Sage Francis has been both criticized and critically acclaimed for his work in the independent Rap world since he came on the scene with mutton chops and poems. The Rhode Island emcee has a unique delivery, something lauded and loathed by different listeners and his content has received similar reactions. This is nothing new to Sage. He is not afraid of being himself.
From his 2002 Anticon release Personal Journals, he’s given us his interpretation of a genre that inspired him. Boasting influences from Public Enemy to N.W.A. to Kool Keith, Francis maintains that Hip Hop is about unique individuals expressing themselves freely. So while some may claim he is unconventional or unorthodox, he says that’s what Hip Hop is about.
Now, Francis has released Li(f)e, an album that is a departure from “conventional” Hip Hop instrumentals, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The album features various instrumentalists behind the music, artists like Buck 65, DeVotchka, Califone’s Time Rutili and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. His content weaves through personal stories, adding compelling anecdotes and all of this done through symbolism in what he says allows fans to pick their own journey.
HipHopDX spoke with Sage Francis about his writing style, teenage angst, beat choice and how early Hip Hop influences made him “want to not act white.” He went on to share that N.W.A. may have saved him from suicide at a young age and how being nontraditional has allowed him to stay true to himself.
HipHopDX: I know you’ve defined this album as a “pick your own adventure” disc. But, what do you hope fans can take away from this project?
Sage Francis: When I said “pick your own adventure,” that was more in reference to the lyrics and there’s a whole lot to choose from as to how you want to interpret the songs. Some people want to focus on one aspect of a story or another and that’s just how I write. But overall, hopefully, I express something they feel and it enhances their life experience while listening to it. If not, I don’t know. [Laughs] I apologize for it. I’ve been noticing a lot of people wanted a more boom-bap style record out of me. I’m not opposed to doing at some point before I die. Where I’m at right now, it seems like this is the best kind of music I can make for the kind of songs that I write. I was very excited just to have a new sound and work with new people, exploring new territory.
DX: Yeah, just listening to it, you get that vibe. What drove you to this particular style in beat choices and bringing that element to a Hip Hop record?
Sage Francis: Well, first of all, the kind of songs that I write work best with unconventional beat styles. So, even when I write a straight up Hip Hop song or Rap verse, even if I’m using sampled beats, they usually take on a strange twist and go in unconventional territory. This time around, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of different instrumentalists and musicians who had the ability to write with me. It’s not something I typically do because it takes so long for that to work out. It’s a lot more expensive and it takes a lot more people involved for it to be done well. So, I took my time on this last one. [Li(f)e] was my final album with [Epitaph/Anti Records]. I figured, “Why not use their resources and their outreach and tap into bands who never would have thought of working with a Hip Hop artist before?”
DX: You started writing rhymes at an early age. What were those raps like?
Sage Francis: [Laughs] They were very Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Ice-T inspired, even Too Short. Of course, there was a Beastie Boys phase and it was all about me stealing a six-pack of beer, driving my car through the mall and having adventures. There were also sex raps or diss raps. That’s all I wrote, pretty much. It was all about sex or dissing somebody or just a crazy adventure. [Laughs] But, you know what? I still have those songs on tape. Someday, if I feel like just ending it all one day, I will release those.
DX: Like a box set of a young Sage Francis? [Laughs]
Sage Francis: [Laughs] My box set will be like seven CDs worth of my little kid raps that all sucked.
DX: That takes me to something I recently revisited in your song “Mullet.” I found a few things that were interesting there. You really have a deep love for Hip Hop and the history of Hip Hop and it shows on this track. You also talk about not being about the Rock band patches and stone-washed jeans. Now, for years, a lot of your supporters have been Punk Rock/Rock fans that sometimes fit that description. How has it been to see your fan base in that way, so varied?
