Sage Francis Interview

With a range that could put whole scenes to shame, let alone single artists, Sage Francis is at once hardened battle-rapper and cipher MC, slam poet, label boss, political activist and songwriter. With roots deep in hip-hop, he’s grown into an unlikely (and possibly reluctant) figurehead for a vibrant and diverse American indie scene.

By turns, Sage’s albums have developed distinct aspects of his personality: the deeply confessional with Personal Journals, the angry activist with A Healthy Distrust, the golden-age throwback with Hope and the indie-rock Tom-Waits-in-waiting with LI(F)E. Alongside this has run a parallel universe of mixtapes with alternate, unreleased and live versions as well as a scene-stealing series of guest appearances.

This year’s Copper Gone appeared after a four-year hiatus and incorporates aspects of all of the above and may well be his best album to date. From album opener Pressure Cooker that channels heavyweight Bomb Squad production, to spoken-word tales of isolation and self-doubt on Make Em Purr, Copper Gone is a balanced and engaging release that showcases a particularly strong moment in “a constantly inconsistent work in progress”.

For a renowned wordsmith with 16 album-length releases under his belt, we thought we would let his lyrics do the talking. Here, prior to his UK tour in October, Sage shines some light on lines from throughout his career:

“Follow the leader,
Mr Chuck was the surrogate father,
KRS-One was the teacher”

How important were rappers as role models when you were growing up?
Sage: I don’t know how important it was, but I know they had a big impact on me. They gave me things to think about and they imparted bits of wisdom and morals which I took very seriously. Kids are impressionable, don’t ‘cha know? Heh. That said, I also listened to a lot of rappers who said some truly awful stuff. Maybe I just knew what was right and what was wrong while being able to enjoy the entertainment value of the ignorant shit.

“If it wasn’t for the bass- I wouldn’t need these hearing aids. It if it wasn’t for mistakes- I probably wouldn’t be here today”

They clearly weren’t with putting compound rhymes together, but what were your mistakes?
Well, the mistakes I was speaking about in the lyrics you just quoted are the mistakes of my parents and their parents and their parents’ parents. We all make mistakes, but none of mine have continued our bloodline. For better or worse.

“To all those people said I wouldn’t last, don’t make me laugh, don’t make me laugh”

Is this you? Getting a chance to go backwards and forwards over your life through mixtapes with different versions, old recordings and changes in attitude is a strange experience for a listener. Is it something you’re conscious of?
Yeah, the intro to Crack Pipes is a recording of me from when I was 10 or 11. Even back then I was bragging about proving the naysayers wrong. Heh. I have a big collection of recordings of myself from all ages. I like to mix them into new stuff so as to pay homage to the times when I had no audience. Something like that… I mean, so many emcees talk about how they started rapping as kids to give the impression that they’ve been at this thing for a long time. Sure, they started rapping as a kid. And they did finger paintings and they danced along with Barney and they made fart noises with their armpits. I just like that I don’t have to manufacture a false history to validate myself. I have recordings to prove that I was always an overly serious weirdo.

“The to-do list grew thin but I still haven’t proven myself to myself or done an album with Rick Rubin”

I’ll never prove myself to myself. That’s the blessing and the curse of being a creative artist. There’s no final destination. I’d definitely love an opportunity to work with Rick Rubin, but I’d have to request that he get on the beat machine. Having a song of mine produced by Rick Rubin would knock a significant item off of my bucket list!

“Haven’t been to church in years- right now, that’s the setting. I couldn’t think of a better place to cover my face and have a wedding”

Religious imagery seems to be in the background of every Sage Francis album- is it something that’s important or influential for you?
My writing has always been littered with religious imagery. There’s a communal conscience when it comes to the stories that have gotten passed on through the ages, so it’s fun for me to reference without being too esoteric. I reckon there’s some psychological fuckery going on as well. Religion intrigues me as much as it offends me.

“Why you think I let you get away with doing radio friendly versions of what I do?
Like I wouldn’t chide you?
Out-perform, out-write and out-rhyme you?
Out-smart, out-heart and out-grind you?”

I still get in beefs but I don’t make them public. If I can write something that’s ambiguous and still have most people know who it’s about, I think the burden should be on them to explain themselves more than on me to call them out.

“They say anger is a gift; I’m very gifted
If ignorance is bliss I’m a sadomasochist”

You don’t seem to be mellowing as you get older!
I feel like I’ve mellowed in a lot of ways. I’m not nearly as hyper as I was in my college radio days. But, yeah, the anger is still there. There are times when people have tried to shame me for my anger. As if my visceral reaction to the fuckery happening around us is wrong. I’d rant about how offensive that is, but I’ve mellowed out.

