Though it may seem like hip-hop — and more specifically, rap — has been trying its damndest to bling-bling itself into irrelevancy (Madonna, anyone?), a trio of suburban Long Island white chicks might just inject a much-needed shot into the drug-addled genre.
“We’re trying to be a living example of women entrepreneurs and inspire other girls to stand up and do something,” says Hesta Prynn (aka Julie Potash), one-third of Northern State. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer, a painter, an academic, whatever — just don’t be passive in our society; don’t be afraid.”
The group’s politics lean toward an anti-Bush liberal agenda, coming from a self-described “feminist activist” point of view. Chalk it up to the fact that Prynn went to NYU; fellow emcees Guinea Love (Correne Spero) and DJ Sprout (Robyn Goodmark) attended Oberlin and Vassar, respectively. After reconvening in NYC after graduation, the three decided to put their money where their mouths were and took their collaborations public, opening for a friend’s band at Luna Lounge in April 2001. It wasn’t long before their brand of street-smart hip chick cachet caught on with New Yorkers. Wrote long-time Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau of Northern State: “(It’s) everything you want underground hip-hop to be, everything you want white hip-hop to be and everything you want female hip-hop to be.”
Christgau’s praise stunned the three women in Northern State.
“We didn’t even know how he got our music,” reflects a bemused Guinea Love. “Obviously, we were really happy with what he wrote, but not just because it was positive, but more because the things he said were true to the spirit of what we’re trying to do.”
What Northern State is trying to do, in a word, is bring back relevancy to hip-hop. Traditionally a male-dominated genre, female emcees such as Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa gave rap its first taste of a strong, womanly presence, but their rhymes tended to focus on personal empowerment rather than overtly socio-political issues. When women rap artists did tackle broader issues, such as Sistah Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power, the results alienated rather than facilitated. Northern State may be the hybrid that female rap has been looking for, as the group takes its cues from acts such as fellow Long Islanders De La Soul and Public Enemy, who combined strong, groove-oriented beats with intricate word play and strong messages.
While they do not pretend to come from the same place as an artist such as Lauryn Hill, Prynn, Guinea Love and Sprout strike a balance between entertainment and education, throwing down rhymes that toss off references to Dorothy Parker and the corporatization of America as easily as they do 90210‘s Brenda and Dylan.
“Even if we were doing the most benign rhymes, by our very presence, we’re different, being white, female and from the suburbs,” Sprout says. “We took to the mike late in our lives and if we can continue the progress that we’ve made from our demo to our first recording, within the next two albums, I think we’ll have made some of the most groundbreaking music out there.”
Most importantly, Northern State keeps it real, which has earned them comparisons to another white rap group, the Beastie Boys. Like underground hip-hop artists such as Jean Grae and Bahamadia, Northern State also incorporates other musical influences into their work, often performing with a live back-up band with guitars and organic drums as well as turntables and samples.
This experimentation and fearlessness translates well on Dying in Stereo, Northern State’s first official full-length record, which will be released June 5. Two years in the making, the album was entirely co-produced by the three female emcees, who wax heavy on tracks like “Signal Flow (You Can’t Fade Me)” and “Trinity.” The cuts mix old-school beats with crunchy guitars, but the focus is on the vocal delivery, which crackles with sassy Lohnnng Ayeland accents and shoot-from-the-hip attitude.
Going into the recording process, Northern State’s members had a clear idea about what they wanted to do. Some of the rhymes had been part of the group’s oeuvre for nearly two years, and the studio allowed them to experiment with vocal effects and layering.
“The process led us to a much more full sound,” Sprout says. “It was kind of a turning point in our career; we knew we needed to get a record out, but the question became, How do we pay for it?”
The answer? Begging, borrowing, hoarding, calling in favors and any cash the trio could get its hands on. The record will be released on New York independent label Startime, but will benefit from the trio’s recently inked deal with Columbia, which will give it higher-profile distribution. Already, the group’s got plans for the next record.
But just because the cash is there, don’t expect rhymes about the Benz, jewels, money and weed.
“We’re going to continue to have a lot of attitude, because that’s who we are,” Sprout says. “Sure, our most political songs probably won’t be the ones to make it on the radio, but they don’t need to. If someone is interested in us, they’ll hear everything we have to say when they buy the album. We hope to use the songs to affect positive change. We were asked to do this, and hopefully, we’ll have an effect.”