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Courtesy Sage Francis

Sage Advice

Sage Francis on indie labels, studio vs. stage and What He’s Learned From Punk Rock

December 21, 2016, 12:00 am

The rumblings began some time ago, but it didn’t emerge into a full-blown cacophony until the last month or so. What you’ve heard is true—hip-hop heavy-hitter Sage Francis is coming to Santa Fe.

It isn’t that we don’t get our fair share of big-name hip-hop artists (hell, Atmosphere played The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing Co. not so long ago), but even with that in mind you’ve gotta admit that Rhode Island-based Sage Francis is a pretty big get for our town. He also falls under my “Man, this guy is so cool, but he’s probably too busy doing big-time interviews with big-name music magazines and websites to speak with me” category.

But I emailed him anyway—and imagine my surprise when I received a response less than 20 minutes later. It basically went like this:

Sage Francis: Hi Alex, Sage Francis here. Thanks for reaching out.

Me: Oh sweet. The fast reply is like, so rad. That never happens.

Sage Francis: I’m a rad motherfucker, Alex. MARK IT DOWN.

And mark it down I did. See, I’m aware of this guy’s impact on popular culture and music. I mean, a lot of us are (and if you’re not, you should be). When I was working for a small record store in Northern California some years ago, we could barely keep Sage Francis on the shelf, and it’s partly because he’s got that rare combination of thoughtful, witty lyricism wrapped up in a kickass package of sick beats and a DIY work ethic, but also because he has this almost unholy understanding of the way the music business works. This allowed him to slowly build a name for himself without any kind of major label help, and it also gave him the chance to launch his own imprint, Strange Famous Records (like us, they go by SFR sometimes too so, like, we’re friends). Plenty of artists out there wind up self-releasing, but usually it’s after they’ve gone through the major-label wringer first. Sage Francis, however, was smart enough to start a label first and ask questions later.

"I’m a rad motherfucker, Alex. Mark it down."

It’s been good for him, offering unique opportunities to discover and release music that speaks to him from an artistic standpoint rather than an economic one. It’s been good for underground hip-hop, too, because we don’t know if you guys have listened to radio rap of late, but it’s virtually unrecognizable by anyone who likes taste’s definition of what is good. Strange Famous, on the other hand, is an important reminder of how the music industry can operate when the power is put in the hands of the people. And Sage Francis is a man of the people; a rad motherfucker, if you will. We should all be super-pumped that he’s coming to town.

SFR: I’ve read and heard and been reminded a lot about how your particular brand of hip-hop shares a lot of similarities with punk rock, particularly in how you do business with your label, Strange Famous. Is punk rock something that has been a part of your life, either musically, ethically or both?
Sage Francis:
I grew up strictly a hip-hop head, but when I got to college I was introduced to the straightedge hardcore scene because I hung out with the kids who didn’t drink or smoke. Ha. Eventually they pushed their music on me. They brought me to shows and I did my best to get into the music, but what really inspired me was the sense of community and the DIY method of creating/releasing music. That was eye-opening. Eventually I did come to enjoy the music a lot, but I definitely attribute the meager beginnings of Strange Famous Records to what I learned from the punk world. It was an important lesson, because if I didn’t start releasing my music on my own when I did, I would have missed out on a lot. The internet wasn’t quite a thing yet, but when it was I was ready to go and I could finally reach outside of the New England area.

Are there any other genres or ethics with which you particularly identify or aspire to uphold?
I’m not sure. I’ve seen a lot from all different genres, but the business side of things is typically very similar. It all depends on what level the label and their artists are operating on. When my albums were released on Epitaph, that gave me a glimpse into how a large operation with funding likes to do things. That doesn’t work for everyone, and I don’t personally aspire to have a large, bureaucratic operation, but it was interesting seeing how it all went down. What worked, what didn’t, why, why not, all while the music industry was spiraling. What you learn one year doesn’t necessarily translate into the next.

Not to harp on the punk rock thing, but are you listening to anything good from that world or do you tend to stick with a few genres (I read someplace once that you were really feeling Neil Young’s Harvest)?
I tend to obsess over a few artists for several years at a time. I think I overdosed on Neil Young, but he’s still one of the people I go back to from time to time and can still enjoy. I went through my vinyl collection recently and put together a mix of more obscure music from all different genres. There’s also a punk rock mix [that] a 12-year-old kid gave me when I was in Australia, and I play it a few times a week. I don’t even know the bands that are on this CD, but it’s fun as hell (I just Googled the first song as it’s one of my favorites. It’s “My Pal” by GOD).

