Sage Francis plays Whelans on 17th April. Siobhán Kane spoke with him about his love of words, running a record label and being a closet optimist.
Paul “Sage” Francis is one of hip-hop’s rare treasures, the kind of engaged, hugely creative, ethical and interesting individual that elevates the form. Did his time with poetry or hip-hop come first? It is hard to trace it, since Francis remembers his first exposure to words from rhyming games as a child, mesmerised by their rhythm and flow. This love of words has evolved into a series of unusual records from 2001’s The Known Unsoldier Sick of Waging War, to Personal Journals (2002) and last years Li(f)e which act like wordy explosions, full of articulate fury. His own work has benefited hugely from the fact he has run his own label Strange Famous since 1996, because every time he brings new artists into the fold, they often end up collaborating with him at some point, from B. Dolan through to Buck 65 and Reanimator. As well as that, his reputation has drawn other like minds towards him, such as the brilliant Alias (who has produced a lot of his work), Mark Linkous, Yann Tiersen and Jason Lyttle (who worked with him on last year’s Li(f)e) and Will Oldham, who worked very closely with Francis on 2004’s A Healthy Distrust.
Francis is well placed to understand the constraints of hip-hop and over the years, has striven to go beyond. He is regarded as one of the world’s best freestyle rappers, winning various battle competitions over the years, but he is also well-regarded in the world of poetry slam (he was part of the Providence National Poetry Slam team for a few years), and is a central figure in the spoken word movement. All of this has made him something of an oddity in hip-hop, in the best possible sense, he remains an underground figure because he refuses to compromise, and can go from a hypnotic heavy sound on a track like ‘Inherited Scars’ (from Personal Journals), to the delicate, banjo plucking composition ‘The Best of Times’ from Li(f)e; he is a complex artist, and an angry but hopeful believer, Siobhán Kane finds out why.
Do you remember how Strange Famous came to be? Was it by necessity initially? Did you feel there wasn’t a label out there at the time that could nurture what you were doing?
There wasn’t a label for me at all in the beginning. I was hoping someone would come along, scoop me up, put me in a studio and get me shows. From 1992 until 1996 I waited for something like that to happen. However, I don’t even think my friends knew what I was trying to do with my music so rather than waiting around in hopes of being discovered I settled on the idea that I could record myself on a 4track and sell tapes from hand-to-hand. Which I did. And then when CDR technology came about I burned CDs one by one. When I sold enough to build up enough capital I was able to have my music professionally pressed. At this point I had more people willing to buy my music than I could manufacture on my own so this was an important step. This is also when distributors were looking to service my records, so I suppose this is when Strange Famous Records turned into an official label, that was in 2000 or so.
In the period that you evolved Strange Famous, there were some huge labels putting out a certain kind of hip-hop. What kind of industry was it then, and do you think it has changed radically now as a label owner and musician?
I honestly don’t know. I stayed away from the huge labels putting out hip-hop because none of it interested me. I didn’t like their product or formulas for success. I knew I wasn’t a piece that could fit into that puzzle. As a label owner now I pay more attention to it because I like seeing everyone scramble for scraps.
When you created the online version of Strange Famous in 2006, was that quite a leap of faith for you? Everything you have done seems always so well thought-out, did the online idea take a while to evolve in your mind? How have you found that aspect of things?
There weren’t many leaps of faith. Every move I made early on came with assurance that there was public support. I had been doing mail outs manually through a very crude system since 1999 so getting an official store with a staff of mail out workers was a very logical step. I probably should have done that earlier but there’s only so much I can handle at once. It remains to be a steady stream of income and I actually prefer to operate more as a store and a news hub for artists than as a label.
How useful was your time working in radio in the late nineties?
It helped me work out a few kinks in terms of how I address the public and present my music. It definitely helped me build a name locally which then evolved into booking shows. Even having access to the radio station’s facilities was great. I did everything I could with what was made available to me. In fact, the radio station is one of the only reasons I stayed in school and earned a college degree.
You have nurtured other great talent over the years, from Alias to Sole, to more recently Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, how do these relationships happen? Do you find that more and more people are approaching you? I hesitate to ask if there is a criteria as such, but the lovely thing about SFR is that the roster is so diverse, but always quality-led, there is a warm eccentricity and intelligence to it.
