In the world of hip hop, change is not often something that is embraced unless it follows a certain line, one apparently prescribed by the founders of the genre. The term ‘that's not hip hop’ has been bandied about for years in reference to whatever new trend in hip hop that has seemingly spat in the face of the conventions that came before it; from sub genre's such as ‘nerd rap’ or ‘back pack rap’ through to the auto-tune craze of today. Sage Francis is one such persecuted artist.
Forging his own style in the crucible of the slam poetry and freestyle battle scene, Sage is a hip hop artist disconnected from the ghettoes and street life often seen as a prerequisite in hip hop. His style is one of rapid fire lyricism, intense and vivid imagery and well wrought and involved metaphors and symbols.
His 2002 album Personal Journals showcased an artist unafraid of laying out his own flaws and imperfections for all to see attacking his personal issues with a vitriolic delivery reminiscent of a baptist preacher reading the final pages Revelations. 2005's A Healthy Distrust, and 2007's Human The Death Dance were further explorations of this style, his lyrics finding new targets in politics and society, Sage building himself a reputation as an MC dedicated to pushing his feet to find new ground with each successive album.
With such a track record for experimentation and disregarding the so-called 'fundamentals of hip hop' you'd think by the time it came for Sage to release his latest album, the somewhat religiously focused Li(f)e, that people would've got over the issue of his genre bending. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong.
“I would have expected by now that they would be over it,” he tells me, “but I still caught flack from this record, where people were pretending like they should expect another boom-bap record from me... and I don't know why,” he says with a laugh.
While his music has never really been traditional hip hop in the Sugarhill Gang or Run DMC sense of the genre, Li(f)e is a step in a thoroughly different direction for hip hop, even by Sage's standards. Choosing to work with a series of songwriters and musicians who'd never worked with hip hop artists – including Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and Amelie soundtrack composer Yann Tierson – Sage wanted to push his music and himself in order to keep both fresh and inspiring rather than going down the stale path of stylistic regurgitation.
“When we went into making this record we wanted to have a unique sound, one that separated it from previous albums that I had done and we took considerable measures to make sure that that was the case,” he explains in a resolute and eloquent manner. “We understood the risk in that; we understood that it might push away some of my listeners or the core hip hop base… I don't even know that anyone outside of our genre would be like 'oh cool' at we've done, but for my own sake and for my own sense of reward I wanted to do that.”
Aside from the shift in musical tone, the album also sees Sage softening his vocal delivery somewhat; the angst and rage of his early albums – still present in parts – raises its head far less often on Li(f)e. “It's true, there’s a more toned down delivery on this album,” he admits freely. “It's not as in your face, it's not as angsty; it really has more of a tempered conversational tone. I don't know why that is,” he laughs. “It might be because of older age, it might be just that I'm adapting to the music I'm performing over.”
These changes in approach and execution stem from Sage's refusal to fall into a creative rut. “There are artists out there who continue to make the same record over and over again because the fans might pressure them to do that or the critics might pressure them… and I don't want ever want to be in that situation. But it's scary to change things up, as artists we work so hard to get that initial respect and appreciation and then who's dumb enough to throw that away and start all over again?... me,” he says as we both erupt in laughter.
In saying all this, it's important to point out that Sage's relentless experimentation is not driven by a distaste for his early work. He might not want to repeat himself when it comes to writing new material, but when it comes to live performance, Sage revels in revisiting the songs from earlier in his career.
“At a show I will go back ten, fifteen years… I don't give a fuck; at a show I'm there to entertain people I want them to see these songs come to life and I do that,” he states. “At my shows I cover my whole career; I'm going through my whole catalogue, I'm doing stuff from the new album as well as my first album and I like to do that. I show respect to my old material, I don't diss it, I don't say 'oh that shit's whack because it's old,' I actually like my old material just as much as my fans do.”
Currently on a tour around the world that will see him and fellow MC B Dolan landing on our shores in September for shows around Melbourne festival, this may be the last chance any of us will get to see Sage, as he has recently announced he will be taken an indefinite touring hiatus after completing this last run of shows.
“It's me deciding that I'm not going to pack up and leave my home and my home-base for too long after this,” he explains, a slightly broken tone entering his voice. “It's really my need to stay centred and stationary so I can handle a lot of business and personal things and also work on different music rather than leave it all, abandon it and go out and continue to do more shows.
“I've done that for ten years and I've still been able to maintain my business, but at the same time everything is kind of falling apart in my personal life and I'm just sick of that; it's taking it's toll and I want to try and figure out something new for myself so we'll see what happens. I got a lot of things planned, and I look forward to pursuing those in the next year.”
SAGE FRANCIS is one of the Melbourne International Arts Festival headliners, and plays The Beck’s Festival Bar on Friday October 15. Tickets and info from melbournefestival.com.au. Li(f)e is out now through Shock.