In the insular world of underground hip-hop, Rhode Island’s Sage Francis is a titan of the industry. In addition to possessing one of the fiercest flows in the business, Francis owns and operates a label, Strange Famous Records. Spits salubrious game as a spoken-word poet. Writes award-winning comedy/rap/theater hybrids for Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Devotes considerable time to help up-and-coming MCs kickstart their own independent careers. Oh, and the man born Paul William Francis in Miami 40 years ago is comfortable talking openly about his struggles with depression — and his ownership of more cats than we can count. Though his social criticism still scalds, even after six full-length albums, eight Sick of … mixtapes, two live discs, eight EPs and one DVD, Francis remains surprisingly humble: “I’m only an expert on me,” he tells Folio Weekly. “Not on how everyone else is supposed to be.”
Folio Weekly: How much experience do you have touring in Florida, Sage?
Sage Francis: I’ve been doing shows in Florida almost every year since the early 2000s. That’s where my mom and grandma live, so if nothing else, I try to go down there around a birthday or the holidays. My favorite memory from Jacksonville is when I opened up for Against Me! and the sound engineer shut off my sound while I was performing [2001 single] “Makeshift Patriot.” I would have been upset if it [had] ruined my whole show, but it was the last song, so it felt like the proper send-off.
“Makeshift Patriot” called out the media for its acquiescence to military solutions after 9/11. What do you think of American media today, especially in light of how it handled the rise of Donald Trump?
People preferred “fake news” over “real news” in the months leading up to the election, so maybe the impetus falls on the people more than the media. “Makeshift Patriot” wasn’t just an indictment of the media. It was also about how susceptible people were to fear tactics, war-mongering and knee-jerk reactions to anything that didn’t make sense outside of their comfortable bubble.
Which sounds a lot like 2016. How important is it for hip-hop artists to jolt us out of that bubble?
The same as always — to some degree, a lot. To another degree, not at all.
You haven’t released a new album in two years. What’s your set list these days?
A fluid mix of new and old material. I’ve worked out a set that I’m really thrilled with. I’ll be sad when I have to retire this collection in a live setting. I can’t play these same songs in the same order in the same cities in the future, so I’m going to make the most of it now. Every performance I’ve done in the past couple of years has ended in a way that makes me feel great: lots of hugs and laughs. Then that good feeling fades until the next show. It’s a vicious cycle. But it’s helped me overcome the seasonal depression and post-election woes, so at least I’ve got that going for me.
You speak frankly about your struggles with depression. Do you think that’s a state in which you’ll always live?
I’m not sure. I’ve always had bouts with depression, but I used to be much more sociable than I am now. I used to enjoy being in the company of others. I grew up as an only child in a secluded area, so once I was able to be around more people my age, I made as much of it as I could. In college, I voluntarily stayed in dormitories for four years — because I felt better being around people. It made me feel good. It’s almost the exact opposite now, to the detriment of almost every relationship. I need my alone time and I need it often. Life throws a lot of curveballs at you and people change, so perhaps I’ll get to the point where I don’t need solitude in order to be comfortable, productive and normal. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though.
Have you been able to work on new material?
I’ve been writing a ton of new material, mostly for the “Epic Beard Men” project that I’m working on with [fellow Rhode Island rapper] B. Dolan. It’s more fun and upbeat than our solo material, which feels necessary right now. That’s not to say that either of us are going to stray far from our duties of addressing all the craziness happening in our country and around the world. [But] I think it’s important for us to work together in a way that’s more hype and comical than angry and/or solemn. [That] is definitely helping us build the idea of what we might be able to do as a bearded power couple.
You guys performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. How the hell did that happen?
Scroobius Pip is a UK artist on Strange Famous Records, and he performed at Fringe Festival a couple years ago. That originally put it on our radar. It was a relatively slow year for me and B. Dolan, so we reached out to the guy who booked Pip’s performance to see what was possible. Neither of us had done a residency-type thing, so that alone intrigued me. Fringe started off as a month-long festival focused on comedy, but it eventually expanded into spoken word, theater and music. [So] it seemed like something we could knock out of the park. By the end of it all, we received some incredible reviews, we appeared on a Scottish TV talk show, and B. Dolan won a “Poem of the Fringe” award.
How has your writing process changed as you’ve incorporated more diverse forms?
It’s very similar. The only thing that has changed is, when writing confessional stuff, I play a bit more with metaphor and ambiguity, rather than being literal. That’s not just for my own protection. I find that it pushes me as a writer and can make for a more interesting song. It also saves me the grief of having to answer personal questions to fans and interviewers forever and ever.
Quick take: If you could say one thing to 2016 to send it on its way and one thing to 2017 to welcome it into the world, what would you say?
To 2016, I hate to see you leave but I love to watch you go. Because you were total ass. As for 2017, you can suck my shit. I don’t trust you, either.