Sage Francis: Everything is strange. The past 15 years have been strange. But, when I was coming up, you either listened to Hip Hop or Metal or Classic Rock. You picked your genre and that was that. You couldn’t mix and match. That was your identity. We kind of live in a mixtape culture now where people have playlists with every genre mixed in. For some reason, I feel like people don’t gain their identity through just one genre anymore. When I made the “Mullet” piece, it was me retreading what I think is a really small minded outlook on music. I obviously loved Hip Hop. It was one of the only things I ever cared about. It was one of my greatest passions. It disallowed me to accept any other music into my life. I felt like I could only listen to Hip Hop and it was the only shit that mattered. That was because mainstream and pop culture were dissing Hip Hop and not giving it the respect it deserved. So, I just pushed everything else out like, “Hip Hop is where the fuck it’s at.” Eventually, obviously, Hip Hop has permeated every single corner of our culture. It is everywhere. It’s in everything. It is the mainstream. It is the pop culture. It’s what people are born into at this point. What’s funny for me to think about, and what I reference in that poem, is that what I was rejecting about Rock & Roll was the whiteness of it. To me, Rock & roll was white music for white people and that made it corny. To realize that Rock & Roll was stolen from black culture and I was accepting Hip Hop without any kind of idea that the same thing probably will or is happening to Hip Hop. But, yeah, the whole Rock & Roll/Heavy Metal thing…When I finally accepted that every genre has good points and bad points, even Hip Hop, everything kind of evened out a bit.
DX: On the same track, there’s a line about Hip Hop making you not want to “act white.” At some point, there had to be time when you said, I am who I am and this culture and genre will respect me for it. When did that happen?
Sage Francis: Well, there was a long time where, it wasn’t just me, but a lot of white emcees, kind of danced around the fact that they were white and they didn’t make it very public that they were. This was during the 12" era, in the mid-to-late '90s where college radio was huge. You’d get your songs played, people would hear the name but they’d never see the face and obviously underground Hip Hop wasn’t getting a lot of media coverage so press photos didn’t really exist and the Internet wasn’t really around. Eventually, when I stopped giving a shit about that…I mean, I had to go through a lot of changes in my life before I could accept the fact that, “I am who I am and people were going to reject it or accept it. It doesn’t matter. I might as well just fucking lay it all on the table.” That was about ’98 or ’99 when I used the photo of me with the mustache and the mutton chops, which to me was a really ugly, ultra-white look and not Hip Hop whatsoever. When I used that, I figured that’s how I was going to present myself from then on out and be like, “I’m not going to fit into any cool category as far as looks and fashion go and if people are going to reject my music because of how I look, that’s obviously not the fan base I need to worry about anyway.” That’s that. That image turned into my logo for Strange Famous Records and I used it on multiple other things and I think we came full circle with the cover art for this latest album.
DX: The nonconformity of it, the nontraditional aspect…I heard you speak to how that is Hip Hop, thinking about what you grew up on. How can you explain that to folks who say, “No, he’s not a traditional emcee.”
Sage Francis: What makes it difficult to talk about is that everyone’s definition of Hip Hop is different. There’s no shared definition of what Hip Hop is. Trying to tell people what I think about Hip Hop, sometimes I talk about their definition and sometimes I talk about mine. But, as far as I’m concerned, people had to be original. People had to come with their own style. People had to come with their own thing and not just retread the same old shit over and over. Being original and contributing something different made Hip Hop great. It seems like the core base, hard-line Hip Hop kids, who, I’m not sure how old they are, they see something that is different and they automatically discount it like, “That’s not familiar. That’s some other shit.” But, when Kool Keith was going off on all these various different things, that was Hip Hop to me. When Public Enemy came out with their production being so bizarre and strange, that wasn’t how Hip Hop sounded before Public Enemy came out, but they made that Hip Hop. Whether that applies to me in 2010, I can’t really say. In fact, it probably doesn’t apply to me. That’s why I don’t really get upset when people say what I do is not Hip Hop. I obviously Rap. In my heart of hearts, the kind of Rap I do could work just as well over other kinds of music, if I had access to other kinds of music. But, I don’t. I work with my situation. This is the music that makes sense to me. It feels good. I feel rewarded by it. So, I just decided this is what I’m going to focus on. This is how I’ll present myself and present my ideas. It feels the most natural. To me, really, that’s the most important part.
DX: On Li(f)e you get quite personal. I found it interesting that you have mapped out the wisdom you’d impart on your offspring if you ever have kids. “Don't listen when they tell you that that these are your best years / Don’t let anyone protect your ears.” What makes those lessons particularly important for kids?
