Feature Interview with Sage Francis
Uncle Sage — A certified Godfather of U.S Indy hip hop, the artist shares his thoughts on his writing process, apologies from Vice magazine, U.S student loans, cats, and the power of English mustard.
I arrived 5 minutes late for the interview, which was right before his London Village Underground show back in early November, 2014. I popped down to the dressing room to see if I could find the one named Sage Francis, but was politely informed by Scroobius Pip that he may have gone to find me or might have popped out for a stroll with his gal, so I went and sat by the stage with my photographer. Ten minutes later he walked in rather gingerly, with a heavy limp, like he’d just been viciously spear tackled by Jonah Lomu.
Sage, first I’d like to say thanks for taking the time to speak to me knowing that your show’s starting in under an hour! I think the last time I saw you perform was round the corner in a pub called the Old Blue Last years ago, in a small crowded upstairs room.
‘That was a free show. We got our shit stolen from us that night.’
‘Yeah. And I vowed not to come back to the UK after that. Coz it was the 2nd time we got robbed on that same tour, and I suspected it was people from the club or the organisers. There was something about it that seemed real sketchy to me. I was like, “Are you kidding me? We just did this free show for you guys.” They showed zero concern when we told them our van got broken into. It was a Vice Magazine party. So every time people bring up Vice I mention that coz I still want them to acknowledge it after showing no concern or responsibility whatsoever at the time, so now I’m just like “I’m gonna keep bringing it up until they say sorry”.’
You’d think such a large publication would show a bit of love…
‘Something. Anything. Even just a hug would be nice’ (He smirks)
Furry muff mate. So you’ve already done a handful of shows in England…
‘Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle, Leeds, and this one in London. Then Reading’
And how did the shows go down?
‘Crazy! Sold out shows, awesome crowds who know the new and old stuff. These shows are keeping me going and are really lifting my spirits because I am physically tired. But when you go on stage and these crowds are glowing, it gives you the energy and keeps you going. It’s awesome.’
So, before we get talking about music, knowing that you’re an outspoken man when it comes to the U.S, how do you feel about the current state of U.S society? It’s not often us English folk get a non-media portrayal of your homeland…
‘Well it depends where you are. We have everything in The States, but collectively people are feeling downtrodden and there’s a lot of poverty and unemployment. My state in particular has always had the highest unemployment so what I see regularly is people struggling, making stupid sacrifices for the new phone or video games. Their priorities are odd to me and as I don’t totally relate and I’m also not a very social person, I don’t think I should speak for them. Even so, I see these things happening with people I know, friends, family members, and it’s tough for people to get a job that their proud of or even go to school. Our student loans are at an all-time high and in Rhode Island debt is at an all-time high, the highest in the country. It’s crazy. I have an ex-girlfriend who I was close to, and knew her financial situation, and, to see how much she had to pay to achieve what she wanted, to know that so many people are going through that and it feels helpless, there’s a helplessness that permeates our culture, from lower class all the way up to the upper middle class it all seems a little shaky. In my parent’s generation it seemed a hell of a lot easier, they could take vacations and buy whatever they wanted from time to time. There’s a DEFINITE change. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know people are feeling the burden more these days than when I was a teenager or even a young adult. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the wars that we’ve gotten into since then. Maybe they just like creating a lot of poor people with crappy lives so they can send them overseas… (he chuckles)
Yeah, you do sadly get the feeling that that is a major possibility… But yeah, thanks, for telling me your thoughts on that. So, I’ve been listening to your music for years since the first ‘Sick of’ Mixtapes though I’m not going to claim to know much about your daily or even the meaning of your lyrics. With that in mind, I’m just going to ask you some questions about you and how you live. So, what do you do in your spare time dude?
‘Haha. “Spare Time”.’
If you had spare time! C’mon, you know what I’m sayin… Maybe a spot of dinner with your ma?
‘I run the record label which takes up most of my time so even when I have free time it goes towards something I want to do with my career or the label. Other than that sometimes I play poker. I don’t live near my mum, I live in Rhode Island and both she and my grandmother live in Florida which is a long way away. I don’t have much family where I live, a few cousins but they’re all busy working and looking after their families so I don’t see them on the regular, though Uncle Sage pops round from time to time. I have cats so I guess my spare time goes toward them.’
So you have cats?
‘Yeah two. I’ve had a few over the years but I went through a trend that a cat would get lost when I went on tour. Or I think they got eaten by coyotes coz the cats used to go in and out of the house. That pissed me off so now my cats are house cats. And they’re great. They’ve definitely kept me sane and given me things to laugh about when I needed it over the last few years.’
Were they kittens?
