Rock The Bells
Alive and Kicking: Sage Francis
Tuesday March 2, 2004
Chop Suey, Seattle Washington
By Chris Clayton
I’ve just entered the All Ages Hip-Hop Stock Exchange and look at all the little investors! Instead of yelling,”Buy! Sell!” they yell, “Ho! Damage!” Instead of trading stocks and bonds they trade mix-tapes and cigarettes. No double-breasted suits for these pubescent auctioneers. Five hundred and fifty Soul sweatshirts and Etnies are where it’s at, son! And peep the sold out trading floor: The beats, similar to the bells on Wall Street, cause the hip-hop investors to huddle together, all hoping to get some recognition from the night’s hottest commodity – Sage Francis, a master of ceremonies from Rhode Island. I feel old. I want to leave.
2. But then I glance to my right, where a herd of 21+ drunks stand behind a metal railing (keep the drunkards separate, they’ll hurt the tiny hip-hop investors) and I don’t feel so old anymore. Plus the alcoholics wear tighter fitting clothes and come in all shapes and sizes – not just marijuana skinny. I grab a piece of tile next to these older, “Who’s Sage Francis, honey?” people and prepare to;
3. hang on, I’ve gotta set the scene a little more. Real quick. So I’m taking in Chop Suey’s Hollywood version of Asian decor – Chinese lanterns and red-colored everything – and realize that maybe I;m standing in a Thai brothel that fronts as a teenage stock exchange. Maybe I’m really in a fire-code-violating (the Chop is at least 5,324 above capacity) hip-hop whorehouse. The jaundice-yellow lighting suggests this might be true. Furthermore, there are plenty of whores, both men and women, offering their services for free or almost free (I overhear one nymphet yell the following to her newly found nymph: “Hey, I have some coke, you wanna come over?”). The smell of fucked up humans – salt, sex, and rail drinks – solidifies my beat box brothel theory. Now I feel slightly dirty but more than ready to get live as a mother trucker up in this sexual stock exchange.
“Life is just a lie, without the “F,” Sage bellows into his mic. The white, slightly overweight, tuxedo vest-wearing rapper is halfway through the live band part of his set. His guitar and MPC-playing back-up group, the Gimme Fund, provides twangy folk loops and chunky sludge beats for Mr. Francis to wax over. I missed the opening acts but that’s ok, because Sage’s multiple personalities – ironic b-boy, political activist, spoken word poet, emotionally intelligent hip-hop writer – are fine by me and blend well with the multiple personality-soaked crowd and venue. Drunken whore-people, teenage Ecko investors, and stupid small-press journalists bob their heads through the smoky fog to Sage, their pimp and bell ringer. The live set ends with a cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page.” Tongue in cheek? Yes. Funny as hell? I concur.
Ten minutes later, Sage and Joe Beats (the other half of the group Non-Prophets), jump on the stage for some DAT raps. Sage now sports a black t-shirt that reads “Sellout in white block lettering. He has also donned a tilted mesh cap and some fake gold jewelry. Joe Beats, a young white producer, wears a Punisher t-shirt. It seems that half the crowd gets it and the other half is confused. “Do you think you’re some niggers?” yells a hippie-looking guy belonging to the “I don’t get it and I’m a horrible person” club (I thought hippies were supposed to be nice). Sage interrupts the bigotry by holding a small, circular mirror up to his face. Staring longingly at his own reflection, the thirty-something rapper dives straight into “Narcissist” a spot-on identity crisis track.
“I don’t look at myself in the mirror because I’m a narcissist,” raps Sage. “I simply like to watch myself exist/Now I’m in a fog and mist/Now my reflection is anonymous/Ponder this.” I’m standing all the way in the back and can’t see shit and yet these words give me shivers. Sage’s raps are a refreshing change from the Chingy/Nelly Vaudeville circus shows that are always rolling into town. “If at any point I demand you to throw your hands in the air,” says Sage to the audience after “Narcissist,” “You don’t have to do it. You can do what ever the fuck you want. Don’t listen to me.” See what I mean? Refreshing, smart, satirical and talented. Chingy and Nelly would shit themselves if when they yelled “Hip” and their audience didn’t respond wit “Hop.” I digress.
Sage continues the Non-Prophets set on a more genuine, emotional level with songs about self-doubt, dysfunctional relationships and even the misguided patriotism so pervasive in our culture (“Makeshift Patriot/The Flag Shop is Out Of Stock/Hang Myself at Half Mast”). By the end of the show, I’ve forgotten about whores, stocks, old drunks and contradictory hippies. I leave Chop Suey and drive home, ears ringing not from the bells of hip-hop commerce, but from the bells L.L. rhymed about so many years ago: “The bells are wippin’ and rippin’ at your body and soul; rock the bells.” Tonight, Sage took Uncle La’s advice, and did just that.