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July 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A din of anxious conversation arose from the floor as the lights remained low. The doors to The Blue Note opened at 8 p.m. on July 3, but by well past 9 there was no sign of activity onstage. Of the more than 100 hip-hop aficionados in attendance, there was no discernible style or statement: Punks sporting mohawks stood shoulder to shoulder with baggy-clothed rap fans and sandal-wearing hippies with dreadlocks. The varying personalities present were indicative of a “hip-hop for the people” that is as avant-garde as it is expansively relatable.
The first performer took to the stage with nothing more than a microphone and an attitude. Two-time World Slam Poetry Champion Buddy Wakefield ranted and railed, interweaving complex political doctrines with his wry observations and messages of hope. The diverse crowd laughed and cheered to a performance that could be summed up in one word: intense.
O.G. - Original Gangster
Scratch - A musical note of definite pitch, created when moving a piece of vinyl back and forth in a rhythmic fashion under a needle on a turntable.
Beat - Music that accompanies rapping.
Slam Poetry - Aggressive poetry that is sometimes associated with hip hop styling and rhythm.
Indie hip-hop - Rap artists that are signed to independent labels.
Following Wakefield was the hip-hop stylings of Alias, a heavyset “white-boy” hailing from Portland, Maine. Alias, who has collaborated with headlining performer Sage Francis, struck out on his own with a fast-paced rhyming scheme that railed against everyone and everything but above all other “whack MC’s” who “are killing hip-hop ... just ask Nas.”
The floor of The Blue Note began to swell as the final opening act, Buck 65, took to the stage with a trailer-trash outfit and a neck brace. He spent most of his set alternating between awkward dancing and extraordinary table scratching. The Canadian artist is more of an alternative within hip-hop, varying his vocal intonations and his Tom Waits-like gritty delivery to a method of storytelling that is seldom seen in hip-hop anymore. After songs about Civil War grave diggers and how lonely it is to be a centaur (as in, yes, half-man, half-horse), Buck 65 exited to enthusiastic applause.
As the lights came back upon the stage, a bulky figure — head shaved, beard not — emerged sporting cargo pants, collared shirts and a tie. He roared intensely to open the show and instantly began slam-dancing to the tune of a metal guitar. The tempo slowed and segued into “Civil Disobedience,” a popular selection from performer Sage (Paul) Francis’ newest album, “Human the Death Dance.”
Although Francis would look out of place at a typical hip-hop show, he fit right in with the indie-rap frame of mind, an aesthetic and musical style that rebels from the bling and tattoos of “gangsta” rap to experiment with accelerated tempos and literary lyrical creations. Over the course of two hours, Sage, backed up by a DJ, guitarist and bassist/accordion player, bombarded the audience with a slew of metaphors, similes, puns and absurdities. Sage’s method is a hybrid of creative styles and conventions: He combines the varying intonation and shifting tempos of a slam poet with the playful puns and symbology of the most advanced rappers and celebrated poets.
Francis has secured a unique position within rap music and has joined the ranks of other socially conscious members of hip-hop’s avant-garde such as Aesop Rock, Atmosphere and Black Star. The performance in Columbia was a display of social, political and interpersonal dissent, backed up by experimental and at times strange music. Francis and his cadre of indie-rappers left a lyrical impression in Columbia and continued on their trail of innovative rap, an effort made to piss off some and enlighten others with a revolutionary brand of hip-hop.
Francis is something of an aberration in the modern day hip-hop climate. Although he hails from a modest, Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the Northeast, it’s not his skin color that incites controversy but his highly stylized and often confounding delivery. Francis is not in the business of bass swells and $2 hooks. He is a wordsmith, an instigator and a poet. As an artist, he is devoted to the form and substance of his poetry and shies away from the current conventions of rap that have become more commercialized since the advent of hip-hop’s prominence.
Francis’ two-hour set not only featured many new songs from his most recent release but also drew strong performance from his earlier works. “Crackpipes” and “Dance Monkey” proved to be crowd favorites, but Sage’s renegade “Makeshift Patriot,” a song that laments the tragedies of Sept. 11 but also criticizes the politicizing of its aftermath and urges listeners to “not waive their rights with their flags.”
Francis considers himself a writer first and focuses on honing his craft more than achieving MTV or Billboard recognition. Sage had already established his fiery political and social wit in various lyrical circles. Already a celebrated slam poet, Sage’s natural ability for rhythmic depictions of images and relationships thrust him to notoriety within the rap free-styling community. (What’s free-styling? Think Eminem in Eight-Mile but with a brain.)
He won the Superbowl Battle in 1999 in Boston and Scribble Jam in 2000 in Cincinnati.
Fearing that he would be labeled as a free-style rapper, Francis smashed his Scribble Jam trophy a week later and focused on becoming a recording artist. He’s leery of being typecast in his career, and this paranoia manifests itself in songs and live performances that are constantly questioning what it is to be a hip-hop artist.