Sage Francis is a poet laureate. Crowned with a sweaty brow and an open palm, his movements are deliberate and without reservation. The mercurial wordsmith and the Rhode Island emcee released his newest record, “Li(f)e,” earlier this year. The LP, not atypical of the artist’s intellectual bloodletting, uncoils with introspective buoyancy. Enlisting some of the biggest movers in the music industry, Francis cut tracks with members of Calexico, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sparklehorse. Even with the aforementioned artists, the record is entirely his own. Fencing with existentialism, Sage has released one of the most interesting records of the past decade. Cinema Spartan interviewed the Strange Famous label owner about the passing of Guru, music journalism, and the future of hip-hop.
Robert Patrick: One of the only constant hip-hop voices, Urb Magazine, has stopped printing their publication due to financial uncertainty. What do you think this will do to hip-hop journalism? Do you envision a resurgence in print media anytime in the future?
Sage Francis: I was gutted when Urb went out of print. They were they ONLY major print publication that covered independent hiphop consistently. Of course we didn’t get much ink, but it’s all we had. That was the one magazine we could rely on in order to give us some coverage outside of the internet. I remember going to the store and checking out Urb from time to time and how excited I’d be to see they had some info on me or my contemporaries. When Urb Magazine tanked that was the end of that. I do not envision a resurgence in print media. Not at all.
The mediums of music and film often seep into one another. Has film ever influenced you, even in the smallest of ways, when writing or performing your material? If so, what are some of your favorite pictures?
Films are highly inspirational to me. They enhance my moods and give me a lot to think about. Film incorporates so many mediums into one. I’m sure this is how most people feel which makes film such a huge industry. I don’t think I could list all my favorites or even recall them at the drop of a dime. During one of our last tour drives we (all the people in the van) decided to list all the great movies. It was a painful exercise and one that lasted too long. And then an hour later we’d blurt out another film like “Fuck…how could I forget that!?” Honestly, I don’t know if I could start this list without feeling like a dick head for unintentionally skipping my actual favorites. I love the cinema. I’m lucky to have a couple independent movie theaters in my city but I also love the big Hollywood flicks as long as the writing is good (which it often isn’t.) Sorry to sidestep the question.
If you had to choose one song as introduction to your music, for a first time listener, which track would you choose and why?
I would choose “The Best of Times.” It’s the very last song I recorded and it gives a great idea of what I’m willing to explore in my music along with the conventions I’m willing to break in order to share my human experience.
If approached, you ever consider scoring an entire film? What type of movie would it be?
A few years ago I was approached to score the entirety of Pride & Glory along with Mark Isham. The director had some amazing ideas on how this could work, but once the concept reached the big wigs at Newline they decided it was too ambitious. They still used my Waterline song at the end but that was just one of the many things we had planned for the film. If I could choose the type of movie to score the entirety of I suppose I could do well with a coming-of-age story or gross/depressing movie like Happiness.
You enlisted contemporary art-icon Shepard Fairey to design your album cover for your upcoming album “Li(f)e.” What were some of the themes that you both talked about when constructing the artwork?
We had a couple long discussions about what we could do for my album cover and when it seemed like we were running out of time I had to think of something that he could bang out quickly. He’s comfortable with portraits so I figured it would be a good idea for him to put his special touch on the photo I’ve been using of myself over the past 11 years. In fact, that same photo was used to parody his “Andre Has A Posse” image at one point and that same image made it into his book. I didn’t even realize that until he sent me a copy and he didn’t realize it until I pointed it out to him. That was a fun coincidence. Once we decided he would apply his style to my mutton chop portrait I asked him to throw in some ambiguous religious imagery. Something to make the religious nuts and the conspiracy nuts wet their panties.
Guru of Gangstar passed away just recently, as I’m sure you know. Being that you are a huge embracer of such monolithic hip-hop artists such as Run-DMC and other genre-shapers from that era, what was your reaction to the premature passing of the formidable emcee?
The weeks leading up to his death put a real bad taste in my mouth. The whole Solar Vs Guru’s family is something that bad movies are made of. If you didn’t pay attention to that stuff, here’s a brief summary. In Guru’s latter years he began working with a producer named Solar who seemingly took advantage of Guru in every regard. When Guru went into a coma, Solar assumed control of Guru’s estate and everything else relating to Guru while pushing the family out of the picture. It’s really gross. It came across as obscene exploitation on Solar’s part and most other people in Guru’s life stated it as such. It’s a great shame that a legend like Guru had to leave this planet with so much negative energy being the main focus of his departure. We will all remember the great work he did over the course of his career. No one wants to go out in the midst of soap opera drama. Guru deserves more than that.
