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It's easy for an artist to idle as they slide down the long tail, settling into their niche of cult fandom. But Michael Franti's been able to maintain his creativity as strongly as his social activism for more than two decades now.
He initially burst on the scene in '88 with The Beatnigs, an act that blended hip-hop, industrial and punk, and later, he wrote "Television (Drug of a Nation)," a huge hit four years later for his subsequent project, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. And in the 15 years since he split with Disposable Heroes in favor of a solo career, Franti's explored funk, folk, world and rock on albums about issues like the death penalty (2001's Stay Human) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (2006's Yell Fire!). The latter followed a visit to the region (captured on the DVD doc I'm Not Alone), and featured three tracks with Jamaican producers Sly & Robbie (Madonna, No Doubt, Peter Tosh).
That led to Franti's latest, 2008's All Rebel Rockers, an entire album with the legendary duo, and Franti's best charting release since Disposable Heroes.
"I really love working and spending time with [Sly & Robbie]," Franti says from a tour stop in Redmond, Washington. "When they said let's record this time in Jamaica, it was, 'Uh, OK.' It was pretty hard to pass that up."
The resulting disc features a wide palette from the dub-funk jam "The Future," to the smoky reggae-pop "All I Want Is You" with a Police-like guitar line, and acoustic gospel-folk nugget, "Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong." It's even scored a slow-growing Top 40 hit in perky dancehall sing-along, "Say Hey (I Love You)." Robbie focused on Franti's vocals in the old-school producer manner, coaxing different tones with suggestions, asking Franti to "sing this one like you're talking to your kid sister" or "sing this one like you're trying to change the world."
"I had written all these songs on acoustic guitar, and I would take them to Sly," Franti recalls. "Sly would start slapping his hands on his knees, make a drum beat, and Robbie would start humming a bass line and then we'd go in the studio and record it. It's really amazing to see them work. Sly is the master of rhythms. He can take any song and make a beat funky—any tempo, any genre of music."
Franti credits the success of the album and "Say Hey" to the spirit of the songs. Writing in the lead-up to the last election, he was looking to create something uplifting to help people shake off their cynicism.
"I think that's what it's been and why people have gravitated to it so much," Franti says. "It's just this time in the world when people want to feel good. It makes them feel happy, makes them feel connected to others, but still not dumbing everything down to the point where it's unaware of the situation that's taking place in the world."
A prime example is the track "Life in the City," which blasts the erosion of civil liberties and the commercial entertainment complex, consoling itself in a carpe diem sentiment: "Ai yi yi put your hands up high/'Cause you never know how long you're gonna live till you die...Just give thanks, can't keep love like money in the bank."
He reiterates the sentiment while discussing the current economic crisis, suggesting that this is the moment when we need to be giving of ourselves rather than clutching tighter to what we still have. He believes there's cause for hope as evidenced in the last election.
"I was talking to my son the other day about Barack Obama," Franti says, "and I told him that when we were kids, we used to say we'd have a black president when pigs fly. And he said, 'There's a joke going around my school, Dad.' I said, 'What is it?' and he goes, 'Swine flew.'"