Luther clicks his mouse and stops the playback. "R&B radio," he indicates. "But when you come see me [live], it's more like this." Another click, and a guitar part with vintage fuzz begins to scold a drummer's funky beat. On this version, Luther whisper-raps to the object of his lust, rather than sings. "You came here for ...?" he asks, before a woman purrs back, "I miss your dick." Luther has transformed himself from Babyface to Prince -- his lyrics dwelling on swapping bodily fluids, while the band gropes for release in the background.
"Relatively the same song -- the same music, the same tempo," he says of the two cuts, both of which he plans to release on his forthcoming second album, Rebel Soul Music. "But the difference between my studio tracks, which could get play on KMEL[-FM, 106.1], and my live material, which can rock out, can be big." Luther's shows often get much heavier than his pornographic Prince tribute -- he's got a Deftones sticker on his microwave, and the chords played by Luther and his guitarist B'Nai can crunch almost as fiercely.
On the surface, his plan seems to involve mixing pop music's two most shameless cash-cow sounds -- velvety-plush R&B and heavy guitar riffing -- but such tools are necessary to complete his ultimate vision. "Rebel soul music" is more than the name of his record, he explains: "It'll hopefully be the sound of a new American music genre." Agreeing that something is stirring, the New York Times put Luther's photo at the top of its story on the new black rock movement -- i.e., the hip hop generation finding its way to the guitar. Luther lists lo-fi soulster Cody ChestnuTT, singer/bassist Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Bad Brains-influenced vocalist Santi White, spoken word artist Saul Williams, and Mos Def's Black Jack Johnson band as his contemporaries, with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Funkadelic as his founding fathers.
"The best way to think about what Martin Luther's doing," notes Robert Kowal, director of the San Francisco Funk Festival, "is funk as encompassing psychedelic soul and black rock in the tradition of the Temptations' Psychedelic Shack and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly." Since these reference points haven't exactly been embraced during hip hop's ascendancy, Kowal thinks Luther's path to fame will be arduous at times, but not impossible. "What makes him special is that he looks like, and has the musical talent to be, the next Lenny Kravitz, if he wanted to go L.A. with his whole game," Kowal says. "He could easily do the Maxwell thing; he could easily work harder at being a sex symbol than a musician if he wanted to." (Kowal reports that the dozen female volunteers who worked the Funk Festival when Luther performed in November were all smitten with the singer.) "But what's amazing about Martin is that he's so dedicated to making sure that his music is rooted in the old school. And by old school I don't mean retro and disco; I mean old-school protest music."
And therein lies the real vigor in the new black rock movement. These artists aren't just injecting racial diversity into the genre; they're reigniting a long-dormant social consciousness. On "Home," another track prepared for Rebel Soul Music, Luther laments that "My neighborhood's been gentrified," while on "Gang.sta," from his debut disc The Calling, he offers the plea, "Mama, don't letcha baby grow up to be a gangsta," sung over the rumbling engine of a muscle car.
Luther, who grew up in S.F.'s Lakeview neighborhood "doing the same stuff these cats around [Hunters Point] are doing," tries not to glamorize what's happening in the streets. "Lots of people, when they say, "Keep it real,' they're talking about things in a way that perpetuates the way things are," he says. "My keeping it real is looking to shed a little more light on a situation or to find a solution."
Luther, however, is far from the knee-jerk Bay Area liberal. When asked about Sen. Trent Lott's speech supporting Strom Thurmond's racist past, he remarks, "While I can't say I endorse what he said, it sounded to me like he was speaking from the heart, which is something that, if more politicians did, we'd be much better off." And in reference to another recent news item, the baseball-bat beating of a student who looked in on another man in a dorm shower at Atlanta's Morehouse College (Luther's alma mater), he says, "When someone gets beat with a bat, that's not cool, but [neither is] violating someone's personal space. ... If motherfuckers would have came in on me, they would have got they ass whupped too, straight up and down. I definitely wouldn't have taken a bat and tried to kill somebody over it, but the point would have been made." Then, in the next breath, Luther makes an abrupt shift, suggesting the improvement of African-Americans' circumstances will require the redistribution of income.
"Some of the kinds of thing I will address in my songs might rub some people the wrong way, and I have to do that," he states. "If I eclipse my superstardom because I am who I am, then that will be that."
Kowal believes Luther's biggest challenge will be going pop without removing the teeth from his music. "There really is no apparatus for taking an artist like him, who has a message, and making him national," Kowal observes. He points out that even with strong local media support, Luther's Funk Festival show only drew 250 people. "I think he will have to go through a record deal. Because his thing is so cool to look at, once he does a video he's going to be huge."
The amount of attention Luther has drummed up -- he's been on HBO's The Chris Rock Show, and been reviewed in Vibe and The Source -- is impressive given that he's from San Francisco, which is often considered soul music's no man's land. Luther attributes much of this early success to the partnerships he forged at Morehouse, with many of his friends going on to careers in the entertainment industry. When he plays in New York, an Atlanta homeboy does the promotion and an artist friend handles the set design; for shows in Brooklyn, he sometimes performs at a club owned by a woman from Spellman, Morehouse's sister school. His partner in Beyond Entertainment, the label that put out The Calling in 1999, was Lamar Davidson, also from Atlanta.
After graduating from college in 1992, Luther moved to L.A. for a few years to make his first bid at a creative career. He interned at record labels and assembled a funk band called Aloosanation, which he used as a case study for how the music business operated, "so that if I had a project that didn't make it, I would know why." He also forayed into acting, appearing in a malt liquor commercial. After the band dissolved in the mid-'90s, he moved back to San Francisco to focus on solo work, putting together a home studio.
Things have been quieter than Luther'd like so far, but he now has a record deal and a video in the bag. In August, he signed with Goodvibe Records, the indie powerhouse that propelled Oakland's Mystic to a Grammy nomination and a relationship with the major label DreamWorks, and this fall he finished a video for "Soul Assassinator," a rerecorded version of the lead single from his first album (which mostly likely will be rereleased as a B-side). By co-directing the video, Luther managed to cram as many contradictory lifestyle images into the five-minute short as possible. He rides a Harley, sports a leather jacket with glammed-out paintings on the back (including the Illuminati pyramid), digs for 12-inches in a record store, exchanges bedroom eyes with a female customer, rocks a dive bar in the bayou with his band, wears a pimp hat and a boa, and narrowly eludes a fight with the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon while playing pool. If a member of a niche audience can't find something to nibble on, he isn't looking hard enough.
Luther and Goodvibe are planning a release of the video and Rebel Soul Music in the first quarter of 2003, which should raise the singer's profile in the Bay Area. "San Francisco's a pretty programmed place," Luther says. "Just like it took Charlie Hunter getting big in New York for his shows to sell out at Yoshi's, large numbers of people won't come out to see me unless they see me on the television, or KMEL tells them it's official."
So for now, he's got a laser focus on those twin objectives: He plays in New York monthly (which, he explains, is meant to get him in front of taste-makers), and he's got a hard drive stuffed with potential radio jams. But he's quick to point out that these measures are merely intended to prime the pump for his much grander vision. After he gets his foot in the door, he's got his freak flag ready to be unfurled.
"When it comes to being an entertainer and a showman, I consider myself [an expert]," he says. "And if I'm going to ask for your time and attention, then I'm going to do whatever's in my God-given ability to entertain you. We might throw a party where we're naked onstage, and you gotta be naked to get in. Fuck it -- life gets mundane real quick."