Sage Francis is to Dusted Magazine as ________ is to _________
Sage Francis (emcee, poet, personal journalist, one of the bright stars of the independent hip hop scene) recently sat down at a computer thousands of miles away from staff writer Dan Thomas-Glass, to answer some questions about his life, his music, and to try his hand at some frighteningly SAT-esque analogies. The expectation was a simple feature story, more meat for Sage’s millions of fans to bite off and chew on while waiting for the much-anticipated Non-Prophets album; but meat of the baked chicken, somewhat dry variety. The result is more vegan Terducken than anything else. It’s something you’ve never seen before, probably never heard of, but it’s got more layers than festival baklava and they’re all made of tofu. Or, some other healthy, soy-based product. The point is this is special stuff here, magical stuff that John Madden eats for Thanksgiving, except more vegan. Sage Francis as you’ve never read him before. Enjoy.
DTG: Give us some background, if you would: Sage Francis for those not familiar with your life and work. The major moments, things to know, that are known, or things that should be known that aren't, whatever.
SF: I am my mother's only child. She is the most special person in my life. I was born in Miami but I was reared in Rhode Island, where I spent most of my childhood bouncing from home to home until we settled into a house at the end of a dirt road in the woods. There were two houses on my road. We were number 2. Lots of imaginary friends were made. My mom eventually married a great guy named Ray, who helped raise me with her. They didn't get along very well, but it was a better situation than being raised without a daddy. My first memory of my biological father is the day he and my mother separated. That's my first memory (besides the one of being in a cradle.) They yelled at each other about who owned the house...she cried...he laughed. I remember the dialogue. The whole thing was very cinematic. He continued baby-sitting me, but my mom wouldn't allow him to see me after discovering that he took me to a drive-in adult movie along with his girlfriend and her son. I remember the movie. I remember the sex scenes. The whole thing was very cinematic.
My biological father then gained part-time custody of me when I was 6 or 7. This resulted in me spending my weekdays in the woods of North Smithfield, and my weekends in the projects of Woonsocket. There was much tension and confusion during this time... name changes, family changes, discussion changes, and new rules as to what was or wasn't appropriate to say or do. This is when I learned a great deal about adaptation and diversity. My biological father lost complete custody of me when he returned me to my mother a day late...drunk...after giving up on his idea of stealing me away to Florida. This is the last I heard from him for a long time and life went back to woods, karate lessons, sports, school, and a crush on the girl who sat across from me in 4th grade.
This was the year I was introduced to a Fat Boys tape by someone in my school. All he kept saying about it was, "They say the F word on it!" and all the rest of us knew about it was the dancing that went along to it. Breaking...something we first did even before hearing rap, because it was a huge fad in pop culture at the time. I tried explaining what rap was to my family so I could get my hands on some of it, but they didn't know what I was talking about. While staying at my aunt's house, we were watching television and we saw a public service announcement featuring a black female rapping about the dangers of smoking. I was like, "THAT...that's IT...That's what I like!" My aunt looked at me with a lemon face and responded with, "You LIKE that??" Yep.
Every week I would save up $10 and buy a new tape at the mall music store, hoping it would be a hip hop album, but I was never really sure because there wasn't a hip hop section at that time. No one else really listened to rap where I was from, so I would have to look on every album cover for a black guy in gold chains. Once I found the black guy with gold chains, I would look on the back for album titles that included the words "fresh, def, funky, ill, MC, or DJ" and if they did have those words it was a safe bet that it was a rap tape. My only guidance at this point was a Boston college radio show called "Rap Explosion" which played for one hour every Saturday night on 88.9 WERS. I had to force myself to stay awake until 11 PM and press record on my tape player. Then I would fall asleep while holding the antennae, hoping the music would override the static. Damn, I had the coolest boom box. You weren't hip hop without the right radio, and my shit had blinking lights with huge knobs...and a DOUBLE tape deck!!! When my mom bought me Beastie Boys for Easter I was repulsed. "Listen to some white boys? No thanks." I shoved the tape away for a good couple of months before I finally broke down and gave it a chance. I grew to love it, and this was my first lesson in hip hop humility. My mom sonned me.
