Having risen his rap credentials through the infamous Scribble Jam rap battles and a strong hold on the Slam poetry scene, Rhode Island lyricist Sage Francis had a massive part in the rise of the indie hip hop movement in USA after he began releasing officially in 2001. Never scared of taking on even the most avante garde of beats, his poetic, original and often brutally honest style of rhymes combined with some of the most experimental instrumentals around at the time quickly mutated further and further until he was almost in a lane of his own, interspersing with the likes of Aesop Rock and the esteemed Minneapolis label Rhymesayers. Now twelve years deep into a hip hop career that’s perhaps been far more prolific and influential than he gets credit for, his sixth studio album Copper Gone shows no attempt to dilute what he’s become known for or seek safety in the numbers of more well trodden musical styles.
Fourteen tracks long, Copper Gone sees him accompanied by a range of producers, both long time collaborators and new names to his CD sleeves, for an incredibly varied album that at times takes influences from Rock and Metal, at others is dubby and electronic and occasionally revels in poetic ambiance and understated melodies. Although personal and introverted, as are all of his releases, his talent for wordplay and large scale metaphors takes the messages of his tracks way beyond that of one man as he talks on isolation, paranoia, death, love, hate and anger. From the chaotic adlib hooks and distorted guitars of the intro track Pressure Cooker through the playful melodies of ID Thieves and all the way too the female vocal hums of Once Upon a Blue Moon, it’s beats are perhaps the most widely spread you’ll hear on an album in a long time, but it’s Sage’s strong microphone presence and the thoughtful nature of even his most angry and frustrated moments that tie it together as a musical journey.
Although a pessimistic album that at times seems to almost revel in anger, directed towards both others and himself, it’s a release not without it’s more hopeful moments, the descriptive story of Make Em Purr ending in a confident statement of his future potential for example, and it’s this that helps take Copper Gone from simply frustrated angst to something more poetic, something real, something relatable to even the more relaxed nature we harbor here at Broken Culture. So, with an imminent UK release coming through Scroobius Pip’s Speech Development label, we thought we’d catch up with Sage Francis to find out a bit more about the thought processes and events that made Copper Gone what it is, so click play on the album below and read on…
Hi Sage, you’ve been hailed as one of the forefathers of Indie Hip Hop. but what influences went into the blended nature of your style?
More influence than I could properly credit I’m sure. As a kid I started off emulating all of my favorite rappers (and some rappers I didn’t even particularly care for). I learned about different style and deliveries until I found my own voice. The influences changed over time and it started coming from different genres, art-forms, relationships, movies, books, life
experience. Same ole, same ole…
You’ve been putting out releases since way back in 2001, how do you think your sound’s come on in that time and how to you think Copper Gone furthers it?
Well, I started releasing music to the public in 1996, and there’s definitely a noticeable difference in my overall sound since then. My voice has lowered a couple octaves and my Rhode Island accent isn’t nearly as thick as it once was. I think I’ve maintained a lot of the same playfulness and love for wordplay but I’ve replaced some of that youthful carelessness with certain safety measures. Copper Gone says a lot without needing to state things plainly, and I do my best to make sure it doesn’t come across as a riddle. My writing is evolved and my delivery styles are more flexible than they once were.
The fun part of what I do at this point is figuring out how to out-rap the new wave of rappers without sacrificing maturity in the process.
Your music’s often been defined by anger and turmoil, something that continues in Copper Gone, with the ‘They say anger is a gift, I’m very gifted’ hook of the intro track Pressure Cooker for example. Many artists lose this anger and fire as their career progresses, what do you think still drives it in you to this day?
I’m an angry person when I’m driven to anger. When I’m angry I prefer to write songs rather than punch holes the wall. Sometimes I do both. But you can’t let anger consume you and I think a lot of people lose that fire because it’s too exhausting being angry all the time. Anger doesn’t often come with much reward if any. I don’t understand people who can’t accept their anger or express it. They’re scary. They end up with a collection of decapitated animals under their front porch.
There’s without a doubt a message of hope and continuation throughout Copper Gone though, talk of faith moving a mountain in Dead Man’s Float for example, what would you personally like your audience to take away from it?
I think there’s a lot of dark, depressing moments on the album, but it’s not devoid of hope. There are definitely some uplifting elements. However, you may have misunderstood the line you just quoted. The entire part of that song you referenced says: “It’s been said that faith could move a mountain/Faith couldn’t even move low income families away from floods when they were all drowning.” Dead Man’s Float is, among other things, about people submitting themselves to religion instead of taking responsibility into their own hands.
