“Good luck, put some talcum powder on your nuts, and drink some water.” Sage the Gemini, a 21-year-old rapper from Fairfield, Calif., laughs as he reads aloud a text message from his friend IamSu, a fellow Bay Area rapper and producer named Sudan Ahmeer Williams. Su is only three years older than Sage, but he’s become an encouraging, older-brother-type figure in the past couple of years, and the two have recorded, performed, and traveled together as a part of HBK Gang (short for Heartbreak Gang), a crew of rappers, producers, and video directors that Su co-founded.
It’s late October 2013 and Sage — born Dominic Wynn Woods — is getting his hair cut in a greenroom backstage at BET before making his TV debut on 106 & Park. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Sage easily towers over most people, but his presence and movements feel more like that of an overgrown kid than anything intimidating. Toned and fit, he has the look of a heartthrob, and girls on social media coo over the jade-hued eyes that gave Sage his stage name. He’s joined in the room by his four dancers — Dmac, Chonkie, Liyah, and Wani — and his DJ, Lucci. Most of them are a bit younger than Sage, but they all grew up together in Fairfield and have been friends since high school.
Sage is the only member of the HBK crew with his own backup dancers — dance has always been an important part of growing up in the Bay, a crucial element of the area’s culture and energy, even if the best-known recent signature moves have come out of the L.A. hip-hop scene, where the “jerk” and “Cat Daddy” dance fads bloomed. But Sage’s two breakout hits, “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose,” and their accompanying dances have resurrected dance in the Bay thanks to people uploading videos of their own routines to YouTube and Vine.
Seated around a TV screen in the BET greenroom, Sage’s crew watches his DJ Lucci check lighting and sound onstage. Lucci dances alone, turning side to side, his arms drumming up and down, like Sage does in the “Gas Pedal” video. Lucci’s hair is long, curly, and half-braided, and he’s unaware that his friends are watching him. “He just came out of the womb dancing!” Sage laughs. “The doctor ain’t even cut the umbilical cord, he’s already got it, swinging!” He jumps up and simulates coming out of the womb while dancing.
With his day-one friends, Sage is at ease — but he regularly alludes to a time when he was less comfortable and less accepted. “They used to call me Lil Bow Wow’s little brother when I was younger,” Sage tells his manager, Stretch, referring to the ‘00s kid rapper now known just as Bow Wow, and one of 106 & Park’s hosts. “Because I was light-skinned and my nose didn’t really fit my face. It was hecka funny because now those same people are gonna be watching and be like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Public appearances with famous people will be the norm for him over the next couple of months. He signed a major-label deal with Republic Records last summer, and since, his schedule has been filled with promo appearances at radio stations, tour dates with HBK, and performances at high schools, all pointing toward the March release of his debut album, Remember Me.
After a quick rehearsal, the group performs two songs during the show’s live taping: “Gas Pedal” — the single that caught Republic’s attention and has gone platinum since the label signed Sage, with almost 45 million views on YouTube. Justin Bieber even hopped on the official remix of the song for the album. His second hit, “Red Nose,” has been certified gold.
Later, the crowd goes wild as Dmac teaches Bow Wow the “Gas Pedal” dance — a variation on the J12, a dance made up by a 19-year-old from Oakland, and which was popularized around the Bay Area by dance videos soundtracked by local rapper Clyde Carson's song "Slow Down." “Ahh, that was so cool!” one of the dancers, Wani, says as the crew leaves BET’s studio. As everyone else celebrates, Sage walks ahead, scrolling through Twitter on his phone. He says he wishes a few things were slightly different with his performance, but overall he’s happy.
In early January, Sage, IamSu, and the rest of the HBK Gang take photos for a magazine feature story in the Berkeley Hills. That evening, after the HBK guys have gone home, Sage is sitting with his younger cousin Jodie and a handful of childhood friends at a Popeyes in Berkeley, everyone giggling as Sage walks back and forth across the restaurant, filling its small space with his long-limbed dancing. He does voices: impressions of friends, a wheezy Donald Duck. Later, pausing their conversation mid-sentence without skipping a beat, they tell an older woman she’s “very pretty” as she’s leaving. She’s flattered. Sage is charismatic, charming, and sweet, without it ever feeling over-the-top or disingenuous. He’s quick to compliment people, and he looks them straight in the eyes, earnestly, while he does it.
