On Sage Francis’ new fourth album, Li(f)e, there’s the usual barrage of fierce, pointed rants against the rich, powerful, and corrupt, but there’s also an unflinching look at the indefensible things about himself the Rhode Island rapper can’t escape—his misdeeds, his regrettable high-school dramas, and his limitations. Francis has always been outspoken, but it’s one of the first times on record he’s seemed, well, just human. Rather than talk to Francis about Li(f)e, The A.V. Club decided to examine with him how running indie label Strange Famous Records, booking tours, and promoting shows has taken a toll on his life—specifically in terms of the pet projects and personal goals he’s had to put on ice for hip-hop. Before leaving on a monthlong North American tour, which hits the Mohawk June 15, Francis went over his to-do list with The A.V. Club.
Get into fighting shape
Sage Francis: I’m gonna do everything next year—everything except what I do with my days and nights right now. Before I started this rap career to the degree that it is right now, I was a fighter. I trained and I also taught different styles. I want to get back into that, just to see if I can feel young again.
The A.V. Club: What different styles did you learn?
SF: A mish-mash, multiple styles: judo, jujitsu, and kempo. It was a martial-arts class that I grew up taking, private instructions in the basement of a gym. My dad knew the guy who taught this place. It’s where I learned a lot of my discipline, actually. I took it very seriously and it was probably the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done, being involved in something like that, which took a lot of concentration and effort and practice and just challenging myself against other kinds of fighters. It was a traditional school, but we also involved ourselves with MMA-style fighting. So that was very good for me, later on in life. I found myself in some interesting situations. It came in handy. [Laughs.]
I earned my black belt and that’s when I started teaching and giving private instruction. I actually thought that was going to be the path I was gonna pursue. I never talk about it that much, because it just sounds weird or silly: “Yeah, I wanted to kick-box, but I ended up just being a rapper.” [Laughs.] I mean, since I was a kid, I was obsessed with ninjas. I had two obsessions: hip-hop and ninjas.
AVC: Vanilla Ice beat you to that.
SF: [Laughs.] Yeah. I always mixed the two together. I thought they were both equally cool, and if I could be a ninja who raps, that would be the best. But then I realized ninjas can’t really jump 20 feet in the air. You can’t throw a smoke bomb on the ground and it explodes and then you disappear. Those things don’t exist. I spent a large part of my childhood trying to find these smoke bombs that they use in all the movies, and it was very disheartening to find that those things just don’t exist. Ninjas are just not that cool. So then I went into hip-hop and I realized that rappers are not that cool either. I lost a lot of magic in my life. [Laughs.]
Learn Flash animation
SF: Sometimes I can hold grudges and be very petty, but I don’t want to always rap about people: I want to make a cartoon about them. I’m determined to learn how to do either Flash animation or anything where I can make a character move, like punch their head off with another character.
AVC: It all comes back to fighting.
SF: [Laughs.] Yeah, the options are endless, really, when you work with animation. You can do anything you want to somebody. Rather than do it lyrically, I’m just gonna pwn them with my animation.
Strike back at downloaders with a law degree
SF: I’m going to learn what my legal boundaries are as far as hacking into a blogger’s website, finding their home address, and showing up at their house one day and videotaping me punching their face. [Laughs.] And then put that on YouTube and let it be a lesson to all these fucking guys who don’t know how to generate content on their own. It’ll show the whole world. Bootleg bloggers, man. I’m going to earn a law degree just to figure out how bad I can screw these people over one day.
AVC: Nobody wants to pay for the things they want.
SF: And I understand that. I don’t want to pay for my food. I don’t want to pay for the gas that I put in my car.
AVC: Well, I can understand not wanting to pay for necessities.
SF: Nothing’s a necessity, man. Nothing is a necessity. I mean. Fucking music is a necessity for a lot of us. How are we going to live without music? It helps us along through our day. It provides us shelter and it gives us a back massage when we need one and pumps us up to fight other people when we need to get excited.
AVC: When you need to punch some more faces.
SF: Yeah, I’m going to bring everything back to that. So, what I’m saying is, people who have this sense of entitlement, I’m going to figure out a way to screw them, somehow. I don’t care what they think. I don’t care if they think things should be free. It’s not free. I’m okay. I’m doing all right. It’s not just me. I’m doing this for the people, man. I’m doing this for the artist. I’m doing this for the dudes with families who are not able to make rent at the end of the month, even though they have a lot of fans out there. I’m going to figure something out. It’s not right.
