Hip-hop is very often a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and a button-pushing MC like Sage Francis only amplifies that extreme. The Rhode Island resident came of age in hip-hop’s 1990s Golden Era, but he’s no formulaic rapper. His controversial 2001 song “Makeshift Patriot” questioned media coverage in the immediate wake of 9/11; his 2002 debut album “Personal Journals” was so painfully introspective, it earned the well-deserved term “emo hip-hop.” His last three albums have pushed the limits of rock-rap collaborations, dialing up everyone from Will Oldham to Jolie Holland to Jason Lytle to Chris Walla for guest spots.
But Sage Francis is also a hip-hop lifer — a meticulous wordsmith who won several freestyle battle and spoken-word poetry slam competitions back in the day, founder and owner of his own label (Strange Famous Records), and mentor to like-minded rappers like B. Dolan, who joins Francis on this “Epic Beard Men X-mas Excursion” tour.
Folio Weekly: You’ve got roots in Florida, right, Sage?
Sage Francis: I was born in Miami, my mom and grandma live close to Orlando and some of my craziest shows have happened there. The last time I played Jacksonville, in 2007, I was touring with Rise Against. The crowd didn’t know who I was, which is fun — I’m fighting the tide every time I hit the stage. But the sound guy intentionally turned off my music and mic during “Makeshift Patriot” because he was offended by the politics. It was the last song of my set, though, so I sang the rest a cappella, stepped off stage and drove to the next city.
F.W.: Hopefully, things go smoother this time around.
S.F.: Even if not, I’m OK with adversity, man. [Laughs.]
F.W.: Haven’t you taken a bit of a hiatus since your last album, 2010’s “Li(f)e”?
S.F.: I did scale it back big time. I stopped recording and writing for a full year, but recently I’ve been collecting songs again for something in 2013 — maybe a mixtape, maybe an album, maybe an EP. I’m always writing my life as I live it. And some things in my personal life have fallen to shit, so I’m about to hit the road again. I don’t have much to stay home for. A couple of cats, but that’s about it.
F.W.: Has writing your life as you live it always been your goal as a rapper?
S.F.: I don’t know if it was a goal per se, but when I realized it would mark certain parts of my life, I gained an appreciation for it. That’s what music is for me: dealing with the moment and not obsessing too much over the fact that I’m trying to document my own time on this Earth.
F.W.: Your writing is supremely personal, yet you’ve been able to adroitly question the world around you.
S.F.: Not being a part of any tight-knit crew means I don’t toe any lines or stick with any ideology, which leaves me in a position to question everything and present those questions in my music. Some people don’t like to be questioned, but the fact that I can cause “uncomfortability” is the great part of art. That conversation can make people stop and think for a second, even if they’re not having a one-on-one with you. And those are the seeds it takes for change to happen.
F.W.: Critics routinely say hip-hop is dead or hip-hop is reborn. What are your thoughts on the sustainability of the art form?
S.F.: It’s never going to die — it’s a craft that’s always going to exist. It does split and morph into this mutant thing. I’m not absolutely sure you can measure a shared definition, because my idea of hip-hop is not what a 12-year-old’s is. It’s cool that people are gonna do their own thing, but there’s a particular kind of hip-hop that I gravitate towards: the sounds of the Golden Era, the truly good lyricism. … That’ll always be the main thing that rejuvenates me.
F.W.: So even though you call yourself a “lovable curmudgeon,” you can still find a lot to love in hip-hop?
S.F.: I’m drowning in hip-hop because I run Strange Famous Records, so I can’t concern myself with every possibility. I just have to continue developing the style I most enjoy: that throwback sound of breakbeats and cool samples, that energy of speaking for blue-collar Americans who don’t really have a voice. Communicating that kind of stuff through a record gets me excited. Maybe that’s the adult in me now [Laughs.], but I like to think there are a lot of people out there who share that opinion.