By having his first two singles sell really well, securing a nice major-label deal, and quickly recording an album that hasn't been shelved, Sage flouts prevailing notions about what a rapper from the Bay Area can do. The region has long operated in its own kind of bubble, at the margins of the national hip-hop conversation. In the 1990s, “when people thought of ‘West Coast music,’ they’d think of L.A.,” says Sage’s manager Stretch. The Bay has produced a handful of nationally recognized acts over time, like the imaginative linguistic stylist E-40 and pimp-rap pioneer Too Short. More recently, labels flocked to the Bay in the mid ‘00s, signing acts like The Team and The Federation, who were associated with what was locally known as the hyphy movement.
None of those acts found enduring nationwide success, but you can still regularly hear hyphy-era tracks from Keak Da Sneak and E-40 on the radio in the Bay, where classics never go out of style and local tastes still rule the airwaves. “The Bay just marches to its own drum,” IamSu tells me on the phone in March. And, if uncredited, the influence of the Bay’s minimal, slapping production can be heard in today’s prevailing West Coast sound, the simple keyboard-plink productions of L.A.’s DJ Mustard. “That hyphy movement woke L.A. up,” E-40 tells me in December. But on the national scale it was always hard to get people to care. “We just get looked over [in the Bay].”
“Bay music has a lot more funk in it,” IamSu says. "It’s a lot looser … The whole movement is more expressive." But if mid-2000s hyphy could sometimes veer goofy in its funkiness, Sage’s music is slick. He delivers his verses in a deadpan drawl and in a soft-spoken near-whisper. “Gas Pedal” is light and fun, but not at the expense of sounding sexy.
Clyde Carson, a former member of The Team whose 2012 Bay hit “Slow Down” inspired “Gas Pedal,” says that he immediately recognized a star quality in Sage — the kind that gives him a shot to break out of the Bay’s insular community. “I’m always hearing songs that kind of emulated our sound,” Carson tells me. “But it was something ‘bout him that I was like, this kid is … [With] this kid it might not just be the ‘Gas Pedal.’” Carson says Sage has a charisma that’s hard to come by for most artists. “His personality is big. I always tell him, ‘You have to go into acting and all that shit, man.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t waste that personality. Get your ass on TV and get all the money you can get.’”
In high school, Sage and his little brother mowed lawns and cleaned garages to earn money to buy recording equipment, a detail he brings up on “Put Me On,” a song from Remember Me that’s dedicated to the naysayers in his hometown:
“I’m from Fairfield and n****s still mug me the hardest / Just because I can’t help you n****s be artists? / And got the nerve to tell me, ‘Don't forget where I started'? / I know where I started / N***a, that's the problem / Tryna buy equipment where money was the problem / I can outsmart 'em / Me and my brother Cadence / Both 13, tryna clean n****s’ places / Just to buy a first microphone at Gordon's.”
Fairfield is actually pretty remote; in the northeast corner of the Bay Area, up past Vallejo, it’s far from the center of the Bay’s rap scene. Sage grew up watching young crews of Bay rappers like The Team, whose 2004 single “It’s Gettin Hot” was a regional smash, and The Pack, the Berkeley crew of skater hippies from which enigmatic rapper Lil B emerged. Tucked away in Fairfield, watching other people rap like it was a team sport, he felt isolated and alone.
“People were just rude,” Sage’s cousin Jodie, who grew up acting in school and regional plays with Sage and learning about poetry from him, tells me in Berkeley in January. “They always had nice clothes and always had cars and money. We didn’t always have all of that. [We] couldn’t fit in with everybody.”
Sage was good-looking enough to model, even appearing in underwear campaigns. (He wouldn't reveal what brands, but when I throw out Calvin Klein and Hanes, he says I’m “not far off.”) He remembers feeling ugly, and it seems he returns to this well of teenage frustration often, to propel himself. “Girls didn’t like me in school,” he says. “I didn’t have nice clothes.”
On Remember Me’s title track, he directs a taunting refrain at anyone who teased him: “Fuck the cool crowd, bitch, I’m a nerd.” And later: “They used to treat a n***a like a stepchild / I felt like that white dude on 8 Mile.” That Sage compares himself to Eminem doesn’t come off like a throwaway joke. Like Em, he dropped out of high school to focus solely on music, and now sees rap as a means to annihilate his opponents and prove doubters wrong. It seems that Sage wants to release a successful album, at least in part, to seek validation from the popular kids who brushed past him and the girls who dismissed him.
