Straight outta Rhode Island, Sage Francis has been developing his uncompromising approach to hip hop for over a decade, forming his own record label Strange Famous in the process. Before he takes a rare visit to Ireland later this month we caught up with the rap Gladiator himself to talk about the making of his recent Li(f)e album, being called an “emo” and why he doesn’t want to tour ever again.
You just played at the South by South West festival last week- what was that like?
I’ve played SXSW many times and every time I go there I forget why I do it, cos it’s such a money drain. It’s really just like this splurge of money. No-one gets paid. In fact we all pay to go there, pay for flights, pay for hotels, then put on a free show in one of my strongest markets, Austin, which is such an incredible city. But that being said it was one of my favourite shows I’ve ever played in Austin. I met some friends and had a great time.
One hip hop act who got a lot of coverage at SXSW were Odd Future – have you been following their ascendancy?
Yeah, when they first started making noise along the line I checked them out and saw what they were about. I can see the entertainment value of what they do. It’s not really for me. It’s a new young generation of hip hop cats but they don’t seem too different from the earlier horrorcore that I used to listen to. But as a guy in his mid-thirties it doesn’t entice me at all. It’s weird though, a huge bulk of their fan-base are middle aged white men. A lot of bloggers and people in the media love them. What I truly think is good about Odd Future is that they’re creating the kind of music that hopefully will give hip hop a scary name again. Maybe moms will start calling their senators and try and get hip hop “shut down” like the good old days.
Your last album experimented with including a lot of instrumentation. Was it hard to make this transition from making rap songs to more “indie-ish” songs?
That wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was the process of recording it which was very different from what I was used to. But the creative process was very similar to how I made previous albums, in that people would send me music and I would write to that music and create songs around their soundscapes. That’s the fun part for me. That’s the part where I feel like I shine. When it came to time to record in a studio we convened in Chicago with a producer I hadn’t worked with before who rallied musicians to recreate the music in a studio. Recording onto reel to reel tape and creating a sound people just can’t achieve on their own. And it was great to have all that equipment around and be working with people who understand everything about audio frequencies and stuff.
Was it an educational process then?
I cant say I learned much. It’s like when I sit in the car and someone else is driving. I don’t really know how we got where we ended up but I enjoyed the scenery. I think next time I’ll go the easiest route possible, just record to hand claps and foot stomps! I’ve been recording a lot actually in my home studio actually and just rapping my ass off. Whatever I come out with next you’ll hear a more stripped down sound.
The song ‘The Best Of Times’ kind of sums the album up. Can you remember writing that song?
I wrote that song the second last night we were in the studio and we got the music last minute from Yann Tiersen, who composed and recorded it. So that was one song in particular that we didn’t recreate in the studio. I just had to write the lyrics. It was pretty scary having something from Yann, who is one of my favourite composers, send me something that was so beautiful but wasn’t in the vein of anything I’d done before. It was very long and slow so it was tough to figure out what to do with it. I meditated on it for a couple of hours, rummaged through all my writing to see if I could find anything that would fit the mood and when I came up with nothing I had to just write on the spot. I based the first couple of lines off a letter that I had written and the rest of the words came after. Thankfully, with all the luck in the world, the song came together and turned out to be one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever done.
The word “emo” gets thrown about when talking about artists like you and Atmosphere. I’m guessing this isn’t something you like..
It’s a word they use to disparage. That aspect of it annoys me. They always come up with words to describe artists like me and Atmosphere because the media don’t really know how to frame us or explain why we have a following. They just kinda throw these words around as a way to characterise what we do but I don’t think its accurate. Obviously we’re emotional dudes, but every artist is emotional. The most gangster MCs have emo songs. Everyone’s going through their own struggle and their own shit but it’s not like we’re pop-punk bands whining about losing our girlfriends. At first I thought it was funny and just embraced it. I was like “Fine, I’m emo! You’ve finally come up with a word for me. Good.” But I don’t think it’s all encompassing for what I do.
Can you tell me about your recent visit to South Africa?
In January, I was in Durban, South Africa as part of a project giving assistance to HIV infected orphans. In South Africa 2.7 million children have HIV. It’s got the highest rate of HIV in the world. I knew some people who were putting together this project and they were filming it for a documentary. They were using alternative forms of treatment which use ultra-magnetic rays to disable the HIV virus by breaking down proteins and it allows people to make more healthy blood cells so they’re not down-trodden by the virus. This is a treatment that’s been around for 20 years but with all the drug companies that kinda run the country, it’s been tough getting that information and treatment out to the greater public and I just wanted to connect with these kids and see what it’s like in South Africa. I’ve never been there so I just jumped at the opportunity. I learnt a lot about myself, about the world and I’m more than grateful that I had experience and I hope to share it everybody in a number of forms. One would be a song I wrote called ‘Water Into Wine’, and the documentary that will probably come out early next year. I believe it’s going to be called Ubuntu Child. I wrote my ass off while I was there. There were so many memories I didn’t want to lose so I just started writing it all down and maybe someday I’ll be able to put together a nice piece of writing.
You have some history with the slam poetry scene in America. When did you get involved with that?
In 1996 I was in college and a woman called Patricia Smith from Boston performed and it was the first time I’d seen spoken word. She blew me away and inspired me to figure out what the whole spoken word thing was – how to do it and where it was happening. Since that point on I just started visiting open mics and poetry readings and experimenting with my own writing. Eventually I found the slam thing which was competitive-based which was pretty interesting early on but it grew tiring after a while.
Are you looking forward to coming to Ireland?
Yeah man! I’m even bringing my mom with me. She’s never been there and we’re of Scottish/Irish descent so I’m bringing her to Ireland and Scotland. She’s never experienced Europe so that’s one of the cool things I get to do now that I’m not touring. I can spend a couple days in whatever cities I go to without having a schedule breathing down my neck.
What made you reconsider a life on the road?
Well, I’m accepting random shows whenever I feel like it. I just don’t like the idea of being away from my home for months. There’s pressures and risks involved- I did it for 10 years straight. It wears on you, breaks you down. You have to stop at some point. I’d rather spend my time doing other stuff. Playing shows is fun but when you’re doing 40 in a row and you’re playing the same songs every night… I’d rather be at home making new music and I just get myself into trouble on tour. Around 2004, I first thought of not touring. I was killing myself and I just thought “I cant keep doing this to myself”. Obviously that’s how people make money and I’m forfeiting a huge chunk of my income by not touring but I work hard enough all year that I can gift myself that.
Does running your label Strange Famous take up a lot of your time?
Oh yeah. There are so many sides of business that we handle and we’re very small staffed. It’s pretty much just me and one other guy. We aim to be supportive of the independent hip hop scene. I like doing it but for all the hours and effort that goes into it I don’t see an adequate return of profits for that. But fuck it, I love doing it!
Sage Francis plays The Roisin Dubh on April 16th and Whelan’s on April 17th.