The conversation with Northern State’s Julie Potash found in this blog isn’t her first chat with Westword. She spoke with the paper in the fall of 2003 in advance of a planned performance in the Denver area, and the interview formed the basis of a full-length profile – but when the tour was canceled at the 11th hour, the article was shelved. Now, however, it’s back in stock – just in time for the sold-out November 3 show at the Boulder Theater Northern State will open for Tegan and Sarah.
The piece catches Potash at a transitional career moment: Her band was making an album for Columbia Records, which signed the group following the rapturous critical reception that greeted Northern State’s indie debut, Dying in Stereo. In the end, the Columbia relationship fizzled, lending a certain poignancy to her optimistic observations about the recording process. Yet her comments about loving hip-hop despite its many flaws and foibles remain as timely as ever.
Read on for more vintage insights into the Northern State of mind:
State of Mind The women of Northern State challenge stereotypes simply by existing. BY MICHAEL ROBERTS (November 2003)
Few hip-hop artists set out to be positive role models. The majority despise the idea of having their every action weighed to determine if they measure up to standards often established by authority figures. Hell, avoiding judgments like these is why many of them started rapping in the first place.
All of which makes Northern State’s Julie Potash a hip-hop rarity. Of course, the same would be true under any circumstances, since current rap isn’t exactly overstocked with female MCs who are also Caucasian. But Potash, 25, who’s joined in Northern State by cohorts Robyn Goodmark and Correne Spero, stands out for other reasons as well. For one thing, her nom de plume, Hesta Prynn, is a reference to the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter instead of, say, the Michelle Pfeiffer character from Scarface. For another, she not only accepts the burden of being an inspiration to others; she welcomes it.
“We’re trying to present an alternative to what’s happening in mainstream hip-hop music, and basically in the mainstream pop-music industry in general,” Potash declares, her words tumbling out of her like fruit from a cornucopia. “We don’t look like most girl bands. We don’t look like the girls you see on television. We don’t dress that way, we don’t sing about those things. And we’re especially not like women in hip-hop, who are so objectified. So I hope we inspire other girls to do whatever it is that they’ve always wanted to do but think they can’t. Because you don’t have to fit with what’s already there. What’s already there is boring. Do something different.”
Potash and company know something about this subject, having combined forces to create Dying in Stereo, issued last year on Startime International, a small imprint based in Brooklyn. The disc, cut in just three and a half weeks on the members’ dime, is only a little more than a half-hour in length, but the music on it was vibrant enough to attract the attention of Columbia Records, which promptly inked the group. At present, the wordsmiths are toiling away on what Potash refers to as “a real record” that’s slated for release next spring. She’s particularly jazzed about the guest stars who are contributing to the project.
“We’re getting to work with some of our real heroes,” she allows. “We did a track out in L.A. with DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill and Soul Assassins, and we’re going to do another one or two with him coming up. We’re working with ?uestlove from the Roots. We toured with them in England, and a little bit here; they’re actually fans of ours. And we’re working with Pete Rock on another track, which is, like, amazing. We were there the other night and he was singing the chorus with us, and I started crying. He was like, ‘You’ve got to stop crying!’ And I said, ‘I know, but I can’t!’”
This exchange suggests a rap variation on a Tom Hanks line from the flick A League of Their Own, delivered after a player on an all-women team bursts into tears: “There’s no crying in baseball!” There’s not supposed to be crying in hip-hop, either, unless comrades or loved ones have just died violent deaths – and such displays of sentiment are generally deemed acceptable only if they’re accompanied by pledges of vengeance. Potash, though, doesn’t buy into these clichés, and sees nothing wrong with an honest expression of emotion.
“I think I started crying because I was looking around at my life and I was like, ‘What have I done that events have led me to be here making a song with Pete Rock?’” she recalls. “Nas’s ‘The World is Yours’ [from the classic, Rock-produced disc Illmatic] is my favorite track of his, and Nas is in my top two favorite MCs ever. I’ve always loved that track. I have it on vinyl, and I’m going to have Pete sign it. So to work with him is incredible.”
So, too, is Potash’s progression from hip-hop fan to incipient hip-hop personality, particularly considering that her background breaks with any and every rap convention. She came of age in Dix Hills, a fairly well-to-do part of Long Island, and spent time at Oberlin College and New York University. (Spero, aka Guinea Love, also attended Oberlin, while Goodmark, who goes by DJ Sprout, studied at Vassar.) Afterward, Potash did some acting and worked on Hillary Clinton’s successful senatorial campaign – activities that aren’t exactly synonymous with street credibility. Nonetheless, she describes herself as a longstanding rap aficionado.
“In high school, I loved hip-hop,” she says. “I’d get in my car and drive around and listen to a lot of Hot 97” – the New York area’s most popular hip-hop radio station. She adds, “A lot of women and girls love hip-hop, but I never imagined I could be a rapper. First of all, I always thought to be a rapper, you had to be a guy – but if you weren’t a guy, you had to be some girl who’s wearing a bikini, with boobs everywhere, rapping about sex and that’s it.”
Likewise, Potash felt torn between the elements of hip-hop she loved (the grooves, the sound) and the parts that made her uncomfortable (the portrayal of women as Benjamin-grubbing sluts). “One of my favorite records was Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Style,” she recalls. “I listened to a lot of Beastie Boys, too, but Doggy Style was one of the first hip-hop records that I wore out. I know every single word on that record. I listened to it and I loved it and I was disturbed by it and I was upset by it, but I still loved it. And I couldn’t decide what I should do. I felt like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t listen to this,’ but I wanted to – and I didn’t want to. I think it really had a negative effect on shaping who I am. Listening to some pretty sexist lyrics every single day: How can that not change who you are?”