You co-founded www.knowmore.org in 2005. While its not difficult to understand supporting democracy and human rights, what was the catalyst for you creating, then actively supporting, such a website?
I was approached with the idea of creating www.knowmore.org by B. Dolan. This was on the heals of George Bush winning his second election. We decided it was time to put more focus on explaining to people that it’s important to know where your money goes when purchasing products. It’s a consumer activist website, one that we figured existed already but there wasn’t anything of the sort. In a capitalist society, responsible consumerism is ESSENTIAL. We vote with our wallets every day. It’s important for us to remember that fact. So we came up with this website that is wiki-based and open to the public for free (existing only on the generous donations of our users.) We give a full rap sheet on all corporations and we leave the field open for people to make contributions of their own. We judge each corporation based on various fields such as worker’s and human rights, fair trade, business ethics and environmental concerns.
Where do you see hip-hop going in the next ten or fifteen-years?
I can’t even imagine. It’s over 30 years old now and it’s branched out in every conceivable way, whether those branches are widely acknowledged or not. Hiphop is an incredibly flexible artform so I have to assume that it will continue to branch out and adapt to the popular and underground climates as they change and evolve.
Your contract will be up with Anti- after your newest release. Will you rework a contract with the company, or simply release your future records on Strange Famous?
I haven’t allowed myself to think much about it. Strange Famous Records will always be my home and my default label when it comes to releasing my material. If a bigger label comes about and offers me more opportunities or resources than I can get on my own while giving me full creative control then I will certainly consider that option. But the truth is, I don’t give a shit at this point. I spent too many years of my life working day and night to make sure that I wouldn’t have to worry about those things. Luckily, all that work paid off. I’ll keep my options open but I intend on spending my time figuring out various ways to flex my creative muscles and stay engaged with the portion of the public that cares about such things.
You were at Coachella a few years ago, signing autographs, when you were seen scribbling out the name of Ticketmaster icons on venue tickets. What’s your take on this distribution company?
As a part-time show goer I share the same sentiment as anyone who has paid the extortion fees…ahem…I mean “convenience fees.” Ticketmaster has a stranglehold on the industry for the most part and I don’t know how to change that. Some people will blindly assume that a performer can simply sidestep Ticketmaster and still get done what needs to get done on a national tour. If someone can show me how that works I’d really like to see it be done. In the meantime, I’ll gladly take place in a class action suit against Ticketmaster if anyone with some solid legal footing can put that movement into place.
Can you tell us about some of your most memorable experiences doing shows in San Diego?
I remember our van broke down on the highway during a drive to our San Diego show in 2005. We were about an hour away from the venue. We put in multiple phone calls and had a couple different people scoop us up and deliver us to the venue in segmented parts. It was a frantic rush to get done what we needed to get done. During the transportation a couple folks who were supposed to be helping us showed their selfish side and made things more difficult than they needed to be. We arrived to the venue very late. The staff was less than helpful, the bouncers were dicks, the sound guy hated us, and the fans were totally out of the loop as to what was going on. We hit the stage with no soundcheck, totally frazzled and burned out. I can’t remember exactly what happened but I remember there being a frustrated contingent in the crowd about how we were late and how the sound was shitty. In moments such as those I want to jump out of my skin, disguise myself in someone else’s skin and put a shovel to the side of someone’s head.
On your newest record, “Li(f)e,” you worked with a plethora of artists ranging from Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie to Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. What made you bring fourth such an eclectic group of musicians for this LP?
Well, it was a matter of circumstance and opportunity. Being this was my last album with Anti/Epitaph we wanted to make something that was special to our situation. We reached out to musicians to see if they’d be interested in making songs that mixed their style of music with rap. It took a while to find people who were comfortable with the idea, and admittedly it’s not an easy thing for most people to accept or understand, but eventually we got some takers. I worked with their demos and then re-recorded everything with Brian Deck who produced the album in his Chicago studio. I didn’t really intend on working with a plethora of musicians when the idea of this album was first conceived but that’s what ended up happening.
Being that you worked with so many artists on this record, were there any that you didn’t get to work with that you would’ve liked to?
There are a lot of musicians I would like to have worked with. Tons. But since they didn’t come through in time for the sake of my album I’ll hold off on saying their names until something does happen. Fuck it. I don’t know if I should be collaborating with anyone at all. Maybe it’s against my nature. I keep trying to establish relationships with people but it’s always so fleeting. I need to just stick to the path that I know is right for me and learn each and every aspect of the business so I never have to rely on anyone. Wait…sorry. I’m venting.
For more information on Sage, visit www.StrangeFamous.com, www.SageFrancis.net, www.knowmore.org.