To those that know, Sage Francis is a true grit; a storyteller who passes on the traditions and the pointed social commentary. To those that don’t know, well, I’m afraid you’ve been missing out! Hailing from the miniscule state of Rhode Island comes the savior of hip hop.
One listen to Francis’ latest—A Healthy Distrust, and you know why this statement is not just an idle boast. The man not only flexes skills, but he has the audacity to experiment musically and challenge the establishment, all at the same time. Then there is the fact that he can go from social pundit to reflective philosopher without missing a beat.
These, and many other reasons are probably why punk powerhouse, Epitaph, chose this man to lead their foray into this music known as rap—Francis is not the type to follow in anyone else’s footsteps, so to lead this particular charge is what he is suited for. Let’s hope the rest of the world is ready.
I was able to banter with the musical activist and two-time freestyle champion in preparation for his appearances here in Colorado, Monday, February 21 at the Gothic, and Tuesday, February 22 at Fox Theatre in Boulder.
Kaffeine Buzz: Mr Francis, first off, you are signed with Epitaph…how did rap’s unsung hero manage to sign a deal with a label that is not exactly known for its hip-hop connections?
Sage Francis: The President of Epitaph, Andy Kaulkin, called me after seeing me perform in LA, and he asked if they could put Makeshift Patriot on their Punk-0-Rama, and I quickly obliged. I had recently purchased a lot of Epitaph material and it was all a part of my consciousness. After talking to them for a while I decided that Epitaph is the company who will work my projects better than any other label. So when they asked if I was interested in being the first hip-hop act signed to their label, I got in touch with my lawyer and we made it all happen. It’s been great. Hip-hop and punk rock have a lot of things in common, but don’t tell the purists of each respective genre that.
As for as me signing to Epitaph, the hip-hop labels that are big enough to handle the demand of my music put out shitty rap records, and I don’t want anything to do with that. Epitaph showed a genuine interest in what I talk about and how I do my music, where as the hip-hop labels poked around to see what kind of molding they could fit me into. It is an honor to be on the same label as the Rhymesayers, The Coup, Quannum, and Looptroop, not to mention Bad Religion, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland and Noam Chomski. It took a punk rock label to treat hip-hop with a little respect and dignity in the 2000’s. Irony is not dead.
KB: No doubt. Now, a look back. You’ve won several freestyle battles in your time, including the coveted Scribble Jam. What possessed a young white cat from Rhode Island to thrust himself into the game on such a level? What was it like participating in these battles, as R.I. isn’t known as a hotbed for up and coming emcee’s?
SF: I had the skill to outshine other people on stage when need be. [I also had] The gumption and confidence to do it. The desire to be on stage and have people know about me and what I was about to bring to the table. It was easy promotion, especially considering how easy it is for me to do what I want to do on stage. So when it was time [to] win the big battles I went and did it. If I had to do that right now I would, but thankfully I don’t, so I can leave the silly dick contest behind me now. I guess coming from RI is what made me put in all the extra work to make sure I was more than prepared for such situations.
KB: You were influenced by both Run DMC and Public Enemy, and as your career has progressed, you have taken a more critical look at the state of our nation and the world. What “demons” keep you focused and on task?
SF: They are the demons that keep the masses unaware of truth; the demons that keep us uninformed and ignorant; the demons that suppress our true freedom and our true happiness: The Masters.
KB: You have toured excessively, arguably more than hip-hop’s Grateful Dead (The Roots), even when you didn’t have real records…how did that come about and what was the initial response when people who may have heard of you actually got to see you? How do the crowds react these days, in light of the current state of “enlightened” or rather, heightened–misguided–“patriotism”?
SF: Once file sharing was made available, independent artists without any money or label support were able to be heard worldwide. The music sold itself. This is why it’s such a big threat to major labels. So what happened was, even though I didn’t have the money or record sales to prove it, hundreds of thousands of people were listening to my music and loving it. This is what made it possible for me to tour city to city and country to country with big success. Because when there are no SoundScans and when there are no $20,000 ads in their magazine, they have no clue what the hell is going on.
