The Streets Of San Francisco
The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy
Hip-hop beats, anarchic industrial noise and the odd jazz lick are the hallmarks of The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy’s debut album Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury. Kean Wong drops in on San Francisco’s uncompromising renegades and discovers which are the sharpest tools at the cutting edge of rap
LA had the riots, but San Francisco has The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, demolishing musical barriers with equal force and an industrial angle-grinder...
It's two hours past our appointment, and The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy are proving how fluid their relationship to time can be when they're recording. The studio is throbbing with the deep funk grooves of Hiphoprisy's rhythm section and Michael Franti's new rap, written on the road soon after a tour of New Zealand (or Aotearoa, the original Maori name, as Franti and crew prefer to call the islands). The band had promised a local radio station six tracks for a 'live' session.
"They're real perfectionists once they hit a studio," says their apologetic tour manager and unusually relaxed New Yorker, Vaughn Justinian.
And perfection is really the only word to describe the Heroes' debut album Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury, a seamless mix of personal politics, jazz licks, killer grooves and the sounds of an industrial workshop. The singles 'Television: The Drug Of The Nation', 'Language Of Violence' and 'Famous 'n' Dandy Like Amos 'n' Andy' have redefined hip hop, sampling and the art of lyric writing for the '90s.
Musically, the core of Hiphoprisy is Franti and the hyperkinetic Rono Tse, though they work extensively with friends like their touring partners, guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Simone White; members of the Consolidated hip-hop crew; and more recently, with the writer and well-sampled star of the film The Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs.
When we finally leave the studios, Rono plays me rough mixes of the Burroughs tracks he's brought on tour to work on. The hotel room reverberates to Burroughs reading his prose - typically witty, obscenely funny and pointed in subject matter - weaving in and out of the heavy grooves and dub mixes Rono's been laying down in his home studio.
"As a pair, me and Rono have total involvement in creating the sounds of Hiphoprisy," says Michael, explaining that their debut album was the result of time spent with Mark Pistel of Consolidated. He adds that Hiphoprisy hopes to grow out of the boundaries now fencing hip-hop in - hence projects such as those with Burroughs.
"We engineered, co-produced, wrote all the songs with him [for the debut]... We write like a band, making songs to be performed live rather than just studio music. So when people start connecting hip hop with jazz, I find that jazz is a growing art form. It never stops growing, never stops evolving, and that's what I hope will happen with hip hop."
"I'm working on music constantly these days, even right here in my hotel room!" Rono laughs. "Basically, I listen to everything, Chinese music, African music, anything. I write down notes on things to sample because I'm not a musician that plays, say, bass. I get the beats together, and sometimes when I hear a beat, it motivates me to say things - that's when I get my dictaphone out!
"I have a sequencer at home that has eight tracks, and it's really low budget, all MIDI. When I sample beats, I don't just do one, but maybe more like 10 beats. I call it a 'beat day', when I make them up for the sequencer... For our album, we were using a Mac-based sequencer, but at home for pre-production, I just use the Alesis MMT8. Who says you can't do music in low-tech? You see, it's not just about technology so much as what you have up here and in your soul," Rono says, pointing to his head and heart.
"Technology only takes you so far, but the soul and spirit takes you for the ride of your life... I didn't have money at first so I started banging tyre rims, angle-grinding 'em, and visually, they're beautiful! So our sound has just evolved that way. In the studio, we mix this pre-production up with stuff like a Synclavier, and we cut bits up everywhere. But, I tell ya, doing pre-production at home saves a lotta time!
"Personally, I don't use drum machines, but a lot of samplers. One thing I do notice is that too many people sound the same - it's like they're literally preset! People are looking for the same sources all the time, but you can look around your room for samples... I sample from CDs to tapes and records, and call my DJ buddies up to talk about music and beats. Because I don't believe in sampling everything, I like to have live musicians play bass lines, keyboards, flute, whatever. That's the most important principle for me - don't loop the whole loop, or you'll get sued! The more material you can get, the more options you can go with."
And some of those options are the playing talents of Charlie Hunter, guitarist and bassist extraordinaire. Based in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, with Rono's home nearby, Hunter has been playing his guitar since he was 12. His 13 years of playing has included early lessons with Joe Satriani, among others.
Hunter's main guitar is a custom-made Novax, a 7-string, fan-fretted design where the pick-up is split into two - the bottom three strings go into a bass amp while the top four are employed for conventional axe-hero duty. On the substitute's bench is an identical model tuned a major 3rd lower, "...so it's like a bass starting on an F, going up from there."
"It's finger-picking, counterpoint and all that," explains Hunter. "I played the normal style, but about four, five years ago I started playing finger style and before that stick finger style. About four years ago, I also started playing 7-string and this has meant re-learning how to play the guitar for me! I try to play all types of music with these techniques..."
"You can copy other people's licks, but not their time or era. Relate those licks to your era. Like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Funkadelic, Robert Johnson, Bach, Bartok, you just listen - real good music is timeless"
But how does someone with Hunter's background fit in with a hip hop group like Hiphoprisy? It's not quite a typical guitarist's gig...
"Well, it fits 'cause I just had a lot of funk chops. I grew up listening to so many kinds of music, going in and out of phases every couple of months. I knew all the Jimmy 'Chank' Nolen licks, all the Bootsy licks, so I've applied all of them in the gig I do now, playing along to a DAT machine kinda thing."
Hunter agrees that the music of Parliament/Funkadelic, George Clinton's assorted projects, have been prime influences on the approaches he uses in Hiphoprisy. "Simone and I are integral parts of the music, but most of the time live, it's down to the DAT machine. Sometimes, Michael and I do an acoustic sorta duet, which is great. Simone adds the spice and the extras that make the drum tracks less rigid. Live, I do very little of playing bass and guitar except when backing Michael. Rono is the visual aspect, the spontaneity of Hiphoprisy. I'm writing some stuff with Michael for the next record, but I didn't do much on the last record - that was very rigid, stiff, fascistic disco beats! But me and Simone, we'll funk 'em up!
"The reality with any art form is that you learn from those before you and, if it's hip hop, you make your own hip hop. If it's jazz, you make your own jazz. You can copy other people's licks, but not their time or era. Relate those licks to your era. Like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Funkadelic, Robert Johnson, Bach, Bartok, you just listen - real good music is timeless."
And real good music, as Michael Franti is quick to point out, also comes from the heart. For the Disposable Heroes, the personal is always political, and raps about the state of the American nation and the world beyond are always rooted in personal experience.
"We want to challenge the perception that a lot of people have, that black people, people of colour, all think and feel the same way. Hiphoprisy's record is indicative of what I am as a person, not indicative of a whole nation, of what hip hop is. The things I write about are things I'm dealing with in San Francisco and in Oakland. It's things that happen in front of my face.
"Music works in three ways. One, it can inform people about ideas and issues they mightn't hear coming from the neighbourhood they come from. Secondly, music can stir your soul, your emotions, your passions, your loves. And finally, when you go to a concert or listen to a record, you feel like 'I'm not the only person in the world here. There are 500,000 people here who feel the same way I do' - and it's important to have that affirmation for people who are really marginalised."
Interview by Kean Wong
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