The mythology of Sage Francis heavily lends itself to the long-running adage of his victory at the 2000 Scribble Jam Festival. The freestyle battle, easily the most popular of the event’s five competitions designed to highlight hip-hop culture, found Sage dialed in on his rapid fire vernacular as he traded verses with a wordsmith who became none-his-equal, the highly regarded Blueprint. Clad in an atypical Metallica t-shirt, Francis’ victory solidified the beginnings of a reputation rooted in everything but the conventional.
It was this series of events that became fodder for chattering amongst hip-hop’s underground elite. A white boy from of all places, Rhode Island, was now being hailed as the proverbial king of the mountain. Along with the praise also came the criticism of a man unwilling to play by the rules, even in a genre of music in which an artist’s requisite creativity was the tool to break them. As name recognition grew, Francis found his 2001 track, “Makeshift Patriot,” exposing him to the politically weary masses after the events of September 11th. Originally written as a direct response to the media’s coverage of the day’s destruction, the song became a pillar of free thought for individuals looking for a deeper critical commentary of the 24/7 news cycles engulfing the ever present network-news climate.
It was this perceived intellectual responsibility coupled with at times a crass sense of humor that found Sage eagerly able to tow the line between the sacred and the sanguine on the releases over the course of the next 8 years. While his ingenuity has certainly evolved, his perceived mission as an artist has remained the same.
“My responsibility as far as my craft goes, is to speak my mind and present my ideas and passion in the most entertaining way possible,” says Francis in one of his calmer moments. “My craft being hip hop, that’s what inspired me to do what I do. I know a lot of smart people out there who also want to do the same thing but they have don’t have the ability to reach people outside of their circle due to an inability to draw attention to themselves. I like to entertain. I like to provoke thought and have people discuss the kind of things that I bring to the forefront in my lyrics.”
The first hip-hop artist to sign with Brett Gurewitz’s revered independent powerhouse Epitaph Records, Francis has never been one to sit idle, whether that be a result of the demands thrust upon an artist independent of a major label structure or the ability to pursue one’s creative leanings at will. It is this continued drive and desire to retain his lyrical freedom that allowed him to light fires and at times prod his patroning fan base as he explored new themes, colors and emotions.
“It’s tough to answer why I do this or if it’s really for other people,” intones Sage. “I would imagine it’s for a lot of people or I never would have shared it and I never would have kept with it for so many years. I think that I enjoy knowing that I can instigate the audience and make people aware of certain things that they may not have been aware of prior to my own expression of the ideas or concepts. It’s a really privileged position for me to be in and I take it seriously. I don’t take it for granted.”
It’s this commitment to the holy communion between artist and audience that seems to have influenced Sage’s decision to launch StrangeFamous.com in the hopes of distributing not only his expression but also that of other linguistic-marvels such as 2Mex, Mac Lethal and a slew of other prodigally-apt underground artists. Although humility isn’t always on public display for most within hip-hop’s revered pantheon, the unglamorous day-to-day operation of a self-made business is something not lost on Sage Francis and his artistic sensibilities.
“My day-to-day life is a lot of mundane work trying to situate all the business aspects of the industry – running a record label, making sure everything is in-line, facilitating tasks and making sure that none of this is done in a futile way. Really I want to see it evolve and build into something bigger than my own work. As far as the craft goes and what I do artistically, that’s a process that I’ve been building and cultivating for over 20 years so it’s almost a second nature where I keep my receptors out there and certain things will come to me, certain things will process and ideas will just spark and I put them into the format that I’m most comfortable with. Sometimes I switch it up and challenge myself as well as listeners but I try to always make sure that there is a steady, dependable flow of ideas and I guess rhymes. That’s what I do- I make words rhyme. As simple as that sounds, I try to put a lot of interesting things into rhyme form and song structure. Other than that it’s really we’re doing tons of online work running multiple websites and reaching out the audience out there who are within my immediate grasp because I have access to them through the internet.”
When talking to Sage Francis, one easily gets the impression that his conscious evolution from slam poet champion (the Providence slam-poetry team is often credited as ‘The House that Sage Francis Built’) to revered lyricist to record label owner was at times more deliberate than accidental as he began to analyze the emotional quotient of each medium.