“Stalking- walking in my big black boots,
I’m the DIY artist with the thick grass roots”

Is there a name for the way you flip lines from older rap tunes like this X Clan one? Are they just there as part of your vocabulary as an MC? As far as DIY, it seems like Strange Famous has more in common with a label like Dischord than existing hip-hop labels [Sage has released three albums on Bad Religion’s independent punk label Epitaph and subsidiaries].
I’m not sure if there’s a specific term for that other than allusion. I think they’re typically called ‘head nods’ in hip-hop. A respectful tip-of-the-hat. As for the label question, Dischord thrived during an era in punk that I think the indie-hop scene shares a lot of similarities with. I can’t say I’m super familiar with Dischord, but I dig the comparison.

“Spent more cash on my cat than I did myself,
When he stopped eating – took him to the vet so they could check his health
They put a feeding tube into his neck
I said ‘Please let this work’ cause if it doesn’t I got nothing left”

Not a lyric I’d ever imagine hearing on an X Clan joint! Is your cat OK?
Haha no, I don’t think Brother J would ever wax poetic about the woes of his cat. Of course, the song had a lot more to do with my interest in helping my cat more than I would help myself. But, yeah, my cat is doing well.

Strange Famous Records
Gathering a family of like-minded artists often seems a logical next step for successful artists and Sage Francis has gone at it with a vengeance, collecting Rhode Island natives alongside MCs and producers from both sides of the Atlantic into a crack team of left-leaning rap mavericks. Here, Bonafide brings you a beginner’s guide to Strange Famous Records, courtesy of label boss Sage Francis.

The best starting point for a Strange Famous newbie…
Not to be cheeky, but a great starting point is the SFR Bandcamp page if you’ve never heard us before and you want to sample each artist. My Sick to D(eat)h mixtape from last year features most of the artists on the label so that’s a good starting point too, especially since it includes old and new material.

The one that should have blown up…
Music to Slit Wrists By by Reanimator should have blown up. As far as instrumental albums are concerned, I put it up there with Endtroducing. However, Reanimator isn’t an industry player, he doesn’t do shows, and his online presence is virtually nil. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in blowing up or being lauded, but goddamn is he talented. As a lyric-heavy label it’s possible that we weren’t able to tap a market that could truly appreciate all the things Reanimator brings to the table, but there’s time yet…

The one you listen to most…
Ahhh that’s tough. I’ve listened to most of these projects so many times in almost every developmental stage. It’s not easy to go back to them and listen without feeling stressed by that whole process. Haha. The album I probably listened to most after its completion is B. Dolan’s The Failure. It’s got such a crazy mix of stuff going on and it really makes you feel like you’re joining him on some bizarre, post-apocalyptic head-trip.

The most anticipated release…
People have been asking about Cecil Otter’s follow up to Rebel Yellow for about six years now so I’d have to say that is probably the most anticipated. People hit me up online about it and they frequently get in my ear about it at my shows. All I can tell them is that Cecil works on his own time and it’ll never be released until he’s completely satisfied. There’s no pressuring him into doing anything. Some artists just pump out whatever comes out of them. Other artists are craftsmen.

The one that will finally get people to realise how much of a genius Buddy Peace is…
That’s the difficult thing about Buddy Peace. His full-scale talent isn’t condensed into a singular project . His work with Prolyphic on Working Man is terrific, and his involvement with B. Dolan’s House of Bees mixtapes are killer, but I’m not sure those projects are a great indication of all that he can do. After all these years Buddy Peace continues to surprise me with projects that showcase his brilliant skill set, but I’ve got a feeling that we’ve yet to have a project from him that could be considered his magnum opus. I get the feeling that the best is yet to come with him and I like feeling as if every gift he bestows upon the public is a grand work in progress.

The biggest seller…
I’m not sure which one was our biggest seller, but the most surprising high seller was Angles by Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip. And not just because UK hip-hop has a difficult time getting support in the States. A punk-ass writer at Pitchfork lambasted the album in a review and gave it a 0.5 (ed. it was actually 02) out of 10. I mean… considering how influential that website is in terms of industry and story support, a review like that can be the death of an album. However, I felt the review was so over-the-top ridiculous that we should use it as part of our promo campaign. Dan Vs. Pip’s manager at the time pissed in his pants when I made the suggestion, which I think is unfortunate. The album still went on to push respectable numbers in the indie market and was certainly one of our most successful releases in the late 2000’s.

Words: Kieran Hadley

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