Sage Francis Gets Sick to Death on New Mixtape
Peter Fortin Sage Francis
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.