‘The two cats I have one is the mum and one is the son, and the son was the runt of the litter. It was my dad who gave me the mum cat. My dad passed away four years ago and that was the last thing he gave me and he didn’t know she was pregnant, he found her on the street, and he was just such a soft heart and he was like “Can you take this cat?” And I wasn’t a cat person at the time so I was like “Err, I dunno…” So I took the cat in and had a full litter of kittens, and watching these kittens was like one of the best experiences and made me want to have kittens around all the time. It was great, but eventually we had to give them away so we kept the mum and the runt of the litter. There’s a song on the new record about this situation, we’ll do it tonight!’
Great to hear a bit about how your love of felines came about! So a perfect Sunday for Sage is day with the cats?
‘I guess so, but Sunday’s just like a Wednesday which is just like a Monday. I don’t even know what day of the week it is…. Oh yeah, its Wednesday!’
Damn I had to think about what day it was too! So… favourite foods?
Pizza. I’m such a sucker for the bad foods that I could eat them every fucking day of my life. Pizza for every meal. And bagels. I like bagels with cream cheese, lettuce, tomato and onions. That’s like real, good fun food for me. Haha’
Well if you get a chance after your show, 5mins down the road is one of the best bagel bakeries in East London at the top of Brick Lane, the classic choice is salt beef cream cheese and English mustard!
‘English mustard is fucking fierce man!’
Yeah PROPER mustard mate!
‘That’s what’s funny coz I usually find it difficult to get hot sauce and often find the food here a bit bland, but then the fucking mustard will BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF! Respect to the mustard here! TRULY!
I find the kick real similar to wasabi….
‘Right. Though the cheap wasabi uses horseradish, but real wasabi uses something different and you never really get it, though I still love the cheap shit!’
So away from the finer points of English mustard and wasabi, what advice would you give to someone who has never listened to your music but is keen on experiencing your lyricism?
‘I write in a way where I hope people will be able to take something away from it that I didn’t initially intend, where you know what I mean, but you can also apply it to your own life. I like to speak to the human core and have stuff mean multiple things. I put a lot of time into my writing so that it has that effect, so upon multiple listens you might start to hear it in a new way with different meaning and consequently, effect. I think I learnt it from people like Posdnuos. De La Soul always had a quirky, fun quality about them, but there was also other levels that they were operating on. Back in the day you usually only picked one path, you were either The Serious Rapper, The Gangsta Rapper, Native Tongues vibe, etc.
I remember hearing an old radio freestyle session of you and Apathy, and you were dropping it on a few levels too….
‘That was my radio show!’
‘Yeah, I was running the radio show and he just came right on in and we started messing around. Now when I listen to its kind of cringe worthy…..’
Yeah you can kinda tell neither of you guys were fully on the vibe, but there was enough banter to keep it all rolling! But moving on, it’s always been clear to me that you take your role as a rapper rather seriously, and you’re also one of the few rappers who rarely mentions drinking, smoking, bitches and bling, those topics regularly associated with hip hop in the public eye. I’d guess that partly just because of the person you are and for the fact that there more important things to address…
‘Yeah right. The main thing is that so many other people talk about it. I don’t want to talk about the same shit everyone else talks about. It’s just too common, it’s too typical and it almost feels like that would be pandering to a crowd. I don’t like pandering, I don’t like it when other emcees do that and I would never want to do that. I don’t want a pick a topic that I know audiences would automatically love, I like to pick something that’s out of the norm, and then make them love it. I don’t always succeed, but when I do, there’s great reward in that. I’m never going to write a marijuana anthem so I might never be a festival artist coz, you know, you write that one weed song and your set for life….
Yeah Afroman did alright didn’t he…
Yeah (he chuckles), But that’s not for me I have my own take on this world and I live my own life and I like to communicate that. I feel there’s alot of people who relate to that but never get to hear other artists talk about it so when I talk about it, we build that bond, there’s a very strong relationship between me and the fans because that’s our communication, “You’re not alone, I go through this and think about these things too”…’
For sure Sage, feeling you on that. So I saw your performance of Vonnegut Busy and your interview on RT and was wondering if they made you feel welcome and how they treated you…
‘The first interview I did with them was in 2009 and they travelled down to Rhode Island which was incredible, but I felt like the interviewer was trying to force me talk shit about America and talk shit about Obama, and I wasn’t feeling that. I will talk shit about whatever I want, but don’t make me feel like your trapping me, they were leading questions! So I danced around it a bit and I was like ‘Well I dunno, President Obama was just elected into office, I’m not gonna shit on him right now let’s see how it goes.” Then the follow up RT interview was at their office in Washington D.C, but I was invited by Abby Martin who is pretty much a rogue journalist. She reached out coz she was a fan of Makeshift Patriot. I think she just respected my scepticism. I’m not a 9/11 truther, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I like to speak without influence from industrial lies. It was good, she was very welcoming and incredibly warm person but, the environment was cold, sterile, and weird. We got in there and there were no niceties at all, it was like entering a doctor’s office or some shit. Then when we finished our performance there was nothing. Total silence. Even though there was a full crew of people. They were just looking around. I don’t need them to whistle and applaud, but at least some form of acknowledgement. I was like “The people you work with a so weird.” I’ve never been in that kind of situation, where I’m in front of people I couldn’t entertain on some level where I’d get a smirk or a nod. It was just dead. They were just dead. She was working with dead people.’
