The joke in the rap community is that you need a college education to understand the highbrow raps of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
The duo’s debut album, “Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury,” does feature a constant flow of thoughtful and inventive commentaries on social issues, not the stereotypical rap fare of non-stop partying, unchecked rage or macho boasting.
Led by rapper Michael Franti, the San-Francisco-based Heroes cover some of the same territory as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, but without the sledgehammer tactics or the rampant anger. The Heroes’ weapons of choice: subtlety and irony.
In his pedantic style, which includes using complex, uncommon words, Franti, 26, stretches the scope of the genre, tackling subjects such as consumerism (“Financial Leprosy”), homophobia (“Language of Violence”) and the mind-numbing aspects of TV (“Television, the Drug of the Nation”).
Franti, a 6-foot-6 former University of San Francisco basketball player, sounds much like Gil Scott-Heron, the poet and social observer who came to prominence in the ‘70s. The words are backed by the jazzy, industrial sounds added by deejay-percussionist Rono Tse, the lone Chinese-American in the otherwise all-black group.
Franti and Tse first hooked up as members of the Beatnigs, a late-'80s Bay Area band that offered an original mix of political theater, industrial rock and jazz. The group’s only album, “Beatnigs,” was released on punk-rocker Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. Preferring to take the rap/hip-hop route, Franti and Tse left to form the Heroes, adding guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Simone White and signing with a major label, 4th & Broadway/Island.
In an interview, Franti outlined the goals of this ambitious new group, which is currently touring with U2.
Question: What are you trying to accomplish with your raps?
Answer: Partly to take rap and hip-hop in some alternative directions. Rap has so many possibilities that need to be explored. There are different factions of rap but some are in a rut. Rap doesn’t have to be about boosting egos and grabbing your crotch and dissing women. There’s a way to make political and social issues interesting and entertaining to the young rap audience. This is all really entertainment, I never lose sight of that.
Too much of rap tells kids what they already know or confirms feelings that they already have. We try to do music that will challenge them to think, that deals with issues they don’t usually think about or looks at the old issues in a new way.
Q: Do you think your raps are too complex and scholarly for some rap fans?
A: People underestimate the hip-hop audience and the capacity to understand politics when it’s part of music. I know the music isn’t for everybody, but that point is overplayed. The music isn’t snooty, uppity, academic stuff that’s over the heads of the average rap listener. It’s not let’s party and disrespecting women, but I think rap fans can comprehend more than that. You don’t have to talk down to those kids or even talk to them totally in the lingo they can understand.
If people aren’t grasping it then there’s something wrong with the way I did it. I’m not some snob who’s intentionally trying to exclude anybody.
Q: How do you chose topics for your raps?
A: I’m very political. I’m a news junkie who’s constantly reading newspapers and magazines. I look around and see what’s happening in the world. I get upset sometimes and I write about what upsets me. I write about what happens to me. I fell in love again. So I wrote a song about that. I had an AIDS test recently and I had a lot of anxiety about what the results would be so I wrote a song about that.
I wrote a song about being stuck in traffic. I drive around and get stuck in traffic all the time. I try to relate what happens to me and how it’s relevant to the big social picture or reflects what’s going on in society.
Q: What prompted you to write the song “Language of Violence,” which speaks out against gay-bashing?
A: I was thinking about the use of language to degrade people. It can minimize people and turns them into inanimate objects--so it’s easier to disregard their feelings. . . . The rap community has been singled out as more homophobic than other groups, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s homophobic all right but no more so than the heavy-metal community or the Hollywood community or any other community. But some rappers, like Ice-T, have told me they like the song and the message.
No one has accused me of being gay to my face but they might be saying it behind my back. But I could care less. I’m straight. I’m a father. But there’s nothing horrible about being gay. If I was I wouldn’t mind telling the world. The issue of the ‘90s is do we choose to love--not who we choose to love. With all the people hating and hurting each other I don’t understand how people could get upset about people of the same sex caring for each other.
Q: In past interviews you’ve admitted suffering identity problems because of your unusual background--being raised by white parents after your real parents, a white mother and a black father, put you up for adoption when you where an infant. What effect did your background and these identity problems have on your music?
A: My background broadened my acceptance of people. I’m a product of both sides. I have a feeling for how both sides feel about political and social issues. That allows me to present a more sensitive and enlightened view of the racial situation in my music. No pun intended, but it’s not all black and white. You can look at the situation intelligently, without lashing out as much as some rappers do. I offer a different perspective--partly because of my background.
I did have problems for a while, partly because I was raised by white parents and I was coming to grips with my mixed-race heritage. I dearly love my parents but for a while I hated everything that was white because so much in my life that was negative came from white society. That upbringing caused me to look harshly at whites. It shaped the way I looked at things and still look at things in some ways. These attitudes are certainly there in my lyrics.
Q: What music influenced you most when you were growing up?
A: I grew up listening to black pop radio, to funk, to R&B; artists like Marvin Gaye. But when rap came in, what sold me on it was the Sugar Hill Gang. The first time I heard them I was so impressed. I started thinking about the possibilities of rap. But I wasn’t dabbling in music back then when I was in high school. Basketball is all I thought about.
Q: What made you shift your focus from basketball to music?
A: I went to the University of San Francisco on an athletic scholarship. I didn’t study in high school. I was just there to get by and to play basketball. But a funny thing happened to me when I got to college. I got challenged by the work and the professors. I got turned on to all sorts of knowledge, which made me want to learn more and more. Then I started hanging out with poets, actors and musicians--all sorts of creative people.
When I was 20, I started writing lyrics. I started listening to rappers like LL Cool J and songwriters like Bob Marley, but I was also into lots of poetry. I just got inspired to put the lyrics I was writing to music.
Q: An interesting assortment of industrial sounds are integrated into the music. Why did you think to use these bizarre sounds in rap?
A: When I started writing short stories and poems to be presented with dancers and drummers, I went to shipyards, taking drums out there, dancing and reciting. Rono and I picked up metal objects we found in the shipyards and incorporated them into the live show. . . . Rono builds instruments out of old pieces of metal he finds, like tire rims, sheet metal and so forth and chains, he uses fire extinguishers and sirens, uses grinders to make sparks fly off. What we’re saying to people is different, so it’s appropriate to have different sounds to accompany the music.
Q: What do you like most about rap?
A: I love that it’s an incredible forum for expression, free expression--the best forum in all of music. I love that it creates a dialogue and brings some of these problems to the forefront.
Rappers say things that are outrageous and people respond to the media, to each other. The way rap has evolved, most rappers feel free to say what they want. The problem is that a lot of them don’t have that much to say.
Q: How do you feel about gangsta rap?
A: I have problems with some of it, like the glorification of violence, the dissing of women. Some of the self-destructive behavior. But I feel it’s important that these voices be heard. There is so much anger and hatred out there in the black community. This is one way for blacks to have a voice. This kind of rap reflects how a lot of people look at life. It’s harsh, it’s ugly, but it’s reality. Anybody who is into music or concerned about what’s happening today should listen to some of these rap records just to get that perspective.