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Known for their politically charged amalgam of reggae, rock, hip-hop, funk, and EDM, Spearhead is the long-running musical outlet of California-based singer/songwriter Michael Franti. Since debuting Spearhead in 1994, Franti has guided the band in tone from the more funk- and rap-oriented sound of albums like 1997's Chocolate Supa Highway and 2001's acclaimed Stay Human to the laid-back melodicism of later releases like 2010's The Sound of Sunshine and 2016's SoulRocker. While early albums were credited solely to Spearhead, the name eventually came to be identified as Franti's backing group, which over time included a range of different collaborators with only a few mainstays like bassist Carl Young. Following Franti's lone album as one half of rap outfit the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, he resurfaced in 1994 with Spearhead, a band more rooted in '70s funk. Eschewing the hip-hop beats of the Disposable Heroes, Franti and Joe "The Butcha" Nicolo opted for a funk/rap hybrid performed by a quartet of live musicians and with vocal backing from Mary Harris and toaster Ras I. Zulu. Tracks such as "Runfayalife" and "Crime to Be Broke in America" evoked memories of the classic early-'70s musical vision of Sly & the Family Stone, while Franti's humanist outlook was summed up in song titles like "Love Is da Shit," "Piece O'Peace," and "Positive." Three years lapsed before the release of the follow-up album, Chocolate Supa Highway, although Franti continued to promote his communal vibe with a series of acclaimed live shows under the Spearhead banner. Another long recording hiatus -- during which Franti released a spoken word album (Live at Baobab) and concentrated on other projects -- was broken in 2001 by the release of Stay Human, credited to Michael Franti and Spearhead. The album was built around the imaginary tale of Sister Fatima, a healer and activist put to death for a crime her community believes she did not commit. Franti employed a traditional hip-hop conceit, the between-song skit or segment, to voice the concerns of Stay Human Radio at the impending execution. Through this medium, Franti delivered his message on such issues as capital punishment, the environment, and racial tolerance. In 2003, Franti released the solo acoustic selection Songs from the Front Porch and the new Spearhead album Everyone Deserves Music. The latter steered the unit further away from hip-hop into acoustic funk, and featured the endearing protest anthem "Bomb the World" ("You can bomb the world to pieces/But you can't bomb it into peace"). In 2005, Love Kamikaze: The Lost Sex Singles & Collectors' Remixes appeared. Again billed only to Franti, it was a collection of Spearhead tracks that didn't quite fit into the albums for which they were originally recorded (as well as a couple different mixes from the Stay Human album). In 2006, Franti and Spearhead released Yell Fire! The album was partially recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and -- along with the book and film I Know I'm Not Alone -- was part of a trilogy that was themed as documenting Franti's recent visits to Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. Numerous live releases took Franti and Spearhead to 2008 and a new album, All Rebel Rockers, which was once again recorded in Jamaica and featured the legendary rhythm section of Sly & Robbie. Franti and his band spent a few months touring in support of John Mayer before settling down to record again. Written after a difficult experience rupturing his appendix while on tour, 2010's The Sound of Sunshine had a particularly optimistic tone and was inspired by the gratitude Franti felt for simply being alive. 2013's All People steered temporarily away from the sunnier folk and reggae tones of much of Spearhead's later work, opting instead for a bright, electronic pop-driven feel that partially carried over to 2016's SoulRocker, though the latter ultimately contained more organically driven songs. Released as a companion to Franti's 2018 documentary film, Stay Human, the album Stay Human II contained a wider range of the band's various musical approaches.
© John Bush /TiVo
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