Sage Francis: Well, I think a lot of times, when people try to tell kids, “Enjoy youth while you got it!” Or, they’ll say, “You’re only 10 years old once.” It always seems like a lie. I remember being that age and how fucking shitty it felt and how little things felt like big things and how you could really be stressed and get fucked up over certain things. Adults don’t give kids enough credit to say, “Alright, that is a fucked up situation. You don’t have your independence, you’re relying on us and you become a victim of whatever we put in front of you.” It depends on what your child is like. I don’t really want to speak for everyone, and victim is a weird word to use. [Laughs] I just wanted to say, if I have kids ever, I want to say, “It’s definitely tough and I understand that sometimes it feels like even little obstacles can feel like they are the end of the world for you but you gotta press on. It happens throughout life. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10, 13, 20 or 40. You overcome stuff and find parts of life to enjoy between those moments.” I think giving kids a clear and fair understanding of what life is really like might save them the shock of when they turn 18 and move to New York City with no idea of how to fucking live.
DX: On another track, “Best of Times,” you talk about wanting to kill yourself because of the note in the locker. Was that autobiographic? How’d you get out of that despair?
Sage Francis: [Laughs] I can’t really remember how I worked myself out of that one, but it probably had a lot to do with my writing and listening to N.W.A. and being very pissed off at the world and trying to ignore how much of a loser I was.
DX: N.W.A. got you through the heartbreak?
Sage Francis: Yeah, man! I mean, I understand how the more hardcore Hip Hop can help people out of situations. I do the other stuff. You know, I make people wallow in their pain.
Much like Sage Francis, the Rhymesayers Entertainment family has been at the head of the independent Rap world for many years. After releases from Atmosphere, Brother Ali, P.O.S. and Eyedea & Abilities, the RSE movement has recently branched out to expand their line-up. As a result, the RSE is now the new home of Grieves, an emcee that has already created his own buzz with independent releases.
Grieves recently spoke to HipHopDX about his long journey, from a small kid in Chicago blues clubs to a “calm” life in Colorado. Grieves honed his skills, eventually moving to Seattle where he was awakened by the Hip Hop community of the area. After moving to San Diego, he has relocated to New York and is working daily to prepare his debut as a member of the Rhymesayers crew.
During our interview, he was candid about his struggles to juggle family and personal life with his music career, something he says has been a challenge. He also discussed early influences, unafraid of saying he listened to Carole King instead of Kriss Kross and recalled his grandfather’s old records. For a young emcee that has already had quite a journey, he let us know how all of those travels have affected him.
HipHopDX: Your father introduced you to Jazz and Blues early on in life. What are your favorite memories from those days?
Grieves: I remember living in Chicago. My pops would always take me to a special place he loved going to on Halsted Street called Kingston Mines. It was like a double venue with two stages. As soon as one act would finish, the other act would go in the other room and everyone would run back and forth. That’s my first memory of him exposing me to the rawer side of music and the live aspect. He would always introduce me to the musicians after the show. I always thought that was cool. My grandfather was a pianist also and I grew up listening to his records. They evaded the Holocaust and came to New York. He gave up his career as a pianist when they fled the Holocaust and when they came here, he got a grocery store. My pops never learned. He got into the soulful stuff in the '60s. When they had us, we grew up pulling records off the shelf.
DX: How does that early influence speak to you now?
Grieves: I’d say that I was comfortable at an early age listening to music that truly inspired me instead of music that was cool amongst my peers. While everybody else was jumping on their beds listening to Kriss Kross, I was listening to Carole King’s Tapestry, which is [Laughs] slightly emasculating for me to say but it’s true. I listened to what my pops would listen to because I saw the way that it affected him and I learned from it, you know?
DX: Right. Now later in life, you lived in Colorado, Seattle, San Diego and now New York. A lot of people that move around a lot say that it has an impact on their outlook and perspective. How did the changes impact you?
