Long before they became peers and co-conspirators as Epic Beard Men, Rhode Island word artists B. Dolan and Sage Francis met as student and teacher, respectively.
“I was the slam master of [Dolan’s] high school slam team at Smithfield Senior High School,” Francis says. The storied underground MC is one of hip-hop’s smartest artists and a major New England-style ballbuster, though it seems like he’s telling the truth about their backstory. He continues:
“I love doing work with the youth there and trying to make sure these kids don’t get into bullshit. If they have problems at home, if they’re dealing with emotional issues, don’t be a bully, don’t take heroin, fucking talk about it in peace and hopefully you can win the slam at the county fair every year.
“[Dolan] got a lot of attention because he is very anti-authority. We didn’t gel. That was not the time for us to gel. But later, when Bush won his second [term], he came to me like, ‘Are we going to throw bricks through windows or what?’”
“That really happened,” Dolan confirms. “The night of the election I actually drove to [Francis’s house]. I almost forgot about that.”
Both concerned about the world around them beyond music, Francis and Dolan moved to dent Dubya with documents.
“We had to find a way to deal that wasn’t just with words but that was with actual actions, and that’s what knowmore.org was birthed from,” Francis says, referring to the corporate information database that his Strange Famous Records supported and pushed relentlessly. “We collaborated, but it wasn’t Epic Beard Men at first. [Knowmore.org] was [Dolan’s] conception, and that’s what he put endless time into over the next several years.”
Starting around 2013, Dolan and Francis started recording the occasional track as a unit, often dipping into protest realms that both are used to navigating. On the backs of cuts like “You Can’t Win” and “War on Christmas” (the latter of which coincided with the announcement of their forming a united front during the 2017 holiday season), things became much more official.
“Part of [the name] is related to the Epic Beard Man viral meme, where an old dude on a bus gets into a scuffle with a younger dude,” Francis recalls. “Right around when that happened, it popped into my mind that it could be a good concept. I knew at the time it was a really awful name, but I also knew that a group’s name is what you make of it. It doesn’t matter, you can have any name. If it’s good, people will accept the name. It’s the battle we were destined for.”
“There was a concerted effort, like, ‘Now we’re gonna make an album,’” Dolan says. “We both have time between solo projects now, so from the time we started doing that we’ve made about 24 songs—what’s about to be released, and what was released last year. … I think the approach was basically, Don’t be mean to people. Don’t be a piece of shit.”
“Considering how much B and I tour together and everything that we experience on the road and talk about, I feel like that’s the spirit of Epic Beard Men,” Francis adds. “As solo artists we tackle a lot of heavy topics, and as a group I felt we could have more fun. That did happen for a lot of the songs, and then the longer you’re together you just get into the heavy shit again.
“For the most part, when we tour we’re in cars, side by side, just kind of shooting the shit, and that’s how the songs came about. In the midst of long-ass rides and talking about random bullshit. That’s always where you get a great concept that most people would just throw away, but if it was fun or funny in the moment, you can find a way to grow that into something other people can appreciate.”
The resulting project, This Was Supposed To Be Fun, is a demented joyride that rings as a hardcore hip-hop album on the beat side and flies into superhero territory in the theme department. Very little is predictable, from Slug (of Atmosphere) and Blue Raspberry (of Wu-Tang Clan acclaim) showing up on a song about America’s most degenerate tour manager, to expected knocks on dirty cops but with the unique twist of a free-wheeling buddy dramedy.
“The question was, How can this be different from our solo shit? And the group name kind of pulled it in that direction,” Dolan says. “Because I had never done a half-and-half lyrics album like this I was interested in all the ways we could play off of [each other]. … We’re able to play opposing characters, we’re able to have a conversation, and to fight.”
“There’s only one song that was scrapped from the album, and it’s about Vanilla Ice,” Francis says. The Miami gimmick rapper is in all fathomable ways anathema to Epic Beard Men—appearance-obsessed, questionably gifted, well-groomed. Their message on the matter, however, is admirably contrarian, and classic Epic Beard Men.
“This dude laid down the tracks for a lot of the people who America celebrates, and he has taken all of the brunt of the negativity,” Francis says. “I mean, tell me that Justin Bieber is not a fucking product of Vanilla Ice. Tell me that fucking Macklemore isn’t Vanilla Ice in a different incarnation. These motherfuckers get away with it, and [Vanilla Ice] is just the butt of the joke?
“Nah, he’s a fucking god, that’s all I’m saying. As a person I’m not going to champion him, but he fought the battle that so many people are basking in the victory of.”
EPIC BEARD MEN W/ OPEN MIKE EAGLE, SAMMUS, VOCKAH REDU, DJ ZOLE. THU 4.4 AT SONIA, 10 BROOKLINE ST., CAMBRIDGE.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.