I mean, people can be sneaky. I stole records out of the store. [Laughs.] It wasn’t common, but when I needed a record, I would go get it if I didn’t have the money. When I was a dumb kid, I took stuff. I took bubble gum when I wanted bubble gum from the supermarket. We’re into some other territory right now. Things are fucked up and people are not understanding the domino effect of what happens when they’re not supporting the artist that they are enjoying.
Be more realistic
SF: I probably can’t earn a law degree. [Laughs.] But I will be speaking with lawyers, for various reasons. But yeah, I did want to study law and I wanted to go back to school and pick another field of focus, whether it be law or politics, poli-sci, just to get a firmer grasp on how things work in this world, politically. I want to do that at some point. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that anytime soon, but eventually I will. If I could ever score a job as a teacher, where I get to teach writing or some aspect of the music industry, that I’ve proven myself to really understand and help other people out with? I would love for that to be a day job of sorts.
AVC: Well, you do have prior teaching experience.
SF: Yeah, but when someone did something bad, I kicked them in the shins and I don’t think you can get away with that anywhere else. I like teaching people who learn. [Laughs.] It’s really nice teaching someone who learns. It’s really shitty having to teach people who don’t want to learn and have no ability to learn what you’re trying to teach them. I’ve been on both sides of the coin and, hell, if I can find myself in a group of people who are willing to learn and have the ability to learn what is being taught to them, that would be a really rewarding and fun job.
Stop being a packrat
SF: One thing we all hold on to and have trouble throwing away is greeting cards. Christmas cards, birthday cards, where the people who gave it to us didn’t write what’s on the card. They signed their name and it’s really lazy and almost insulting. “Look what I endorsed.” [Laughs.] “I endorsed this card for you.” But I hold on to them still. I’ve got cards from 15 years ago. I go through my drawer, I look at the card and I’m like, “All right, well, I’m not getting any crazy nostalgia feelings about this card. Why haven’t I thrown this out yet?” So I’m starting to teach myself just to get rid of shit.
AVC: Are you saying you don’t send birthday cards?
SF: I guess it makes me look really immature, but I make cards still. [Laughs.] Like I’m in fourth grade.
AVC: No e-cards?
SF: No e-cards, but now the good stuff is the card that records your voice. Those are the shit. That allows for a lot of funny, interesting ways of startling the person who opens the card.
AVC: There are also the cards with pre-recorded songs.
SF: All of them have dumb songs. But you know, you can introduce the song. You say your piece and then the song comes in. I go back to my old [radio] DJ ways, where I just give a quick segue into the song and you can be creative with it and hopefully brighten somebody’s day. But then, I don’t know how long these play for. In 10 years, will it still have my cool message on it?
AVC: Considering tapes and CDs degrade overtime, I can’t imagine those cards would last very long.
SF: I guess I shouldn’t get too creative if it’s not going to stick around forever.
AVC: Just say your name on it and be done with it.
SF: That’s what I’m going to do. From now on, I’m going to get the voice cards and I’m just going to say my name. [Laughs.] Yeah, I won’t even sign it.
Have a sandwich named after him Done.
SF: Well, the restaurant in Chicago, The Bad Apple, the people who run it contacted me on MySpace originally—which is amazing, that I still check those messages.
AVC: How long ago was this?
SF: About a year ago.
AVC: Because I had never heard of the restaurant.
SF: Yeah, they weren’t even open yet when they first contacted me. They told me they wanted to name a veggie burger after me. And I was like, “Hell yeah. Fucking do whatever you want.” And they were like, “Well, what do you want on it?” They’re foodies, you know? I’m not a foodie. I don’t really have high requirements. I microwave most of my food and that’s part of the reason I have such a great physique.
AVC: So you probably couldn’t have requested a microwave burrito to be your signature menu item?
SF: Yeah, exactly. Everyday. I’ll eat a microwave burrito every single day. I won’t be upset about that. They had all these ideas. Obviously, there was sage in it. What the hell else was it? It was just a collage of interesting tastes.
AVC: I have the menu here: “wild mushroom seitan chickpea and corn burger with carmelized onion and sage marmalade and goat cheese.”
SF: There it is! [Laughs.] That’s it. When I went there, they were nice enough to host a dinner for me when the album was done recording. So I took some people, I invited some fans down to The Bad Apple and we got our table and our own room and I got that burger, because I wanted to taste it and my lawyer was there to make sure everything was legit.
AVC: When you think about menu items named after celebrities, it’s most common in delis. Was this something you had in mind?
SF: No, not in my mind at all. I was taken by surprise. I was honored by the idea of it and I was just excited by it. I was like, “Hell yeah. I can retire now. I have a burger named after me in a restaurant that’s not in my hometown.”
AVC: And the people who live here haven’t heard of it.
SF: And the people who live here, in my town, haven’t heard of me. [Laughs.]