Music News


Before Calypso music was hijacked by CapriSun commercials and weddings planned by Pier 1 sales reps, it was a fine, spontaneous song form that centered, to a large extent, on the art of the insult. On the West Indian island of Trinidad, where the rhumba-heavy style flourished before moving to the States via Brooklyn, Calypso was a t'ing best left to the Calypsonians. These were professional composers with extravagant names like Lord Executor and the Senior Inventor, who were honored for their ability to create extemporaneous lyrics on cue, most of them dripping with only half-joking venom for their songwriting peers. In an interview with then-New Yorker columnist Joseph Mitchell, a famous Calypsonian named Wilmoth Houdini explained how, in tourist season, the songwriters would gather on the roofs of huts and wage "wars" against other musicians; the man who was able to come up with the best off-the-cuff cutdowns of the others was declared the winner.

Mitchell's column was written in 1939. Were a modern-day piece to be written about an art form that combines impromptu prose with boasting, it would likely focus on the freestylers, battle rappers and war-on-the-mike mongers who constitute the more lively components of hip-hop and are as much a part of the street-culture canon as beats and scratches. And if hip-hop's hierarchy is determined by the outcomes of verbal jousts and freewheelin' MC work, Sage Francis is poised to come out on top.

Sage, who will be at the Boulder Theater on Thursday, May 3, as part of the Anticonquistadors Tour -- a lineup that includes the Sebutones, Buck 65, Six Too, Alias and Jel, all artists affiliated with the independent Anticon label from which the tour culls its name -- is a certified freestyle champion, having claimed titles in the Scribble Jam 2000 competition held in Cincinnati, as well as New York's infamous Super Bowl battle. As a member of the Rhode Island Poetry Slam team, Sage also claimed a national title in the New York Slam Poetry championships two years running, a feat that landed him regular screen time during ESPN's Winter Games. He's a champ of the mike, all right. But, these days, the Providence-bred rapper is more interested in proving another aspect of his game.

"I'm kind of tired of contests," he says. "I had a chance to go to Slam again this year, but I've done that and seen what it's about. I'm focusing more on hip-hop as a musical form, working with my partner [engineer Joe Beats], and the music stuff has really taken over."

The music stuff that's overtaken Sage includes a solo project (with a record due on Anticon later this year), a frontman role in the group AOI (which is as much a live band as a rap affair) and his newest project with Beats, the Non-Prophets, a sideways-leaning duo that eschews some of hip-hop's conventions without chucking the whole lot of them: As the Non-Prophets' MC, for example, Sage prefers rolling narratives and complex couplets to the verse/chorus/ verse, set up/punchline approach used by his peers. The group's forthcoming album features an introspective lyrical thread -- a sensitivity, even -- that's likely to initially burn the ears of hip-hop heads accustomed to rappers who say little more than "That's right, y'all." While these qualities make the Non-Prophets appealing to listeners who crave a little creativity mixed with their party music, it's a style that doesn't always sit well with more hardened crowds.

"People call us 'arty,' like it's a dirty word," says Sage. "There's a phrase in hip-hop to describe this kind of stuff. They call it 'art fag' music. For us, yeah, we feel like what we do is art. We're into art in music so long as it means we are stretching boundaries and thinking of new ways to do things. The first rappers were all innovators, but now people act like what you have to do is just emulate. But there are always new things to say and new ways to say them. We're going to continue to seek out those ways, even if it makes some people uncomfortable."

If it makes people in the audience uncomfortable to the point that they'd like to step on stage and say something, they're welcome to do so. Of course, they'll have to meet the good Sage Francis on the way to the mike. And that's not a challenge to be taken lightly.

The very little Prince sure picked a shitty time to come to D-Town. Last week, following a performance at the University of Denver that proved he has indeed begun an irreversible transformation into James Brown (he has already achieved the helmet hair, the perfectly timed "h-aaaa-h!" and was even wearing a cape-like outfit during the April 24 show), the teeny purple entertainer and his considerable entourage made their way into the Church, only to be whisked up to a balcony area where they stayed for the remainder of the evening. This was all very disappointing to hundreds of Church-goers who'd plopped down twenty clams at the door in hopes of seeing Princey-poo shake his itsy ass in person. Instead, they were treated to an enormous video version of that night's show and the satisfaction that surely comes from knowing that you're sharing recirculated oxygen with a mini-megastar.

Seems that party poopers at the City of Denver, which lately has been showing off its muscle in the nightlife arena, wouldn't allow the Church a temporary extension of its operating hours for the special event. (Perhaps if it had been Wellington Webb's fave, Earth, Wind & Fire, it would have been a different story?) So at 2 a.m., the party was over. Oops. Out of time. Sir Prince, as much as we know you like the Church (and there is something very "When Doves Cry" about it), maybe next time you should try to find a venue in Englewood? Even the 'burbs don't shut down as early as Denver these days.