Automatic: As a white kid growing up in Rhode Island --- in what I assume was a middle-class, predominantly white suburb, since that's my totally uninformed impression of the entire state --- how did you get into hip-hop as young as eight years old?
Sage Francis: Well, RI is a very diverse state. It's like a microcosm of the entire country. There are some destitute areas balanced out by affluent areas and a lot of things in the middle. Many different cultures and social environments. I grew up in a working class household, with a mother who worked 2 to 3 jobs at a time and a step-dad who bounced from job to job. We lived in an isolated area of RI in a small town so it is really curious how I came upon hip-hop so early and stuck with it. But hip-hop was all over the place so it was easy to get a taste of it. Once I got a taste I was hungry for more so I sought it out by any means necessary. Luckily I was able to tune into some college radio shows which fed me the raw material, while pop culture served me up things like Breakin' and Beat Street. It was a good mix of material. The best stuff eventually came from Yo! MTV Raps, and of course I was captivated by every issue of The Source magazine right up until '95 or so.
You saw Run-DMC and Public Enemy perform together back in the day. The music geek in me has to hear about what that show was like, and what you must have taken away from the experience.
Well, it was my first concert and I had the time of my life. I was 12 years old. My mother brought me and I had a friend tag along. I was living, eating, breathing, and shitting hip-hop at this time but it was all in the privacy of my own bedroom... so going to a concert like this was probably the biggest deal in the world to me. To finally be in the breathing space of the people I had been idolizing and emulating was just crazy. I don't think my mom knew what she was getting herself into, she just knew that I was really into Run-DMC. The line up was Run-DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and a special guest appearance by LL Cool J. All most of them did was pace around on stage and do their songs with some typical call/response stuff, which is still what a lot of people do today. They could have all farted on the mic and I probably would have thought it was the coolest thing ever, but Public Enemy raised the bar and knocked me out of my socks. Fuckin... Terminator X hanging from the ceiling in his little DJ booth that had a big red glowing X on the front of it? S1Ws on stage with semi-automatic guns doing choreographed steps? Chuck and Flavor Flav going back and forth while Professor Griff throws karate kicks??? Jesus Christ... this was the tightest shit in the world. At one point in the concert my mom went to the concession stand to get my friend and me some drinks and it was at this time a huge riot broke out on the floor. We were in the stands so we were safe, but I watched chairs get tossed around and people get knocked the fuck out. People were stabbed for their chains, sneakers and/or jackets. When my mom came back with our drinks some guy with gold teeth and a Kangol hat was in her seat and he thought he could bully her out of it. Rrrrriiiiiight! Hahaha. My mom takes no shit. She got him out of there quick.
Run-DMC had pyrotechnics and different shit happening during their show which was cool, but Public Enemy had completely stolen the show. When we left, my mom said she would never go to another one of those again. She thought everyone was lip synching because they couldn't possibly have all those words memorized.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
After that point, I would have to say Public Enemy but there were a lot of hip-hop groups that did a lot for me in terms of how I write and what I do.
You have a track on A Healthy Distrust called "Jah Didn't Kill Johnny". You don't hear a lot of guys in hip-hop paying tribute to the late, great Johnny Cash. This isn't really a question; I just thought that was really cool. (I always wanted Rick Rubin to get Cash together with Slayer on a track, but it just wasn't meant to be, I guess.)
At one point I think it would have been blasphemous for a hip-hop artist to pay tribute to a country western artist, but that's why I wanted to make the song. We are (or should be) well beyond that mentality. He was a people's musician. He was more gangster than NWA. I remember when Ice-T used to big-up Slayer and I got all weirded out by that. Now I look back at myself and shake my head. There's no need for music elitism. There is fabulous stuff and horrible stuff in every single genre.
You've worked with lots of different MCs, and recently both Will Oldham and Bad Religion. Is there anyone you're itching to work with that you haven't yet?
There really isn't one person in particular that I am itching to work with. There so many people I would love to collaborate with but if I list them then it'll never happen. That's how this world works.
I'm curious about the phone message death threat on the track "Voice Mail Bomb Threat". What's the story behind that?
Some fool thought he could get away without paying me for a show. So I posted his info online and he thought all the people calling him were me.
Since you're such an outspoken and opinionated dude, what's pissing you off these days?