KB: Your album covers many topics on many different levels, how do you go about writing your songs? What is the process behind “Slow Down Ghandi” or “Jah Didn’t Kill Johnny?” And, with that, “A Healthy Distrust” describes both a state of mind and a very real reality for living in this day and age. What motivated you to title your album thus?
SF: I had already recorded a bulk of the album when I heard the term ‘a healthy distrust’ used in regard [to] the current administration. It echoed in my head. It fit so well with everything I was addressing in my songs, so I adopted it. The rest is history. Actually…umm…at this moment, the rest is future. As for the content of this album, there was a variety of subjects I felt like addressing and I wanted to approach the subject matter in a creative way. It’s a full experience. A full trip. And it should feel that way.
KB: What is the Etymology of your name?
SF: Basically, I just like the way the ‘sage’ word sounds. Francis is my family name, but ‘sage’ was just a word that I quickly warmed up to after my ex-girlfriend called me it once. My rap name was HOSTYLE at the time. I had to get rid of that stupid shit. And I liked the femininity of it.
KB: I hadn’t heard your music before this album, but I had heard the name and read plenty of press, for those who haven’t yet hopped on the Sage Francis train? How much do you consider the record buying public when making your music?
SF: I like to think about who will be most upset sometimes, but other than that I don’t bother with those thoughts. I make the album that I know needs to be made, and that’s that. The only thing I can say that might be a part of my consciousness is how many people will hear (and when) and then I begin setting up the trap doors and secret passageways accordingly.
KB: Pivotal question: Though it is not the accepted view, a lot of the political “Black CNN” style music that Chuck D spoke of so many years ago is being created by underground white rappers, while their black counterparts are tooling more on the Bling Bling train, seemingly forgetting where the music derived from. Do you have an opinion as to why this is? Do you even agree with this assertion? What does this music need at this time and in what direction to see it heading within the next 5-110 years? Will it still be a viable music?
SF: I hardly see the white people being the Black CNN. If I agreed to that claim I might as well hang myself now. This is [a] very sensitive subject matter for various reasons, but it is important to know that Chuck D still says and does relevant things that get minimal press because he does not feed into the media’s agenda. Bling music does. Therefore, the companies who are responsible for pushing certain agendas on certain races (and classes) push ignorant music on them and make people all hung up on it. They are tricked into putting value into a false image. Magnify this example by a hundred and you will get a clearer picture of how racism works in all its subtleties. I am working to change the future, because if things continue to go the way they have been then we will be left with an ultra nostalgic culture. Oh wait, too late.
KB: What music are you listening to these days (favorites in rotation) and, besides PE, what were some other records that influenced your growth?
SF: My favorite groups growing up were Run DMC, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, KRS One, NWA, Eric B and Rakim, and so many others. I loved almost every single hip hop group that was producing material between 1986 and 1994; way too many to name. I learned as much as I could about all of them, which was difficult in the pre-internet days while living in a town that had no love for hip-hop whatsoever. I relied solely on college radio stations, hip-hop magazines, and Yo! MTV Raps (huge in spreading relevant hip-hop to non-urban areas of the country.) I would go over my grandpa’s house to watch MTV Raps on Saturday nights because I didn’t have cable. I still have the video tapes. These days I listen to a lot of rock, punk rock, classical and folk. And ambient stuff. Soft and beautiful or grating and hard. I like that mix.
KB: Off the cuff, Sage Francis has traveled the world, had his music featured in commercials and been compared to George Carlin, and finally signed a record contract, where does the Francis go from here?
SF: I have been traveling the same path for many years and a few of the off road trails lead to a DVD, books, more tours, a few more albums and the success of a non-profit organization that is meant to unmask the PR spin of corporations in this world. www.knowmore.org is the website dedicated to that. There are other things that I’ve got in my pocket too, but I don’t have to talk about them. I’d rather just do them and let it hit people by surprise. It’s best that way.