Doing the Right Thing

Sage Francis ain't for your everyday Nike-clad rap fan. The Rhode Island native's music has been labeled "nerd rap" and "emo-hop," probably because he makes more references to Jack Kerouac and Johnny Cash than 2pac and John Gotti. Politically-charged and poetically-versed, his messages, buried in metaphors and witty wordplay, might take several listens to catch.

It's been a busy year for the one half of Non-Prophets (the other half is producer Joe Beats) and seasoned rap battle veteran. He released "A Healthy Distrust" earlier this year on Epitaph Records, recently released the "Life Is Easy" DVD, and is currently on tour in support of KnowMore.org, an online community website co-founded with his friend and fellow poet Bernard Dolan. The goal of the new site is to provide consumers with detailed information on corporations including -- business history, statement of ethics, shareholders, employee relations, and more.

Sage spoke to Pop and Politics in early November.

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You were the first hip-hop act to sign to Epitaph, is that true?

That's true.

Now their roster includes Atmosphere, Blackalicious, MF Doom, and the Coup…

Yeah, that's a pretty strong hip-hop lineup. It's probably the best hip-hop label out there, strangely enough.

But it's a punk label.

What makes it a punk label?

Well, most of their artists were predominantly punk.

They're a label that collectively puts out the hip-hop that I think is most important and the best hip-hop of right now. To me, it's a hip-hop label. But I don't care if it's a hip-hop label or not. I wish I was the only rapper on the label so I could have the novelty of bragging rights. But yeah, I'm really proud to be on a label with other artists of this era that I think are doing some really cool stuff.

Why is it that Epitaph is enlisting some of the most powerful hip-hop acts out there today, as opposed to hip-hop labels? Is it that they allow more artistic freedom?

SF:They do allow more artistic freedom. I think they have a better understanding of the hip-hop we do and how it came about and why there's an audience for it and how it actually is shared by some of their audience. Although, I think the punk pop contingent fan-base of a lot of Epitaph artists' aren't really into hip-hop or even whatever we're doing.

But personally when I went to Epitaph, I got a big kick out of giving the finger to all the hip-hop labels. I could have gone with Atlantic or Epic or whoever is putting out hip-hop that is "eh" to me. A lot of them have talked to me and talked about signing me, but when they realized I didn't fit the face of what they wanted from a white hip-hop artist, they tried to urge me to fill that role, and I fled to be a pretty good selling artist on Epitaph. I like making Epitaph the money rather than those labels that were trying to make me fit the white rapper role.


What is the stereotypical white rapper role?

You know, you gotta co-opt black culture just like Eminem, be a white man in black face without the black face. It's insulting. We could get into a big racial debate about it, but I come from Rhode Island. I come from a white community, a small town Irish Catholic community and I was given different opportunities in life and I accept that and I acknowledge that. I lived a unique life and that's what I reflect. I can't reflect street life.

Coming up through the years, I've had managers… trying to push me to talk about drugs or even sell drugs in real life so I would have fodder for songs. I look at Eminem's career and I'm like, this dude fell into that. I feel like he did what I could have done and I don't feel worse for not doing it. I see where he's at, it's incredibly successful. He has incredible skills. I don't think he would have been used if he was talentless. I think Dr. Dre is a very brilliant man who saw the potential in it all. And when I first saw they came together as a unit, I was like "Man, it's over now."

This guy's got the street credibility with the support of black artists who get respect from a black audience, and he has incredible skill and he has something original about his background which I don't think he really is too honest about but, whatever.

The hip-hop labels wanted another Eminem. Who's gonna be the next Eminem, who's gonna be the next Eminem?

Now you got Paul Wall.

SF: Who I have never heard. I'm glad, too. I see his pictures and I think I may steal his mouth one day, put it in my pocket and save it for later. Everyone was waiting for the next Eminem. Who's the fat white guy that came out?

Bubba Sparx. He had Timbaland behind him and he still flopped.

Because he didn't have enough skill. I watched him do a performance on Saturday Night Live and he was sad. I was very embarrassed for the guy, looked like he had never been in front of an audience in his whole life.

So whatever, I went with Epitaph. They took me as is. They're like, "We like what you do. We trust that you're gonna have a long career. We see how it's developing. We see how you've treated your fan-base. We see how it's grown over the years and we're on board. Would you like to help build that?" Because they have more resources, they are able to give me access to more people and that's why I make music. I make music so people will hear it. And they validated me as a more official artist as far as the media is concerned. So I'm happy about that. I knew that was the most important thing about going with a bigger label (I wouldn't really call them a major label). And yeah, everything's been going great.

It just seemed odd when I heard you on the Punk-O-Rama compilation. There's all this punk and then there's Sage Francis.

