worst from Public Enemy and [jazz-funk poet and composer] Gil Scott-Heron. [Public Enemy MC} Chuck D can’t flow and Gil Scott-Heron can’t sing.” Entertainment Today, in an article praising Spearhead, decried the Heroes’ “dour political sermonizing.”
After a handful of collaborations with cutting-edge artists like punk provocateur JelloBiafra and writer William S. Burroughs, Franti dissolved the Heroes and began to rethink his musical approach. “The Heroes came to a point when there was a clash musically, you know?” He recalled to the electronic ’zine The Buzz. “We were both doing our own thin and, when we came to record the album, we discovered that we were just too far apart to come together on it.” In forming Spearhead, he returned to the warm, progressive soul of his youth. The new group’s name came from the innovation of the Zulu king Shaka, who modified the traditional Africanspear for modern use. Likewise, Spearhead would use the penetrating power of old-school black music to reach contemporary audiences. “Hiphoprisy was about gettin’ in people’s faces,” he told Merrell Noden of the Internet magazine Grooves. “Spearhead is more about seduction.” Collaborating in Philadelphia with producer Joe “The Butcha” Nicolo, Franti enlisted singer-drummer Mary Harris, guitarist David James, keyboardist Le Le Jamison and dancer/rapper Ras I Zulu, among others.
The result was Spearhead’s Capitol Records debut, Home. With tracks like the evocative “Hole in the Bucket” and the celebratory “People in the Middle,” the album managed to fuse Franti’s political concerns with more small-scale, vulnerable lyrics. The result, according to Entertainment Today, was a recording that “verges on a miraculous”; the magazine added, “Spearhead has studied its music history and come up with spellbinding grooves, perfectly apt arrangements, and insinuating melodies, all of which perfectly complement rhymes that manage to be intimate and global, angry and loving, meditative and playful all at once. In short, they write good songs, regardless of the genre.”
Hom. was hamstrung by its own ambitions, to some degree. R&B radio was too conservative to embrace Spearhead’s sound, and only alternative rock radio, among pop formats, gave any rotation to “Hole in the Bucket.” Yet the band earned numerous honors for “Hole” and its video, and the song “Positive”—a somber, personalized meditation on HIV—was included on the benefit album Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool and was central to a teen outreach program sponsored by the Red Cross. Spearhead also managed to gain fans worldwide with their loose, energetic live shows, and in 1996 participated in the House of Blues Smokin’ Grooves tour with the Fugees, Ziggy Marley, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.
Spearhead emerged again in 1997 with a follow-up album, Chocolate Supa Highway. Contrasting the media’s preoccupation with the Internet with the oral traditions of blackculture, Franti proposed a funkier concept than the information superhighway. The album’s title comes, he elaborated in the Telluride Daily Planet, “from the other side of the information superhighway, the Black realm. The way we as a people communicate… that comes from a shared history of battling to retain our way of living in the face of colonialism… hip-hop is our world-wide Internet.” He also presented a retooled Spearhead, with Harris replaced by singer Trinna Simmons, Carl Young taking over on keyboards, and new bassist Oneida James sharing vocals. The infiltration of black radio by such progressive soul artists as the Fugees, D’Angelo and Me’Shell Ndegeocello inthemid-1990s, meanwhile, made Capitol more optimistic about Spearhead’s chances for mainstream success. Playboy called the album “an impressive improvement on the band’s debut,” while Gavin declared Franti “at the forefront of hip-hop’s renaissance.” Even so, not everyone was thrilled with the group’s new direction. CMJ lamented that Chocolate “lacks the immediacy and punch of the earlier effort; it’s just as dense, and more subtle, but less catchy and less fun.”
Franti - never one to be hindered by doubters—shared his thoughts about his own mission with the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “I feel like the information is already gone,” he asserted. “Right now, we’re in the inspiration era. People are looking to find something in their lives that is gonna bring them peace and inspire them to be creative and help them get through the bullshit.” To Metro Active, he elaborated on his approach: “I’m not so much into education as I am into inspiration,” he said. “I’m not much into politics; I’m more into having fun, but being in the space where I’m free to have fun.”
Home (includes “Hole in the Bucket,” “People in the Middle” and “Positive”), Capitol, 1994.
Chocolate Supa Highway, Capitol, 1997.
Billboard, February 8, 1997.
CMJ (College Music Journal), April 1997.
Entertainment Today, October 26, 1995.
Gavin, February 21, 1997.
Metro Active, August 29, 1996; December 5, 1996.
Option, January 1993.
Playboy, April 1997.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 5, 1997.
Telluride Daily Planet, December 6, 1996.
Additional information was provided by Capitol Records’ Internet site, the unofficial Spearhead home page and the online publications The Buzz, Crash and Grooves.
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spear·head / ˈspi(ə)rˌhed/ • n. the point of a spear. ∎ an individual or group chosen to lead an attack or movement: she became the spearhead of a health education program. • v. [tr.] lead (an attack or movement): he's spearheading a campaign to reduce the number of accidents at work.
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