“It’s come to a point where the poetry slam felt like a degeneration, like it hurt my overall growth. It felt like it was draining my life and my creativity, and my appreciation of what happens in this world. The same thing with battles – I stopped doing battles not only because of the high-pressure circumstances, but because it wasn’t really contributing anything to my life. Living by the punch-line is a really quick way to fucking kill your creativity. The studio is a cool way of just feeling good about creating stuff and putting it down for posterity’s sake. But live shows are where I think a lot of interesting and unique material can pop up out of nowhere and inspiration can come out of nowhere, where you build off a venue’s energy. And not just the crowd but the venue itself and what it’s offering you as far as space, lighting, and sound goes, where it just kick-starts things that are out of the ordinary…because typically I’m in my home. I live in a house by myself and it’s a very predictable environment that I can operate within. Writing and creating in absolute silence while thinking about words and letting those words inspire other ideas… A flow of consciousness begins to happen and then you can put pieces together and all of a sudden you have this new picture that didn’t exist before.”
It was this nuance of conscious growth that lead Francis to collaborate with fellow poet and artist B. Dolan to create KnowMore.org, a dynamic Wiki-based website dedicated to documenting the ethical footprints of businesses large and small. When asked if his antagonistic nature extended to factual documentations of corporate operations, Sage acknowledges that at times these companies took active notice of the website’s public intent.
“In the 2004 election when John Kerry lost to Bush, B. Dolan was campaigning for Kerry, not because he really thought Kerry was awesome but because we were fucking scared of another 4 years with George Bush. We were really hoping for the best; I mean as a country I thought we were in a horrible place and couldn’t really understand Bush being elected again and then he was and we were devastated. We really felt like the rug was pulled from underneath our feet and we’re like ‘what the fuck can we really do now?’ It was B. Dolan’s idea to create knowmore.org because we felt like the most effective way to combat what we’re against was realizing the impact of the money that goes into companies in a capitalist society. Those companies are the ones that have crazy amounts of power that people don’t knowingly elect into power but they do by spending money and supporting them. So what we said was let’s create a website where people can research easily by plugging in a company’s name and getting their rap sheet. Then they can decide if they want to be responsible consumers by knowing whom they support and whom they don’t. So to realize that something like that didn’t already exist at the time was surprising, and then making it a reality was our goal over the next few years. B. Dolan actually fed the content into the website for a full year so that there would be enough information that people could build on. Since its inception, we’ve definitely had attacks on the website by various companies who either delete all the information about them or contact us and try to have things removed and that’s something we combat. But it’s going really well and I’m surprised by how well Wiki-based technology can work for something like this. It gives a lot of credit to people in general, because when enough people get involved in something, the positive overrides the negative and the truth overrides the lies. If you believe in democracy, this is one great example of how democracy does work. I don’t think anyone should just look at stuff online and take any one source of information as overall truth, but we are a launch pad for people to research on their own. If you look up Coca-Cola or Nestle or Nike or American Apparel you can read various sources of information about those companies and make up your own mind whether you think they’re worth supporting or boycotting.”
Through a strict insistence to play by his own rules while also being cognizant of his own gifts, Sage Francis has now seen his supporters far eclipse any lingering detractors. Through ongoing collaborations with some of the most seemingly juxtaposed artists such as Jolie Holland (2007’s single “Got Up this Morning”), Mr. Francis is preparing to head back into the studio for a forthcoming album to be released in late 2009 or early 2010. With his trademark disdain for compromise if it means forsaking artistic integrity or satisfaction, Sage ultimately believes that his audience is capable of discerning what they will through his ongoing body of work and social endeavors.
“They shouldn’t be looking toward us or anyone else as the be-all, end-all, for what to believe. They should be using their brains. We’re not trying to tell anyone what to believe… We’re really just giving information and trying to keep it as truthful as possible and let people make their choices based on that. People need to start taking responsibility for themselves and stop looking for the answers in one place… They are not all in one book, a movie, one newspaper. This is a process that you have to figure out on your own. It takes a little bit of work, but we’re helping with that. That’s what KnowMore.org is for. We’re helping with that – we’re not the absolute answer but as I said before we’re like a launch pad for you to be able to take off and make decisions on your own.”