Working girls

Northern State keep their raps real
By IAN SANDS  |  August 14, 2007

VIDEO: Northern State, "Better Already"

Northern State’s YouTube video for “Better Already” is a thing of low-budget beauty. The camera opens on the surface of a bed. The props — a collection of stuffed animals — rest against the wall on bed. As the lyrics begin — “We don’t have to leave the living room to have a good time” — three arms bring to life a teddy bear and two ugly dolls. Soon, the raggedy trio, joined by a stuffed dog, are engaged in a dance routine, trading verses.

This tossed-off silliness stands in marked contrast to the straight faces Northern State’s Spero, Hesta Prynn, and Sprout were keeping on their big-budget flop of a debut, the ?uestlove/DJ Muggs/Pete Rock–produced All City (Columbia; 2004). On that disc, the NYC-based MCs (who play the Middle East this Wednesday) traded in the charmingly nerdy, unschooled approach of their rough early recordings for major-label spit and polish. Straightforward beats were scrapped for elaborate production. The literary references, pop-culture witticisms, and shout-outs to shitty white-collar jobs were swapped for a lot of scowling at would-be haters and for party-girl posing. Although it would be tempting to attribute the changes to some unseen corporate hand, Spero, when I reach her by phone in New York, insists that they really weren’t Columbia’s doing. She chalks up what happened to what she terms “a hip-hop mindset: when you’re with Muggs in the Cypress Hill studio, you’re not gonna rhyme about Sylvia Plath.”

Spero does, however, take Columbia to task for the marketing of All City — or lack thereof. “There was no plan that you could just pull out of a drawer that would work for us.” Indeed, there is no blueprint for selling smart-ass white-girl hip-hop to mainstream kids. And so, she recounts, the label gave up on Northern State. “For whatever reason they did not promote our record: they did not do a good job with it, and they did not include us in the process.”

Frustrated, the girls moved on to Ipecac, the indie label headed by Faith No More frontman Mike Patton. And they returned to their lives in NYC. “We were regular people again, and we all started playing in side projects for fun, which we hadn’t been able to do for a while. Sprout and I play in this all-girl rock group called Lucky Bitch, and Hesta Prynn was doing a different band called Lucy.”

Given these new projects and the presence of flexible producers like Chuck Brody (Wu-Tang Clan, Yoko Ono) and Beastie Boys’ Adrock, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Northern State’s new Can I Keep This Pen? is both appealing and adventurous. Much of it marries familiar old-school rapping with equally old-school electro backdrops. “Better Already” moves from hooky pop to hip-hop and then on to some punk rocking, all in just the first minute. And Northern State eschew hip-hop altogether on the Dubya-tackling “Cowboy Man,” which showcases some very capable singing voices.

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