When people ponder over the Rhode Island Hip Hop Scene, one name will always come to mind, Sage (Paul) Francis. Sage is one of the most talented, most original, & most conscious hip hop artists of the 21st century. In an atmosphere polluted with saturated label acts, his veracious style & creativity is so unclouded and unique, that most true hip hop fans would advocate the fact that he rightfully deserves an glass vitrine inside the Hip Hop Hall of Fame — a section that would be jammed packed with people of all ages & cultures, aching to pay homage to the Personal Journal himself.
He’s an genuinely multifaceted artist, dabbling in everything from battling, social & political activism, even spoken word — but what truly separates him from the rest is his choice to ignore the footprints of others, in an brave attempt to create his own.
Our very own Cory Clendening (Rugged Eros) reached out to Sage Francis after he wrapped up another grueling tour, and some how got him to take a break from his much needed vacation to answer a few questions. Here is that interview.
Cory: Let’s start off with something we all can relate to, what was it that truly inspired you to pick up the mic? At first were you buttoned up with your interest in hip hop? And when was that moment you realized, “wow, I’m actually pretty good, I feel incredibly comfortable doing this.”
Sage: “Before I discovered hiphop I was writing and interested in rhyme games as a kid. Once I heard hiphop I was immediately drawn to it. I tried to get my hands on as much of it as I could. It’s probably good that it was tough for me to find because it inspired me to make my own rap songs. I kept a lot of the material I made a secret until I was confident that it was good. The one moment where I realized I could take things to the next level was after winning my first talent contest at a dance club. It was a great experience, feeling the energy of a crowd while performing for them.”
Cory: When did you approach the world of spoken word? What (or who) inspired you to turn the beat off and allow people to focus simply on just your message?
Sage: “A woman named Patricia Smith performed at my college back in 1996. She totally captivated me and the whole audience using nothing but her words. She didn’t even need a mic. It inspired me a lot, and since I didn’t really have anyone making beats for me at the time I figured that this is something I could try out. Soon after that I started attending poetry readings at which point I needed to pay a lot more attention to the content of my writing, rather than just relying on flow and rhymes. It was good to be exposed to a new audience as well. It challenged me and helped me broaden my subject matter.”
Cory: How did your friendship with B. Dolan come about?
Sage: “We grew up about 10 minutes apart from one another but I didn’t meet him until he moved back to RI from NYC. That was about 1 year after I had moved back from NYC. We both moved to Brooklyn around the same time but still never met one another til we were back in RI. A mutual friend of ours recommended that he contact me once he arrived in Providence. He hit me up and asked for me to help out with some poetry program he was doing to help out at-risk youth. By that point in my life I was pretty sure that the poetry community had nothing of value to offer me OR ‘the youth’ (which may or may not be true, but I really was sick of it by that point.) So I blew him off. I think B. Dolan went on thinking that I was an arrogant piece of shit for the next couple of years until we reconnected a year or two later. The first major project we worked on together was the development of knowmore.org and then it was all music related after that point.”
Cory: You are known as one of the elite (but retired) battlers in hip hop, for example you won the Superbowl Battle in Boston in 1999, and the Scribble Jam in Cincinnati in 2000. What was it that you were searching for with battling? Was it just for fun? Or was there an underlining purpose? How do you feel about today’s battle scene? And are there any current battlers who stand out to you?
Sage: “While coming up, I tried getting in front of any mic that I could. Whether it was a talent contest, a battle, open mics, a slam, college radio, whatever. It was a way for me to spread my music and name to people outside of my immediate community. That was the original motivation.
However, battles were definitely a passion because we have that competitive spirit in hiphop. On a small level, that’s how we proved our worth. We earned our scars and we earned our badges in the battles.
Although it probably doesn’t hold much weight these days, the Superbowl Battle was probably the most important for me. That’s how I earned respect on the east coast and New England in particular. Almost every participant in that battle had vinyl or an album released except for me and I worked my way through some of the most respected names in our area.
Although I already had a reputation as a battle rapper in Providence, the Boston crowd wasn’t really aware of that so the surprise factor definitely worked out for me. That was the most rewarding victory for me. The Scribble Jam battle holds more notoriety, so winning that a year later gave me more notoriety but it didn’t feel as electric. That’s probably because there were 100 people in the battle so it went on for farrrrr toooo loooong. By the final round everyone was itching to get the hell out of there, including me and Blueprint. Today’s battle scene is a whole other beast. It’s geared more toward internet viewing. The whole Grindtime thing has it’s own charm and I can see the value in it, but some of those guys wouldn’t last a minute in front of a big crowd while freestyling over whatever beat the DJ throws on. That’s just the truth of it. That doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is less entertaining.
But, yeah, it’s clear that some of these guys couldn’t ride a beat to save their life. I suppose that’s why the old format had to die out, because there really weren’t too many people who hang and do enough impressive shit to keep an audience’s attention. Especially not when it is captured on camera and posted on the internet for people to view forever. That was a long answer but it could have been longer. I have a lot to say about stuff like this. Hahaa. I don’t have a favorite battler at the moment. There are a few really funny dudes.
Cory: How did knowmore.org come about? The webpage/movement is an amazing source for truth & information, you fully expose the injurious culpability corporations are constantly masking. What influenced you to to say “hey, if nobody wants to wake up in this country, then it’s time to be a Martyr and sound the alarm” — (as oppose to being like everyone else and pressing the snooze button).
