Scratch That Niche

Female hip-hop trios from New York City may be a rare commodity in the pop marketplace of the moment, but I bet Northern State and FannyPack, probably the two currently highest-profile of those trios, just hate getting lumped together in reviews like this one. Fair enough, since the two outfits diverge in lots of ways: N.S. favor a proudly old-school boom-bap that’s occasionally buttressed by loose-limbed “real instrument” playing; F.P. do a lean, mean electro/Miami-bass thing that’s not really loose at all but could inspire you to part with your uptightness. N.S. are college grads, and they sound like it, dropping names like Dorothy Parker and Wendell Berry; two-thirds of F.P. are on summer vacation from high school and admit that “flowers, beaches, Mom and Dad/These here things make me glad.” N.S. are white women from comfortable Long Island backgrounds; F.P.’s Belinda is half black and half Indian, and Jessibel is half Puerto Rican and half Thai. N.S. voted for Gore; F.P. didn’t vote.

Despite their differences, Northern State and FannyPack deserve each other, since radio thugs like the petulant homophobe DMX (who can suck my dick) and dubious bohemians like the scarf model Common (who can make it real compared to what?) are turning mainstream hip-hop into a reluctant forum for minority voices — women’s voices, but also voices with interesting things to say about happiness, or casual injustice, or flowers, beaches, Mom and Dad. That climate’s made niche acts out of both groups: Northern State had their CD Dying in Stereo released by a Brooklyn indie-rock label with a target demographic hankering for a new Le Tigre album, and FannyPack’s claim to fame so far is the cheeky novelty hit “Cameltoe,” which Dr. Demento’s teenage daughter no doubt loves.

Neither group’s music really signifies as niche, though. FannyPack kick off So Stylistic with an intro of Viking-strength horn reports and Jessibel’s top-of-the-lungs declaration, “Let’s get famous!” (When I spoke with the band a couple of months ago, Jessibel said she wasn’t worrying about applying to colleges, since the band was taking off. I mentioned that she could always enroll later if music didn’t work out. She narrowed her eyes as if that hadn’t occurred to her.) Northern State exude the offhand sense of entitlement endemic to slack-jawed indie-rockers everywhere (not just Long Island); like the Beastie Boys, with whom they’re ceaselessly compared for entirely apt reasons, the women flip the script on outsider hesitance, just diving right in because why wouldn’t you?

That kind of received self-confidence can sour in the wrong hands — when it’s paired with indie-rock’s low ambition quotient, for instance — but it’s these two groups’ greatest asset, because they run with it, demonstrating why they’re worthy of it instead of fleeing from it as though it were evidence of a shameful trust fund. The ladies can be distinctive, clever, bizarre and once in a while heartbreaking, though the songs on Dying in Stereo and So Stylistic don’t really stretch their respective forms at all, and the lyrical concerns are hardly sui generis: N.S. wonder why women work twice as hard for half the money; F.P. go “booty up, booty down,” then “work that booty all around.” Anyway, even if you’re not shocked and awed, there’s such a palpable sense of belief coursing through the groups’ music that their raps are compelling in a way those by MTV titans like Ja Rule or Nelly often aren’t. (There’s surely something to be said here about the changing of the rap tide toward the studied insouciance of the 50 Cent/Jay-Z/Pharrell Williams set, but I’ll let somebody else say it.)

It’s the deathless hip-hop narrative of hunger, enacted by those who institutionally can’t get no satisfaction. Listen to Northern State’s “Vicious Cycle,” Dying in Stereo’s best song, where they urge you to “open your minds and rewrite your texts/’Cause there’s a lot that you can learn from the opposite sex.” Or FannyPack’s “Do It to It,” in which they brag, “We’re the greatest by far/That’s why we’re celebrity stars.” Each group is motivated by a different set of factors — N.S. recognize the inertia working against them, so they battle it; F.P. are greener, so they naturally assume their shit is fly — but you’re hearing the same disruption of protocol, the same expression of self. These rappers haven’t yet been given a reason why they don’t deserve the mainstream, or why it doesn’t deserve them. Until they hear one, they’ll keep on eating to the beat.

Northern State play the Troubadour on Wednesday, August 20.

NORTHERN STATE | Dying in Stereo | (StarTime)

FANNYPACK | So Stylistic | (Tommy Boy)

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