Sage Francis is undoubtedly one of the forefathers of the indie hip hop scene. After releasing his last album, Li(f)e, Sage embarked on what was to be his last ever tour. I caught up with him on his last European show in Switzerland to talk about the tour, his career, his thoughts on the music industry and the future of it, as well as his own.
This is your last show on your European tour, howís it been going?
Itís been going good. I think every single show has been fantastic except for one which was, what the hell, it was recent, Iím trying to remember what countries Iíve been in. There was one show with a really small crowd; it was in Hamburg, Germany I think. I canít remember if thatís correct (laughs). Berlin was awesome though. I was scared of Berlin because the Hamburg show wasnít that great and it was small crowd but Berlin was HUGE and they knew English where as in Hamburg it seemed like they didnít really understand me which made the show a little difficult. A lot of my show depends on high interaction with the crowd.
Yeah, I would assume that not a lot of people at your shows around Europe speak good English and wonít catch the gist of what youíre saying?
Yeah exactly, and we had most of our shows in France. I say ďweĒ I mean myself and B. Dolan. We had six shows in France and they always bring us out there and the crowds are always packed, but they donít understand me. So itís just funny and strange to me that what I feel like is the most interesting part of my music isnít even totally understood by the crowd there, but they still really seem to like it anyway.
Does that bother you?
(pauses) Yeah it does bother me. Because all I care about is saying what I say, you know? And that propels everything else that I do, so if they like the afterbirth of my art, the by-product of my art, thatís cool. Well, I guess it doesnít bother me that much because I find it fascinating. I know that they get enough of what I say when theyíre following along but itís often the little things.
The heart of it?
Yeah, but they like passion.
Is there a difference between the hip hop cultures and vibes over here in Europe as opposed to back in the States? Are there any key differences you notice?
Hmm, thatís a good question because here itís different from country to country. Some countries seem to be more eclectic in taste; others seem to be more the hip hop crowd that I was used to from years ago. Because the hip hop crowd doesnít change in America, or at least my fan base doesnít, which are not so much the hardcore hip hop kids. They are great mixes of different types of people who listen to all different types of music so when I come out here it often reminds me of my old audience, they really want to battle. Itís cool it reminds me of when I was a teenager, you know? After the shows they ask me if I want to freestyle with them and Iím just like, ďno, I just want to go to bedĒ (laughs)
Youíve had the privilege of collaborating with quite an eclectic range of different artists spanning many different genres which is especially noticeable on your last album, Li(f)e. Having the opportunity to collaborate with so many artists, do you build a wish list?
No, I think the wish list goes away. You start realising there is no real need. Itís weird, I have no urge to hunt down anybody and do a song with themÖat all. I scratched that itch and there are a lot of people I got to work with and it was great, but some people who I wanted to have a great experience with kind of ended up shitty and vice versa. Itís just like any path in life. Iím probably better off just hunting down some talent around my own town. At least I think there is.
In Rhode Island?
Are there any up and coming local artists that youíd recommend?
I havenít had my ear in the streets in a long time and I never go to shows. Iím very disconnected from all of that. Iím sure there is something Iíve heard recently (pause). Shoot, for local stuff I really donít know.
Yeah, they contacted me a couple of years ago. Scroobius Pip was talking about knowmore.org stuff. I run a website called knowmore.org which is a consumer activist website. I think thatís what introduced him to me, (pauses) oh no wait thatís not true. He saw me perform a long time ago (laughs). Whatever the case, he contacted me and showed me their video for the song ďThou Shallt Always KillĒ, and I loved it. I really, really loved it. And a year later they had a record coming out and they didnít have any representation or distribution in the US. They asked me if I could do that for them. I said yeah so we had to figure out how to license it all, it was a great experience. Dan Le Sac is now working with B.Dolan on a project. I donít know whatís going to end up happening with that but Iím just excited to be having a working relationship with people like that because they are pro-active. They are in the trenches the same way we are, but they are on the other side of the world. Itís just good to be spread out like that, having people out there and we represent them here. Itís a strange and fun kind of unity between empires.
Is your record label (strangefamousrecords) going well then?
My label? No (laughs). I always say that. My expectations are so high. I have such high expectations of myself, the people I work with, the record label and of the fans and when it doesnít totally knock me out of my socks I get frustrated so I keep thinking of more stuff to do and how to work and fix things. The industry is falling apart. Iím not even sure there is a need for labels anymore. I think weíre going to have to think of a new purpose. Not to be the guys who put together discs and distribute digital media. Like, who the fuck cares about that? Anyone can do that, you know? Thatís not the job of the label. Well it shouldnít be. I guess thatís why I am bummed out about the whole label thing.
Right when I started it, it was the height of me bootlegging my own shit and having a way to get it out to people and when I figured out all the angles of the industry, I was able to help others out. I was able to incorporate what I had learned; apply it to their projects and let them benefit from that. And that to me was the purpose of a label. And to be a trustworthy label, one that you can rely on for a certain style of music that you can enjoy, hip hop in our case. The indie hip hop scene, year after year gets more difficult and when I canít cut an artist a big cheque or a cheque at all itís frustrating to me and itís frustrating to them.
