You can’t kill him, motherfucker. As long as there’s been a mobilized modern indie-rap movement, there’s been Sage Francis. But before the worldwide touring, battle accolades and, as Chuck D referred to it, the “private Idaho” Sage has created for himself, the Providence, Rhode Island native predicted the MC mixtape release model with his Sick of Waiting compilations. With four years since the release of the last one (and three years since his last proper album, Li(f)e, his final release for Epitaph), this week Francis releases Sick to D(eat)h, a mixtape boasting unreleased and rare material that spans almost two decades. We spoke to Francis about putting these collections together as well as his work with HIV-Positive South African children.
See also: The Puzzling History of Rap Album Sequels
You were pretty ahead of the times with the original Sick of Waiting mixtape back in ’99.
Yeah, ’99 was when the first mixtape called Sick of Waiting came out. I’ve mentioned this before and I’ve waited a long time to mention it because people are quick to jump down my throat whenever I try to prop myself, but I didn’t know of any other MCs putting out mixtapes. I mean, yeah, people would put out demos and there would be tapes of a couple songs or singles, but I had a full-on mixtape. It was typically a DJ format, obviously, and I was a big fan of those tapes, but here I was sitting on material that wasn’t being released on a format people could hear it on or have access to. You either had to catch it on the radio or find a DJ tape that had a song of mine on it or you would miss it. I needed something to sell as a way to subsidize my career and so I put these singles on to a tape, I put live recordings on to a tape, freestyles, radio recordings and eventually it constituted a 75 minute mixtape which I began selling at shows so people could listen to my material at their own convenience. The internet file-sharing craze hadn’t happened quite yet, so you had to do it and nobody was really doing it.
I think the reason people weren’t doing it at the time is because it looked “un-official.” It didn’t give off a very professional sheen when you threw everything on to a dub tape and gave it your own artwork.
That was also a time when the term “independent hip-hop” had a stigma to a degree.
Yeah, I mean, “Oh, you’re a bummy underground rapper. You can’t make it, you can’t get signed so you have to do it like this.” And, you’re right, my shit is too out of the norm for a label to really get down with it. But I was aware that there was an audience for the type of material I was doing and since I couldn’t wait any longer for a label to recognize that, I had to take it upon myself to do all that and it was make-or-break. 14-years-later it still feels make-or-break and I’m incredibly grateful because the response has been so positive. Here’s a collection of rarities, unreleased tracks, brand new stuff that has no home, I think you’ll enjoy it. And, instead of throwing a Kickstarter, I’m just throwing this stuff out there to see if people with support it with a little effort and financial risk on my end.
Is there a hidden meaning to the name of the Sick of Waiting series?
It’s incredibly literal. I was sick of waiting to put an album out. I was sick of waiting for labels to recognize my value as an artist. I was sick of waiting for the props that I wanted to receive. So, fuck it, here it is all on a tape. I’m sick of waiting, here you go.
When did you start to feel it was a successful way to put things out?
I noticed right away when I couldn’t manufacture enough tapes. They were just selling and I would sell out right away. The thing was, I was putting all these together by hand. I was dubbing the tapes, I was photocopying the cover art and folding the paper to fit how a cassette tape fits a cover. That takes a long time and I dedicated enough time to make sure I had enough material and it would sell out. It was a supply-and-demand kind of thing where there was more demand than I could supply. I also started burning CD-Rs, and same thing there. I was writing on all the CDs and trying to put my personal touch on everything, but it was just taking too long. But, I made enough money off those sales to have them manufactured professionally.
When did you see the format start to catch-on?
So much of this stuff happened in a quick timeframe and every move I made was a financial risk, but the sales dictated how I moved forward with the career because it was selling beyond my ability to accommodate. I think other people took notice to that, the underground sites were selling my tapes and CDs and my name kept getting bigger and bigger in the underground scene. Especially winning the battles, that propelled my name into conversations and a lot of discussions about what was happening so people started looking out for my stuff. Then, when Napster and the file-sharing craze did happen, this was a great by-product of what I did with the mixtape stuff because at least people had my material in order to put it onto the internet. When Napster was huge, people would search “underground hip-hop” and my material was some of the most prominent shit that would pop up so people became familiar with me. At the time, people were accustomed to a physical product so people would seek me out, trust me enough to send me cash and I would mail all this stuff out people myself.
But when the mixtape craze got really huge for MCs wasn’t during the physical product era but during the free file-sharing “download my mixtape of the week” kinda thing. It became more and more disposable at that point and more forgettable. It’s a saturated market and, to this day, I can’t follow blogs. I can’t follow all the new shit that comes out every other day, it’s still too much for anybody. And we at first benefitted from easily making our material accessible to the world with a few clicks of the keyboard, but now there’s so much material out there and it’s being pushed at all times. There’s no collective experience. There’s no great filters. All these blogs are pretty much pushing out the same stuff at all times. You put out a single and it’s old within a week.
Do you recall noticing that change?