Sage: “B. Dolan came up with the idea of putting together a website that would assist in responsible consumerism. After Bush won his second term we decided it was important for people to realize that we vote with our wallets every day, so be careful of the companies you support. I was surprised that a website of the sort didn’t exist already, but now I understand why we were the first. It’s not easy getting funding when your purpose is to make the unfiltered truth easily accessible to the public.”
Cory: Now it’s obvious in today’s “hip hop” world, music has been tremendously dumbed down. What was it that inspired you to use polysyllable “multi’s”, metaphors, punchlines and other forms of wordplay? Knowing that becoming a socially Conscious Rapper could result in having no chance at a major label market. As well, what inspired your style/substance of patriotism & lyrical assault on Americana (as appose to throwing on some MC Hammer pants and doing the Stanky Leg)? You’ve certainly become the hip hop version of ‘Rage Against The Machine’, an over-bearing activist of profound infallibility.
Sage: “I don’t think I’m hiphop’s version of RATM. I think they are alt-rock’s version of Public Enemy. And I think we were both inspired by Public Enemy, but I’ve been careful to not get pigeonholed as a strictly political rapper. I don’t really want that position. I make my political statements when I feel like they need to be made, and I address politics in my music, but I am not inspired or motivated by politics in general. Not when I make music anyway. As far as the writing techniques I use, they are all tools. I push myself as a writer in ways that a lot of other emcees truly don’t understand. I reject what’s easy. With challenge comes reward. People challenge themselves in various ways, but this is something I’ve always done to keep song writing interesting and fun for myself. One thing I’ve always tried to do is make my rhyme schemes and literary techniques seem incidental to what I’m saying. Other people emphasize their multi’s…like, ‘oh SHIT…did you hear what I just RHYMED right there???’ But if the rhymes don’t fall together naturally I don’t understand why it matters. I prefer for it to sound accidental. Almost as if it was always meant to be that way and you just discovered it for others to enjoy. No forcing it”.
Cory: You have a pretty diverse roster at Strange Famous, from your own Providence native Prolyphic, to one of Maine’s premier MC’s Alias. But one person who truly stands out is that county boy from Nova Scotia, of course I’m talking about Buck 65. How did you meet him? And what was it that made you feel Buck had a home at Strange Famous?
Sage: “In 1998 I received a 3rd generation dub of his Vertex tape. I wore that tape out, front to back. He opened me up to the whole idea that a rap song didn’t NEED a chorus. That might be a simple idea but at the time it kind of blew my mind. It’s like…he said what he wanted to say and then the song ended. No hook, no frills, yet…it was great. I was in talks with Sole at the time so I asked him for Buck’s phone number. I called him up out of the blue and asked him for beats. Haha. I received my first beat from him about 10 years later. Whatever the case, I first met him in 1999 when I flew out to Nova Scotia to record some music with him. We hit it off really well. It turns out we have a very similar background and we share a lot of the same philosophies in regard to hiphop and other things. By the time Strange Famous Records was running all pistons he graciously offered to let us release his material in the states. Unfortunately he was locked into a deal with Warner Brothers Canada so it’s a pain in the ass to work out the business side of things, but we do our best to make sure he gets the exposure he deserves.”
Cory: With your new album Li(f)e, you took a daring approach with the mixture of spoken word & indie-rock, giving us fans a different side of Sage, much different from your earlier work like “Personal Journals” & “The Human Death Dance.” With the production, you recruited a backing-ensemble that consists mainly of members of the post-roots-rock band Califone, as well as Chris Walla, Mark Linkous, & Jason Lytle. What were your inspirations for this album? What made you think outside the hip hop box?
Sage: “The production is different but I’m not sure my rhyme style or content is different. It has a different sound overall, which I suppose requires the listener to switch gears a bit. I went about the writing the same way I usually do. Mainly, I stuck a power drill to my temple, then I took a steak knife to my chest, and I let it all pour out. I threw away the stuff that I thought was junk and kept the stuff that I thought could be useful. Sound-wise, I was excited to work with new people and have different arrangements to work with. There was a fair amount of challenge involved there and that was the funnest part of making the album.”
Cory: And finally, the corny question everyone asks, but still has an impact. What do you have to say to those up and coming hip hop/poetry artists out there? I’m talking about the artists who refuse to follow Major Label mechanics, the kids who still have an appreciation for proper lyricism — the ones who live to write, not write to live.
Sage: “I recommend people just keep pushing themselves. Find your own voice, avoid cliche as much as possible, and give people a glimpse of who you are as a person. That’s the one thing that will remain true throughout the course of your career and your life. If you aren’t displaying your true self in your music then it’s ultimately a total waste. Trends aren’t worth following unless you expect to hit the lottery. And even if you win the lottery, don’t expect respect to come with that.”
We want to thank Sage Francis for the opportunity to ask him a few questions, he’s always been an kind person with a straight edge opinion. You can check out his new CD “Li(f)e” which is available at Life is just a Lie or his website Strange Famous (which has all of his other CD’s, including clothes, DVD’s, & More) — We definitely recommend checking out his new CD, it’s a phenomenal piece of music. You can also follow Sage (not literally) @SageFrancis or on Facebook .