Grieves: Well, moving to Colorado from Chicago was the enlightening stage. Life wasn’t really all that great in Chicago. There were a lot of problems and stuff. Then, we got to Colorado. It turned out pretty sour in the beginning. My dad lost his job that he got out there. We were all going to move back to Chicago but none of us wanted to go. My pops really stuck his neck out for us and got us to stay out there. He took a job pretty far away and commuted so we can stay there. It was nice, peaceful and beautiful, with good schools for us. That was awesome. I’m not like one of those rappers that’s like, “I grew up in the hood and shit ain’t easy!” For me, that was awesome. As a family, we definitely have our dysfunction but that’s us. After that, when I got older in that town, I was like, “I can’t just stay here and do that small town little thing where I get eaten up by this place and get somebody pregnant.” A lot of my friends back there don’t really do anything. They drink or they all have kids or some of them are getting divorced already. Shit, I’m 26, you know? Lucky for me, I was able to get what I needed out of that place and I felt like I needed to go. I had a friend in Washington, so I picked up on a whim and moved out there. That was the place where I had no friends so I got to focus on myself and the thoughts in my head and how I really felt about things. That’s when my music began to take a serious, professional side. Out there, it’s all I really had to do and eventually it caught on. I ended up in Seattle with a record label and that was a blessing. Once I got a taste of that, I knew I wanted to seriously do this. Seattle is where I earned my stripes, basically. For me, moving around, I knew there were things all over the place so I didn’t want to just constrict it to Seattle. So, I started taking my act on the road a lot. I was booking my tours through like MySpace and shit with people that would have me out there for like 30 bucks, you know? I was doing whatever I could do to just get out there. Once things really took off and I got picked up by an agent, I started moving around a bit again. I lived in San Diego and I live in New York now. Who knows where I’ll be next.
DX: So, moving around opened your eyes.
Grieves: Yeah, it really did. It all opened my eyes to this country. But, Seattle opened my eyes to the scene in Hip Hop, not the genre, but the scene, working with a community of Hip Hop. I love that place. I will return there. I will have children there and I will raise my children there. I love Seattle.
DX: That kind of talks about the business side of everything, but what was the first step that led to you becoming an emcee?
Grieves: I don’t know. Um, my mom was an English teacher and I was always better at writing than I was at reading. I was always very good at arguing. I was always very good at proving a point. When I was younger, I was in bands and I was like, “I could write lyrics!” But, what got me about Hip Hop was that I could do everything all by myself. I could write and produce. But, it just kind of happened.
DX: Now, what would you say has been your biggest challenge or the biggest obstacle you’ve encountered thus far?
Grieves: I think especially now, one thing I’ve been struggling with is that I’ve been spending so much time doing the Grieves thing. I did almost nine months touring last year. Always going, always working. Now that I’m off the road, I’m in the studio, five to six days a week, busting my ass. My parents called me the other day and filled me in on some stuff that I had no clue that was going on. “Your aunt fell down the stairs. She broke her neck. Your sister might be going to jail for 20 years.” A whole bunch of shit. I have been out of touch with my life. I came home off the last tour, my girlfriend of almost three years left a note on the table. She was gone. My whole personal life has gone out the window. I have been focusing so hard on this Grieves thing that I forgot to take care of myself. The goal for this year is to join those two things together so I can function in a normal life and this other stuff.
DX: Would you say that it’s worth it?
Grieves: Yeah, man! It’s totally worth it. I’m just melodramatic.
DX: What makes it worth it?
Grieves: Nothing has been more gratifying in my life than accomplishing something I think of, something I create I my head. I just scribble things on a paper and communicate with people on the other side of the world that I’ve never even met before. That is the most satisfying, beautiful thing in my life. I don’t want to give that up at all. I don’t have to. I just need to learn how to juggle a little bit better.
DX: You’re with Rhymesayers now. How has that change affected you?
Grieves: Well, first of all, it’s always been a dream to be on Rhymesayers Entertainment. It’s an amazing label ran by amazing people. The sense of community I get there is awesome. I love that place. It’s really brought a calming sense of positivity to the whole business side of things, which is awesome. I love it over there. They’ve given me opportunities to do cool things. They’ve given me an outlet for my record. I’ve never really had that before. They put me on the road with some really cool people, introduced me to some real cool artists.