If Em had stayed underground, see, he just might be playing at the Magic Stick next Tuesday night. But the rapper didn’t, so it’s Paul "Sage" Francis, a fiercely independent 30-year-old underground MC from Rhode Island who’s playing the Stick July 10th to support his new record "Human the Death Dance," on the punk-indie Epitaph label.
Like Em, Sage is white, and gained national recognition competing in the prestigious Scribble Jam MC Battle. In fact, Sage won in 2000 — as he reminds us on HTDD’s "Underground for Dummies," wearing a Metallica T-shirt — while Em only took third in ’97.
Francis, too, is known for confessional, tongue-twisting rhymes. He’s not, however, known for club hits. His greatest crossover hit, if you want to call it that, was 2001’s "Makeshift Patriot," a song released exactly a month after 9/11. The song featured field recordings he made of Ground Zero rescue workers and the crowds (egged on, conspiracy theorists maintain, by actors posing as supporters) who cheered them on. "Makeshift patriot/The flag shop is out of stock/I hang myself at half mast" went the chorus, book-ended lyrics like "Coming live from my own funeral/Beautiful weather offered a nice shine/which is suitable for a full view of a forever altered skyline." With its personal and political frankness, it became an MP3 phenomenon, an Internet viral sensation before there really was such a thing.
"I was scared seeing what the government was doing," Francis says. "I was even more scared seeing that no artists were talking about it."
Francis soon found his niche being the rapper who talked about the things rappers didn’t talk about, at least not anymore.
"I was hip-hop to the bone," Francis sighs, proof of which can be found on Human the Death Dance’s intro "Growing Pains," which strings together the first recorded raps of the 8-year-old Francis.
"My first show was in ’94 opening for the Artifacts in Boston," he recalls. But as hip hop moved from being an underground form of urban expression into mainstream club music, Francis became disenchanted with it.
"When hip-hop first came out, every record was great and important," he says, sighing again.
"Hip hop’s supposedly about keeping it real. But nobody does that. It’s all based on lies — it’s fantasy music. It’s deadening the art form. I don’t involve myself in that fantasy. What I do is not even considered ‘hip-hop.’
He continues: "But I’m really a traditionalist. I followed hip hop, and took from it what I could."
Francis still has a soft spot for the storytellers who took early rap from boasting and toasting into the street narratives — such as Melle Melle’s transcendent "The Message" all those years ago. And like Slick Rick. And Scarface. "[Scarface] like the Godfather for me. I remember listening to Geto Boys records and his raps were full of self-doubt. He didn’t hide it."
Sage Francis history drive-by:
He earned a degree in journalism at the University of Rhode Island, but preferred spending his time on the college radio station and rhyming. After graduating, he fell in with anticon., a collective of white rappers like Sole, Alias, Dose One and Jel, who looked to hip hop for the expression — they were more interested in poetry readings than rhyming hooks.
The anticon. crew has never attempted to "be down" in the sense of — without opening up an even bigger can of worms — seeking commercial rap appeal based on their race or lack of it. An early anticon. group shot looked more like a Swedish badminton team yearbook photo than a rap crew.
"They were kind of weird," Francis admits, "but they weren’t rapping about how big their dicks were either." The lineage of the bugged-out white boy rapper is long, tracing back to Dallas’ MC 900 Foot Jesus, who made no effort to be down or make rap hits (his lone Yo!MTVRaps video featured a puppet doing his rapping, probably to conceal that he was white. So anticon. and Francis aren’t without precedent, they’re just priced out of the neighborhood now that hip hop has become so commercial.
Francis first record, Personal Journals (atnicon.) came off like emo-rap where as much for their soul-baring themes as the fact it found an audience in the straight-edge punk scene, which he gravitated to in his native Providence. "Then I started doing spoken word open-mics and performing in front of a whole different set of people," Francis says. Eminem morphed into the darkly personal Slim Shady after his disastrous Infinite album, when he tried to be all Nas-sounding positive and nobody bought it. Likewise, Francis, encouraged by his time on the spoken word circuit, began rapping about failure, relationships, and character flaws, sometimes in cringing detail. HTDD is filled with clever, if sometimes exhausting lyrical displays of self-awareness; it’s like "Ulysses: The Musical" over 16 tracks. Francis can reference hip-hop classics, indulge wordplay and still speak his piece, sometimes in single rhyme.
On "Got Up This Morning," a Sopranos-y theme-song sounding track, Francis details love and lust with what sounds like a Jesus freak-ette who’s just as freaked out by him as she is by her. "Welcome to the terrordome —a bedroom full of pheromones" he rhymes. Big Willie style this is not.
"I figure I’ve got nothing to lose, so why not talk about my vulnerability?" Francis explains. "Here I am, trying to do hip hop my whole life, and I feel like I’m more encouraged to find my own voice in the spoken word community."
So why isn’t he Eminem?
"I won the Scribble Jam; that solidified me as a rapper with skills," he says confidently.
"I remember before Eminem came out, people were fishing for a white rapper. Then when Dr. Dre put him on, I just shook my head," he sighs, again. "So many white boys could have been Eminem."
Though he won’t say it outright, he was one of them. "Labels would talk to me about being a certain thing, playing the part. See, to me Eminem’s career is based on lies."
"The biggest one is that you’re validated by record sales, that your success is based on how much money you have," Francis explains. "He doesn’t have the freedom and liberty I do. He has a lot of money — but artistically, he’s in a hole."
That’s bold talk on the eve of a show in Em’s own town. But while Francis can come off a little blowhard-y in interviews, he makes his point.
Also, Francis’ three-album deal with Epitaph (which solidified his fan base) is nearly up. But he owns his own label (Strange Famous) for his spoken word and freestyles. He’s done well enough to purchase the house he grew up in Providence, where he lives.
What’s next? A huge major label album peppered with guest-star name drops? Nah, Francis doesn’t believe in hip-hop cameo-rrhea. On HTDD his only collaborator is songstress Jolee Holland.
So with whom would he like to work?
"Tom Waits," he shoots back immediately. "He’s done his own thing his own way his whole career."
I mention that Waits’ son is a known hip-hop head, and that if Francis wanted to, he could probably hook something up. "I know," Francis says, "I’ve met his son and he’s a fan of mine. But that’s not my style. I’m not that careerist."
Tuesday, July 10 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Buck 65, Alias, and Buddy Wakefield. $17, 8 p.m. All ages. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to