Apparently, it didn’t in Potash’s case. When she got together with Goodmark and Spero in 2001 with the idea of forming a rap triumvirate, she didn’t vocalize about her love of gold chains, fine rides, Cristal and twelve-inch penises – the sort of subjects that female rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown might tackle. Instead, the three homegirls strung together sentences that reflected their natures. “We’re not three stupid bitches,” Potash says. “We’re smart girls and we’re aware of what’s going on around us, and we also like to have fun. It’s not really like we planned it that way. It’s just who we are.”
Despite its relative brevity, Dying in Stereo presents a well-rounded profile. “A Thousand Words,” which opens the disc, is a smile-inducing statement of purpose and empowerment: “You thought you knew me when/But now I’ve got the strength of a million men.” Yet the cut’s occasional digressions into political soapboxing are leavened with a sense of humor that juxtaposes intellectualism with pop-cultural allusions; for instance, “Keep choice legal/Your wardrobe regal/Chekov wrote The Seagull/And Snoopy is a beagle.” Here and elsewhere, the music makes up in bounce and good cheer what it lacks in big-dollar production quality. “At the Party” is an entertainingly frivolous old-school throwdown; “The Man’s Dollar” spotlights some of the CD’s nuttiest vocabulary (“skort” is paired with “chocolate torte”); and the title number energetically champions the do-it-yourself philosophy via exhortations like, “What’s a girl like me supposed to do?/Get on the mic – you know you want to.”
This material got an immediate reaction after Northern State began performing it live. The New York press went into full-gush mode, transforming the trio from obscure to in-demand over the course of a few months. When Columbia came onboard, things got even crazier – and more complicated.
“We ran this business ourselves for years before the label even noticed us, and we’ve gotten into some sketchy, litigious situations in the past,” Potash says. “Some things we write completely ourselves and other things we write with other people. There’s a lot of legal that goes into that, and you really have to make sure everybody’s on the same page. But what happened is, we got a record deal and people got greedy. Everybody tells you that’s going to happen, and everybody think it’s not going to happen to them, but it does. It happened and it wasn’t pretty.” According to her, some relationships were destroyed as a result – “maybe not long-term friendships, but yeah, there were people who I was friends with who I’m not friends with anymore.” The Northern Staters are now so cautious that they’ve decided not to play any new tunes on tour until every contract is signed, each agreement finalized.
When the songs are finally performed in concert, those familiar with Dying in Stereo may be caught offguard. “A lot of what we’ve been writing has been a little darker,” Potash concedes. “And people have been like, ‘Why are you writing such dark stuff? You guys are a fun, party band.’ But we’re writing dark stuff because we’re feeling dark. We’re overworked and exhausted and going through some hard times, and we’ve been traveling a lot, which is really hard. But our m.o. has always been to write what we’re feeling and what we’re living.
“If you read the lyrics on Dying in Stereo, some of them are very political and very, like, serious, but most of them aren’t,” Potash acknowledges. “Most of them are just fun, and some of them don’t mean anything. But we wrote most of it before we thought we were going to have a career as rappers. We just did it to amuse ourselves. We did have an agenda, but it’s not that we set the agenda and then we made the music. It’s more like the music dictated the agenda. So now it’s definitely a challenge to write without being self-conscious, because we’ve gotten a lot of praise for our first record, which we wrote without even thinking about it. You can imagine what people are waiting to do with our second record.”
To put it another way, Potash expects the haters to come out in force – and she’s ready for them. “People who are going to judge this record based on who we are and based on what our first record was like and what it all means to our careers aren’t going to listen to the lyrics anyway,” she predicts. “Our fans, who love us, and other girls and other guys who love this music, want to know what I really think and how I really feel. They don’t want to see some fake, contrived bullshit. People can tell when things aren’t real. So you try not to let it interfere with your work, because then everybody loses.”
Winning over hardcore rap boosters will be tougher given that some may never hear the CD; Northern State will probably be sold as the sort of underground hip-hop that appeals to indie-rock types, not lovers of Nas. As such, Potash doubts that her music will ever get on Hot 97, but holds out hope for Los Angeles’s modern-rock trendsetter, KROQ. When she’s asked if it would be a better world if Hot 97-type outlets spun a broader variety of hip-hop, she treads lightly: “It would be a better world for me, of course. But let’s face it, the black community in America hasn’t had the greatest experience. So for me to say, ‘They should play our record and it would be a better world’? I don’t know about that.” She’s made even more nervous by questions more specifically about race, like whether white rappers are mainly marketed to white consumers because of an African-American backlash against the Eminems of the world. “That’s really political. I don’t want to be misquoted,” she says – meaning she doesn’t want to be quoted on the topic at all.
On the other hand, Potash isn’t shy in the slightest about criticizing the mainstream hip-hop community for “feeding us this culture of capitalism and sexism and not thinking twice about selling such a damaging product to people. Why does everybody think it’s okay?”
Not that she wants hip-hop with questionable values to be banned. “My favorite MC right now is Jay-Z,” she admits. “I don’t enjoy the sexism in his lyrics, but I enjoy those hot beats, and I really enjoy his flow. He’s not the most incredible writer, that’s for sure, but when he says he has the flow of the century, I think that might be true. And it’s definitely easier to enjoy it because I’m in a group and doing something proactive.
“I don’t feel so much like a victim of sexism in hip-hop anymore,” she maintains. “When I was listening to the records and not knowing if I should, I was feeling like part of the problem. Now I feel like part of the solution.”