In 2012, after “Gas Pedal” started picking up steam in the Bay Area, Sage posted a video of thanks to his supporters on his YouTube channel. Sitting in the same bedroom where he recorded many of his comedy videos, shirtless, he dispensed some advice to young people looking to try to make it in rap. “For those who know me, you know my real name is Dominic Woods. I went to Clearwood, Dover, Fairfield High, and Rodriguez. If you was there with me, you would know a lot of people wasn’t with me,” he says earnestly into the camera. “If you’re out there and you want to rap and a lot of people isn’t with you, let ‘em go. Because take it from me, I got passed up by all the girls, all the n****s laughed at me when I wanted to get a collab and stuff — but we’re not here to talk about that, it’s all positivity.”
Now many of the naysayers who ignored Sage previously have emerged from the woodwork, as often happens at the dawn of someone's success, asking for favors. On “Put Me On” from Remember Me, Sage raps about the pressure he feels from people who feel entitled to a piece of his success: “I can’t help you if I’m tryna help myself / Get off my chest, I can’t invest with no wealth / Like I said, most of y'all wasn’t there when I started / Might’ve ‘made it’ on paper / But I’m still ‘new artist.’”
Jodie says Sage wants people to work hard for themselves, not even giving Jodie, who’s pursuing an R&B career, a free handout to jump on his songs without first working for it. “They feel a certain type of way because he’s not saying, ‘Oh, yeah, let me put you on my song and help you get up there,’” Jodie explains. “But he did that to me, and I’m his own family. Because nobody gave him what he had,” Jodie says. (Sage later tells me that he’s kicked Jodie out of his house in an effort to motivate him. “He started getting too comfortable,” he says. “Eventually he can come back, but I want him to realize he needs to work for it.”)
Sage has been working at his music for years, and he fits right into HBK’s energetic group dynamic, but he’s still the new guy, and his popularity is a recent phenomenon. “He came up so fast, it’s crazy,” IamSu tells me later. “He was going through hella shit that took me years to find out, [and he went through it] in 10 months.”
“For [Sage] to be higher up than anyone in the Bay Area in such a short amount of time so quickly, it’s just amazing,” Jodie says, while stealing a French fry from Sage at Popeyes.
“I’m not bigger than Su, though,” Sage interrupts, shaking his head. That’s debatable — Su brought together HBK Gang and has landed several songs on the radio, but, on his own, he’s never released a single as successful as “Gas Pedal.” Still Sage sees him as his idol and biggest influence, even saying later that he still gets nervous around him.
So does Sage just not want to jinx it? He shakes his head again, looking down at the table: “I’m not bigger than Su.”
Both Sage and Su have set themselves up to be big because they're producers as well as rappers, according to Stretch, who’s been deeply entrenched in the Bay rap scene for well over a decade, most notably managing the late Bay legend hyphy icon, Mac Dre, in addition to acts like Mistah F.A.B. and Kreayshawn. “Hip-hop is moved by producers, and if you don’t have an identifying producer or an identifying sound, it's not gonna work,” he says. “The problem you had before with the Bay Area was there were no set producers. Sage is a producer. Su's a producer. They want to have more input and they helped shape the sound that we have today. It's coming from a different place than just rapping on someone else’s beats.”
Sage and Su’s sound cherry-picks from mob music (the throbbing, slower sound that preceded hyphy in the Bay), hyphy’s up-tempo joyousness, and jerk music, the dance-driven L.A. sound that came after hyphy. And as Clyde Carson distinguishes it, Sage and Su’s sound has all the fun of hyphy’s original iteration, but none of its ties to violence. Sage seems to live by that philosophy. He doesn't drink, smoke, or do drugs, and he semi-jokingly calls himself a "safe thug.” He frequently talks about making music that will keep kids more interested in dancing than in handling guns. He was raised in the church and around women, he says, and it shows. He doesn’t allow girls backstage and has an almost old-fashioned, courtship-centric approach to relationships. In March, he told DJ Vlad that Kaylin Garcia, a model, dancer, and former cast member of Love and Hip-Hop, was his current love interest, but in subsequent radio interviews he’s revealed that they’ve met in person only recently. He tells me that the most special someone in his life is his daughter, Lai'lah, who's 3.
Sage is betting that his underdog story and his update on the sounds of the Bay can appeal universally. But that mission comes with its own pressure. On the “Gas Pedal” remix featuring Justin Bieber, Sage hints at the weight placed on his shoulders: “It’s going up / No explaining the escalator / I’m tryna keep this alive / the Bay’s respirator.” And though Sage says that Republic hasn’t put any pressure on how his music is supposed to sound, the major label game still has rules: “It's numbers. At the end of the day they want hits,” IamSu says. And Sage has a unique sense of just what in the Bay sound will resonate on a larger scale, he adds. He knows hits. “The kind of artist Sage is, he’s a superstar.”