In 2005, at the record release show for A Healthy Distrust which was probably my biggest commercial success. It was my first record on a bigger label [Epitaph] and it was still a time when people were dedicated to buying CDs. In fact, I think 2005 was the last year of the golden age for album sales. And the record release show was in Boston. I was at my own merch booth, and this kid stepped up and was like “Yo, when’s the new stuff coming out?” I said “This is the record release show, actually. This is the new album” pointing at the CD. He said “Nah, nah, nah. The NEW shit. The NEXT shit.” That has stuck with me and it’s been repeated throughout the years, but that was the definitive moment when I realized nothing was new enough for people. The way that I create music, the way that I write with the energy and thought I put into my material, it’s for the sake of it being something you can return to in 5-10-20 years. I don’t want it to be a fly-by-night type of thing or dated by the era it was recorded in. It frustrates me. My last album was in 2010 and this is the longest I’ve ever waited between putting out new material and really I felt no desire to adhere to what the public’s demand is for constant new shit. I sat on a lot of stuff for a long time and hopefully people are going to stick around. Three years are two decades these days for people in the music world. I don’t keep up on new shit because I don’t want to be influenced by what the trend is. I’m not that kind of dude. Maybe it hurts me, maybe it helps me, but at the end of the day, I want to feel that the music I create is a great indication of where I am in my personal state as an artist and not where pop culture has taken us to.
Sick to D(eat)h features some demo versions of your songs that are vastly different from their album counterparts. Hearing how different they are years later, is there anything you wish you could go back and change about the album versions?
I’m a slave to demos. When I first put a song to a demo tape, that is my preferred version always. Even when it sounds like shit and it’s not totally tightened up, this is the most sincere, honest, genuine version of the song. There are exceptions, but for those demos, especially for the Li(f)e album, which was produced by Brian Deck who was in charge of how that album was recorded and the musicians who played on that album, I loosened the reins for that one album whereas on any other album I was in charge of the end product. That was on-purpose, I wanted to see how my music could work with someone else having the final say on shit.
My preference is the demo sounds. I recorded it to these beats and that’s how I’ll always hear it in my head. I can’t have regrets, especially if I’m able to actually show different versions and allow people to pick what they want. I’m happy to have that option out there. Music has a mixtape purpose in 2013 where nothing is rare these days and the internet makes everything is so accessible. But the truth is, there’s so much stuff on the internet these days [with] there’s no way for everyone to capture every leak or free release. [This is] a definitive home and a place where everything belongs.
With your last two entries in the Sick of Waiting series being released in 2009 and 2004 respectfully, has it been much different putting them together in the changing indie-rap landscapes?
There’s a lot of similarities, strangely enough. Putting it together, I was constantly reminded of how often I did this with other projects. The difference is I did this one all by myself. In the past I would have an engineer help me put it all together. I wasn’t tech-savvy enough in the past to do it on my own, so that’s a good progression in terms of how I want to control my music.
Do you have any song of yours that you wish was more well-known or discussed among your fanbase?
Yeah, I think they are songs that appear on mixtapes. Sick of Wasting, that whole mixtape fell under people’s radars and there’s a lot of reasons for that. That happened at a time when, and I know this is crazy but it’s totally true, when MySpace stopped being “a thing” and Facebook started being “a thing” a lot of us got lost in the transition and I was one of them. I was very reluctant to make the jump, but as soon as I did and began using Facebook to connect with my fans again, it was really frustrating to build that from the ground up. As indie artists, we rely on social media to interact with our fanbase. No-one’s pushing us but us. The fact that I had put so much time into MySpace, which was very frustration, and all of a sudden it’s not a thing anymore. That was also when people were putting out projects for free so it was like “here’s a free album,” and I think that made it fall under people’s radars. There was no great campaign around it and it was overlooked completely, but there are songs on it that are my favorites like “Conspiracy to Riot” and “Jaw of Steel” that if more people knew, I’d me more apt to perform them live, but when you play too many unfamiliar tracks in front of people, you being to lose them.
One song on Sick to D(eat)h is “Ubuntu (Water into Wine)” which was the first song you wrote since Li(f)e‘s release, which you also put out to benefit the HIV-Positive children you mentored in South Africa. The last line of the song mentions “They call me ‘Big Show,'” where did that nickname come from?
When I was in Durban, I was with the kids. They truly confused me for a professional wrestler just because I was a bigger bald white guy. They started calling me “Big Show” and it’s a rumor that spread around all of them and they were convinced I was “Big Show.” I didn’t perpetuate it, and they couldn’t speak much English, but they got really excited about it. At first they didn’t have any interactions with me, but the next thing I knew they were swinging from my arms and hanging from my back like I was their best friend. It was a really interesting lie, like “OK, I’m Big Show.” That helped give me access to understanding their situation, it was a really powerful and interesting time that resonates with me. The last line of the song where I say “The kids call me ‘Big Show’ – that’s better than ‘No-show,'” that was an actual interaction with the guy responsible for bringing me out. I told him “Dude, they keep calling me ‘Big Show,'” and his exact words were “Hey, that’s better than ‘no show.'” A lot of my songs are like that where actual conversations fit perfectly into the song structure that I’m writing and helps wrap everything together in a nice ribbon. I’m grateful for that. These are photobooks of my life and this is how I remember things that matter to me.