Little pale girls from rural Canada are not supposed to ever find out about dangerous left-wing industrial hip hop acts from California who cover the Dead Kennedys and were never commercially successful. But I did.
I love hip hop when it’s done right. It’s not often done well anymore, and even those who do it well sometimes disappoint me with refusing to grow and change with the times. I love some Jay-Z and Kanye, but they need to stop the constant bragging and say something more often.
The name Michael Franti is not unknown to music fans- his current band , Spearhead, is critically acclaimed. But he got started here, with Rono Tse and Charlie Hunter, in a fusion of heavy electronic beats, riled up guitars, and left-wing political diatribes. What I am sure of is that their single from that album changed how I viewed hip hop.
I was like every other white girl in Canada in 1992. The hip hop I was familiar with was in two distinct groups- the fluffy, family friendly Will Smith ( then the Fresh Prince), and the darker, violent stylings of N.W.A. I heard The Chronic and thought it was lame. I didn’t like hip hop a lot. I didn’t get it. I wanted to. Because I loved the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. But Paul’s Boutique passed me by, and Run-DMC seemed to drop off the planet. Also, the burgeoning gangster rap sounds, while sonically exciting, were laced with lyrics that the newly passionate New Democrat I was becoming found horrific and offensive to women and gays.
Michael Franti’s lyrics on Hipocrisy is the Greatest Luxury are astounding. Clear and concise, political without being condescending, pointed and biting without cruelty. As far as hip hop albums go, it is criminally overlooked and easily superior to almost anything else released around the same time, save for Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. Whether it’s commenting on the state of television on “Television, the Drug of the Nation”, “Language of Violence”‘s bleak, exhausting tale of homophobia and violence leading to an unhappy ending for everyone involved, the Dead Kennedys cover that tweaked the lyrics to bash former California governor Pete Wilson, songs about racism, AIDS, class warfare, religion, the environment… Franti has always been fearless as a lyricist, but here he matches it with a young man’s bravado. Beats created by Franti and Tse are fresh sounding even today, and the guitar work of Charlie Hunter is raw and angry. A stunning achievement.
“Television, the Drug of the Nation”, their lone single, was one of the fifty songs I would consider as among the ones that changed my life. Over a beat inspired by the Meters, Franti describes the nation as pathetically turning themselves into zombies, proud of their ignorance and the wish to assimilate into a homogenized society. It solidified many of my own views at the time, and still colours my politics today.
Enjoy the other magnificent tracks below. They aren’t always easy to listen to. Franti never pulls his punches.