“When I listen to the trash on the radio or see all this kind of crap on MTV where the girls have no clothes on, I’m like, ‘Eww, I’m not feeling this,’” says Hesta Prynn.
Speaking over the phone from her New York City apartment, the de facto frontwoman of female rap trio Northern State is explaining her frustrations with participating in a genre that’s not exactly known for being a bastion of female empowerment. “There are just so many images of women as sex objects and it’s all about what they look like and what they’re wearing and who they’re sleeping with,” she continues. “It’s not realistic and it’s just not interesting.”
In response, Prynn and unimonikered partners-in-rhyme Spero and Sprout have set out to crash hip hop’s sausage party with some roof- and consciousness-raising feminism.
Over deceptively simple old-school beats, Northern State introduced themselves on 2003’s Dying in Stereo EP as the rare rappers less interested in Cristal than in Dorothy Parker. Now, with their major-label debut, All City (Columbia), they’re taking their proudly political message to the masses. Just check out the first single “Girl for All Seasons,” on which the ladies turn rap-rock convention on its head with a scathing indictment of society’s beauty myths (e.g., “Girl, who are you pleasin’/Starin’ in the mirror, squeezin’ and tweezin’?”) that includes some of the most explicitly pro-girl rhetoric to hit radio — ever.
“The kind of music that inspires me a lot is music that makes me feel good and that’s empowering,” says Prynn, speaking in the same sassy, smart-assy voice that defines her rapping style. “It’s important to us to bring positivity to this project, to be inclusive and not offensive. We’re really trying to present an alternative to what people are currently being inundated with in mainstream pop and hip hop.”
Though their refreshing girl-power approach has made them one of recent memory’s most buzzed-about new hip-hop acts, not everyone has been receptive. As three white, college-educated women originally from Long Island staking claim to a genre largely defined in terms of black-male machismo and inner-city authenticity, Northern State has encountered more than its fair share of flack. But with Pete Rock, Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, Martin Luther and the Roots’ ?uestlove appearing on All City, Prynn, Spero and Sprout are slowly convincing their detractors that they not only have a right to rap, but that they’re actually good enough to gain the respect of their peers.
“People who still talk a lot of shit about us, it’s like … I don’t know,” Prynn says, trailing off in frustration. “I just think our music speaks for itself, and the people who’ve gotten involved with this album really do lend some validity to it. Like, on the song we do with Pete Rock I say, ‘If the beats and the flow don’t stop/How come a girl like me ain’t real hip hop?’ and he backs me up on that line and goes, ‘You’re hip hop!’ And, let’s face it: If anybody in the world is real hip hop it’s Pete Rock, and he loves our group. That’s really helping us.”
Not that Prynn herself didn’t initially express a bit of disbelief that the DJ, rapper and producer, whom she describes as “a hip-hop legend in a bow-down-to-him-I’m-not-worthy style,” wanted to collaborate with Northern State.
“It was just really intense,” she says of their first meeting with Rock, who’s worked with acts like Nas, Public Enemy, Mary J. Blige and C.L. Smooth. “At one point I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I really need to take a minute here.’ Sprout and Spero and I were all in the room and we just looked at each other like, ‘What the hell have we done with our lives that we’ve wound up in a room collaborating with Pete Rock?’ I mean, we’re friends from high school and now Pete Rock is rapping on our record.”
They’ve earned the honor. With some of today’s slyest pop-culture references and their tightest tag-team MC duties, All City is Northern State at its most exhilarating. “Girl for All Seasons” and “Don’t Look Down” keep the group’s feminism fierce and fun, while “Nice with It” and “Time To Rhyme” are their smartest party-starters to date. Most impressive, however, is that despite constantly having to fend off the novelty tag, they finally sound completely confident and comfortable with the place they’ve made for themselves in hip hop.
“At first we felt so much pressure making this album, like, ‘Dude, I’m tripping out! What the fuck? Are people just waiting for us to fail?’” Prynn concedes. “But what we basically had to get real about is if you do anything self-consciously, it’s gonna suck. So we just stayed positive, buried ourselves in the process, and tried to make ourselves happy — and we did.”
Northern State supports Cake on Monday, Oct. 18, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre (318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980).Jimmy Draper is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org