I saw you give an interview for a TV talk show and you mentioned that the major labels Ďmissed the boatí with the illegal downloading phenomenon and that they ignored it for too long and now itís too late. So far though, it seems that no oneís come close to an actual viable solution? You have huge bands like Radiohead setting up a Ďtrust-boxíÖ
I hate it when people bring up the Radiohead thing but I am glad you stated it like that because (pauses) well I just hate it when people mention the Radiohead thing. They had the benefit of being pushed by a major label, being on MTV when it mattered and had everything going for them. More power to them, they deserve it, theyíre a great band, according to my friends (laughs) but they did this thing where they said, ďlook, we can just give it away for free and people will payĒ. Well of course, you built an army of fans around the world who will support you and you already are millionaires. You get paid a fucking million dollars a show. Give me a fucking break. You SHOULD be giving your music away for free. And the audience sometimes has a tough time differentiating Radiohead from Atmosphere. (Laughs). Like, thereís a difference man. So when it comes to giving out music and people say, ďwell, Radiohead gives it for free, why are you making me pay, sellout!Ē It just pushes my buttons.
So do you see any hope at all on the horizon? Digital downloads etc?
Iím not endorsing it but there are some gross stuff that could happen that might help the music industry out (pauses) but I just want to put more faith in our fans and make them understand. But you start to sound like a fucking clown after a while whining about people not buying your music, you know? Educate your audience and explain to them that we need you to support our stuff so that we can stay active and live off of this music. I know that a lot of people give away their music for free but as youíll notice, a lot of it is junk. So support what you want to get more of and ignore the rest. But thatís it. Thatís the only thing I would recommend, is just being consistent. Sell your music. Donít keep giving it away for free. Donít keep pushing EPs, albums and songs every week into the great mess that is the internet. I mean, a free album feels like a burden now. People canít be bothered with free album downloads anymore either. Itís such a saturated market. 10 years ago someone would offer something for free even I would go out of my way to be like ďshit itís free, I want to hear itĒ. Now itís the opposite. Even if itís someone I kind of like offering a free album Iíll be like ďeh, I donít knowĒ (laughs). What the hell happened?
I remember when Napster first came out I was on that like hot cakes.
Oh me too. It took me a little while but Napster was huge for my popularity. The difference between Napster and whatís going on now is that back then people were still accustomed to paying for music. Well, in my case I really wanted the album as well. I remember people that saw me at my shows would actually give me a $20 bill or a $50, even a $100. Freely. They would say ďHere is the money that I owe you, I downloaded your shit and I really love itĒ. That happened for a few years but now you never see that anymore. It was a common occurrence and now the fact that people donít do that I think is one indication that people truly believe they are entitled to free music. They donít have a guilty conscience like we used to when Napster first started. Itís different; (pauses) and now music releases are easier to produce with all these home recording devices. Especially in hip hop. Itís so easy to make. Itís not easy to make great hip hop but itís easy to just make a hip hop record. Or rap. Or a beat that you just made on some program and then you put it out by yourself. There are a billion fucking MySpace rappers who have, (pauses) I mean theyíre hitting up all the same social networks that real artists are. And yeah, I say Ďrealí artists because theyíve paid their dues to be considered artists. They donít follow trends, look at whatís popular and try to make a name real quick. Itís just not something that I am accustomed to and I canít jive with it.
Would you ever consider writing a book of your works and poetry?
Yeah, I think about it a lot. Especially with my touring career coming to a halt and considering never touring again and how I am going to use my time. A book has always been in the back of my mind. Iím not entirely sure of what would be best. I might experiment a little bit and play around and see whatís possible but if I can publish a book incorporating works, incorporating my stories from experiences in the music industry, some advice but also just experiences and things that have happened that people donít even know about. It would be fun. But then I think, should it just be a blog? (laughs) And thatís when you know your mind is infected with the internet.
Too true, but no blog please. I was listening to ĎThe Best Of Timesí on the way here and started reflecting on my own life. Is this something you do a lot? Do you often become nostalgic and miss the way things were when you first started getting into hip hop? Or the first times you remember performing as a teenager, things like that? It got me thinking because I think that the first moments I picked up a guitar and discovered I love music and started a band was actually more fun then actually being in a band and trying to play shows. Not saying the latter was not great as well but somehow the magic isnít as magical?
(laughs) Yeah, right. Because you realise every day that the world is less and less magical. I remember the first time I held a microphone and trying to hold it like Run DMC, looking in the mirror and posturing, fantasizing about what could be. I also remember winning my first talent contest. It was like a battle, but it wasnít super serious. I was like, 12 or 13, whatever the case, I remember how exhilarating it was, truly high. That night I went to bed I couldnít even sleep at all because I kept thinking, ďholy shitĒ and I kept fantasizing about what was going to happen and how I was going to pursue this. As I grew a little older after that, I never really expected that I would able to maintain the lifestyle I lived through my music and live off of my music and I was very lucky. Every time an opportunity came to me, I used it. I made sure I didnít pass up any of it and that took a lot of time and a lot of work. A lot of attention to details and a lot just making sure it would pan out somehow because there was never any promise. So, if anyone offered me a DJ gig or reading poetry at the cancer society meeting or whatever, I did it and eventually I did so many things it started to culminate and then winning the big battles, like, every time I could sense it. I could sense when I hit a new benchmark. Iíd be like ďoh shit, Iím at this level now, thatís pretty excitingĒ. And then after a few of those I stopped getting that feeling. Even now, Iíll step out in front of 10,000 people at a big festival and it will still be really cool but it will never feel like the way it did when I won that first battle when I was 13 years old.