"Please don't call me if you are reading this interview right now. You know I hate the phone," Francis told readers of Undercover magazine in late November.
The Rhode Island native prefers the halcyon remove of "e-life," fielding all interview requests via e-mail, monitoring his message board (and his new official Web site) and instant-messaging with strangers and friends alike when he's not rapping, writing or traveling. Note to Sage: AOL blows, dog. You know this!
One could ascribe suspect motivations for such a tendency, but the reality has more to do with ease, convenience and a preference for the quiet hours of early morning. Most writers and nerds can relate.
Having just released A Healthy Distrust on Epitaph Records, his first for the large yet stalwartly independent label (and Epitaph's first official hip-hop signing), Sage Francis is busier than ever. A self-described workaholic, Francis spent the early part of his youth (he's still but 27) reveling in hip-hop culture and attending poetry slams (the very notion of the latter now seems quaint, bastardized and co-opted to the point that some phony-ass Jill Scott rip-off waxes stiltedly rhapsodic about her fucking salad on a newish McDonald's commercial).
As he developed into a noteworthy rapper, he released his own albums by burning the CDs or dubbing the cassettes of stuff he had recorded, folding the covers, attaching his own art and unwittingly following punk and indie's DIY ethic to the letter. Through hard work, Sage eventually became established enough to sell out clubs, and was subsequently asked to release his 2002 album, Personal Journals, for the Anticon Collective, a San Francisco-based powerhouse of indie hip-hop. Soon thereafter, as part of a Rhode Island crew called the Non-Prophets, he released Hope on Lex Records in 2003.
A Healthy Distrust shows Sage Francis in top form. Over an alternatingly harsh and whimsical soundscape provided by an array of top underground producers (including his Providence compatriot Joe Beats, as well as Dangermouse, who attained underground fame for his Grey Album Jay-Z/Beatles mashup), he raps in a smart, breathy, rapid-fire style that sounds for all the world like a cross between Slug of Atmosphere and Buck 65.
Throughout A Healthy Distrust, Sage alludes to famous hip-hop lines (for example, Public Enemy's "Radio ... suckers never play this," on "The Buzz Kill") in a kind of de facto clearance-not-required sampling technique. He writes in an e-mail to the Weekly, "I just like reflecting back on the things that came before me, and fitting their past piece into the modern puzzle. Sometimes I am tipping my hat to a group or a song, but mostly I am just making sense of how we got to where we are by reiterating what came before me in interesting ways." This technique makes for a sturdy framework for wordy, sometimes inscrutable lyrics that are reflective of his contemplative and contrarian nature. Sage is a product of that hyper-political, blingnorant, drug-free, vegan, whiteboy hip-hop "Fuck Clear Channel" gestalt. Here's an easier way to say it: There's no one like him whatsoever.
It would be unsurprising if his palette was limited to hip-hop references, to the extent that he immersed himself in hip-hop to the exclusion of all else, from the age of 12 until relatively recently. "I hated rock," Francis tells me. "I hated anything that wasn't hip-hop. I was very closed-minded and elitist in that way. Wish I could say different, but I can't. I started opening up to the hardcore and punk scene in 1996, and then all the other genres made their way into my play list."
As proof of this eventual glasnost toward other genres, one need look no further than "Sea Lion," A Healthy Distrust's second track, which is a collaboration with bizarro-folkie Will Oldham neé Bonnie Billy neé Palace. Bearing in mind that rock and hip-hop first swapped substantial spit in 1991 when Francis' beloved Public Enemy actually toured and performed with Anthrax, and later in a "worst tour idea ever" entry, with the Sisters of Mercy, it's quite remarkable that the dialogue between the disparate styles has come so far. In 2005, the collision of rock and rap takes place at the intersection of Indie and Backpack, as two bearded oddballs from wildly different ends of the spectrum (Francis and Oldham) succeed in making something that's interesting, if perhaps unnecessary.
Sage describes the collaboration thusly: "I didn't know him or about him when he was living in Providence, even though we frequented some of the same spots," which was the only part of his reply that was customized to my individual query (Oldham had gone to Brown University, so I asked if that was from where the idea to collaborate arose).
The rest of his reply goes like this: "I was introduced to his music by Tom at Lex Records while Will and I were in the UK at the same time. People got to talking about us doing some music together and then we began talking to each other about it. I had no expectations, but when it was all said and done I was extremely happy that this collaboration took place. He is a favorite singer/songwriter of mine and the song that resulted from our collaboration is one of the best songs on my new album." A complete and concise answer, but as it happens, it's exactly the same as the one he gave to the Chicago Tribune to a similar question.
Certainly, repeatedly answering the same questions from every Podunk publication the nation over must be its own special kind of hell. And in Francis' defense, our e-mail exchange was conspired against by some force such that he didn't get my questions until late on deadline eve (again, I blame the White Elephant that is AOL), so perhaps in order to accommodate me, he cut a corner or two. If I were a better writer, I'd be able to clearly suss out the deeper meaning of it all in a socio-historic-personal perspective--something about distance, and the interchangeability, and therefore meaninglessness, of computerized communication. Bah. I haven't the skills. I've been robbed of them by the Internet.