- Three times a rapper: Francis says he's "half shark-alligator, half man, half amazing."
There's been a lot of hollering about radio-and-concert giant Clear Channel in recent years, gripes over monopolistic practices and homogenized airwaves. But indie MC Sage Francis took on the company loudest and clearest in January, when he announced the title of his latest trek: the Fuck Clear Channel Tour.
"Clear Channel and Ticketmaster both like to have a stranglehold on aspects of the business that I operate within," says Francis. "I say fuck 'em both. Because I can. And if it makes it more difficult for me to succeed in a bullshit business because of it, so be it. They will not bank off of my hard work. Anyone who doesn't take a stand against the forces working against independence and freedom deserves the fast-food culture they are trapped within."
Avoiding venues affiliated with the Clear Channel empire significantly narrows the field for Francis, whose outing begins and ends in his native New England. As the bearded, balding, white Gen Xer says on his latest release, the Non-Prophets' Hope, he's "from the littlest state/Killin' the mixtapes."
Many of those mix appearances are documented on Francis's self-released Sick of Waiting Tables releases, which compile dozens of demos, radio appearances, live performances, and throwaway studio tracks. They're just part of a scattershot discography that stretches back to 1996 and includes 2001's Personal Journals LP, which dropped on Anticon, the San Francisco-based alt-rap citadel. In late 2003, London-based Hope Records released Hope; the label will follow it later this month with Sleep No More, a collaboration with DJ Signify and hip-hop triple-threat Buck 65.
A true writer, Francis holds a journalism degree and competes in poetry slams. Between references to George Orwell, Ani DiFranco, and Matthew Shepard, he describes himself as '"half shark-alligator, half man, half amazing." The refrain for Hope's "That Ain't Right" combines LL Cool J and Drowning Pool. The gifted freestyler flips through a mental Rolodex of styles, always remaining on the subject and occasionally baffling: "I'm not sitting on top of a barbarian chair with Rastafarian hair," he rhymes in "Disasters."
Francis's arrival is part of a cresting, predominantly white wave of introspective MCs weaned on classic hip-hop, which Spin dubiously dubbed "The Emo Rap Revolution" in a recent issue. Francis laughs off the tag as "revolting," but the development deserves a name, and Vanilla Ice already soiled "white rap" for everyone else. With Anticon (Sole, Themselves) at its nexus, Francis's extended rap family connects him to three one-time label affiliates: Nova Scotia's Buck 65, Minneapolis's Atmosphere, and his Pittsburgh-based F.C.C. tourmates Grand Buffet. The overlapping confederation of cerebral rappers lovingly slag each other as "art fags" the way black rappers sling around the N-word. Francis recently signed a three-album solo deal with the indie-punk powerhouse Epitaph, joining Atmosphere, who has found a receptive new market on the Warped Tour.
"We signed Sage and Atmosphere because they are great artists," says Epitaph President Andy Kaulkin. "I believe that they will do well on Epitaph, because they appeal to creative, passionate, rebellious kids . . . just like punk rock."
Rejected by the hip-hop crowd, a young Sage began developing an audience at punk shows before being discovered by backpackers and internet squatters. The prolific author of lines like "My heart is beating your face," he doesn't evoke white hip-hop heavyweight Eminem so much as hardcore icon Henry Rollins. When Rollins signed to a major label, he deflated the charges of "sellout" with a convincing point: Major labels pay on time. And Atmosphere's Seven's Travels is a helluva lot easier to find than Personal Journals. Francis's deal with Epitaph also leaves him free to release other albums, including an upcoming spoken-word project, documentary, and the amazing Hope.
From beat poetry to spoken word, Hope showcases the entire history of hip-hop and its adjacent art forms. It's an instant classic, avoiding urban braggadocio and abstract head rhymes in favor of a loving continuation of the pre-playa tradition. Like a jazz virtuoso, Francis interpolates rhymes from hip-hop's "Golden Age, '86 to '94," morphing nuggets from Public Enemy, Nine, X-Clan, and others. He flips the Beastie Boys ("I'm a writer/A poet/A genius/I know it/I don't buy cheebah/Or Moet") and twists Ice-T like a mad genius ("I am a nightmare walkin'/Psychopath stalkin' Natalie Portman with a blank tape in my Walkman").
Hope is also more personal than Francis's 2002 Anticon release, the Makeshift Patriot EP, which addressed the cultural fallout from 9-11.
"I see us all being thrown around like rag dolls by the administration," he says. "And the working-class public is so caught up in their daily grind that they can't make sense of it all, so they are compelled to wave their flags like zombies. It is sickening to think that Bush will be in office for another four years. Nader is really hurting the team if he gets added to the ballot."
The Fuck Clear Channel Tour will feature two Francis sets nightly: In the first, he rhymes over a live acoustic guitar and an 808 manned by Joe Beats, Non-Prophets' musical half. During the second set, Francis is backed by a full band -- the Gimmie Fund -- which will re-create Hope's jazzy, post-boom-bap medium beats.
The emo-rap argument falls short when Sage takes the stage: Emo's chief motif is acting as if all pain is fatal. Francis knows loss -- he quit the job, quit the girl, and almost quit rap, then decided life's too short to spend time in an office. But he doesn't cry; he plays hurt.
"I have asthma," he grudgingly divulges. "But so, doesn't everyone? The biggest issue with me is, my throat is in constant pain. It hurts when I talk, and it is in excruciating pain when I perform. Right now, I have just done 20 shows in a row, and I have 20 more to go. I really never know if I can make it all the way through, but if I don't do it now, when the hell else will I get a chance?"