I caught up with rap/hip-hop/spoken word artist Sage Francis as he hit Southern California on tour in support of his effort, "Healthy Distrust,"' (Epitaph). He was also promoting Knowmore.org, a grassroots, non-profit, Web-based community dedicated to chronicling and resisting corporate attacks on democracy, workers, human rights, fair trade, business ethics and the environment. This sounds like an ambitious undertaking, but it's all just another day for Francis.
Growing up in Rhode Island, Francis started rapping at age 8 and by 12, he would sneak out of the house to battle other Providence emcees and enter talent contests. In 1996, he recorded his first official demo tape and within a year and a half, had a live band, Art Official Intelligence, and his own radio show, "True School Session,"' on WRIU, the state's leading independent station. He won Superbowl MC Battle in Boston in 1999 and went on to garner the 2000 Scribble Jam freestyle title. Francis' spoken word has been featured in many commercials. And known for his political opinions, Francis is often referred to the Rage Against the Machine of his genre.
I begin by asking him why he was rapping so young.
"You're eight years old and you're curious about the world and excited about it and you do what you love," Francis replies. "I was really into hip-hop, I thought it was fantastic, I wanted to involve myself and just do it. That's when you're a kid. It's different than an adult. Adults seem to become dead to the things they love, they just want to witness things. They're not so prompted to involve themselves for some reason. I just involved myself.
"I wanted to do it and so I started doing it and teaching myself, making use of my time and using my imagination," Francis goes on. "I kept doing it and never lost the passion. I developed the passion, I built upon it, I learned other things, I studied up and I just kept the path going, I didn't stop. I've been continuing the same path since then.''
"How did your parents react?" I wondered.
"At first they were confused by it, I think intrigued and they were kind of giddy about it all. They bought me a couple of rap CDs in the beginning, but then they began to question it more. Then when I sensed that maybe they weren't totally cool with it, I just kept it to myself because I didn't ever want them to use it as something they could punish me with." Francis explains, "They knew I was really into hip-hop and that I was learning things through hip-hop, stuff that they weren't even all too familiar with and I just liked keeping it my own thing. It was something that they couldn't take away from me or something that they could use to do anything to me with.
"I kept it totally private as long as I could, up until just when things were getting so big and I had involved myself to a degree that I couldn't really hide it. That was probably in college,'' Francis laughs. "`I started doing shows in the local area and releasing material and eventually it all made it back to them. But still to do this day I try not to involve them too much in what I do. I don't want their opinions ever to affect my creativity or what I express to the public. I don't like that, I don't ever want to feel like I'm doing it for them or censoring myself for their sake. It exists completely out of that realm.''
"It's difficult," Francis goes on. "Your relationship with your family, there's so many ties there, there's a lot of deep-seeded weirdness and I don't really want to sift through all that and then come out with whatever's left and make that my creation. I have to completely ignore all of that.''
Francis is a smart cookie too with a degree in communications from Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts and one in journalism from the University of Rhode Island.
"I originally went to Dean College, which is in Franklin, Massachusetts, to play football actually. I had also just graduated high school, didn't know what to do, I needed to buy some time; athletics was my meal ticket to a degree," Francis recalls. "But I didn't even end up playing football once I got into college. I just completely delved into the academics because at that point I was paying 20 Gs, I didn't feel like ignoring my studies. As a high school student, I was a poor student, I didn't really care at all, then when I realized I'm paying for this, heh, it put a lot more value on it and I decided I needed to get the most out of it that I could and football had nothing to do with that.
"After Dean College, I went to the University of Rhode Island and acquired my bachelors in journalism. I involved myself in the radio and all the extra-curricular activities and activists groups and was developing myself in the social scene and trying to make use of the community, which I had never done before either. I was such a private person up until that point, coming from a very isolated area, growing up as an only child and all. I was really excited just to finally do something different, be with a bunch of people. I made the most of it there.
Francis continues, "And after college, I had no desire to follow through with what I was taught as far as career goes. I wasn't interested in reporting for someone else's newspaper or writing someone else's stories. I wasn't interested being a lackey at a TV station. So I went and served ice cream at Ben and Jerry's just to pay for rent and I decided to use the rest of my time developing my art and exploring all different kinds of scenes-- the spoken word scene, the battle scene, the independent music scene, learning about the music industry. I started making money that way and got to the point where I could finally quit the job, which definitely wasn't career-oriented. It got me to this point now, where I just kept building upon it and building upon it, never stopped."
Working so hard, I am curious what Francis does for fun.
"I'm not much of a fun guy," He replies. "I mean my music's my fun in life. Getting into the show and just kicking people in the ass, that's what I find fun. Learning about my situation and other people's situation and figuring it all out, that's what I do for enjoyment. It keeps me relatively sane. I have no qualms about it. I'm not much of a party guy, I never went out to the clubs to look for girls or drink. That wasn't something that interested me. It always felt like those things were distracting me from what really mattered in my life. I lost a lot of girlfriends that way, but the tried and true are still around.
