Preaching to the Unconverted

Martin Luther wants to save your soul -- music, that is

Martin Luther is explaining the Trojan-horse strategy he's devised for breaking out of his billing as San Francisco's best-kept soul secret. He punches up a song on his Macintosh, sending a lilting, melodic riff out into his claustrophobic Hunters Point home studio, a crisp drum machine tapping out the tempo of a ballad. "This could be the only time for us/ Baby take your time/ Don't you rush," Luther sings. The tune's seduction is as straightforward as drawn shades and rose petals on pillowcases.

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.

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