I suppose some people just don’t understand or relate….
‘I can dig that. I actually thrive on those people, but I’m telling you, it was fucking different!’
Raaas! Must have been next level dead mate! Though I heard you dropping in Naomi Klein’s name in, so much respect for that….
‘Yeah, The Shock Doctrine teaches really important lessons about the way we operate, why we react to things and why we give up liberties and how it’s now typical for that to happen, so, to be aware of that when it does happen, is really important.’
For sure. I always refer that particular book to people who are looking to understand the U.S better. I’m looking forward to reading her new book on climate change. So back to the music, I went through the multitude of interviews you’ve done of late promoting Copper Gone and your tour. Many felt that the emotional openness you show on Make’Em Purr is second to none, though I’ve always felt that, although maybe not as crispy and as clearly, that emotional openness has been there all the way back to ‘Rewrite’ talking about an ex, and up into ‘The Cure’ on ‘Hope’….
‘‘The Cure’ is a little ambiguous, it kinda metaphysical…’
Yeah lots of deep seated feelings and opinions on human nature….
‘Well it’s funny you mention ‘Rewrite’ because there’s actually very few songs I’ve written in my life which are just so surface level as far as what I’m sayin…
I always assumed it’s what you were feeling in the moment….
‘Yeah, it’s very literal, I’m not building any traps with the song, I’m not doing anything tricky with the lyrics, it’s just plain, in your face, here’s exactly what I’m thinking and what I went through…. Haha, it was more for me really!’
‘Well I’m not gonna lie, it was a track I had on repeat when I broke up with a chick at uni! But the trumpet hook was dope man, ill beat!
‘Word. That was with the first live band I worked with…’
ARTofficial Intelligence right? You did a version of ‘Can You Kick It’ with them too, I could never figure out if it was a freestyle or not…
‘No, that was written, we did it a few times, I don’t really remember writing it but…. Oh, do you know what it was? We did it a few times and I just developed the verse a bit more every time we performed it…’
‘Yeah cool, I was proper into that track when I first heard it! But back to current affairs with Make’Em Purr. So, having read recent interviews where you say it’s a track central to the record, and listened to the album a few more times, I still feel that the album would have been great, although the track does add a lot of context to the rest if the album and gives the audience greater insight into your state of mind at the time. Do you feel you would have been far less happy with your record without Make’em Purr?
‘Well I don’t know to be fair, I probably would have been just as happy, coz you don’t know something’s missing if you never had it. I wrote it at the very end, I thought the album was already done!’
So what, you bashed the lyrics out in one night?
‘Yeah. Buck 65 was trying to help me come up with new music for a song ‘Thank You’ which is on the album, but I didn’t know if I could clear the sample and we were in a rush to get the record done so he sent me the music that’s on ‘Make’em Purr’, which was too sad for ‘Thank You’, but I was like I really love this beat but this music is really sad so let me write something new to it. So I wrote it that night, recorded it the next day and that was it.’
Sweet man! I’ve seen how many people have been pouring over the track and rightly so. The beat itself is a world in itself….
‘That’s definitely not a song that I thought a lot of people would relate to and it’s the one everyone ended up rallying around where people were like “Man, I’ve been through that” or “I’m still dealing with that.” It’s about seclusion, it’s about being a hermit, it’s about investing yourself emotionally in a pet that’s dying and you’re also dying at the same time…. Not literally, but maybe… I dunno. I was going through my own health issues at the same time and it was just me and my cats, I didn’t have anyone to really turn to at the time, it was pretty fucked up. But um, yeah, the track does add extra context to things I’m talking about on the rest of the album where people would normally take a lot of what I say as allegory or hyperbole. There’s actually a lot of literal shit I’m talking about where I’m not being tricky.’
Well this is it for me with your lyrics, because as you often dip into the world of allegory/hyperbole etc. It’s hard to know if you’re being literal or metaphorical whatnot… which I suppose makes it all the more interesting! So one of my favourite tracks on the album is Say Uncle. Can you tell me a bit more about that track?