"Everybody always cries about nothing's happening for them, but at the same time they find a reason to celebrate every weekend. I don't understand, what are you celebrating? What's all this partying about?'' Francis adds.
I comment that despite his success, Francis is one of the most DIY artists around.
"Absolutely very DIY," Francis assents. "It was the only way I was able to make anything work for myself. I don't think it could have happened any other way. Any other way, you're looking or waiting for other people to do stuff for you and to be honest, once they start doing that, they start to affect your music and they start to affect your direction. They feel like they have some entitlement to you and what you do because they're investing in you. It's fair.
"Another thing that annoys me is artists that are always complaining about their label and how something was fucked up by somebody else and that's why they're in a bad position. They just have no excuse because they allowed these people to invest in them and now they owe these people,'' Francis comments.
Francis' songs have interesting layers and intriguing lyrics. I am interested in getting some insight into his writing process.
"I write all different ways," Francis begins. "There's no particular pattern I follow. The best way to do is to let an idea develop in your head and concentrate on it, meditate on it and let it evolve and once you feel it going somewhere special, somewhere you haven't been before, once you've got the correct combination of words, you put it down. Maybe you put it down for a little while, maybe return to it in a year or two or three. Consider all the other things you've ever done in the same way, look for connections and see how it applies to you, to your voice. Because you have to develop your own voice as a writer. It offers consistency, which is nice. I haven't really found any one particular way which is best. I keep trying out new stuff. I like to have different styles come out. I like to have different kinds of deliveries, execution of thought, I like to offer a variety. It's been doing me good up to this point.
Francis goes on, "I think on this next record, I do want to stick to just one particular style or method of writing and let that album have a personality through it. On 'A Healthy Distrust,' a lot of that was scraps from the years when I wasn't quite ready to put out so much social commentary. Whereas my first solo album was really personalized, it was very introspective and all about me. In a way there's social commentary there, but isolated.''
"You're known for political commentary," I remark.
"Yeah," Francis says. "There's a saying that goes once you get political, you cut your friends in half.''
"But you're not afraid to do that," I reply.
"No, but a lot of people are and I guess that opened up a field for me. I don't understand what the fear is there.''
Francis and I discuss the freestyle side of his performances.
"That's become a pretty big part of my career development actually, the whole improv and freestyle." Francis explains, "In battles it was pretty important, but also in live shows and working with your environment and creating a special situation that really deals with the moment. You've got to do it. To ignore that, to not be open, to not have that gate open, I think you're really cutting yourself short. You have to allow for the opportunity for fuck-ups. Those things in themselves can become charm. Be flawed, that's what people understand, people will respect it and you have to come to terms with that. Not everything that comes out of your mouth is going to be perfect. Within those fuck-ups every so often you just hit something that's so great and spontaneous and just for that moment it couldn't have worked any other time by any other person. You've got to stay open to those things, you can't close yourself off to those opportunities, but within those opportunities are fuck-ups. Some people just can't deal with it. They're so self-conscious they can't allow themselves to look like they don't have the whole world figured out. That's just ridiculous.''
So what does Francis think of today's music scene?
"It's constantly evolving while staying young," Francis laughs. "There's a 14-year-old born every day and those are the people who live the music, so that's always interesting. I consider that every time I go out on tour that there's always a bunch of new young kids that haven't ever seen me before with new perspectives on music and who I am and that keeps me changing, keeps me interested.
"The hip-hop scene has become very strange. It's really not the same scene it was 10 years ago," Francis goes on. "Hip-hop in general is currently in a place where you have a black audience and a white audience thinking what kind of hip-hop they prefer and not much melding of the two. That's unfortunate because for a while it was going really well, as far as hip-hop goes, in bringing people together, people sharing ideas and people learning from each other, cultures coming together. Now there's more clashing than there is anything else. And the more that white people got involved in independent hip-hop, the bigger it grew and more white people got involved in themselves. It can appear as white versus black when you compare independent to mainstream music and hip-hop. That's what a lot of people are dealing with right now. That's really not something for me to figure out, I'm not here to make sense of it all, but I will acknowledge it and I will point it out and say that America's fucked up and this is a result of that. People aren't on the same page.''
The Internet has been a great help for Francis' career.
"It was a big part in me accessing the world," Francis says. "Breaking out of a local community and being more than a New England artist. This is where Sweden was able to download my music, Napster was at it's height and my stuff was all over the place. I didn't really understand Napster, I never downloaded music and at first I was really upset by it. I was really disturbed by the fact that here I am a starving artist, I'm trying my best to get my career off the ground and I'm trying to sell some units and I find out that everybody's downloading my stuff.
