Epitaph Enters Rap Game with Francis
Epitaph Records built its foundation on punk rock. But just before last year's presidential election, the label's most biting political commentary arrived courtesy of Sage Francis, a 27-year-old rapper from Providence, R.I.
The song "Slow Down Gandhi" sarcastically rips into liberals and conservatives alike, casting a cynical eye at warmongers and the "cool kids" who "were rocking votes."
With a perfectly articulated delivery that recalls Chuck D, Francis builds each verse with a mixture of activism, paranoia and humor. "If they could sell sanity in a bottle, they would be charging for compressed air," he quips.
Epitaph released the song into cyberspace just before the election, tapping into the Web-friendly audience that Francis has built during the last four years. In 2001, with neither an album under his belt nor a label affiliation, Francis unleashed the song "Makeshift Patriot" through his Web site.
A critical look at American media issued one month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the song instantly made Francis a name in underground hip-hop. Its organic success allowed Francis to tour the United States and Europe -- and make money doing so.
"I accepted the possibility of immediate backlash, but surprisingly, the backlash never came," Francis says. "People were eating it up ... I do my best to handle subjects like this with integrity, and I didn't let any possible reaction to the material determine a single aspect of that process. That's important to do as an artist, at a time when almost all popular musicians let popular opinion dictate what they will or will not say."
Epitaph president Andy Kaulkin, who likens Francis' mix of social commentary and humor to that of comedian George Carlin, heard the song and began courting the rapper. After releasing an album in 2002 with Oakland, Calif.-based Anticon, Francis eventually became the first hip-hop artist signed to Epitaph. The label will issue "A Healthy Distrust" Feb. 8.
When Epitaph first signed Francis, there was talk that the Los Angeles-based label would launch a hip-hop imprint. Francis, however, preferred the punk brand.
"I may have been more reluctant to sign with Epitaph if I wasn't the first hip-hop act on their label," he says. "Does that make me petty? There were no reservations about the label being punk-oriented. The reservations were about signing to a label of that size and how that would affect my self-made career ... It was good that no one set a hip-hop precedent at Epitaph because I felt much more comfortable working with a clean slate."
After signing Francis, Epitaph struck a deal with Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers to distribute hip-hop albums from Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities. Atmosphere's "Seven's Travels" peaked at No.5 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart and has sold 136,000 units in the States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"We saw ourselves as being just like Epitaph, only seven or 10 years behind them," Rhymesayers CEO Siddiq Sayers, "We were looking to expand and learn some things; Epitaph wanted to get their feet wet in hip-hop."
During the last year, Epitaph has been extremely active in signing hip-hop artists. This year, Epitaph and its more adult-learning imprint Anti- will release albums from Blackalicious, the Coup and Danger Mouse. Additionally, through a distribution deal with Quannum, Epitaph will distribute the next Lyrics Born release.
Epitaph GM Dave Hansen says rap and punk are a natural fit. "A lot of the marketing we do for punk is stuff we've taken from people marketing hip-hop records. It's all street marketing."
The label introduced its audience to Francis by having him appear on last year's Bad Religion album. "The Empire Strikes First." Francis, who has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Rhode Island, already courts a dedicated following. He regularly sells out small clubs in major markets. He has also sold 36,000 units of his Anticon release "Personal Journals."
"I've been with different labels and it's usually out of pure curiosity as to how much better they will be able to do than I can do on my own," Francis says. "Epitaph might be the only label who can outwork me."
In January Epitaph released a limited-edition single of "Sea Lion," a Francis collaboration with avant-folk artist Will Oldham. Francis will launch a two-month North American tour Feb. 4.
Hansen says Epitaph, which is distributed through Alternative Distribution Alliance, is planning an initial shipment of 40,000 units. According to retailers, Epitaph's goal of selling 10,000 units in the first week shouldn't be a problem.
"It's going to be big," says Jim Utz, a buyer with St. Louis-based Vintage Vinyl. "The buzz here is absolutely huge. He has done better than a lot of other underground rappers. I haven't even heard the album, because our staffers keep borrowing the promo."
BY TODD MARTENS