All Rebel Rockers

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Article Reviews

Michael Franti and Spearhead (ANTI, 2008)

Michael Franti has been knocking around the fringes of the rock and rap scene for almost 20 years. Franti first surfaced as a member of a punk band called The Beatnigs, then fused punk and rap with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Last year he nibbled at the edges of mainstream popularity with a righteously angry and delightfully funky anti-war album, Yell Fire.

Franti and his band, Spearhead, recorded that disc with the legendary Jamaican rhythm-masters Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and the experience obviously struck a spark because they went down to Jamaica to record All Rebel Rockers, again with Sly and Robbie at the helm. They've come back with the kind of classic reggae album that no one has made since the days before Peter Tosh was murdered and Bob Marley succumbed to cancer.

Here we have it: a real band playing real instruments and producing the swaying hypnotic rhythms and deep space dub effects that marked reggae's golden age. There are also dance-groove party tunes galore and lyrics that mix love-carnal and cosmic-with sharply worded social protest.

But this is not a Wailers tribute album. For one thing, All Rebel Rockers lacks the Rastafarian religious invocations that inspired classic reggae and tied the music to a deep root of Afro-Judeo-Christian tradition. Franti has plenty of cool, rocking, and perceptive protest songs, but no "Redemption Song." On the other hand All Rebel Rockers is also free of the hymns to marijuana that were so embarrassing on old-school reggae records.

If there's still anybody out there who can shout down Babylon, Franti may be the guy. Just check out "Hey World (Remote Control)." Over a beat lifted straight from Afrika Bambaataa's Ur-hip-hop classic "Planet Rock" (1982), Franti announces that he's come "to smash the empire with my beatbox." And at least for the duration of the track that actually seems possible.