"The Internet thing has helped the independent scene explode," Francis goes on. "It basically put the consumer in the driver's seat and let them hear musicians and pick who they decided was good rather that fall victim to the hype machine of the major labels and get tricked into thinking emcee so-and-so is the hottest thing on the block now and they all go out and buy the album and feel gypped. I know that's a bad term to use, I guess jew is a better term, they were jewed.''
Francis offers simple advice for other's seeking to follow his path, "Forsake your surroundings and don't expect to be happy in the end.''
"You're not happy?" I blurt.
"Ummm," Francis ponders. "I don't think I'm generally a happy person. I don't think that's a goal either. It would be nice to eventually kick back and enjoy myself and the world, but I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet.
"In all seriousness, if somebody wants to follow in my footsteps, they have to consider that they have to sacrifice a lot of things that they may enjoy in their life, which is a social life, which is a family life and those are pretty big things," Francis returns to my original question. "We're conditioned to believe that those things are most important in our society and to a degree they are, but also to another degree they're huge things that hold us back from following dreams and from exploring the world and learning about other people and cultures. We create all these anchors for ourselves and we get locked down to our home situation and always have a bunch of excuses for not doing what we always thought we'd get a chance to.
"I kept pushing away, I've lost some pretty amazing people in the process," Francis reflects. "At the end of the day it's difficult to weigh the pros and the cons of my life and figure out if it was what was best, but I'm not working at a shitty job, I'm doing what I want to do whenever I want to do it and I'm happy about that.''
Francis has even left long-term relationships because he was held back.
"I think it takes a special person to be that self-aware and be able to sever that tie. It doesn't mean that that has to be forever, but some people take it that way and maybe it does turn into that,'' he says.
His future is looking good with his first DVD, "Life is Easy,'' released this past October.
"I'm really happy with it," Francis bubbles. "I've never even watched anyone else's DVD, I never got into the whole DVD thing, but I went about it the way I do mix tapes, so there's a lot of hi-fi stuff and a lot of lo-fi stuff and just mix in between, random scenes I've been able to capture and stuff that's been given to me over the years I find that's interesting or entertaining. It's a funny DVD for the most part.''
Francis is also putting out a live album, ``Road Tested,'' which includes the best recordings from his past three tours, including spoken word, material with his band and more. If that's not enough, a mix tape style CD, "Still Sickly Business,'' which is a compilation of unreleased tracks, is available. For this collection, Francis invited visitors to his Web site to tell him which songs they didn't like the most.
"I felt that I was getting overwhelmed with my own catalog and I had to discontinue two of the discs and what I did was crunch them together and used the best material from both and made one final CD out of it. It has a more official feel to it now," Francis says.
Francis still resides in Providence, Rhode Island and has his own label, Strange Famous Records. He is working on developing his business further and helping out other musicians he feels need exposure.
I offer Francis an opportunity to tell me something he would like to share with DaBelly readers.
"The company I'm promoting on this tour is one I developed with a friend of mine called Knowmore.org," Francis tells me. "It's a consumer awareness Web site. Basically, it's a huge data base that's meant to educate the people on companies, allow them to find out who owns any company, if there's a parent company, what there business history has been, what they're like economically and environmentally. The slogan is 'Vote with your wallet.'
"It's about empowering the consumer and changing our world by how we spend our money because we live in a capitalist society and everybody I think has been programmed to think that what they do doesn't matter and they're pretty incidental on what's offered to them in this world and it's just not true." Francis continues, "All these companies that we pump billions of dollars into are a big reason why the quality of our life is lowered because we support the bad guys too often. These are the bad guys that dictate what laws can pass and what laws don't get passed, who ends up in office, which candidates end up being our only two choices. We're trying to break down the matrix basically.
"It's a pretty big deal to me, I'm pretty proud of it," Francis boasts. "I think it's a long time coming and when people check it out they start to just make more sense of what's happening in their community. How come there's a McDonald's on every corner? And Ole, who happens to be owned by McDonald's? How did it happen that they ended up shutting down the local burrito shop? Making sense of stuff like that.
"I felt prompted to (form Knowmore.org). You hear everybody talk a bunch of games, but nothing develops out of it and there's so much to do. Especially with all the support I've gotten over the years, what am I going to do with my money? I don't care to buy a Corvette or anything, I just want to make use of that and give back a little bit and we'll see what happens," Francis concludes.
Before letting Francis go, I ask him if performing solo with pre-recorded material is a bigger challenge than working with a band.
"It is if you don't know how to do it, I personally do," Francis laughs. "I feel real comfortable with it. I have a lot of spoken word experience, I've developed myself as a solo artist, I don't work with people too often so being all by myself, it feels most comfortable. It really feels like home that way. I have no problems with that, I just hope people don't think I'm being lazy.''
I sure don't!
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