I try to work with people who inspire me or people I think are doing great work. But there’s no specific science to our signings. I mainly work with people who I’ve known for a long time and people I think are trustworthy. Sometimes that doesn’t pan out, other times it does. We really don’t think we operate like a label is supposed to, considering how this is a business and we have a lot to lose if things get fucked up. But we’re putting out music we like, we’re working with people who deserve attention, and if I feel strongly one way or another about something I have the ability to act on my impulse. That’s what matters to me more than the bottom line. Until it gets to a point where the bottom line is underlining a completely failed business plan I’ll probably stick with this routine.
When you won the Scribble Jam in 2000, how did that change things? What sets that apart from other battle competitions in the US?
Winning Scribble Jam back then, when it seemed to matter more, gave artists more cache. It became a talking point for media outlets and it gave people a frame of reference. One way in which that can hinder an emcee’s success is if they get pigeonholed as a battle rapper so after that victory I stepped away from the battle scene and focused on my albums and touring career for the most part.
Do you think battle competitions have changed much? Or is it still that sense that the words are the biggest currency? There is something so exciting about that, like poetry slams – where your command of words is something that is elevated.
Everything has changed drastically since my initial involvement. That goes for recording, releasing music, and even battling. The battle scene has adapted to Youtube and come up with a formula that deviates from the original rules and standards while elevating the entertainment value for people sitting in their home watching the battle on a computer. What Grindtime and other organizations like it are doing now is having people come to a battle with prepared verses and they battle with no beat. That way everything the rapper says can be heard and the rhyme schemes are well constructed. In fact, it reminds me a lot of poetry slam, of which I have a low opinion of overall. It all reminds me of professional wrestling, of which I have a high opinion of overall. I’m at an even keel here.
You have a love of poetry and the written word, when did that love begin? Were you an avid reader as a child? Which writers do you think influenced you, and was there a kind of epiphany where you became aware of hip-hop and saw a different kind of poetry and spoken word in practice? You loved rhyme games as a child, that makes a lot of sense.
I like words. I like the meaning behind words, the power of words and how words can team up to kick ass when they’re used in just the right way. I’m still learning obviously. I started writing when I was very young but I’ve never been an avid reader. I also don’t think there’s any particular writer that has been a strong influence on my own writing. Hip-hop provided me a structure in which I could be creative with my words. Spoken word opened up that structure a bit which gave my words and subject matter more room to breathe.
You are very politically engaged, how has your relationship evolved with politics over the years?
I’m still trying to make sense of my surroundings. I’m continually surprised by the lack of heroes.
In an interview in 2004, you said the role of the artist is very important in any culture, how do you think that stands at present in America? There seems to be more funding cuts for arts in schools, and often governments seem to think that art is somehow disposable, or not as critical for society, yet it can be such a critical role because it is reflective by its nature – what are your thoughts?
The artist is important to the strength of people in any location during any time. It’s a constant, universal truth, notice I said ‘people.’ The arts will continue to be cut from funding but we will remain artistic and we will continue to empower ourselves. In fact, I’m starting to believe that the government should stay 100% out of the arts even though I’ve seen international homies benefit from cushy government grants.
You and B.Dolan have evolved Knowmore.org which seems like another labour of love, was that born out of a frustration more than anything? It must take up a lot of time and energy, what drives you both on? It is such a document of your shared kinship as well – that kind of work couldn’t be achieved without a real understanding of each other. Do you feel corporate abuses are getting worse, or are we becoming better at asking questions?
Knowmore.org is definitely a labour of love. My main purpose during its inception was funding it and promoting it while B. Dolan worked to fill it with content and fulfill his original vision for it. We both rallied the public in hopes of getting them involved with Knowmore’s development. We hit a few road blocks in the past year due to website attacks but we’re currently working on something that will hopefully breathe new life into the project. I’m sure we’ll keep running into problems due to the nature of the site, but hopefully we get enough fighters on board to keep all the information we host available to the public at large.
Though you get frustrated with things, you have retained your sense of hope and possibility, it is evident in the way you live your life, and help others to achieve.
I’m glad you sense that. I don’t know why I’d bother doing all the things that I do if I didn’t hope to change things for the better somehow. So, although I often come across as a cynic, I do believe I’m a closet optimist.
Sage Francis plays Whelans on Sunday April 17th. Tickets are on sale now from tickets.ie.