“Fem Hop You Haven’t Heard,” An Interview with Northern State

The ever present NYC hype machine kicked into full gear, creating a buzz and getting Northern State some attention.


There is nothing marginal or gimmicky about Northern State. They are Long Island’s talented, savvy, whipsmart trio of female MCs who now do their thing in New York City. Northern State is Spero (AKA Guinea Love), Hesta Prynn and DJ Sprout. The force of their beats and the passion of their rhymes have led to them being christened as forerunners of a new sub genre, “fem hop.” Although this could be written off as yet another useless moniker laid out by The Man, there is some truth in the genre. Northern State are bringing a loud, intelligent, urgent femininity to hip-hop at a time when it needs something new.

The girls knew each other from “back in the day.” Their families were acquainted and vacationed together. Although they met during high school, it wasn’t until after they graduated from college that Northern State was born.

After much discussion they decided to try their own hand at hip-hop. They met weekly to try out beats, rhymes and mad styles. Eventually they got the flow they were looking for and started to play out. This led to other gigs, which gave way to their 2002 demo Hip Hop You Haven’t Heard.

When a review of the demo graced Rolling Stone things caught fire. Spin, MTV and subsequent indie press types began fawning. College radio, clubs and record stores fell followed in toe. The ever present NYC hype machine kicked into full gear, creating a buzz and getting Northern State some attention. On the street the word was out. Northern State were on their way. Their demo opened the floodgates for gigs with diverse acts like De La Soul and Le Tigre.

That demo was followed up early this year with Dying In Stereo, an invigorating record that combined hip- hop, (now dubbed weirdly by the NYC chic as “fem hop”) with the more traditional rock instrumentation. Dying In Stereo was another piece of the puzzle. What began in a small room in Ithaca subsequently launched a bidding war with major labels that put the ladies in a unique place, the driver’s seat.

Very few female rock or hip-hop acts can write their own ticket these days. Based on the strength of their demo, live shows, and their first release, Dying In Stereo, Guinea Love, Hesta, Sprout knew what they wanted and whom they wanted. They were mistresses of their own domain. They held out until they got paid. After a long process they eventually signed to Columbia records.

Fast forward to now, more and more people are discovering the Strong Island trio’s debut CD, Dying In Stereo. The gigs are sweeter and the travel miles are clicking. However, Northern State take it all in stride, instead concentrating on live shows and recording new music.

Despite the rigors of constant touring and recording a new album, Hesta, Spero and Sprout made time to talk to Playback St. Louis about fame, recording and being sought after.

PBSTL: How hard was it to shop for a major label deal?

SPERO: It was pretty hard. We were fortunate in that several labels were interested, but it’s a difficult time in the industry and a lot of labels were folding or being swallowed up by other labels right as we were looking to sign. So we weren’t able to sign with labels that we thought might be a good match because they were folding right as we were beginning negotiations. But in the end, we all feel we made a good decision and things are going well with Columbia. We feel our vision and independence is being respected, and signing gave us enough money to be able to continue to do this professionally, and to be able to record a new album that we think will show a real sonic and artistic progression.

PBSTL: How much autonomy do you have with the new label?

HESTA PRYNN: You never have COMPLETE autonomy in any situation, however they signed a certain band and we continue to be that band. We’re not going to do things that we’re not comfortable with or that aren’t true to who we are for a label or anyone else.

PBSTL: How is the ‘work’ dolled out? Who does what specifically?

SPERO: It’s hard to say. We all work really hard not only making music, but also running a business. We are three female CEOs of a company that has made a lot of progress over the last 3 years and we take that very seriously. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but oftentimes work gets done a little on a first come first serve basis. Like whoever gets to it first, (receives the call, sees the email first) gets stuck doing it. We try to ask for help from each other when we feel we need it, and we try to assign projects to whomever we all collectively think might be the best at each thing. But it’s still a little bit of a free for all. But in a good way. I think.

PBSTL: What is your creative process in making new songs?

SPROUT: Our creative process varies from song to song. Most times we start with a beat either that someone has sent us, like a producer or a friend of ours, or something that we have worked on ourselves or with our backing band. From there we may start with a vibe or feeling—try to discuss a theme–what we want to write about–images or ideas that come into our minds. Then we’ll go off and write and share our rhymes. We usually work together to come up with chorus ideas and hooks. But sometimes one of us will write something that ends up being the chorus or hook of a new song. We work on the music together as well. We are three ladies with varying tastes and opinions about music. So we don’t usually agree on certain musical elements. We always build the arrangement of the song and try to figure out how it will flow best. We might end up changing the main drum beat or bass line, or dropping a few elements during the verse, or deciding that the original beat will be used for the bridge and that we need a whole new beat for the A part. It’s different every time around, but you get the idea.