In 1988 my mother took me to my first concert ever...Run DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at the Providence Civic Center. Can you fucking IMAGINE that? I didn't even know who the rest of the groups were, but Run DMC were my heroes...and I was willing to give the rest of them a try. A riot broke out on the bottom floor. Chairs were getting tossed, and people were getting shanked for their dookie gold chains. The music was so loud my ears literally rang for a week. My mom was tolerant of my music and supportive, but I think her opinions of it changed for the worse after witnessing this concert. Oh my...it's rebellious. Haha. When she went to buy me the Public Enemy tape for Christmas the store clerk warned her "they are racist." When she told me what he had said I was angered...and I went out and bought the tape myself. The next day I was flaunting in school as if anyone gave a shit. "Hey Kevin...LOOK!" I was holding something powerful in my hand...and I could tell by the look on his face that he just didn't understand. This would have to remain MINE for now.
Public Enemy ruled my life for the next 5 years or so. BDP ran a close second. Although there were obvious moments of ignorance and silliness, hip hop was INTELLIGENT as well as tough and aggressive. That was the appeal. Admittedly there were feelings of elitism...something I wasn't willing to resolve or forfeit for any other musical genre. As far as I knew, rock and roll was all about drugs and heavy metal was all satanic. The rest of music was ancient and invalid. Hip hop was it. Everything else was pathetic and a waste of time to me...except for ninjas. Hip hop, hip hop, hip hop all the way...and ninjas. Learn it, live it, emulate it, innovate it...
"Yo MTV Raps!" became the new guide for first half of the 90's. "Pump it Up" with Sister Dee helped as well. I tried to learn about every rapper and all styles of hip hop. I dug almost ANYTHING that had rhymes over an 808 drumbeat. It wasn't a time to be picky. Besides, most of the material that came out was great, so the not-so-great stuff also had its place. Even Vanilla Ice. I was excited at the prospect of a white guy gaining popularity in hip hop...and yes, that excitement came right back to bite a chunk out of my ass. As hip hop got more popular, I came across more kids with the same passion as me. We would take weekly trips to Boston and buy African medallions, beads, and whatever else we could get our hands on that looked afrocentric. This was the era. And yes, I hated my skin color and my people. And yes, I lived in a racist town so I was surrounded by people who perpetuated my rebellion. I did my best to spread a good message and I always did my best to help people understand their own ignorance (unaware of my own...unaware that I had any.) It kept me busy.
My friends and I started dancing and putting together routines...going to underage clubs and battling. Going to high school dances and battling. There wasn't much competition so we were gassed on ourselves. That had to end though...because we sucked. Just like my graffiti. I went out bombing with my friends a couple times. When we were finished I looked at the mess I spilled onto the wall and felt horrible about it. When we went to the beach out in some nature preserve, my friend threw up the word "JINX" in block letters on a large rock. It really upset me. He didn't understand my stance on the issue, because to him it was all about hip hop. I quit playing with paint cans when I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do anything significant with graffiti. I wish more people would quit when they realize they suck at something.
1994 was a strong year for hip hop, when it seemed to burst into many categories. Sub-genres became more prevalent and separations were made. I gained coastal pride. West Coast turned gangster and wack. New York City was the Mecca. Friends of mine would come back from college with mixtapes and radio recordings from NYC and we would absorb it all. Source Magazine was the bible. Nas was in control. Wu Tang was beginning its world coup. Many friends of mine began dabbling in drugs and alcohol...I couldn't get down with that. At least I had my girlfriend of 4 years. ‘Till she left me. At least I had my family. ‘Till they started dying. At least I had a college education. ‘Till it left me without a job and 30 Gs in student loans. At least I still had hip hop. ‘Till it starting sucking horribly. At least I had me.
