Northen State of mind
White female rap trio shows and improves on new album
Standing in the studio with hip-hop legend Pete Rock — the golden-age production maestro behind such classics as Nas' "The World is Yours" and "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," which Rock recorded with rapper C.L. Smooth — the women of the white hip-hop trio Northern State did what any devout fan would try not to do. "We all cried when we met Pete Rock," MC Sprout admits with a nervous giggle. "We got a little emotional. He's the nicest person we'd ever met. He's just so sweet and so kind and gentle, and he was really open to what we were doing."
Pete Rock isn't the only one digging what Northern State has been doing over the past couple of years. After the release of the appropriately titled four-track demo Hip Hop You Haven't Heard, which was followed by 2003's Dying In Stereo, critics and fans alike have hailed Northern State as the queens of indie hip-hop. Northern State fused the manic B-boy posturing of the early Beastie Boys with the feminism of Gloria Steinem. "[Hip-hop] is mainly about capitalism, and capitalism and sexism go hand in hand [because both view] women as commodities," Northern State's Hesta Prynn once explained. "Part of what we're trying to do is provide an alternative to that school of thought. We're trying to present an alternative for women who love hip-hop and girls, but find most rap sexist or disgusting."
But despite the generally warm reception, there was a contingent of critics and other artists who felt that the girls were being lauded for what they represented, rather than the actual music they produced. They seemed almost to be having too much fun, and some complained that their quirky take on hip-hop was more novelty than revolution.
So when Northern State entered the studio for their first full-length, All City, the girls felt they had something to prove. "We definitely discussed that issue, and tried to think about it from an outside [perspective]," Sprout says. "We have a motto that we refer back to: 'Proceed on all fronts.' And that's how we've approached the record. It's not about making one thing better, it's about making everything better. We wanted to flush out the music and give it more depth and intensity."
Sprout, Hesta Prynn and Spero's efforts were a resounding success. All City conveys a certain polish and nuance that wasn't apparent on Dying in Stereo. While the latter album revealed young artists reaching to find their voices, All City finds Northern State sounding more refined and certain of themselves. The production is much fuller and diverse. "Summer Never Ends" adopts a smooth R&B approach, while the DJ Muggs-produced "Style I Bring" has a Southern flavor recalling the work of Lil Jon. The hooks throughout the album are stronger and catchier, particularly on the Pete Rock-produced "Time to Rime."
Lyrically, Northern State's flows are slower and more calculated — as if the group realized the importance of quality over quantity — and the themes are more focused. "Girl for the Seasons," for instance, is a scathing critique of the fashion industry's influence upon women's body image. Still, the MCs haven't forgotten the key to their success: delivering their message in a context that is fun, quirky and unself-conscious.
It's the formula that's gotten them this far, and they hope that it will propel them to bigger things in the future. "The opportunities that have presented themselves to us have been amazing and rewarding," Sprout says. "We've been able to move from one experience to the next and learn and grow so much."