If you ask Hesta Prynn, of the three-woman wrecking crew Northern State, what she thinks people should take away from the hip-hop trio's music, she breaks it down to a few simple principles: "The one thing that is consistent in our lives and perhaps in the lives of our listeners is this band. We've all had events that changed us, but what hasn't changed are these girls, this friendship, and this music."
All City is Northern State's new full-length album and the first to be recorded for a major label. (The group released two independent EP s prior to recording All City, the second of which, Dying in Stereo, was eventually released by Star Time in June 2003.) A stellar group of producers--among them Cypress Hill's Muggs, the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, and turntable legend Pete Rock--together with Northern State, crafted the sound of All City, which also features performances by the High and Mighty, Har Mar Superstar and Martin Luther. The result is both feminist and fun, a rock-steady rallying cry to anyone who knows that hip-hop can change, if not the world, then at least your place in it.
Hesta Prynn, Sprout and Spero grew up deep in suburban Long Island, in Dix Hills, New York, and have been friends for as long as they can remember. Their mutual love of hip-hop inspired them to form Northern State as college grads living in New York City. The three got down to work, meeting every Tuesday night to write rhymes and piece songs together. Admittedly, the three white, suburban-raised women did not fit the standard rapper profile. As Spero tells it, "we're obviously not a conventional hip-hop group. We're left of center, and our music has always been a fusion of all of our influences."
After a series of small performances for friends and family in the girls' living rooms, the group's iconoclastic hip-hop reached a new level when the trio (dubbed Northern State after a parkway connecting Long Island to New York City) received an offer/challenge to open up for a friend's band in lower Manhattan. The girls hastily assembled a backing band, made up flyers, informed everyone they knew and packed the venue. They were invited back again and again and began to sharpen their skills and bring their live show to more clubs throughout New York City.
In winter of 2002, they recorded a 4 song EP, Hip Hop You Haven't Heard, mainly as a means to booking larger and better gigs. The CD circulated around NYC and eventually landed reviews in the Village Voice and Time Out New York, as well as a 4 star review in Rolling Stone. As the group continued to hone its live sound, working with a backing band to blend hip-hop beats and live instrumentation, Northern State's live shows became the talk of the New York City music scene. In the summer of 2002, Northern State scraped together enough cash to record Dying In Stereo and the critics took notice. The Village Voice declared that "Northern State is just what rap music needs right now: young female-centric insight that amuses as is amazes." Rolling Stone gave the girls a second four-star review, noting that the collection was "old school and totally originalliterate and full of New York sassdeeply catchy and underground in spirit," while Interview observed that Northern State "gave shout outs to Nigella Lawson, 'Beverly Hills 90210' and literary icon Dorothy Parker in an old school flow reminiscent of the Beasties circa Paul's Boutique."
The hip- hop community picked up on the buzz and before long, Northern State, along with their 4-piece backing band comprised of the Groove Bros. and Katie Cassidy (all of whom play on Dying in Stereo and All City), was opening up for the Roots in the UK, the X-ecutioners, De La Soul, and female alt-bands Le Tigre and The Donnas.
Between the praise for their previous efforts, and their burgeoning reputation as a dynamic live band, Northern State felt the groundwork had been laid when it came time to record the successor to Dying In Stereo.
"In a way, it was as if we were handed the freedom to do what we wanted, based on the success of Dying In Stereo", Sprout adds. "The critical response allowed us access to the kind of collaborators that we wanted to work with.
Working with high profile producers, and a significantly bigger budget, gave Northern State the creative freedom it needed to give All City maximum focus. While Dying in Stereo had been recorded in a mere three weeks on bartered studio time, the All City sessions were, as Sprout explains, " a much more professional operation. We loved our first record, but we're psyched because we got to step up the whole process and felt like now we're really making a record."
"Having more time to write and record helped us think bigger," Spero adds. "When you do something in three weeks, it's like a snap shot of what you feel at that time, but on All City we had the chance to display more range in terms of our writing, both lyrically and musically. This felt like a much more thorough process. We feel proud of every recording we've made, but this time, we had even more of a feeling of satisfaction. We made an album that we really like to listen to."
The album's first single, "Girl For All Seasons" produced by Muggs, with assistance from Northern State and the Groove Bros., exemplifies Northern State's doctrine of female empowerment. The track is a fuzz-toned, bass-blessed, rugged feminist anthem that addresses an array of issues such as body image, relationships, and society's expectations of women.
"You could take the song to be about a lot of different things" Hesta Prynn says, " and it could be a really powerful song for women and men alike."
On the lighter side is, "Last Night," a tribute to friendship, cocktails, and the cowbell, and "Think Twice," featuring the High and Mighty. While the lyrics may be about partying and touring, Spero observes that "a lot of our songs seem to have a creepy element or undercurrent"."As if we're gonna have to pay someday for the fun we're having," adds Sprout.
The self-produced track, "Don't Look Down," features live beatbox, drums, bass, synths, piano, and rock guitar played by the Groove Bros., Katie Cassidy and the girls of Northern State themselves. Spero says, "I think 'Don't Look Down' really captures the energy of our live performances with our band, and we are really proud to say that it's a Northern State production."
"Siren Song" pairs Northern State with Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of The Roots and singer Martin Luther. Sprout dubs it "a stream of consciousness about the state of the world" and admits that "We recorded 'Siren Song' at the Roots' Studio in Philly and tripped out on the whole experience. We got a little carried away and had to go back to Philly to "un-trippify" the lyrical content a bit."
"Time to Rhyme" boasts a classic, smooth production from Pete Rock while the girls take turns introducing themselves in an old-school style. "Pete was so genuine and inspiring," declares Sprout, who, like the rest of the band, is a life-long Pete Rock fan. "He was the coolest guy and when he stepped up and dropped a verse, it was so meaningful that it brought a tear to my eye."
The album wraps up with "Summer Never Ends" featuring guest vocals by Har Mar Superstar, while the girls reminisce over nostalgic beats about past summers spent together while declaring the summer of 2004 to be "our summer."
When you ask the members of Northern State what they hope their unique brand of hip-hop can do, the band harkens back to the strength of friendship and the empowerment that comes from speaking their truth. According to Spero, "We want our music to inspire people to do what they love, and to hopefully start to connect how through doing that, they can find a way to create positive change."