Is there any artist on your own label that makes you think, “Everyone should be listening to this shit immediately!”?
The bulk of the music I listen to is from artists on Strange Famous, because [it’s] what I’m working with at all times. I wish everyone was listening to them as often as I do. I’m doing my best to make that a reality, but I understand the limitations and restraints that are beyond my control. I mean, there’s no one I’ve toured with or worked with more than B Dolan over the years, and I still come across huge fans of mine who have never heard his music. Those kind of encounters always leave me feeling a bit deflated, and it’s a frustration everyone at Strange Famous probably feels, but all we can do is continue to put out the best shit possible and get into people’s ears without being cheap or spammy. It’s a tough line to walk.

How do you evaluate potential artists for your label?
There are several things we take into consideration. The two biggest things are if they’re great at what they do and if they’re genuinely good people. Genuine people. I might be a bit too particular sometimes, but if someone rubs me the wrong way as an artist or as a business partner, there’s no sense in me compromising my situation just to accommodate them. I’m as straightforward as possible and I make sure people know what they can expect from us as well as what we expect from them. I find it’s easier to work with people who’ve been around a while. People who’ve put out their own material and have a better understanding of what we’re providing as a label. I prefer to work with people who use social media wisely, who can tour and create promotional content, but that’s not totally necessary.

Given the landscape of today’s music industry, do you ever regret going the independent route and starting up your own imprint?
On one hand I wish I had more time and energy to focus solely on my art, but on the other hand I’m a control freak and I don’t want anybody touching my stuff. I like to know everything that’s going on and be responsible for it. If I fuck something up, I can deal with that. If someone else fucks up my stuff, I take out the voodoo doll.

Do you prefer working in the studio or performing? Why?
The stage and the studio … the two-headed monster. My personal Demogorgon. I’m not sure if I prefer one more than the other. I feel like I enjoy myself more in the studio, but that’s because I spend wayyyyyy more time on stage than I do in the studio. If all I did was sit in a studio, I’d probably be itching like crazy to get on stage. The studio is where I get to indulge in the creative process and make everything exactly how I want it. I’m my audience. The stage is where you have to fly by the seat of your pants and go full extrovert. It’s for them. Two different worlds, but they work hand-in-hand.

There’s so much collaboration in hip-hop. Is that something you enjoy and do you have a favorite collaborator or collaborators from over the years?
Although I’ve collaborated with several people over the years, I’ve never had another emcee feature on any of my studio albums. I’m not totally sure why, but I tend to work alone as that’s what’s most comfortable for me. Also, I make a lot of confessional music and it just doesn’t feel natural to mix it with another person’s voice or experience. Maybe I’m just territorial when it comes to the mic. Whatever the case, I’ve spent a bulk of the past year working on a full album with B Dolan. This is the first time either of us have done something like this, so we’re learning as we go. It’s taking a lot longer than we expected, but the songs are shaping up incredibly well. I’m happy to say that I’m still excited about this Epic Beard Men project. It’s an idea we’ve been floating around for ages, and things like that tend to lose momentum if they’re not acted upon right away. Not this though. EBM, baby. 4-eva.

You may not be aware (then again, you might be), but you’ll be one of the bigger acts to come through Santa Fe in … ever. That means you’re gonna have some sway, brah. Do you have any advice for people who are maybe going to discover the wide world of hip-hop now because of your upcoming appearance? I mean, it’s a labyrinth, y’know?
Pfffffffft. Well, all I’m hoping is that cops don’t corner me in a hotel room with laser beams dancing around on my chest. Like what happened about 10 years ago during the Paid Dues tour. That’s my main memory of Santa Fe, and it was a harrowing experience, so let’s just make sure we all end up where we’re supposed to be. I’m also excited to be sharing the night with the new Strange Famous signees, Jivin’ Scientists. Let’s all be the right people at the right time. Sage Advice.



Sage Francis with Jivin’ Scientists and Osmosis
8 pm Thursday Dec. 29. $12-$15.
Meow Wolf,
1352 Rufina Circle,
395-6369


 

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