PBSTL: Because there are 3 of you, does it become difficult to make rhymes and beats in the studio as an entity?

HESTA PRYNN: We are lucky in that we really complement each other. Compromise can be difficult in any situation, but it’s great to have three heads working at once. If one person’s having an off day another person might be having a creative explosion that day.

PBSTL: Do you think that being female rappers has made it harder for NORTHERN STATE to get heard?

SPERO: I think in some ways it has made it easier, because when we were starting it really only took hearing about us once for people to remember who we were, but then it also comes with a set of challenges, in which people want to dismiss what we are doing as a joke or a gimmick, or they want to put us in a box of being just cute girls doing something that’s just fun!! We fight every day to show people that we are dead serious about what we are doing, that we are in love with hip hop and feel we have something to contribute to it, and that we are not about to disappear anytime soon. I think we generally prove this the first time someone speaks with us or comes to see a show. But it is always a challenge

PBSTL: NORTHERN STATE references some serious stuff lyrically. How do you fit issues like politics and women’s rights into your songs? Do you just try to do it, or does it just come into play on its own?

SPROUT: It depends. At this point we are trying to write more thematically in some ways, and kind of picking a topic or a mood and sticking to it throughout the song. Sometimes that mood is serious with a message that we feel we need to express and other times it is more lighthearted and just trying to get the party started. It’s important when you make a record that the mood ebbs and flows. There is a time to be serious and say what you have to say and a time to just nod your head to the beat and feel good. We have a lot to say about our experiences as feminist women growing up and living in NYC today and in this world. We definitely have a commitment to continue to express our beliefs, political and otherwise, but it’s not like ’oh we have to fit something political into this particular song.

PBSTL: Do you think that hip-hop is the misogynistic world it is portrayed as?

SPROUT: That’s a good question. It’s certainly portrayed that way. Whether or not the artists who participate in that sort of imaging actually live their lives in that manner doesn’t really matter that much. It’s all over the TV and that’s what kids see all the time. It’d be nice for them to see an alternative.

PBSTL: Do events like the Siren festival work very well at gaining exposure for female artists? Do you think there are too few festivals for female rock or hip-hop? Should there be separate festivals?

SPROUT: I think besides us the only female band at Siren this year was the Sahara Hot Nights. I was so pissed cause I really wanted to see them and we went on at almost the same time on the other stage. I don’t think there need to be separate festivals for female bands. It would be nice to see a little bit more equal representation at the festivals that already exist.

PBSTL: Bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre, The Donnas, Distillers and Sleater Kinney are getting more and more attention by radio and press types. Is there a specific movement going on for female music, or is the world just coming around?

SPROUT: I think probably over time there are more and more women starting bands and coming up with innovative and interesting ways of making music. When someone (male or female) is doing something new and important musically, people seem to take notice.

PBSTL: Do you think that having a lot of focus on New York’s music scenes has garnered more exposure for NORTHERN STATE than you would have normally gotten?

SPROUT: While we haven’t really been a part of the whole scene of music coming out of Williamsburg or other parts of NYC, I do think the fact that we are three women who grew up on Long Island and now live in Brooklyn and Manhattan is very interesting to people. We’re not a while female hip-hop group from anywhere else.

PBSTL: You have toured with De La Soul and Le Tigre. Is there a different mindset touring with a rock band as opposed to a hip-hop crew?

SPROUT: not really. We just go out there and have a good time and work our hardest to put on the best, most exciting, innovative, high energy, entertaining show we possibly can. It has been amazing to open for such a wide variety of legendary and inspiring artists. De La, Le Tigre, The Roots, Dilated Peoples, The X-Ecutioners. We have learned something from every show we’ve played and we’re always getting better at what we do.

PBSTL: Finally, you have been in the studio recently laying down new tracks, how is the new record coming along?

HESTA PRYNN: The new record is coming along great. It’s wonderful to be able to have the time and money to really create the sound we’ve been dreaming of, a luxury we didn’t have on Dying in Stereo. It’s also incredible to be working with some hip-hop heroes we love and respect, DJ Muggs, ?uestlove, Pete Rock to name a few.

While they are no longer on the Girlz Garage tour, Northern State remain relevant, creative and focused. They recently toured Scandinavia and the West Coast. During the West Coast tour they took time out to record new tracks with Muggs for their major label debut, which drops next spring. Hip-hop will not be the same.

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