After the politically overcharged anti-war rant of Yell Fire in 2006, Michael Franti & Spearhead felt a musical sea change coming. He'd recorded part of that album in Kingston, Jamaica with the legendary production team Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. For All Rebel Rockers they returned for more. The end result is their finest record to date. Reggae and dancehall are the preeminent musics here, but they aren't the only ones. Franti set out to do what he always does, create a socially conscious set of tunes that reflected his social concerns, but he wanted to engage rather than merely express, to motivate by different means. Reggae is synonymous with resistance, but it is also often symbiotic with joy even in times of suffering. All Rebel Rockers focuses on both. It is a personal album that reaches out to solicit community and motivate them into the fold through joy -- even if that joy is expressed in the middle of an oppressive, empire-minded culture. Sly and Robbie are perfect collaborators, and the album is drenched in wonderful collisions of rhythms, textures, colors, and dynamics. Franti is less a rapper here and more of a singer. He's allowed his voice to relax (no crooning or yelling) and trust that his words have enough weight to make it through this dense "heavy music" mix to the listener. He's right.
All Rebel Rockers is the first record by Franti's Spearhead that captures the power and goodwill of the band's live shows. The title track is a toasting bubbler with organic and synthetic rhythms, a female backing chorus, scratching, scratchy dub guitars, and Carl Young's uber-heavy bassline just rattling under it all. It's an invitation to a dance party at the end of the world. It doesn't boast in classic deejay style, but instead offers a travelogue and the announcement of the protagonist's return from exile. Its melody and rhythm are irresistible. If you can't rock this, you're dead. The funky dancehall of "A Little Bit of Riddim" with Cherine Anderson moves it all up a notch. Here the digital effects are more pronounced as the entire band -- with Sly and Robbie adding more drums and bass to the bottom end and Sticky Thompson doing his thing on percussion instruments -- kicks it into overdrive. In the midst of this throwdown, Franti's revolution is still right here. Check the gritty truth in "Life in the City" where, in a celebratory reggae jam, he lays out the balance of gritty truth: "They hit you with as missile/They hit you with a bomb/hit you with the law and try to take your home..." Elsewhere, he lays it out direct: the revolution doesn't happen with guns and bombs but from within, from the culture. On the ska-driven rattler, "Hey World (Remote Control Version),"Franti calls for a peaceful battle: "...I came here to rock/to smash the empire with my boom box." Funky sounds meet hard rock in "Soundsystem" and"The Future," big beat rockers that come down hard lyrically. But, righteously, love in all its forms is a big part of Franti's revolution, too -- check the deeply sensual dub-conscious "All I Want Is You" and the souled out reggae in "I Got Love for You," or the beautiful ballad that closes the set, "Have a Little Faith." He understands something most angry revolutionaries have forgotten: that love must be the basis of all change. All Rebel Rockers is drenched in it both musically and lyrically; it's a solid rhythm rocker with real politics at its heart. It's not only perfect; it's necessary.