Awwww. Hahahaaa. Well...where to start? Nah. Currently I am pissed off at my body's inability to keep up with my spirit. People coughing without covering their mouths. People taking turns without using their light signals. Yellow ribbon magnets. Having to hear other people talk on their cell phones.
How did you come into the straight-edge/vegetarian deal? Were you into the straight-edge hardcore scene, or was it something that just kind of developed more personally?
Partly due to Public Enemy (and all the hip-hop groups who instilled in me the belief that alcohol is the white man's poison), I never got into drinking or drugs. This isolated me from a lot of people. I was militant against drugs and alcohol during my early years. To the point where if you offered me drugs I would be so offended that I would fight you. Hahahaaa. Fast forward to now where people ask me if I want to go smoke with them almost every show. Anyway, when I got into college I made friends with some sXe kids who told me about the whole hardcore straight-edge scene, which amazed me. Here I was feeling isolated as all hell all through my teenage years and I find out that there is a whole sub-culture of people who don't smoke or drink? OH SNAP! Haha. Well, I was reluctant to enjoy the music for a while, but I definitely involved myself in the whole straight-edge thing. I took a lot of pride in my substance-free lifestyle and I was excited to be around others who were the same way. That excitement faded within a couple years for various reasons, but I am glad I found a new outlet. And I am glad I found people who were more fanatical than me to show me the error of my ways. As for the vegetarian thing, one of my sXe friends told me that I was addicted to meat because of all the drugs they pump into the animals. I bet him I could stop eating meat for a whole year with no problem because I knew I was only eating it out of mindless habit and convenience. After that year was up I tried going back to the meat diet and I just couldn't do it. Chewing flesh disturbed me.
Do the other rappers ever give you a hard time for not smoking weed and not having any kids and a bunch of different babies' mommas?
They used to. We've all grown up though., thankfully.
But seriously, is it ever difficult being part of a genre that tends to glorify drug-use, violence, promiscuity, and stuff like that? (not that rock doesn't...)
Hip-hop inspired me not to reject the drug culture, as wild as that may sound to some people. It was a revolt against typicality. That's partially the point. When The Chronic came out and everybody started glorifying drugs and drinking I began rejecting that era of hip-hop, because that's not what I knew hip-hop to be about. It was a difficult period for me, but that's when I began realizing that hip-hop songs are not scripture. I then explored other music genres and I am very happy for that.
What made you decide to sign with Epitaph Records? With you, Atmosphere, and Eyedea & Abilities, they've got a remarkable pool of underground hip-hop talent for being a "punk label".
Hip-hop and punk rock have a lot of things in common --- but don't tell the purists of each respective genre that. As for as me, signing to Epitaph, the hip-hop labels that are big enough to handle the demand of my music put out shitty rap records and I don't want anything to do with that. Epitaph showed a genuine interest in what I talk about and how I do my music, where as the hip-hop labels poked around to see what kind of molding they could fit me into. It is an honor to be on the same label as the Rhymesayers, The Coup, Quannum, and Looptroop, not to mention Bad Religion, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland and Noam Chomski. It took a punk rock label to treat hip-hop with a little respect and dignity in the 2000s. Irony is not dead.
You guys in the underground definitely seem to me to be the new punk rock in the face of popular radio rap. Does it ever bum you out that there are so many creative and intelligent voices in underground hip-hop that go totally unnoticed by the mainstream?
It bums me out that the creative and intelligent voices go totally unnoticed in all facets of our culture. It's not just underground music that is getting ignored. The empire will collapse because of this. There's no getting around it. Society cannot go on ignoring the greatest minds and artists of its time without repercussions. I am not saying I am one of the greatest minds or artists of our era --- that's not the point of me addressing this topic --- but I do know that the crumb politicians and conglomerates have a chokehold on the masses.
And finally, since you originally made a name for yourself as a battler --- if you could have a rap battle with anyone, who would it be, and how would you shut his or her punk ass down?
I would have a ball battling any single one of the chart toppers. It wouldn't take much to shut them down, but I would like to bat them around for a while like how a cat plays with a mouse. It's so funny how they present themselves as infallible... it would be a blast to humiliate any one of them. How would I do it? I would talk about how they are BITCH ASS FAGGITZ. Haha. Nah. I would just rap all mean right up in their face and then kiss their cheek.