I dig that. It was good for me, being able to stick out on a punk rock compilation. All of a sudden, here's a hip-hop song. People take notice to that. A lot of people have told me, "Hey I started listening to you after I heard you on that Punk-O-Rama CD" because otherwise, the only hip-hop they're hearing is the stuff that was on the radio, the stuff that was force fed to them by the media. And that's not what they liked. Those type of hip-hop songs were not the life they were living. That's not what they understood or appreciated. Then they heard a song of more substance to them. I'm happy to have finally had access to an audience who normally would not have checked out a hip-hop record. Now they're like, "Man now I listen to so much hip-hop. Thank you, you opened me up to hip-hop."

Obviously, you're influenced by punk yourself. You make references to Minor Threat, Fugazi, GG Allin. You were also a slam poet. What roles do they play in your music?

I only listened to hip-hop as a kid, I would never listen to anything else. I was always scared of losing a hip-hop stripe for checking out some other kind of music. In 1996, the whole Chronic era of hip-hop annoyed me and I just wasn't feeling hip-hop like I used to. I had friends in college who were into the hardcore [punk] scene. So I went and checked out some hardcore shows.

I recognized that these groups were selling their own merchandise. They had made their own tapes, they were selling magazines they put together themselves. I was introduced to the DIY movement in music which was not prevalent or even existent in hip-hop. Hip-hop was major label driven. Hip-hop was very mystical. I didn't understand how the hell you get a record out. I didn't understand how you get records into stores.

When I saw the DIY ethic in punk rock, I realized, "Wow, you don't need a million dollars to put out a record. You really can start out small, selling [your record] to friends, and put on your shows and do everything yourself." Of course it's not gonna be big, of course you're not gonna make a lot of money. But at least you're gonna be doing music and at least you're gonna do what you love. Starting at that point, I built my own record label which was Strange Famous records. I started selling my own music to the point where I could quit my job. I started doing music full time, did "Personal Journals," started putting out more official albums. The more the money came in, the more official I could get.

Technology was changing quite rapidly at that point. I wasn't even on the Internet in 1996. 1997, 1998 comes and now I got an e-mail address. Now I figure out, "Whoa, I got access to the whole world." Boom, Napster happens. Free file-sharing network where everyone has my music, where I'm able to tour the world without having an album out yet. That just took the DIY movement to a whole new level of "I don't care if you buy my record or not, if you like my music come to a show." Bang. More money comes in. Now my career has developed well beyond where I ever thought it would simply by sticking to my guns and making the music I enjoy. Quality music that I didn't let outside influence change what I was saying or how I sounded. That allowed me to flip off all the hip-hop labels who I thought were pushing me in the wrong direction.

Meaningful, political, and socially conscious hip-hop was more prevalent in the early 90s/late 80s with groups like Public Enemy. From a rapper's perspective, what happened? What factors contributed to the suppression of the political and active voice in mainstream hip-hop?

The political and active voice is still there. It never went away. It just that there's a kind of hip-hop that caters and panders to the lowest common denominator. It's the cheapest, cheesiest, easiest music to make that you know a mass amount of people will easily accept and buy in to and will generate a lot of money.

Therefore, a lot of publicity and promotional power goes into that kind of music. Therefore, that's all the media will cover, that's all you'll get to hear about unless you dig a little deeper and find artists that are making music that has more substance to it.

Groups like PE I think were the pinnacle of hip-hop and its purpose. The reason why I think it came about. The sound that it had, the aggression, the revolt, rebelling against the status quo was essential to its cause and the reason why I think hip-hop existed.

Now we're in an era almost 20 years later and a lot of things have changed. Technology has changed, people have changed. Society isn't better. The purpose for that music hasn't gone away. And for all these artists who have benefited from pandering to the lowest common denominator and for them not to feel any kind of responsibility for not doing the right thing for social improvement is upsetting.

What motivated you and Bernard Dolan to launch KnowMore.org?

It was Bernard's brain child. He had thought it up. I thought it was a brilliant idea. In fact, I couldn't believe that it didn't exist already, to have an organization that supplied the public with info to figure out who owns what business. Where the money goes, how do they treat their workers, are they someone worth supporting, do you want to put your money into this company.

So he's like listen, we have to buy the technology to catalog and archive info on every company we can get info on and allow the public at large to also edit and contribute info about these companies. He gave me the bill and was just like, "It's gonna cost this much money, whad'ya think?" I think this is an awesome idea and I'm willing to pay for this, so I funded the project. I also know that I have a politically active audience. So I said, "Let's open this up to my forum, let's open this up to my audience at first. Let them kickstart this project so it can grow." So that's where we are now. We're on this tour promoting KnowMore.org and we've got like 40,000 hits a day and we expect that to grow more and more.

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