As the opening piano notes of Sage’s “Seasons” begin to sound out, Jack Nicholson’s voice creaks out from the track. “I don’t know if you’d be particularly interested in hearing anything about me”, Nicholson says slowly as the beat builds. An excerpt from the film Five Easy Pieces, the line summarizes not only Nicholson, but also Sage himself.
Normally known as Jonah Lee-Ash, the young rapper is just out of highschool and has just released his debut mixtape, Break. Filled with smooth, jazzy instrumental-based beats that sound like something Nujabes or Cyne would have worked with and with highly technical rapping that sounds a bit more like MF Doom or Earl Sweatshirt, Break sounds like something even a seasoned rapper would have struggled to produce. Sometimes relaxed, sometimes intensely personal, and sometimes brutally desolate, Break is the soundtrack of a young artist dealing with the twin pressures of adulthood and a first major musical effort. It’s ironic, then, that Lee-Ash would choose the aforementioned quote to open up a song. There’s very little that we don’t want to know about Sage. And maybe it’s that magic behind the curtain that makes Break so entrancing.
That being said, we’re not really ones for unsolved mysteries, so we caught up with Lee-Ash to ask a few questions about the EP, the beginnings of his style, and the life of a sage.
What’s going on in the world of Sage right now?
Sports, skateboarding, and music. Not much to say other than I’m doing my best to enjoy this summer and come through with some new music in the process
You just released your mixtape Break, your first released body of music. How does that feel?
It’s pretty amazing having a full length mixtape that I can call my own, but mostly, for me, it’s a weight off my chest. I’ve been sitting on releasing the EP for nearly 3 months, but always had excuses why I wouldn’t. I had some instruments I wanted to EQ again, or I wanted my buddy to have a verse on a song and that’s why I couldn’t release it. But in the end, I guess it all came down to me not being willing to release something subpar, and not wanting to regret having put out my tape without it being complete in my eyes, and that would not reach the standards of the people out there listening to my music. The reception I’ve received has been almost entirely positive, which is an absolutely fantastic feeling, and once again, a burden off my shoulders.
Aside from your solo work, you did release a single called “Massive” with your Lifestyle crew last year. Is Lifestyle going to be a regular thing, and can we expect more tracks from you guys?
As much as I’d love it to, and as talented as my buddies are, right now, with university and work being a major priority for us, getting together and recording songs seems pretty unlikely to happen. I, personally, would love to continue working with these guys and put out another full length tape, but at the moment it seems like I’ll be staying solo.
Are we going to see “Massive” in future albums or in shows?
I see Massive as being a collaborative song between me, Oz, and Frequent Flyer, and in the vein, if it were to be on a mixtape, it would be on a group project. I’d love to see us getting together and finishing up an entire tape from start to finish, and Massive would certainly be on the tracklist.
You juggle the roles of producer and rapper. What are the pros and cons of that, and do you think it’s a formula you’re going to keep?
I started out intending to be solely a rapper. I’ve always loved poetry, rhyming and flowing with words, and I wanted that to carry over to a musical medium. When I started rapping, and really getting into hip-hop as a whole, I realized how often the beats that these underground guys were using weren’t actually their own, and as good as they were as emcees, I really felt I had to break away from that and make music that I could call my own. That’s when I got into producing, I started making beats, and figuring out what works, and what doesn’t. The obvious advantage of both rapping and producing is having control over every aspect of my song. If I don’t like the way the drums are sequenced, I can change it, if I want to redo the EQ on one of my instruments, easy, done. If I were using say a Pete Rock beat, or a Premier beat, I wouldn’t have that level of control over the instrumental, and ultimately lose some of that originality. The negative of doing both, is, one: having to work twice as hard as most artists, and two: given that I’m not the most experienced producer, my beats may sometimes be lacking when compared to some of the greats. In the end, however, I feel like doing my own beats is incredibly important to keeping my music original, and although I don’t see myself bringing in any other producers in the near future, I would love to collaborate with people I know personally, or producers who already have a strong reputation and can help me get my name out there.
The final track off of Break, “Seasons” was originally a J. Dilla beat called “Life”, and “Sapphires” uses the beat from Atmosphere’s “Yesterday”. Are Dilla and Ant some of your main production influences?