Republic’s West Coast A&R Naim McNair, who signed acts like E-40, Clyde Carson, and The Federation to major labels years ago, signed Sage last year while scouting for new talent in the Bay. He says that the new generation may be laying a more lasting foundation than the prior hyphy movement. “I think other things come and go, but the kids from the Bay have definitely built a foundation in California that will last for a long time,” he says. "And there’s a lot of unity now.”
Yet there's a natural star quality that his previous signees may not quite have had. “We definitely see him as someone who’s gonna push the needle, at this point he can do anything he wants. If he worked at it, he could play for the 49ers." All that confidence, McNair says, stems from the years of hard work Sage endured in the isolation of his bedroom, and even still today. “He's probably one of the most disciplined artists I’ve ever worked with.”
For as playful as he is in person, Sage is also his own harshest critic. With Remember Me, he tries to show he’s got the skill to stay in the game for more than two hits. “I’ll actually be rapping on [the album] instead of saying ‘spoon’ and ‘fork’ and ‘red nose.’ That catchy stuff that caught people’s attention; it’s like one of those things you have to do to break the atmosphere and get out into space.” But as much as he believes in his music, he’s still nervous and hesitant to boast or declare his album a success. He’s hesitant to make any assumptions about how his album will be received — or how he even feels about all of it — before there is a way to quantify its success. “I’ll see how the turnout is and then go from there.”
It’s Tuesday, March 25, the day of Remember Me’s release, and Sage is hanging out in the BuzzFeed's New York headquarters — geeking out over seeing Law & Order star Christopher Meloni (who’s dropped by the office for an interview) and joking around with the life-size cutouts of celebrities around the office. He’s tired, though. It’s been a long day of promotional appearances and interviews and there’s more to go — a cycle that even seasoned veterans can struggle through, but is a true test for those new to the big-time. “It’s whatever,” he says. “I’ll be happy when I hit number one or I’m winning awards.” For Sage, there needs to be a clear metric to define just what that success looks like — haters can hate, but numbers can’t lie, and he made this album for the critics back home.
After taping a performance for David Letterman with IamSu, Sage zonks out in his hotel room. The last thing he wants to do is go out to a club, but there’s an album release party at trendy Meatpacking District spot 1 Oak that was arranged and put on his schedule. He’s performing two songs and there’s no way out of it.
1 Oak is bustling with groups of drunk out-of-towners, 19-year-old-looking city kids celebrating birthdays, and fashion models clad in skintight dresses and heels. A quick survey of the room reveals that no one is really there for the release party, nor do they know who Sage the Gemini is (at least not by name — they seem to recognize his songs later in the night). Robin Thicke bounds into the club with some young twentysomethings to join one of the groups near the small DJ stage. Sage shows up to the club around 1:50 a.m. with HBK rapper Kool John, their friend Rex, and Stretch. Kool John's immediately having a good time, enjoying the drinks and orienting himself in the space, checking out a girl on top of a couch dancing against a wall. The crowd is getting down to a mix of twerk-friendly West Coast hyphy and ratchet songs, and the DJ takes the mic to announce that “Sage the Gemini is IN the buildiiiing!”
Sage, however, is sitting slouched over in the corner, his hoodie pulled over his head, absorbed in his phone. He hasn’t gotten much sleep in the past few days and he’s exhausted, and isn't interested in talking to anyone. The juxtaposition between the debauchery and fun being had by Robin Thicke and whoever was willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of vodka and the lone Sage, whom the party was in honor of, is a little puzzling to watch.
Most 21-year-old rappers on the day of their debut would be reveling in all of this — if not the excess, then the spotlight. Sage stands behind the DJ booth on a small stage before he’s about to perform, observing the frenzy in front of him. He’s staring into space, cool and unaffected, and delivers his two hit songs with pitch-perfect tone and agility.
At the end of the set, Robin Thicke grabs a mic and starts chanting Sage's name to the raucous crowd. Sage bursts into a huge smile, looking bewildered as he pulls out his phone to take a video of one of pop’s biggest stars not only acknowledging him, but giving him props. It’s one of those surreal moments that happen at the beginning of an artist’s career. Sage may not care about the perks and glamour, but he sure as hell cares about who’s paying attention.