1996 was the year I broke. I realized that there was no sense in waiting for a major label to "discover" me. It was time for me to make something of myself and do it unapologetically. Enter spoken word, homegrown demo tapes, Manhattan, URI, new girlfriend, local battles, 90.3 WRIU radio show, the AOI band, large attendance at local shows, AOI tapes and cd, internet business, Joe Beats, Poetry Slam championships, Superbowl MC Battle championship, Non-Prophets Bounce 12", Sick of Waiting tape, ex-girl to next girl, Still Sick...Urine Trouble tape and CD, Brooklyn, next girl back to ex-girl, Ben and Jerry's, Non-Prophets All Word No Play 12", Scribble Jam MC Battle Championship, quit job and do shows nationwide with DJ Shalem, ex-ex-girl to new next girl, Sweden, Iceland, tour with anticon, tour with Atmosphere, Personal Journeys Tour, Personal Journals LP, major press, band officially breaks up, new ex-girl back to ex-ex-ex-girl, Sick of Waging War cd, thoughts of quitting life and getting married, mental break down, ex-ex-ex-ex-girl back to freedom, tour of England, Oct 1-16 in Australia, complete tour of Europe in Nov-Dec, Documentary in the works, DVD in the works, tour and album with a band in the works, spoken word album in the works, a book in the works, Non-Prophets album currently being recorded. Lots of thinking.
I live alone...and for the most part I work alone. Religion and Government are monsters. Doctors and hospitals scare me. I sleep on the floor and conduct most of my business via email. The artistic community keeps me charged...political and socially conscious people keep me aware...and my friends are understanding people who believe in fairness and contribute worthwhile conversations and conditions to this world...my enemies are inconsiderate people with false approaches to a happy life who perpetuate irrational behavior.
That’s the signpost that begins this journey, reads like a short story, or maybe an extended slam poem. The path ahead is varied, and it begins with analogies:
DTG: Sixtoo is to Joey Beats as _____ is to _______.
SF: Seka is to Asia Carera.
DTG: Poetry-slam is to hip hop as _____ is to _______.
SF: Bike is to a car.
DTG: Live show is to recorded material as _______ is to ________.
SF: Sex is to masturbation.
DTG: The Sick of Waiting series is to Personal Journals as _______ is to ________.
SF: High-school girlfriends are to Natalie Portman.
SF: Fuck...you made me rack my brain with those analogies. That shit was not easy.
Alright, enough with the funny stuff. From here the discussion turns more directly to Sage’s music.
DTG: How do you feel about the press and/or general reactions that Personal Journals got? I know that there seemed to be a generally positive response, but did you feel like the album succeeded, in terms of whatever goals you had for it, or any messages you were hoping to convey?
SF: I definitely accomplished what I needed to with Personal Journals. I do expect it to be popular for many years to come, but so far expectations have been exceeded. One thing I didn't like his how many critics insinuated that I was a spoken word artist doing a hip hop album. I figured they would get the hint that I am first and foremost a rapper by sprinkling Li’l Sage throughout Personal Journals. Plain and simple, I am a rapper...and that's not anything I'm bragging about. It's just the truth. I've been doing it since I was a little kid. Since then I've branched off into other art forms and tried my hand at them.
DTG: What worked best about that album? What were you happiest with? Least happy with?
SF: All the content that needed to be inside it was there. The people reacted to it as expected. I included everyone on it who needed to be there. All the secret passageways and trap doors are placed in the proper places. The production was exactly what I wanted. I am very happy with the cover art and the fact that anticon let me do a booklet to accompany the cd. The distribution was on point. The songs could have been recorded and mixed a lot better, because I did most of it on equipment I am not familiar with. But fuck it. That's my personal touch of shittiness.
DTG: In 15 words or less, everything about the upcoming non-prophets album.
SF: It's bi-polar. Hilarious and poignant material. VERY rappy...rhythmic ignorance mixed with poetic moments. BLAAAaaaaooOOOOWWW!
DTG: Xaul Zan [Sage’s mullet-rocking blue-blocker ad poster-boy hardcore rapper alias] – Slim Shady-esque alter-ego (I apologize for the comparison), steam-release valve, self-medication through exhibitionism, an ironic return to origins, what? And, will we see a complete project in that guise?
SF: I'm not really sure what the similarities are between Xaul Zan and Slim Shady. I do know that Xaul Zan would punch him dead in his melon and then take Haley out for a bite to eat. He has no tact. He is a vent of many sorts. If he EVER releases an album, which may very well happen, the reaction of people will cover extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. I'm not sure how ready I am to be responsible for the things he would bring to an entire project.
DTG: What do you hope to accomplish as a musician/writer/artist? Do you have specific goals, other than to get to a place where your music can support you?