J Dilla is absolutely an inspiration to me. I’ve listened to his discography, and he is one of those producers whose voice can be heard through his beats, his style can be recognized instantly, and the emotion he puts into his songs is incredible. Life just seemed like such a perfect song to end my EP on, and just oozed inspiration for me. The instant I heard the instrumental my head was swimming with possibility on what to write about. Ant’s Yesterday, however, isn’t so much about my love for Ant (although he is a brilliant producer), but rather the girl who introduced me to Atmosphere showed me Yesterday, and I, the inspired romantic that I am, wrote Sapphires about her over that beat. As well for Eve I sampled Isaiah Rashad’s ‘Hii’, who had a major impact on my delivery and style of rapping, and BJ the Chicago Kid’s ‘His Pain’, which I chose because the instrumental is just beautiful. Pete Rock and Madlib also had a pretty huge influence on my producing.
Your album has a bit of a chronological sense to it, especially since the second half of it is based on going through all the different seasons. What’s the story behind it?
I don’t want to give an explicit answer about what the concept of my album is, but there certainly is a story to it. The first half of the tape has no real connection, just a lot of rapping, but the second half after the interlude connects together as one whole story. I produced “Wonder” and “Speechless” in the spring of 2013, hence the subtitle “Spring”, and it marks when I first started producing beats. “Speechless” is the first beat I made from start to finish that I was proud of sharing, which is why I chose not to rap over it and leave it solely and instrumental. With regard to the latter half of the EP, it’s a more mellow jazz beat that I felt would really convey the emotion of being speechless at the sight of someone. I wrote Sapphires about a girl I met and got to know in the summer, which I mentioned in the last question, “Rambling” was about my life in the fall, going through a lot of shit that had to do with family, school, and some other stuff that had been haunting me, “Eve” was about the end of a relationship, and “Seasons” was my tying of everything together through a brief telling of my life story. The specifics of the story, however, I would much rather leave vague and open to interpretation.
Where does a kid in Vancouver pick up rapping, anyway?
In the tenth grade, my buddy (commonly known as Frequent Flyer) came to school one day showed everyone the rap song he made. So, not to be outdone, I decided hey, I want to make a rap song too. This led to making a second rap song, and a third, and developing my skills over the next two years until I the release of the Break EP. If my friend had never made that song, I doubt I’d ever have started rapping.
How did you tie together the concept of the four seasons?
As I mentioned before, it all follows a concept. Each song is my telling of major events that happened in my life over this past year. I tried to use instrumentals that matched the tone of each season, all the while maintaining lyrical substance, and keeping to the story that I had planned out in my head.
“Seasons” opens with a line from the film Five Easy Pieces. Does that movie mean anything to you?
I had been trying to figure out how to start off Seasons for a couple of weeks. It felt like a filler like a movie quote or something along those lines would really fit the tone of the song, and when I heard Jack Nicholson’s monologue in Five Easy Pieces, I immediately knew how to start off the song.
As you’ve said, “Seasons” really ties together the EP. What’s the origin of that track?
I originally wrote the song as something that would have value to me personally. I wanted to make something that had a deep connection to my life story, and that would tie together the album as a whole. It was tough trying to find the words to write something like that, all the while keeping a solid rhyme scheme and flow, but after nearly two weeks of writing I finally finished. The first time I performed the song was actually on stage at my high school in front of a few hundred people, and the next day I decided to make a proper recording of it. It’s my personal favorite song on the EP, and I’m proud to call it my own.
At first listen, your flow kinda sounds like J. Cole and Cyne had a kid, but what are your personal influences?
Cyne and J. Cole are dope, but when it comes to those who inspired me, and had an impact on my style, I would say Nas, K-Dot, Isaiah Rashad, Ab-Soul– “Book of Soul” was one of the songs that really pushed me to write in concept)–Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Earl Sweatshirt, and, by far my biggest influence, MF Doom.
Worst name you’ve ever considered using?
It’s a tie between White Wizard, and Lil Czar.
So, what’s next?
Live life and make music.
Check out Sage’s SoundCloud here.