‘Yeah. Not many people have mentioned that song, maybe because it’s one of the last songs on the record…’
Mate it’s an absolute blaster, a proper Sage track for me….
‘Say Uncle started off as something else, it took a long time to write because I had one idea for the song but I didn’t want to put a certain person on blast so I had to erase a good song then rewrite it with the same chorus. Then I tried to make it a more empowering song rather than tearing someone down…’
So originally the chorus would have portrayed opposite sentiments with same words?
‘Yeah exactly haha! I had to rethink that….’
I would have loved to have heard the previous version!
‘Yeah, the chorus was a pain in the ass to lock down and me and Alias didn’t even figure it out till the mixing process. I don’t even know if it’s a wonderful chorus, I don’t really do choruses well, that’s not my strong point, but I wanted to use the Lords of The Underground sample on there and we recreated it in different ways and I felt it was working, but we didn’t figure that out till we were mixing the record coz I just didn’t know what to do with the chorus. The beat was made by a dude in Sweden who I’ve never met. A lot of the beats were produced by people all over the globe…’
Yeah I read a bit about your recording process for this album…
‘People who involved themselves in one of our remix contests and then if they do something spectacular I try to work out something original with them. The beat was actually for a remix contest but then I told him “This isn’t gonna be in the contest, I’m gonna use it for something real, something different!”’
So you still do these remix contests?
‘We used to do them frequently but we slowed way down. It’s good promotion, and it’s always good to hear what people do with your music but then some people go too far and start releasing their remixes officially when it’s not an official remix. Then you have a version of your song floating around that you may not even like. And they sell it. It’s like “Nah dude, you don’t own the rights to this, you can sell your beat if you want, but not with our vocals on top of it!”’
And with regard to similar sounding remixes and tracks, the beat on the last song on the Copper Gone, ‘Main Reqd’, has a bassline which to me echoes that on ‘New Word Order’…
Is there an idea or meaning behind that?
‘Nah. That’s a beat I’ve been holding onto for ages and the cat who did it uses an SP, which creates a similar type of sound that you heard on New Word Order and a lot of the other Non-Prophets stuff where there’s a filtered bassline…’
And he hadn’t crafted the bassline in homage?
So it was totally random that the bassline sounded almost identical?
‘Yeah. He sent me a few beats and a lot of them were bangers. I wish I had more time to work with him. He lives in Australia actually, his name’s Curtis SP and he has a great instrumental record out too. A really, really talented cat. But I love the fact that he uses an SP, it makes the drum snap so hard, that old school crunchy sampler sounds that you get, like the old Beatminerz/Bootcamp sound. I love that. I have an SP, but haven’t ever really utilized it myself.’
And what did Joe Beats make ‘Hope’ on?
‘He used a computer program called SAW. It’s very old and not a very popular program, but he learnt it at the radio station we were at and freaked it. It doesn’t matter what tool you use as long as you know how to get the sound you want out of it. It’ll be good no matter what you use.’
I thought it might have been an MPC job….
‘Nah, he didn’t really use any samplers, he was just taught this program at the radio station then he stuck to it.’
And wonderful beats they were mate! Now I know your show’s gonna be starting shortly and you might wanna go grab a bagel or something so I’ll just hit you with a couple more…
Hahaha! So any new projects or collaborations you like to tell us over in the UK about?
Probably, let me think….My total focus has been on the tour so I haven’t really had the time to do too much in terms of recording and official project work. But me and B. Dolan have a group called The Epic Beard Men. Its real fun hip hop, kind of a throwback style, it’s funky, it’s hard, we talk shit, you know, the fun hip hop shit…
I’d love to see fun Sage let out of his box…
‘Yeah coz you know when I do my solo stuff I tend to get heady and all vulnerable on my shit. But then with that, we get to wild out so it’s a great avenue for me to loosen up and get wild! We’re looking on an official Epic Beard Men project in the next year and we may just have some real special guest producers on it, we’ve already heard from a few people…’
Sounds grand! I look forward to hearing it mate. Finally, one of the lyrics I pulled out in my review was ‘Forefathers of stability in this industry have ridiculously fallen off’… I’m not gonna ask you to name those people, whomever you consider them to be, but what is your message to them?
‘We see you. And yes, IT MATTERS.’
Sage is now safely back home with his beloved cats in Providence Rhode Island, having completed his epic world tour. Keep an eye out for The Epic Beard Men and check out my review of his album Copper Gone here.
Special Thanks to @sarahginnphoto for providing the wonderful photos and asking Sage about his cats.