Providence, Rhode Island emcee and independent record label owner Sage Francis has high hopes for his run of shows coming through the Western Slope during the holiday weekend. Getting his start, and inevitably thriving in the underground hip-hop scene with a series of classic mixtapes, Sage found success in grassroots business practices and conscious lyrical content. Now 17 years into his career, the rapper has notched his belt as a writer on five critically acclaimed albums, and has made a name for himself as an elite performer across the country. Before he rips through Boulder, Grand Junction and Durango to help celebrate the 4/20 weekend proper, the gifted wordsmith took some time to connect about his formative years, how he sees the world now, and what to expect from him in the future.
Tell me about coming up in the Providence hip-hop scene, and what pros and cons came with finding yourself in such an unsuspecting hip-hop scene.
I think at first it was a disadvantage, but the cool thing about the placement of Rhode Island is that it’s in between Boston and New York City. During the 80s and 90s a lot of the touring acts came through Providence, so our great talent pool had access to shows. It was very active, the battle scene was heavy, and some of the most talented cats I’ve ever come across from there pushed me as an emcee. With that being said, nobody was really checking for a Providence-based rapper, we were pretty much doing it for ourselves, but when the independent scene kicked off we had already honed our skills and knew we had to push beyond what was expected of an emcee in a show environment. I think that is why places like Minneapolis and Columbus also found success in the same way. The independent acts had to raise the bar to get the recognition they deserve.
Your relationship seems to run deep with punk rock, from releasing your last three albums on the punk label Epitaph, to DJing in your early days at the punk club CBGB in New York City. Did you grow up being influenced by that genre, and find your message is in line with many of those themes?
I was influenced by the spirit of the genre. I wasn’t a punk kid other than listening to The Dead Milkmen and some Suicidal Tendencies. It was really hip-hop or nothing for me. I think a lot of people were like that back then. The Internet has changed youth culture, but when I was a kid you picked your style of music and that was all you listened to. I’m not saying that’s good, but in terms of developing my style and learning as much as I could the history, that was important for me. In college I did get a deeper introduction into the hardcore scene, and that also taught me some lessons in DIY ethics, people doing for self. That has been very important for me and my career.
Speaking of, you started your own indie label Strange Famous Records in order to distribute your literally self-made mixtapes. If you dropped an album now would it be on your old label umbrella ANTI, or on Strange Famous Records?
The plan right now is for the next album to come out on Strange Famous Records. After fulfilling my contract with Epitaph/ANTI, I am now looking to release on my own. Not that we have nearly the same resources as those bigger labels, but at the same time it’s mine. We can put the focus on one album release. That part excites me because under a variety of labels, none of them really blew me away with how they dug their heels in to push the records. I have been doing a lot of writing and creating, and also thinking about how I want to move forward in my career, so this will be a huge step.
For people that have never seen you live, what’s your touring setup? Do you travel with a DJ and switch up sets that span your discography?
It changes from tour to tour, and even year to year. If I am promoting an album I will focus on that and sprinkle in the fan favorites from the past, but right now that isn’t where I am at. For this tour I am mixing up my whole catalogue, going as far back as 1997, and also doing new songs that no one has heard before. It’s just me. I have done tours with a seven piece band or a DJ, but these shows, which I am also most comfortable with and find to be the most fulfilling, is just me on stage with a microphone making sure the crowd has a good time. I also hope I send them home with something to think about.
You made waves in wake of 9/11 with your track “Makeshift Patriot.” Right now we are seeing the exact same media treatment for the bombing at the Boston Marathon, that you about back in 2001. Given both events happened in your region, have your thoughts about that changed, or does the current reality just reinforce those notions?
I have to tell you I have been glued to the news since yesterday, just like I was after 9/11. I think the reaction is almost post-traumatic stress flashback, and the results are shoddy journalism, replaying of clips, and people hungry to start placing blame without knowing what’s going on. Right now I’m sitting on it and taking it in, until I know who is responsible for it and why. More importantly, I’m thinking about what we could possibly do to stay more aware, but we are right in the thick of it now. Just today in Providence there was a bomb scare. Knee jerk reactions without knowing enough, but with the 24 hour news cycle they are pressured to create something out of nothing. It’s funny because people beyond underground hip-hop circles didn’t really care what I had to say when “Makeshift Patriot” first came out, but what inspired it was all the misinformation that rattled the part of me that has a degree in journalism. It was the feeding of fear and need for retribution that might be unfounded, and which could turn into fodder for a war. That is really why I wrote that track, and of course, the wars did end up happening.
Tell us about your labelmate Prolyphic that is on tour with you now.
Prolyphic was the first emcee on Strange Famous Records other than myself. He is from Rhode Island and his last record The Ugly Truth came out five years ago with Reanimator, a producer I had worked with a lot. It did really well for us, but he was never much of touring artists because of school and family, but with his upcoming new album Working Man he collaborated with London-based producer Buddy Peace. I took on the role of executive producer for this project because I believe in his message of surfacing the working class struggle by dissecting the roots and catalysts for getting out of it.
For those of us still spinning your 2010 release, can we expect any projects or albums in the near future?
My initial plan is to have it out by the end of this year, but I have about 18-20 songs right now, and I am still building on that. I am going to road test some of those in Colorado and see how that goes.