with Free Moral
Agents, B. Dolan
8 p.m. Friday, June 18
At an early age, Paul Francis decided he wanted to rap. One obstacle threatened his pursuit: finding beats that could sharpen his abilities. Growing up in the ’80s, few rap songs made it to radio and hip-hop instrumentals were a rare find. If Francis was serious about tightening his skills, he had to do something novel. He figured out two options: He could use his electric piano to play a “really corny drum beat” or scan the radio airwaves for compelling instrumental snippets. Although he had given the former a shot, the second idea held loads more potential for his precocious voice.
“There were a couple of college radio stations out where I lived, and luckily, they played stuff that wasn’t Tiffany or New Kids on the Block,” says Francis. “I was looking for weirdo stuff you didn’t hear every day.”
His method entailed digging up a portion of a song – usually a drum beat devoid of vocals – and recording it to tape, crudely looping one piece again and again until there was enough of a rhythm to work with. One track he recalls jury-rigging into a rap beat was a David Bowie prog-rock song he guesses came from the Ziggy Stardust era.
“It had this slow, eerie build, and drums faded up,” says Francis. “I wanted to see how I could fit over stuff that had me feeling moody or strange.” It wasn’t until years later that Francis learned it was Bowie’s work he was tinkering with, but it hardly made a difference where the beat came from. “All I cared about was hip-hop,” he says. “I didn’t want to learn anything about that guy singing, but if he had some drums in his song, I was going to jack that shit.”
Decades later, the rapper now known as Sage Francis incorporated the same tactics from his on-the-job training onto Li(f)e, his fourth album and last for Epitaph/Anti- Records. Urged by Anti- head Andy Kaulkin to use the label’s resources to go out with a bang, Francis throws his sly rhymes onto tunes developed by artists not normally tied to hip-hop. Among the crew are indie rock outfits Calexico and Califone, folk-punk wanderers Devotchka, the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and Amélie composer Yann Tiersen. These days, he gets exclusive content straight from the sources. There are a couple of appearances from guys familiar with hip-hop (Tim Fite and Buck 65), but Francis committed to Li(f)e’s ambitious scale to combat the tedium of doing a rap record the easy way. He anticipated a level of apprehension from the contributors, so he shared a few details with his guests: “Don’t make music you think should go with rap. Make the music you make, and we will work around that. We are not going for a novelty.”
Built out of three years of work, the result is way too sprawling to approach anything near a novelty. The broad and odd sonic palette lets Francis appear in a handful of disparate zones: Linkous’ wounded guitar and simple organ waddle along “Love the Lie”; Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla captures revved-up rock heading toward total collapse on “London Bridge” (aided by the manic yells of small children); and Yann Tiersen’s starry, resplendent piano helps make “The Best of Times” Li(f)e’s emotional apex. Elsewhere are hints of psych-folk, twangy alt-country and blues. Sharp-witted as ever, Francis is wholly on his game, rearranging metaphors and lobbing bizarre visuals into stories about jailbirds, adolescent shame and destroyed relationships. Like most great orators, Francis can overdo the grandiosity, but his point-blank fury is entertaining and always intelligent.
After revealing the finished product to his contributors, he noticed a common reaction. “They were gleeful,” says Francis with an affable laugh. “You could see a wave of relief go over their faces. You could tell [that they thought], ‘Wow, I had no idea this could be done with my music.’ They probably had prejudices of all rap [as] one style or subject matter.”
Francis is already contemplating the itches left to scratch, like experimenting with accordion- and bagpipes-based tracks – “stuff that has a droning sound and is probably slightly annoying” – but he does wonder what kind of impact Li(f)e will have on his collaborators.
“I don’t think any of these musicians [from Li(f)e] will actively seek more hip-hop artists to do more rap songs with,” says Francis. “What will happen is that people [who are] into the craft of rap will now see a new path they can travel down. This can show the potential for other records. It’s [about] the need for fresh material being made, rather than re-treading the same shit over and over.”