By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
It is an honor and a privilege of mine to say 'Fuck you, Clear Channel,'" says Sage Francis, the Rhode Island-based rapper/spoken-word artist, as he prepares to embark on a national tour that he brazenly calls the Fuck Clear Channel Tour. "Clear Channel is a company that likes to bully local radio stations and show promoters to the point where every scene becomes homogenized and predictable. That way, they can force-feed their fast-food music to a conditioned market, and no one will know what they're missing. What they're missing is actual personality and genuine thoughts."
The rapper is not alone in his disdain for the media conglomerate. Critics claim that Clear Channel's monopolistic tactics have put a vulcan death grip on artists and concert promoters across the country. In order to garner airplay or perform at certain venues, they allege, you have to play by the San Antonio-based titan's rules. Among the allegations leveled at Clear Channel -- which also owns a majority share of radio stations in most major markets -- is that the company will pull artists from its playlist if they opt to play a venue that is promoted or owned by someone else.
Locally, Nobody in Particular Presents, one of Denver's largest independent promoters, is in the midst of a well-publicized anti-trust lawsuit that targets the company's anti-competitive practices. The suit is now in federal court, awaiting a ruling on whether it will go to trial.
While Francis admits that Clear Channel hasn't directly impacted him, it is this state of affairs that he has chosen to rally against. "My music and message are not something they would want to risk playing with," he says. "My approach and subject matter are poisonous to their whole outfit. I exist completely outside of their grasp, and that's why I have the freedom to book a full-fledged tour and call it Fuck Clear Channel."
"I am successful without commercial radio airplay, and I am currently doing a 41-city tour, selling out non-Clear Channels all across America," he continues. "In the process, I'm raising awareness to who Clear Channel is and what they do in each city I visit. These corporations are in the process of homogenizing the world, and in the process, they're hurting the quality of our life. I am insulted by that."
When he's not flipping the bird to The Man, Francis is usually in the lab concocting his latest project. His most recent offering, a collaboration with producer and fellow Rhode Islander Joe Beats, is optimistically titled Hope. The group has been dubbed Non-Prophets, a playful pun on combining their self-acknowledged non-commercial status and their refusal to present themselves as soothsayers for a new generation of hip-hoppers.
Fans of Francis's classic solo effort, 2002's Personal Journals,will appreciate his carefully crafted rhymes on Hope. But sonically, the record is a bit of a departure from the low-key, down-tempo soundscapes that dominated Journals. While the latter disc featured a variety of producers culled mainly from the anticon roster, Hopeis primarily the work of Beats and Francis. The record plays homage to the golden age of hip-hop -- roughly the period between 1988 and 1994 -- when the twosome first fell in love with rap.
"Hope is a good companion to Personal Journals because it shows what existed even before I branched off into the non-traditional styles of hip-hop," Francis says. "It is an answer to all the critics who thought Sage Francis didn't have the basics down, and it was a great way to display some fundamental skill while expanding upon them. Sometimes it's necessary to backpedal a bit and reconnect with your roots."
The disc starts off interestingly enough, with a sample of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his poem "Loud Prayer," which appears on the Band's Last Waltz soundtrack. Not many rappers can sample one of the more influential poets of the '50s and get away with it. Such is the genius and eclecticism of Francis, who has strong roots in the spoken-word poetry-slam scene. As a participant in the Rhode Island Slam team, Francis helped the troupe place in the National Poetry Slam championships. If Alan Ginsberg were still alive -- Ferlinghetti's publication of Ginsberg's "Howl" helped usher in the Beat movement -- you would probably find some Sage Francis sprinkled in his record collection.
From the first track to the last, Francis gets off, at times spitting like a young Guru ("Any Port"). Metaphors, clever word combinations and downright psychotic rants run amok on this platter. The first single, "Damage," supplies a slogan ("Drunk Driving for Exxon") that could read as a metaphor for the policies of the Bush administration. The song also drops references that may amuse aging punks ("I go to Fugazi shows requesting Minor Threat songs") and terrify Natalie Portman ("I am a nightmare walking/Psychopath stalking Natalie Portman with a blank tape in my Walkman/Talking to myself over instrumental cassettes the essential steps of having graphic telepathic mental sex").
The track may be cause for alarm for the Star Wars actress, but Francis thinks Portman should be more "scared of a dwindling career. And she should be scared of Scarlett Johansson knocking the crown off her dome."
His vitriol spills over to "Mainstream 307," a cut that samples Big L and takes on the sheep mentality of the masses: "I hope you burn to death with the trends that are hot this summer," he raps. "I'll wipe the floor with your psyche some more and fight the war with Michael Moore in a Nike store, battling the general consensus of shit."
In a similar vein, "That Ain't Right" blasts backpackers and materialistic rappers equally in an aggressive rant that clowns the fools who coined the phrase "emo-rap" to describe his work. And for those who constantly complain about the state of hip-hop, he offers this: "African medallions didn't sell platinum albums, that's part of the reason you think hip-hop died/It was here before you were; it'll be here in the future/Life's not a bitch, she's just sick of being personified."
Such opinionated dialogue is what Sage Francis is all about. Probably the most vehement and positive responses the rapper has received came after the release of his song "Makeshift Patriot," which he initially released as a free Internet download in the wake of 9/11. The song analyzes the events leading up to the day and its aftermath while providing a trenchant critique on the patriotism that followed. One can only imagine how John Ashcroft might react to the song's closing lines: "Don't waive your rights with your flags."
"That song won me a slew of new fans and insane amounts of press. I never would have expected that when I first recorded it," says Francis. "There were some negative reactions from servicemen, but in all actuality, most of them admitted a lot of horrible things about the military to me."
One thing that sets Francis apart from other rappers is his willingness to engage his fans and detractors in dialogue -- whether it be in person, after shows or online. And even though he may not have as demographically a diverse fan base as Eminem -- a fact shared by many "underground" rappers -- this self-described "unapologetic white boy" packs a mean lyrical punch that could hold its own with the Detroit superstar and resonates with audiences. There is as much Kool G. Rap to his game as there is anticon. And by signing with lauded punk imprint Epitaph, Francis could enjoy some of the same crossover success his labelmate Atmosphere has experienced.
"I am currently working on my solo album; I can't let the cat out of the bag just yet," says Francis. "But many people have big expectations, and I take the attention they are giving my project very seriously."
"Another goal is getting this dipshit out of the White House," he adds. "There's lots of stuff in the works, but talking on shit before it manifests doesn't do any good."
Unless, of course, you're talking about Clear Channel.