SF: I've already accomplished what I wanted to for the most part. I have a listening audience, a core fan base who continues to support, a great network of people I work with, a credible voice, and I make enough money to live well...for now. I foresee things getting bigger, but my actual goal is just to stick to my guns as an artist and make everything work the way I like it. Damn. My goal is to be able to operate as effectively as possible without going insane or running myself into the ground.
DTG: Do you write to a beat, or choose a beat to fit what's written?
SF: Sometimes I write to a beat. Sometimes I write to silence and wait for a beat to come around that fits the mood I had in mind. Sometimes I write to a different beat than the lyrics are going to be on. Sometimes I write to a song that already has lyrics on it. You get the point. I write whenever. The actual words and the ideas are what usually motivate me.
DTG: Top five artists you'd like to work with in the near future?
SF: Bob Dylan, Public Enemy (with Bomb Squad), KRS (with Premier), Beastie Boys (with Rick Rubin), De La Soul (with Prince Paul).
A fork in the road? Or perhaps just the Terducken…
DTG: You're President of the newly created Republic of Underground Hip Hop. What would you say in your first state of the union address?
SF: Hey everyone...hi...umm...wussup MOM!!! So uh, check it...I don't want to be an evil dictator or anything. Just do whatever you want. I have a lot to say to you but you need to figure shit out on your own. That's the only way it'll stick. Until then, do your best to be tolerant of people with different lifestyles and ideologies. Oh...and stop having sex. This instant. Also, stop being so fucking wack. And no TV! NO NO NO... You may not act like you know more than me. You suck so much. Work for me. Always. Let's get started.
DTG: How would the first two sentences of your autobiography read?
SF: My mom was a bartender and my dad was a locksmith. How fucking poetic is that?
DTG: Why "not experimental"?
SF: Because that term has been used for people who don't know what the hell they're doing but they want to try something 'different.' The term 'experimental' is almost a disclaimer that says: 'WARNING...I have not mastered my craft so I am going to break rules without knowing them first. Here's the shitty result!' That's not me. I know what the fuck I'm doing.
DTG: It's Saturday afternoon, you aren't writing, you aren't touring, you aren't recording, just kicking back (imagine that!). What three albums are likely to be in the stereo?
SF: This Saturday it was Weezer, Neil Young and John Lennon. I have been buying music from all different genres and listening to new stuff. But I'm not ready to shout them out yet.
DTG: Why do you play with your own (re)presentation so much? From t-shirts advertising your own death to innumerable differing reports of your age, not to mention your various alter-egos, you seem unwilling to present a singular biography for people to latch on to. Why is that? What is the expected result, or is there one?
SF: Because I don't really care to be profiled. There's not a single category that would be fair to my past, present or future. It's important to let people think they have me figured out and then discover on their own that they don't. No matter what a person says about themselves, there are activities and comments that will contradict that image. Then people feel disappointed by it because they're not secure enough with themselves or who they are. I don't care to feed into that at all. I'd prefer to be an ever-changing entity. Big, giant, round heads don't fit well into small boxes.
DTG: Emo-rap, indie-hop, avant-garde (you've already answered that one), what is it? Something new, or just a new expression of the same thing? If hip hop in 2002, with its Scribble Jams and hiphopinfinities, is a logical progression from Melle Mel and BeatStreet, what is the tie that binds? How does your own work, or the work of other genre-bending and envelope-pushing artists, fit in?
SF: It's nothing new. People keep trying to think of new names for the same old shit. Scribble Jam and hiphopinfinity are not the logical progression of Melle Mel and BeatStreet. Some might even say they are deviations. But the things that ties all of it together is that people are still working together and expressing themselves on some type of format we like to call hip hop. How do I fit in? I am making contributions and inspiring, while getting love and inspiration in return.
DTG: How do feel about where you are now? Are you where you'd like to be, or where you had imagined you'd be?
SF: I am astounded that things have worked almost exactly to how I had planned. I am currently beyond where I thought I would be without the support of a major label.
DTG: Now that we've covered a novel's worth, is there anything else you'd like to add?
SF: This interview made me think. Thanks for challenging me. But ease off selecta.
Sage Francis’s vinyl-only Makeshift Patriot EP will be put out by anticon this fall. Keep an eye out for the Non-Prophets HOPE album, with board-work by the legendary Joey Beats, at the beginning of 2003.
By Daniel Thomas-Glass