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Soul Rebel 

Steffen Franz is quite the optimist. First he took the "slack" out of dancehall, now he's crusading to help heal the wounds of a country.

Wednesday, Dec 17 2003
Steffen Franz's bio -- he's a 37-year-old Jewish reggae producer on a crusade for consciousness in the often thuggish dancehall scene -- is almost as unlikely as his résumé. Even he chuckles when recounting it and has to conclude, with considerable understatement, "I guess I've never been on the beaten path."

Over the years he's worked intimately with some of the kookiest figures in the music industry, including Lee "Scratch" Perry and Kool Keith, whom he's tour managed, and Perry Farrell, who hired Franz to do lighting for Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking tour. These days he plays bass in a stoner-rock band called Not for Not that sounds like Pink Floyd meets King Tubby and also chats dancehall-style in collaboration with local female vocalist Karney, "which, as far as I know, hasn't been done -- a reggae MC with a traditional singer/songwriter." Then there's his label, Positive Sound Massive, the breadwinner of which is Rocker-T, "a white, Norwegian-American dreadlock who believes in [Rastafarian prophet] Haile Selassie -- which, let's just say, is rare," says Franz from his apartment next to USF. An avid turntablist, Franz is also considering making a bid to become the first 40-year-old DMC scratch champ.

But it's his latest endeavor that most underscores the producer's knack for making the implausible actual, and it too sets a historical precedent. Franz helped found the first musical project featuring both Turkish and Greek residents of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus since the two communities were forcibly split 29 years ago. Dubbed Poetz4Peace, the outfit delivers spoken word from two prominent Cypriot poets -- one an ethnic Turk, Zeki Ali, and the other a Greek, Haji Mike -- over hip hop, reggae, and even bhangra-flavored beats cooked up by Franz. The band's recently released album, A Pair of Olive Leaves, is a sort of world music/Beat poetry goodwill effort dedicated to peace between the two populations, which live on opposite sides of the Green Line, a barrier consisting of armed U.N. peacekeepers and concrete walls that divides the northern Turkish third of the island from the Greek south.

Franz has had about as diverse and unusual a career as any music figure in the Bay Area, spending most of it a step or two back from center stage, supporting artists with messages he endorses absolutely. He's the consummate middleman, his true skill being the ability to broker and translate between entities that misunderstand each other, be they two historically antagonistic ethnic groups or just one of the eccentric artists he manages and the public. Since the Poetz4Peace project, he says, the real worth of his talent has come into focus: "arbitration and conflict resolution through music."

Franz became a reggae DJ quite by accident, playing records in the New York City club where he was doing lighting whenever the billed talent was late. Soon he was obsessed with dancehall himself, slowly learning to decipher the dense island dialect of its vocalists, finding himself at the nexus of a little-known subculture and an indifferent general audience.

As the first wave of dancehall hitting American record stores darkened from Shinehead's "Gimme No Crack" to a celebration of all things "slack" -- slang for "violent and woman-hating" -- Franz quickly became a minority within a minority scene. A chronic optimist with a leftist humanitarian streak, he launched his personal resistance movement within the American reggae scene. He took the name Stand Out Selector, "because that's what I wanted to do, stand out, be an example that you can work in this music and live positively," he says.

On a vacation to San Francisco in 1993, Franz thumbed through a weekly paper and found a reggae sound clash to check out. Seeing a void in the local scene based on how out of date the competing DJs' record collections were, he moved here and set up an authentic Jamaican-style sound system, but with the addition of a visual artist. Thus was born Positive Sound Massive, which was originally a performing act that featured a gaggle of MCs and Franz's first beat-making efforts. Over the years, however, it has morphed into one of the best reggae labels in the States. And Franz built it up, he's proud to say, without allowing a single slack lyric on any of his releases.

Forever hustling, Franz also ran a side career as a tour manager, although recently he's cut managing down to just Mix Master Mike -- who, as the Beastie Boys' DJ, affords Franz some comfy travel opportunities. This was a banner year for him. Positive Sound Massive released Rocker-T's phenomenally good More Luv, Franz's rock band Not for Not has just about finished its debut, and the Poetz4Peace project, which is his real baby right now, became a part of Cyprus' living history.

Franz and Poetz4Peace organizer Haji Mike -- who grew up in England, but who moved back to Cyprus after earning his Ph.D. -- met online through a professional networking group called Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide and became fast friends, two olive-skinned reggae fanatics who had dedicated their careers to fighting slackness.

Something of an out-of-the-closet radical, Mike wanted to put together a group with at least one Turkish member to show "people that may still be entrenched in some of their views that people on either side are not like 'devils with horns on their heads,'" as he explains in an e-mail.

Along with Zeki Ali, a well-published poet who had never performed his work over music, Mike enlisted Franz to produce the backing tracks and lend his authenticity in the reggae market to the project.

The result, though, is less identifiably Caribbean-sounding than anything Franz has done for Positive Sound Massive, because, he says, "we decided from the outset that it had to be as universal as possible -- it had to reach the world." For this reason, the poets wrote their lyrics in English and didn't reference any specifics of the situation in Cyprus. So Olive Leaves has an amorphous trip-hop/Massive Attack vibe, and its songs are about "division in people's lives anywhere," Franz says, "because Zeki and Haji both knew full well that making a record that just talked about the problems in their small corner of the globe isn't how you get support. You get support by saying, 'I have a plight, and it's the same as yours. Your plight might be between you and your wife and you and your money; mine happens to be between me and this damn Green Line.'"

Speaking of that Green Line, Franz's life's work as go-between couldn't have been rendered in a more dramatic image than on his first trip to the island, when, he says, he recorded Ali's spoken word on the northern side of the line and then smuggled the DAT past troops armed with machine guns so he could finish the session with Mike on the other.

When Franz came back a year later, the travel restrictions had been eased, so the Poetz could finally record together. But since the two lyricists hadn't been able to rehearse as a band before making Olive Leaves, Franz had to massage the sessions a fair amount into a cohesive whole. And while there's a certain disjointed feeling to the record, which makes for a shaky step now and then, it also provides the album's brightest moments, as each artist's cultural quirks partially dissolve into one another, making for a chunky multiethnic stew.

Franz says that through the experience, he's realized what his dream job would be: "Working for the U.N., who would send me to Zimbabwe one month and Israel the next, using music as a communication tool between opposing sides. If in the end-all that's the skill I've been blessed with, to help people tell their story, then that's enough of a plate for me."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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