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- Posted on Mar 14th 2010 7:36PM by Sadia Latifi
Born and bred in Rhode Island, Sage Francis is a bit of a rap iconoclast. He's rejected hip-hop norms his entire life, carving out a niche for himself in rap music that speaks truth to power but isn't afraid to get personal, either. He's also an entrepreneur, running Strange Famous Records for five years. Now, he's gearing up to release his next album Li(f)e in May, and for SXSW. Sage talked to Spinner about conquering rap, organized religion and why he's not sure Sage Francis could've started out in 2010.
When did rapping become a serious career option?
I was always a serious kid. I never expected it to be a career. I was always battling, but I never thought this would be it.
Momentum picked up once I got to college, and I started doing better shows and that became more of my focus.
I had no desire to get a desk job. I didn't know what I wanted to do other than music. I went to college to play football. I was never a good student.
Napster was all the rage. I didn't have distribution, I didn't have any marketing money behind me except for file sharing. People were finding my music through that, so from 1996 on, I was able to tour the world.
Was there a scene in Rhode Island you could embrace?
The geography of Rhode Island is such that it is wedged between Boston and New York, so I was lucky enough to get radio stations from Boston and see touring artists from New York City. Everyone came through Rhode Island, and that's how we got access to all the best stuff.
Do you still live in Rhode Isand?
Yes. I hated this place once. I hated how homogeneous it was, and I could not wait to get the fuck out... I moved to Brooklyn for awhile but I could not make ends meet. I bought my family home from my mother when she moved to Florida. It was what I needed. I don't like being around people, I don't need busyness from any urban environment. I need privacy. I enjoy my solitude and being tucked away.
I thought I was a city boy, I really did. I was in awe of the city. I loved it but there's something that happened between when I went there and something in me switched.
Who are your musical influences?
Early on, it was Public Enemy as far as message and style, and I still don't think I will ever achieve all the things they are able to do.
Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Ice T, NWA. It was all the music between when hip hop started until '93.
And then my influences started to change a bit. I would listen to punk, hardcore, and eventually I became obsessed with Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Neil Young. I don't think they've influenced my music, but I found myself listening to them more.
Describe your sound.
My music is obviously word-heavy and very precise as far as my word choice goes and off-kilter as far as subject matter. I try to stay away from cliche´ as much as possible, never dropping to trends of the time. I make a conscious effort to stay away from what's trendy. That's always been important to me. It's probably not what anybody would expect.
The fact is what has earned me such a loyal fan base is that I make the kind of music you can't get from other places, and I'm lucky for that. Some people do that stuff and get labeled as experimental or some other tacky label. I've been labeled before – emo-rap, backpacker, art fag – all of those terms have been used and not just by fans, but by haters and by the media. I understand they are reluctant to call it straight hip-hop because it veers off the straight hip hop.
Do you think your music is very political?
I try to write about what I think about a lot. I wouldn't consider myself a very political person. Politics are in my music and I address stuff but its usually in a way that I get so fed up that I want to address it and raise the question and create some kind of talking point or be part of the discussion, really.
Some songs stick out a lot because not too many people are making good political music. But I'm not pandering to a political party, and I'm not trying to wave a flag like Viva La Revolucion.
It's bar talk. People are inclined to talk politics with you. It's part of people's lives. Not everybody knows what they're talking about, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I know how I feel.
What themes does your new album, Li(f)e, discuss?
The new album more so than previous albums has an anti-religious theme going. One thing that's been really pushing my buttons is the influence of religion on politics, on families, and the way it can manipulate countries. I went about every song with that mind.
What these organizations force on their followers and say about God and God's rules and what God wants and it's all lies. Its manipulative and scary, and I'm just kind of sick of it. I'm not here to tell you that God doesn't exist but these religions play on people's fears and that's really gross.
The most epic track I've ever made, the one I'm most proud of is called "The Best of Times." It quite plainly tells the story of my upbringing and overall, it talks about how we're so inclined to think every problem is massive, every time we come to an obstacle we worry ourselves sick about it. But then later, we come to find that it's just another bump in the road. As simple as that sounds, I made a six-minute track about it. Growing up as a kid, I remember thinking about suicide, and now, I'm like, "Wow, I was really thinking about killing myself because of that!?" The obstacles you face in life are petty.
File sharing helped you get famous. But one of your later records leaked early, hurting sales. Also, you run a record label. Is it safe to say your relationship with file sharing is complicated?
People, especially fans of music who don't want to buy music, are very inclined to believe that file sharing is the best thing since sliced bread. It can't be stopped, really, so for an artist to berate a crowd and guilt trip them into buying music also looks really cheap.
It started out as a helpful tool for a musician who couldn't get his music to distributors. It gave exposure. But there's a turning point. As much as it helped the independent scene back then, people were still buying CDs when Napster was around. Kids didn't have a sense of entitlement. I'd still be working as an ice cream scooper. I didn't stop my job until it was clear I could make money off my music and running a record label.
Now, ten years later, I'm dealing with a lot of artists who are trying to make it in the industry and it's virtually impossible because of file sharing. Record stores are closing. Sales aren't being established because promoters aren't booking artists because there's no sign there's any fan base where they live. It's a domino effect.
I don't envy them [new artists] at all. To be a new artist in 2010, it's fucking impossible. Unless you have a big label behind you that's going to push the shit out of your material. To even get press is really tough. It [File-sharing] unequivocally hurts indie artists.
I was lucky enough to be around when people were still buying music.
Has it been hard running a label, then?
It's a fucking pain in the ass. Every day I question why I signed up for this job. I was under the impression that talent equals sales, and it was all going to work itself out. That's wrong. We're doing pretty well, but it's been a struggle.
What's your live show like?
It's definitely a rollercoaster ride. It's a one man show. There's humor involved, anger involved, love involved. I like to impress people, unimpress people and impress them again. I want people to go home with a buzz. I love when people leave the show totally thrilled.
Using graffiti, Sage has really cool looking letters. It was a short name, and I liked the sound of it. I just adopted it. It felt too cool for me, and I knew I needed to humble it, so I threw on my family name to become Sage Francis.
Does that make you the wise man of rap?
I think I'm smart, I don't think I'm a genius, and I know almost everyone I've worked with would probably tell you I'm dumber than I think I am. Someone who is giving great advice – that's not me. I'm just a hotheaded dude that remains ultra critical, and I try to make sense of my surroundings at all times, and I try to stay diligent. I don't actually think I'm a sage.
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