How would you introduce the release in a single sentence?
Busy, busy, busy!
It’s a very introspective record that talks openly of your own ordeals. Do you ever worry about putting such an honest reflection of yourself and what you go through out to a worldwide audience?
I’m careful about that, and there’s a reason artists should maintain a good amount of privacy, but I also like to hear the type of honesty they don’t often experience in music. Especially not in hip-hop.
You took a four year break from touring in the build up to Copper Gone, and the album talks of needing to step back from music. Why was that? What made you decide that now was the time to step back in to the arena and do you think the time out has benefited you musically?
The indie hustle can take it’s toll. My whole adult life was dedicated to that hustle. At a certain point I just felt like I could really benefit from stepping away from that. I had side-hopes of developing some semblance of a proper home life. For various reasons, some that are beyond my control, it just didn’t turn out that way. In fact, even though I wasn’t touring or releasing albums of my own, my work load did not ease up all that much. I was too concerned with trying to keep my label afloat while I assisted other people in doing what they needed to do for their own lives.
At many points I felt as if I was doing too much for others instead of for myself, sometimes I felt empty; frustrated by personal relationships, frustrated by the music business, frustrated and sick of people in general. Without really noticing it at first I slipped into a reclusive lifestyle, much more comfortable being all by myself than in the company of others. Too comfortable really. I’m not so sure this benefitted me musically, but it did get to a point where I felt like I absolutely needed to get back in the album/tour saddle while it was still possible.
Make Em Purr talks of that hermit style lifestyle and the reclusion you went through in that time. Do you think this reclusion is important for your craft, allowing you to really step back and internalize things??
I don’t think so, I’ve always been able to internalize. What I like most about my alone time is the uninterrupted trains of thought. Sometimes I wonder if people understand how stuff like that works. People always need to be in the company of others and they consistently derail each other’s train of thought for the sake of a conversation. Not always, but a lot of the time. It’s as if people need constant distractions from their own rabbit hole.
You say on that track, “My thirties were a blur. My forties, I’m not so sure, but I’m a make ’em purr”. What do you mean by ‘Make Em Purr”??
I’m telling myself that I’m going to turn things around for the better. I wrote that song in about an hour and I didn’t know what place it would arrive once I started it. I was surprised to have a decent view on my future. It was the very last song I wrote and recorded for Copper Gone and it was after I thought the whole album was finished already. Salute to all types of chance and star alignment for that happening, because this album wouldn’t make nearly as much sense without the stark truth of that one track.
For sure. So with such an extensive recording career and running a record label under your belt already, what are your goals from now?
I’ve never had any goals. I just need to keep pushing myself until I can’t push anymore, and then I’ll figure out how to pull other things.
The Set Up talks of a house, reminding me of the “And as long as I’ve known the bumps and creeks of this house” bar of one of your classic singles ‘Crumble’, and it seems the idea of a house and foundations have often been a motif in your writing. What makes you come back to it as a metaphor?
Maybe it’s all the time I spend in the house. I’m not sure. I’ve been here since I was a kid so there’s lots of ghosts in these walls.
The UK release is coming on Scroobius Pip’s Speech Development label and Scroobius is also part of the roster on your Strange Famous Records imprint, how did you two link? Do you see yourselves as lyrically similar?
I was just speaking about this with Inkymole a couple hours ago, she did the illustrations on the Copper Gone album. As people might remember, she had a gallery show in a London back in 2006 and all of the art revolved around my songs. I did a spoken word performance at it and this was when I met Pip for the first time. I think. I might be wrong. I believe he
mentioned something about being at the Plastic People performance back in 2002 or so. Or, no, that was Buddy Peace. Whatever the case, it’s insane to think how he’s done so much since then and it still feels like that show was yesterday.
We linked on a professional level once he presented Strange Famous Records with “Angles“, the first Dan Vs. Pip album. We put that out in the US in 2008 and then continued to work with each other ever since then. I think there are more differences than similarities in our lyrical style, but the similarities are what separate us from the rest.
What other artists from the UK are you into?
I find myself working with UK producers a lot, more than emcees for sure. Buddy Peace, Kurtis SP, and Aupheus are all longtime SFR affiliates due to their consistent badass-ness. Also, when we run remix contests, it always seems like the UK DJs come with some of the sickest shit!
Thanks for stopping by Sage! Anything you’d like to leave us with?
I”m touring the UK in October, so see you then!