Could an affable, white artist from Rhode Island with a degree in journalism, who’s signed to Epitaph – a label known for its punk and heavy metal roster – be the new face of hip-hop?
Consider the facts. Sales of hip-hop and rap music decreased 21 percent from 2005 to 2006 and, for the first time in more than a decade, no hip-hop artist landed in the Top 10 last year. Add to that a rising tide against what many see as a violent, misogynistic element of the genre in need of a serious overhaul, and the future looks pretty bleak.
Enter underground hip hop and spoken word heavyweight Sage Francis, who thinks the genre can be much more than what it is now. Francis told Pollstar that 30 years after hip-hop’s beginnings, he believes a lot of artists have lost their way.
“Hip-hop is not a term that anyone has the same definition for, same thing with punk rock,” he said. “They’ve lost their character. They’ve lost their identity, and now they’re just terms that are used to sell products.”
So what makes Francis and underground hip-hop different? Inclusiveness.
“A lot of hip-hop out there, I just think it’s alienating,” Francis said. “I want people of all sorts to be able to come to my show and feel like they’re welcome.” He’s quick to point out that underground hip-hop is not a new development.
“We’re the other side of the hip-hop coin that the industry has been ignoring for so long, and now it’s time.”
Francis has been writing and performing since he was 8. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he used poetry slams and the battle rap circuit – where he quickly rose to the top, even besting a certain white rapper from Detroit – to get him where he wanted to go.
Although winning rap battles brought him much-needed money, spread his name and generated interest in his work, he eventually tired of the scene.
“Who the fuck wants to be involved in contests for the rest of their life? The battle cats who are stuck in that, they’re just part of a rat race and it’s really unfortunate, because a lot of them are very talented.”
It was the bane of the recording industry – online music trading – that generated a demand for his live act and allowed him to quit his job as an ice cream man and begin recording and performing full time.
Before signing to Epitaph, Francis often made, labeled, packaged and shipped every CD he sold. He said he decided to sign with the label when he felt like he might be in over his head.
“When Hope dropped, and it sold less than the album before that – even though my fan base was bigger – that was punch-me-in-the-dick material. I was definitely not feeling that, so I had to look for a better label.”
Another big boost came when he was tapped to open for Atmosphere. Kork Agency’s Christian Bernhardt, who books the band, told Pollstar he was impressed.
“I met him and really liked his set and decided to work with him right there on the spot,” he said. Francis, who credits Bernhardt with opening the way for independent hip-hop tours, agreed.
Bernhardt said Francis’ DIY style created a few problems in the beginning.
“I would book a tour, and then find … that he was booked in the same city just two weeks before,” Bernhardt said.
One area where Francis hasn’t given up much control is the other acts on the bill. On each of his past five tours, he’s had final say about who’s on the bill. He said that’s not likely to change, because he can’t trust that local opening acts and promoters are going to uphold the standards he believes in for hip-hop.
He recalled a promoter who insisted on going on stage between acts to announce upcoming shows. As soon as the promoter hit the stage, he encouraged females at the show to bare their breasts for free tickets, and when the audience booed, he “called everyone in the crowd faggots.”
Francis was outraged, and – for the first time in his career – canceled the next night’s show, which was put on by the same promoter. On his current tour, he’s joined by Canadian hip-hopper, MC and turntablist Buck 65, West Coast hip-hopper Alias, and spoken word poet Buddy Wakefield, along with a live band consisting of Tom Inhaler on guitar, Alias on synth and MPC, and Dilly Dilly (formerly of Cerberus Shoal) on “various instruments.”
Francis’ control also extends to the venues he plays, which Bernhardt said he’s very comfortable with. Although his fan base and the size of his tours have grown consistently over the past six years, Francis says he feels his act works best in venues of a certain size. For some cities on this tour, he opted to play two shows instead of playing a bigger room, whatever the consequences.
“It might be less money, and it might be more difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if it stifles anything for us to stay in a city for two days. I don’t know how to go bigger than that, and I don’t want to.”
One thing missing from Francis’ career is a manager. He says he never understood the role of a manager, especially in the indie world, except to do things for artists who don’t want to feel responsible for themselves.
“I don’t know if it hurts me or helps me at this point in my career, but I’m reluctant to hand over responsibilities to other people,” he said. “The only reason I’m at the place I’m at now is because I’m the one who held onto the reins.”