Human touch

Straight outta Rhode Island, Sage Francis works it coast to coast
By BOB GULLA  |  June 19, 2007
THE PROCESS: Sage gets it down on paper.

Before our very eyes, and the eyes of thousands of others across the country, our own Sage Francis has become the poster-boy emcee for a generation of literate rappers interested in waking up the sleeping giant of hip-hop and making its rhymes relevant again. He’s been working at it since his early days in the local hip-hop underground in the mid-’90s, where he freestyled his way around the country, dueling and subsequently striking down all comers. Even then he established a rep of playing by his own rules, speaking his own language, and following his own way.
Sage went from poetry slam champ to recording artist in the early ’00s. He cranked out his first official albums, Personal Journals (’02) and Hope (issued under his former band name Non-Prophets in ’03), both salvos of an angry, but insightful young man, with slabs of epic storytelling as poetic as they were strident.
Sage’s new album, Human the Death Dance, his sixth, documents two of the most difficult years of his life, covering troubling topics like rehab, separations, and burglary. Yet it’s saturated with humor, enlightened wordplay, and real-issue stuff that will dazzle you with its verbal dexterity and canny rhymes. Musi¬cally, it’s also evolved, pieced together by a cadre of excellent beatmasters, including tour mate Buck 65 and film composer/trumpeter Mark Isham. (Sage and Isham are collaborating on the soundtrack to an upcoming Gavin O’Connor film, Pride and Glory, starring Edward Norton.)
Produced by Sage and engineered by Chris Warren in Newport, Human the Death Dance is Sage’s version of Kerouac’s On the Road for the hip-hop generation, a scroll of onion skin paper unfolded to reveal deep and rambling thoughts, cushiony sonic beds, and an exhilarating experience for those of us who love the sound of virtuoso flow. We caught up with the touring Sage for an e-mail exchange.

How’s the tour going? What kind of reception are you getting? Do you feel your rep’s building?
The tour is very strong. I’m traveling with a very talented crew. The crowds have been ravenous. We played a couple new spots on this tour and it’s as if they have all this pent-up excitement for all the years we never came through. The DC crowd acted like a hose was finally untangled and all the screams came out at once. Albuquerque was so loud I had to cover my ears. That made the 12-hour drive the night before totally worth it. I don’t know if this means that my personal rep is growing, but my reputation for putting on good shows has spread far and wide. The podunk towns are really showing the big cities up. Maybe there’s a kinship there?

Are your performances changing? Is there much freestyle goin’ on or have you had to stay with similar sets each night?
The show right now is different than when we first started out in Boston. I have a full band behind me and we’re finally at a comfortable arrangement. The improv goes into my banter. Some nights I feel very talkative and I’ll go off on some strange tangents. Luckily, they usually end up making a good segue into the next song. I like going off the cuff and finding some fresh material to address while having no idea where it’s going to end up. That’s fun. It’s the banter that matters, as long as I’m in a good mood. Bad moods can walk the line between crowd-pandering and alienating.

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