Hip-hop has always offered insights into the realities of racial barriers, urban life and American political issues—and Sage Francis has thoroughly embraced these roots on the way to becoming an influential figure not just in hip-hop, but also spoken-word and poetry.
Sage Francis will be performing at the Date Shed at 9 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, fresh off a European tour.
Sage Francis (Paul William Francis) grew up in Providence, R.I. After hearing Run-DMC and Public Enemy when he was 8 years old, he began writing his own lyrics. At the age of 12, he began sneaking out of his house to take part in rap battles. He later DJ’d at the infamous CBGB club in New York.
During a recent Skype interview from Helsinki, Finland, where he was performing, he reminisced about CBGB.
“Every week I would DJ, there was a poetry slam happening there, and I was living in Brooklyn and had a lot of connections to that scene,” Francis said. “I would perform, but I would also DJ and was the main DJ there.”
CBGB had a reputation for having one of the world’s worst toilets. Francis said it’s all true.
“Right before CBGB was closed down, I recorded a video for a song called ‘Escape Artist,’ and in one part, I go into the bathroom; I kick open the door, and you can see the toilet for yourself.”
Francis said he had a visceral reaction when he first heard hip-hop
“It was the way words sounded when they rhymed together,” he said. “It was the attitude; it was the delivery of the words; and I think there was a futuristic quality about it. I was familiar with rock sounds and folk sounds, but hip-hop had the electronic element to it that just really felt brand new and inspired.”
Francis’ spoken word and poetry has become as popular as his music.
“It’s kind of like being bilingual, I think,” Francis said. “It takes different parts of the brain, but when you merge them together, it all makes sense. I did keep them separate for a long time, because I wasn’t sure how to incorporate the good qualities of spoken word with the good qualities of hip-hop and make it work. After years of being involved in both scenes, I went through trial and error figuring out, and that’s how it all came together.”
Some rappers have said that one can’t be taught to write rhymes and perform rap. Sage Francis doesn’t agree.
“I think everyone starts off pretty whack,” he said. “Some take to it more quickly than others, especially freestyling. That took me a long time to figure out. I’m a writer by nature; I like being able to craft something and mold it exactly to how I want it to be, and you have to let go of a lot of those expectations of yourself when you freestyle. … You can look like an idiot sometimes if they don’t work out. That’s the good thing about writing: You get to edit it afterward. You don’t get to do that with freestyle. It takes a lot of practice.”
Francis is outspoken on political issues, especially on the subject of economic inequality. He co-founded Knowmore.org in 2004-2005 with poet/activist B. Dolan; the site tracks corporations and their business ethics.
“I think we are thrown morsels of economic justice every month or two, and that is enough to appease the people who think we’re on a path of progress,” he said. “It’s really tough to admit that, because I want to believe we’re working toward a greater social justice for everybody. History tells its tale, and I read it, and it’s not looking great. … Empires rise and fall every couple of centuries, and we’ll see what happens. We’re also living in an age when technology is being used against us as much as we use it to progress. That’s where the next big change and revolution will happen.”
In 2004, Sage Francis performed at the first Rock the Bells festival at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino. In a documentary made about the festival, founder Chang Weisberg was shown in an unflattering light, as he lied to ticketholders who waited for hours to get in, and dealt poorly with several issues surrounding the festival’s logistics. Francis explained his experience and what followed in the years after.
“It got worse, and probably because it became more popular, it imploded, eventually,” Francis said. “They were very cool to invite me and other independent artists onto that first one. But they booked way too many acts, and most of the people who went wanted to see Wu-Tang Clan as a full unit for the first time in 10 years. I could understand why the crowd got wild and almost rioted. There was very high tension at that show, and I feel like I took part in releasing some of that tension by letting them throw plastic bottles at my face when I was onstage. I think Chang is a visionary, and he’s a very sincere and cool guy, but we all had our problems eventually, and festivals are tough in general.”
He said he couldn’t wait for his show at The Date Shed.
“I’m in Helsinki, Finland, right now, and it’s freezing cold, so I’m actually looking forward to the desert,” he said.
Sage Francis will perform at 9 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Date Shed, 50725 Monroe St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 to $28 for the 18-and-older show. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-6699, or visit www.dateshedmusic.com.