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MUSIC AND POLITICS – the mind of Michael Franti

MUSIC AND POLITICS – the mind of Michael Franti

Black Montmartre. Words: Ben Osborne

Noise of Art’s multi-dimensional Black Montmartre project explores the fusion between Black American music and European Street music. Here we chat with with Michael Franti, a San Francisco raised boy who, inspired by UK punk, combined industrial music with hip hop and jazz…

In the culture of the early Nineties music was often divided between the fiercely tribal followers of hip-hop, house, indie, techno, acid jazz and a multitude of other major and minor cultures. Michael Franti’s Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy smashed through all this. Fusing a seemingly impossible mix of rap, industrial electronics, jazz and punk attitude, they prefigured a new wave of conscious hip-hop and caustic rave culture, while belonging to neither — or anything else.

Regarded by some as a counter-culture super-hero, Franti expresses his super powers by eschewing shoes rather than wearing a cape and mask. He doesn’t easily fit norms. And cultural hybrids inform his earliest experiences.

Born in a mixed race family, half of which wasn’t ready to accept a family member of colour, he was given up for adoption as a baby: “My birth mother was Irish, Belgian and German,” he says in familiar molasses coated tones. “My birth father was an African-American and Nottoway Indian from the mountains of Virginia. I was brought up by this family of second-generation immigrants from Finland. They had three children of their own, and adopted myself and another African-American. To round things off, one of my sisters is a lesbian and another brother is a policeman. I grew up in a melting pot.” 

His introduction to music was equally diverse and came early. But it was his discovery of punk, and the freedom that genre encapsulated, which opened his creativity: “As a kid I loved the storytellers that could make you dance,” he says. “Stevie Wonder, Santana, War, John Lennon, Johnny Cash…

“Then I discovered The Clash. They were using reggae, punk, R&B, Latin grooves, jazz and rap — and this political voice.”

But his home life was to become increasingly fought and while Franti’s adopted family imploded around him, with his father deteriorating into being an abusive alcoholic, music became Franti’s refuge – and punk his release valve. “I would go into my room and listen to music — tuning out of what was happening. I started writing as this angry kid who didn’t know how to express myself.”

His schoolboy writing gave rise to Franti’s lifelong exploration of music as a form of political expression: “My school had investments in South Africa,” he says. “So there was a movement to get it to de-invest because of Apartheid. So I started performing poems about that.”

After gaining a basketball scholarship to university, he moved into digs above the college radio station. From here Franti immersed himself in San Francisco’s music scene, hanging out on Haight Street, a music hub made legendary in the ‘60s summer of love: “Which was like living in Camden,” he says. “Music was around us all the time, from hip-hop to the Grateful Dead, to punk rock…”

Here he formed his first band, The Beatnigs. “We’d go to this club called the I-Beam. One night there would be (seminal electro funk band) Zapp playing, then UK indie bands, then Einstürzende Neubauten and then Tackhead.” 

These last two bands gave Beatnigs their template. “We were like, ‘Let’s grab some scrap metal and just fucking beat shit out of it’. We loved hip-hop, but we didn’t use drum machines.” 

Instead the Beatnigs made use of the industrial decay that was hitting the Bay. “The shipping industry had died, so we rehearsed with me spitting lyrics while the others banged metal.” 

The band included Rono Tse, a Chinese dancer from the San Francisco club scene, Henry Flood, an African percussionist, keyboardist Andre Flores and drummer Kevin Carnes, “and I started playing two-note basslines,” Franti says.

Franti was already versed in hip-hop’s roots via the Watts Prophets, Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron; but then he discovered a newly political hip-hop. “Public Enemy was just getting going,” he says.

This inspired Franti to write his conscious hip hop classic ‘Television – Drug of A Nation’. A track that was an underground hit for both Beatnigs and his next band, Disposable Heroes of Hyphopricy.

“Ronald Reagan was president at the time and he could convince the country of almost anything.
I started with the chant, ‘Television, the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation’. The drummer started playing this really cool groove and I started playing a bassline.

“Our performances had been visual from the start, with all these props from the shipyards. People dug that, so we brought in old TV sets. We didn’t have any videos, so we’d just turn the TVs on. There’d just be white noise. But TVs became our iconography. And we were saying, ‘Television is like a drug, you get sucked in and can’t turn it off’.

“The thing about San Francisco at that time was it was open for adventurous art,” Franti says. “People would go to LA if they wanted fame. If you wanted art, you went to San Francisco.” 

Other places were less accepting. Despite their strongest influences being hip-hop and industrial music, they ended up touring America’s punk circuit. “We got gigs with people like The Dead Kennedys (who signed them to their Alternative Tentacles label) and toured Europe with Fugazi,” he says. “At the time there weren’t any black acts on the punk scene. We had huge bits of welded metal as instruments. Rono would shoot sparks into the audience with grinders… We’d never get a gig now…” he chuckles .

After The Beatnigs broke up, Franti started recording samples of their metal instruments for his own music. “I put down this little groove, and Mark Pistel [of electronic act Consolidated] suggested we do another version of ‘Television’.” Franti had met Pistel while Until December, a disco-punk act, had been sharing The Beatnigs’ studio. “They’d signed to a major, but had a bad accident on tour, and it changed them.” 

Pistel returned wanting to make music that said something, and started Consolidated.
“When he finished their first record, I suggested we go in the studio,” Franti says. Together, they started re-recording ‘Television’, and enlisted jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter.

“One day, Mark put down a really good groove and Charlie played this line. I changed the lyrics, but we kept the industrial soundscape of the original, using my samples.” 

Franti then met Matt Callaghan, an Island Records scout: “He’d become (legendary label boss) Chris Blackwell’s ears for the Bay Area, and wanted to send our demo to Island,” he says. “Coming out of punk, to me  Island were the devil. I said, ‘I’m not sending music to a major’. Matt said, ‘What if you write out what you want, and I’ll include that?” 

Franti set about listing the most unreasonable demands he could think of. “I wrote that I wanted full artistic control, control over the cover, all artwork, producers and x amount of dollars. It was a ransom note.” Months later, he received a call. 

“This guy says, ‘I’m from Island, we really like your demo. But we loved your note so much we want to meet you’.”  Soon after, Island granted every last, unreasonable demand.

“We were combining these elements — you had electronic DJs in clubs, but nobody played that music live,” Franti says. “You had early acid jazz, but no-one else made that music in the US. But I had no shame combining different sounds. We recorded a sound collage off the TV, and used that for ‘Television’. The industrial percussion is from snow chains, and we used weird samples. I admired Chuck D’s booming bass voice, so Mark EQed my voice for ages to get that effect.” 

’Television’ soon started getting noticed in unexpected quarters, and one day Blackwell called Franti up to say U2 wanted to use the video as an intro for their forthcoming tour. 

“I was thinking, ‘That’s awesome’,” Franti remembers, “when Chris says, ‘and they want you on the tour with them’.”

This was Franti’s breakthrough moment, “It changed my life… We were playing little hip-hop clubs, and suddenly we were playing to 50,000 people, with Bono joining us to sing ‘Television’. It opened the door to Europe, Australia and places.

“But more than that, I realised how music connects people’s hearts. It led me to write songs that speak from my heart, but are connected to what is happening to the world today. Telling stories that make people dance.”

(This interview originally appeared in DJ MAG)


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