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POP : NO STATIC CLING : Digable Planets and Spearhead Gravitate Toward Artistic Growth, Not Complacency

February 23, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for the Times Orange County Edition.

Digable Planets and Spearhead's leader, Michael Franti, come from opposite coasts and opposite stylistic ends of the hip-hop spectrum.

But these two contrasting touring partners, who appear Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, do have a couple of important things in common. Both use real-time instrumentation on stage rather than canned backing tracks, thereby promising a more exciting and musically flexible performance than the average rap act. And both have shown a determination not to stand still artistically.

Digable Planets was one of the hit rap newcomers of 1993, scoring with a million-selling album, "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," and a hit single, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" that won a Grammy for best rap performance.

The New York City trio of Ishmael (Butterfly) Butler, Ann (Ladybug) Vieira and Craig (Doodlebug) Irving arrived with its fanciful entomological nicknames, a playful myth that they were insects hailing from another galaxy, and a penchant for sampling classic jazz recordings instead of the usual funk sources. Digable Planets was a cool, easygoing alternative to the harshness of gangsta rap.

With "Blowout Comb," released in October, the trio downplays the jazz samples and the silly imagery; rather than pretending to be from an outer planet, they declare their allegiance to the inner city. The changed sound has a mellow but unsettling feel, kin to the laid-back gangsta grooves of Snoop Doggy Dogg. The group's hard-to-decipher rhymes are like a thick, languid ooze that seeps into the groove and flows there, with the words serving more as a liquid lubricant than as the prime element of interest (not surprisingly, considering this smooth style, "creamy" is the album's leading catchword denoting worthiness). Digable Planets' skill in constructing lyrical hooks and catchy musical refrain helps to keep its music coolly insinuating rather than merely lulling. The mass market, however, has been much cooler to "Blowout Comb" than it was to the group's first album.

Lyrically, Digable Planets devotes too much time to commonplace assertions of rapping prowess and declarations of fidelity to the members' home borough of Brooklyn. But "Blowout Comb" also dips into black nationalist politics that weren't evident before. Leader Butterfly and his comrades pay respects, if only in passing, to the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that advocates racial separatism, and to the revolutionary tactics of Mao Tse Tung.

It's hard stuff to swallow for anyone who thinks that moderation is the only force that can keep America from conflagration. But "Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)," the creamily alluring protest song that carries most of Digable Planets' black nationalist freight, effectively demonstrates the unpleasant but unavoidable truth that people who find themselves in desperate trouble are going to entertain extreme remedies.

Spearhead's leader, Franti, is no stranger to the ideological wars: His previous group, the rap duo Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, was given almost entirely to Franti's political analyses. Among the targets of his broadsides on the 1992 album, "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury," were homophobes, polluters, proponents of the Persian Gulf War, and Gov. Pete Wilson.

With Disposable Heroes, the San Francisco-based Franti displayed an authoritative rap voice and an ability to get across his ideas with trenchant force. But most of the album was like a rousing political speech--compelling while it was being delivered, but nothing you'd want to return to once you'd gotten the point.

With Spearhead--which is not a rap group but a six-member funk-R&B band that incorporates rapping along with singing--Franti hasn't merely adjusted his sound; he has matured into a full-blown musical artist who doesn't just proclaim positions but also paints feelings.

Franti seemed aware of his limitations when he was still in Disposable Heroes: In the rap duo's track "Music and Politics," he acknowledged that he needed to work on the personal dimension in his life and in his art. With Spearhead's debut album, "Home"--and what could be more evocative of the personal dimension than the idea of home?--Franti shows that he was serious about developing on all fronts.

Musically, the band features Franti's rapping and singing, both influenced by his illustrious mentor, Gil Scott-Heron, the jazz-R&B veteran whose work ranges from controlled anger and pointed humor to poignant reflection. Sly and the Family Stone is another important source.

Abetted by the soul-vocal embellishments of Mary Harris, and the reggae "toaster"-style interjections of Ras I Zulu, Franti is able to sing about everything from the simple pleasures of a good meal and a funky rhythm to the pitfalls of unrequited love and the despair-inducing problems confronting black Americans.

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