To say that East Coast MCs Sage Francis and B Dolan are cut from the same cloth would be an understatement.
Besides their shared roots in Providence, Rhode Island, their bald-yet-well-bearded profiles and their all-consuming passion for old-school, socially aware hip-hop; the two are also best friends (Sage insists that he gave an assuredly awesome best man's speech at B's wedding), neighbours and, with the genesis of their new crossover project Epic Beard Men, bandmates.
For any fan of music from the Strange Famous and Speech Development labels, this is pretty much the BvS of rap music (though why they didn't invite mutual friend Scroobius Pip on board on board is anybody's guess. Maybe they are saving him for next project, More Epic Beardier Men?).
The pair have long been admirers of one another's work. "I’ve been a fucking huge fan of everything this guy does, which is why he’s the only dude I hang out with," Sage informs me jovially with his customary booming laugh, making B smile (and blush) a little. After a long period of touring and working with each other, they knew they wanted to put aside time to create music together but couldn't find time in their schedules until they received an invite to perform at 2016's Edinburgh Fringe together.
It was there, B tells me, that they wrote the bulk of their new material, including the song 'Hedges', which grew out of his half-finished solo track 'Neighbors'. "It was originally inspired by my real neighbours," B admits, "where we live is kinda Trump country".
"I have a neighbour who had a fucking confederate flag on his pick-up truck, and we live in the north-east!" adds Sage.
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'Hedges' uses the rappers' two distinctive voices to tell the story of next door neighbours who come from opposing political worlds, who "don’t trust one another, keep their distance and start developing conspiracy theories about what the other one is up to," Sage explains, "so the hedges get higher and higher as we separate ourselves more and more in these communities until we’re just living in cubicles."
Throughout the song Sage takes on the persona of an aging, xenophobic ex-cop while B speaks as an overly socially-aware paranoiac. In using characters like these when writing together, B and Sage are able to bounce ideas back and forth and see how the other will reinterpret them. As Sage puts it, "The coolest thing about the Epic Beard Men shit is that we get to relay each other’s ideas in a different way right back to them, playing a character and representing an idea that we find interesting or funny".
This confrontational approach looks to be the most impactful method the duo have found (though the straightforward twin-MC attack of their other songs hits hard too), as it offers them a great format to address the extreme polarisation of American politics that Donald Trump both enhances and embodies; not only between neighbours, but often within households too. "My grandma lives in Florida and I’m fairly sure she voted for Trump," Sage tells me, "I do not broach this topic with family because it’s a sensitive thing. After eight years of a black man in office some people’s brains broke and thought that a white guy in office, no matter what he does, has to be better than a black man in office. I truly think it boils down to that."
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On a larger scale, these vehemently opposed views can also be apparent in musicians' fanbases, especially those of white MCs who bigots can flock to because of their skin colour. B Dolan's song 'Which Side Are You On' is an active challenge to racist, misogynistic and homophobic fans, while Sage has had to deal with fans who oppose his values with depressing regularity since the 90s. As progressive white rappers, the pair have an interesting platform from which to view Eminem's recent polemic against Trump and, more importantly, his own Trump-supporting fans.
"He said ‘I’m drawing a line in the sand, if you fuck with him you’re not fucking with me!’, which is cool," B admits, "But I’d be more interested to hear Eminem get introspective and be like ‘How did I help move culture to a place where we could elect Donald Trump?’ As a dude who for years put out blatantly homophobic, unapologetically ignorant music and only grabbed onto that social content when it was a bumper sticker that everybody could get behind. That’s what I’m interested in talking to white men about."
"Don’t just say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ or ‘Fuck Harvey Weinstein’, what do you do in your everyday life that’s similar to those guys? Because they came from us!"
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This is American culture now.
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"He tends to wait for those moments when he knows he’s going to get tonnes of popular support" adds Sage, citing the release of the anti-Bush 'Mosh' a full three years after 9/11 as evidence of Marshall Mather's weather vane activism, "I’d even go so far as to say that Eminem helped people celebrate that (Trump-like) part of themselves through all these years".
"Yeah, Eminem created Donald Trump to a certain extent," B agrees, "There’s actual footage of Donald Trump at some media event where he’s like (nasal voice) ‘I like Slim Shady, Slim Shady’s a winner!’ These guys where on the same team. And now ‘Oh shit, you weren’t supposed to elect him president!’ Well you just kept on making him more and more popular and more and more normal. This is American culture now."
Nevertheless, Sage is keen to point out the differences between the two problematic white messiahs, "I do think it is fine for a rapper to be that persona, not a fucking president! There is a difference there".
"Granted MCs shouldn’t be held to the same standard as presidents," admits B, "but MCs can help normalise shit for people and now after the fact you want to draw a line in the sand? Well, cool, but also…" he trails off.
"Maybe it would have been better for him to just apologise for what he did rather than acting like he wasn’t part of it?" concludes Sage.
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Words: Josh Gray
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