It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 2005 was poised as the year of underground Hip Hop. It was penciled in, and practically every indie rapper under the sun stood in the green room, anxiously clutching their crossover albums in one hand, backpack straps in the other. Years of “next rap explosion” were set to culminate in a complete industry takeover; or to be more accurate, a taking back of this genre once so respectable. When the curtain rose on the year, however, the mass market had already gone home, and thousands of liberal arts students seemed suddenly aware that a Slug is a sea mollusk, and Aesop told stories to little kids.
“There has to be a reason for it,” says Sage Francis, one of the frontrunners of the scene. Last year Sage released the critically lauded, commercially ignored A Healthy Distrust on the heavily punk rock Epitaph label, a move that seemed to only confirm the underground’s mainstream momentum. Entertainment Weekly praised the album’s “ferocity,” and Blender said, “His fire-and-brimstone confessionals are as complex as they are venomous.” What’s more, the Rhode Island native, along with contemporaries MF Doom, Immortal Technique, and K-Os, rocked the annual Coachella Festival in California last summer. “It was a hundred degrees out and it was just miserable,” says Francis. “I had been watching the other performers and I got a real sick feeling. I kind of screamed out ‘I hate Weezer!’ and fuckin’ plowed into our set. I could say that was one of my favorite performances to date.” It may not move millions of units, but this is still rap, and if there’s one characteristic the underground world will not surrender, it’s attitude, and despite the rough year, Francis remains firm. “I think mainstream rap is at the same stage big-hair rock was in the late 80′s,” says Francis. “I mean people are getting burned out on it.” Sage points to a black hole of charisma from the superstars of right now, as opposed to say LL Cool J in the 80′s or Jay-Z in the 90′s. “There’s always gonna be sub par people getting accolades. But they’re not even entertaining like Britney Spears is!” Referring to last year’s particularly infuriating MTV VMA’s, in which host Diddy literally tossed out jewelry and cash, giving an entire genre an even worse name in one fell swoop, Sage points out, “These guys can’t even rap and it’s their job. I’m not saying they should be flashy. I’m not saying they should have dance routines, although they might as well. They’re just trying to get over on the power of their hit and mope around on stage like fuckin’ idiots.”
In the last couple of years, the largest amount of buzz has circled around another self-proclaimed “backpacker.” Kanye West, before the gold diggers and Jesus poses, wore Polo shirts and spit verses that bore more than a passing resemblance to what emo rappers like Atmosphere had been playing with for years. West didn’t just come from out of nowhere; he seemed to represent the perfect spawn of “conscious” rap like Mos Def and Aceyalone, and the flashy materialism of the Dirty. There may have been, however, some wolf in the sheep’s linen suit, and Francis claims to see through it all. Throwing Common in the mix for good measure, he says, “I don’t buy it. I’ve followed them through the years. I’ve listened to how they talk. I’ve seen them live and it doesn’t translate. I’m not gonna buy into them being ultra-conscious, pro-black leaders. I didn’t listen to [Late Registration] cause I felt duped by the first album.”
Francis says he is taking some time off this year, but with the nation facing another election that may actually be important for our future, don’t expect an artist coming off a tour sponsored by Knowmore.org (a heavily left-leaning news site), and who made his name with “Makeshift Patriot,” a response to the trampling of civil rights in the wake of 9/11, to stay quiet for long. “I think [Katrina] raised the consciousness to problems in America really well,” says Sage. “That’s the only upside. Maybe this is one step closer to Bush getting impeached. Just getting everyone on the same page, like ‘Holy cow, this guy is incompetent. He doesn’t care.’”
Sound like a familiar refrain? Perhaps the alienation gap between true underground rap and Mr. West isn’t all that large after all. “Yeah, he’s the guy who said it,” admits Sage. “Everyone else was not saying it. I tip my hat to that. Does he truly understand the complexities of what happens in our country and what happens worldwide? No, I don’t think he does. I think he’s an arrogant loudmouth, [but] I think it’s important that he used the opportunity.”
And it’s here we get to the very core of why indie rap’s bubble burst last year. Why A Healthy Distrust, along with every single underground Hip Hop record last year failed to clear 100,000. Why, for example, Sage Francis’ eloquent dissection of “Slow Down Gandhi,” (Who’s the one to blame for this strain in my vocal chords/ Who can pen a hateful threat but can’t hold a sword/ It’s the same who complain about the global war/But can’t overthrow the local joker that they voted for) can never compete with “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” What practically any music executive, MTV production assistant, or even retail chain clerk can tell you is that mainstream has no time for all that. Sound bites. Chi-lites samples. White tees. In a modern music business hemorrhaging cash, an industry that can no longer afford to take “chances” or nurture “talent,” playing their game is a survival instinct.
Lucky for us the underground scene only knows how to play Dominoes.
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