Metro, December 16
Emancipate your mind / Don't set the limit preached to some / Free the spirit / Cause ya blunted / On the lyrics / I just punted.
When I scanned the crowd at Metro during the recent Spearhead/Fugees concert, I wasn't surprised to see mostly white faces. Spearhead and Fugees have both been labeled alternative hip hop. Translation: little or no radio and video play, scads of critical acclaim, and a white following that it helped cultivate. As the Fugees' Lauryn Hill said in a recent Request interview: "I think they call it alternative when it's something white folks or suburban kids can get into."
In the case of Fugees and Spearhead, "alternative" means that they challenge the hip hop formula of violent and/or misogynist lyrics, surly attitudes, and roughneck image.
Too often this also spells n-o r-e-s-p-e-c-t with a lot of hip hop fans. Lyrics drawn from topics outside street culture and musical samples from other genres are seen as soft. An image that deviates too far from one of the two accepted norms--smooth-dressed player or saggy-pantsed gangsta--is scorned.
Of the successful alternative rap groups, only Digable Planets get any props in the hip hop community. The trio blend just the right amount of Brooklyn cool into their flowing, jazzy tracks so that their lyrics (which are unintelligible to most fans anyway) and their unfamiliar jazz samples are accepted. Their image isn't "hard" but it's familiar enough--with their baggy pants and hoodies, they win acceptance from traditional inner-city hip hop kids and suburban white kids alike.
Arrested Development, P.M. Dawn, and, during their first couple of years, De La Soul routinely have gotten dissed and even physically assaulted. There's nothing hard about these acts. Arrested Development deals with nature-based universal-family rhetoric and P.M. Dawn dares to sample rock music. De La Soul toyed with "daisy age" hippie imagery but dropped it after their first album. All these bands attempt to get beyond the narrow "niggaz and hoes" lyrics and images that have been held as the hip hop standard by record companies and fans. And all of these bands have had to struggle for respect and acceptance from the hip hop core, which defines its own culture the same way most survival-based cultures are defined--the harder the better.
So when I watched the Fugees and Spearhead play lyrically sharp, soulful songs straying from the hip hop norm, I felt hopeful: they have the key to surpassing the limitations placed on hip hop. But when I peered a little closer at Spearhead, I realized that they don't quite know how to turn it.
Spearhead was founded by Michael Franti, whose former band, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, topped critics' lists in '92 for alternative hip hop. Tall, lean, and articulate, Franti has been a media darling since his Hiphoprisy days. The two-member band produced hard-edged, politically charged songs chock-full of stinging analysis, as in "Famous and Dandy (Like Amos 'n' Andy)":
Cause we feel abandoned
The height of mediocrity
Is the challenge
Crawling through the entrails
We learn to like to be the heroes
We learn to lie to be brand name negroes
We learn to laugh to avoid being angry.
Franti and his Hiphoprisy partner, Asian American DJ Rono Tse, toured with Arrested Development and managed to capture a small following of hip hop fans, but they also toured with U2 and developed a white fan base.
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy disbanded over creative differences and Franti formed Spearhead, a more earthy and laid-back seven-member group of singers, chanters, and musicians. The confrontational style is gone, which has prompted rumblings of "sellout" among their former fans. It's not true--the politically conscious lyrics are still there, but now they're couched in lush, flowing music that cajoles instead of commands. Of course, that's exactly the problem for the typical hip-hopper.
Spearhead's new album, Home, sounds like a mix of Gil Scott-Heron and vintage O'Jays. It's not up-tempo or danceable, but it's smooth, it's political, and thanks to vocalist Mary Harris it's soulful. The album is a collection of grooves that lull rather than confront you with their message.
All 13 tracks contain some analysis about the struggles of people of color. "Dream Team" goes:
To see Magic Johnson on the same team as Mike
Havin lots of fun
But makin sure that they got the job done
Fans were wavin the red white and blue
It seemed strange to me
Was it strange to you?
Brotha's on the street
And everyone is scared a ya
So how could ten Africans represent America?
It didn't mean a thing.
But like the other tracks, "Dream Team" is flavored with soft strains of soul and reggae, and that's the problem: the music is a little too toned down for hip hop listeners weaned on aggressive beats and delivery.
Maybe nontraditional hip hop listeners can get into the acoustic guitar strumming on Home and the dragging drumbeats and screeching guitar solo on "Caught Without an Umbrella," but the basic hip hop fan will be pulling her hoodie over her ears. Home and Spearhead's 60s-ish righteous roots image--dreadlocks and tie-dyed clothing--just aren't strong enough to earn the respect with hard-core hip hoppers that Capitol, the group's label, hopes to win.
On the other hand, Fugees have a hard enough look. Wyclef, with his bald head gleaming and goatee pointing, summoned enough Brooklyn brashness at the show to silence any accusations of softness. From Pras's gold-toothed mouth spouted Jamaican and Haitian patois, laced here and there with curse words, and Lauryn flowed with just the right touch of honey-from-the-hood attitude. It's a facade that will serve them well with hip hop audiences; they look down and real.
Fugees' album, Blunted on Reality, is a powerful package of driving beats, heavy MC skills, and political analysis. They combine the mad energy of Onyx with the serious-business delivery of KRS-One. Fugees flaunt a very strong, very black image that's harder for nontraditional audiences to digest than a laid-back pose like Spearhead's. Even so the Fugees' creative musical mix and thought-provoking lyrics landed them on Jon Parcles's ten best albums of '94 list in the New York Times.
Honoring Pras and Wyclef's Haitian roots, Fugees claim to represent all who seek spiritual, mental, or physical refuge from oppression. Their rapping is hard-core, tongue-twisting verses spewed with speed and force. The music is an innovative blending of skills, reggae, and old-school hip hop.
They address religion in "Temple," misogyny in "Vocab," and the current hemp vogue among hip-hoppers in "Blunted Interlude." "Nappy Heads" and "Recharge" provide a stunning showcase for the trio's skill at rapping consciousness-raising lyrics ("Success for the next man is success for myself / Vanity, vanity / Yet I still want wealth"), maintaining a streetwise image, incorporating diverse musical influences, and producing slammin' beats.
Like Spearhead, Fugees draw from many sources (they too use an acoustic guitar but compensate with sledgehammer rapping). But unlike Spearhead, they don't come off soft, so they're acceptable to even the strictest hip-hopper. Even though they're drawing rave reviews in Spin, Vibe, and Request, the Fugees don't need to rely on acceptance from the alternative hip hop crowd. Like Digable Planets they're doing something different, but they don't look like it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Keba Konte/Lisa Leone.