The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
"Hypocrisy is The Greatest Luxury"
4th & Broadway (1992)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
There are "changes of direction" and then there's what Michael Franti did during the early-90's. If you've heard of him before, it's probably due to the success of his group Michael Franti and Spearhead, particularly the single "The Sound of Sunshine." That band takes an acoustic-rock approach to feel-good subject matter. Franti's previous act, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and its debut "Hypocrisy is The Greatest Luxury" is about as far from Spearhead as possible.
The Heroes (Franti and beat maker Rono Tse) fit into the niche known as "conscience hip-hop," a term generally given to rappers that are overtly political (or sometimes just avoid cursing). If there was a social message that didn't make this record, I don't know what it is. Racism, immigration, and the Gulf War all make appearances. The duo's take on homophobia is especially rough during "Language of Violence," narrating a storyline of high school bullies becoming fresh meat in jail. It's impressive to look at some of the issues raised on "Hypocrisy" and consider how relevant they are 20 years later. "Financial Leprosy" previews the 99% protests of 2011, and "Satanic Reverses" criticizes the government for "bailing out the banks," another hot item today.
Franti's flash-forward predictions are impressive now, but what made "Hypocrisy" notable when it came out is his well-thought out approach to the microphone. Too often in modern hip-hop, an artist gets critical acclaim simply because he can string together words that rhyme at a semiautomatic clip (with no pun intended, the example I have in my head is Cory Gunz). Although impressive in its own right, it's sometimes nice to have a cognizant message at a slower speed. Franti's delivery is slow enough to border on spoken word, but teems with clever plays on words. For purists who disapprove of non-improvised hip-hop, you may have to look elsewhere.
Another element that sets the Heroes apart is Tse's approach to beats. In the duo's previous group, The Beatnigs, Tse would use industrial saws to create both industrial sound effects and pyrotechnics. He kept the metalworking vibes, but also worked in influences from the industrial genre, such as Nine Inch Nails-style bass lines on "Financial Leprosy." Tse rounds off the sound with traditional hip-hop sampling, albeit not from traditionally sampled sources. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and This Mortal Coil all make appearances (and the duo performs its own version of Dead Kennedy's classic "California Über Alles").
Maybe it's just my bias towards the industrial element in the Heroes' music, but they take the cake as the best "conscience" hip-hop group I've ever listened to. Most of the fare here is fairly leftist stuff, but can be stomached by even the most staunch conservatives, if they just roll with the catchy hooks. Heroes only really made this one album (a spoken-word collaboration with beat poet William Burroughs proved to be the end of the rope) but maybe it was for the best. They might have run out of political issues if they kept up at this rate.
INTERESTING FACT: Beginning in 2000, Franti no longer wears shoes. There's no particular reason for it, but the vocalist goes barefoot unless required for service at a restaurant or on a plane, in which case he wears flip-flops.