Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Queens of the Stoned Age: Hip hop partners THEESatisfaction speak up

One of the most enjoyable interviews I've ever done, following on from last year's meeting with Shabazz Palaces, was this one right here with the ladies of THEESatisfaction. I am genuinely thrilled that they're getting so much kudos, acclaim, buzz, hype, plaudits and all that jazz at the moment, because they are unarguably GREAT and their album is GREAT.

Just picking out the twisting beats and rhythms and stuttering rhymes and the way their voices weave in and out is a joyous mental exercise, the musical equivalent of a very satisfying crossword. But that's what a cruciverbalist like myself would say, and that makes awE naturalE sound like thesaurus hip hop, which it ain't - it's more like a psychedelic strain of hip hop breathing new life into funk jams and cosmic jazz and neo-soul and real poetry. Oh, just play the track will you:

First published in Loud And Quiet

THEESatisfaction – the Queens of the Stoned Age, as they describe themselves – have been making serious ripples lately ahead of the release of awE naturalE, their debut album for Sub Pop. But if they sound kinda familiar, it may be that you already know those distinctive voices from Black Up, 2011's enigmatic offering from Shabazz Palaces, also out on the Seattle grunge label.

The self-styled 'lo-fi rebel hip hop' duo have actually been active on the U.S. city's music scene for a few years, releasing mixtapes like the wonderfully titled Sandra Bollocks Black Baby and THEESatisfaction Love Stevie Wonder: Why We Celebrate Colonialism, but it was teaming up with Shabazz Palaces, creation of the former Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler, that finally put them in the spotlight. As well as lending jazzy vocal tones and sharp rhymes to Black Up, Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons have performed often with Butler and his percussionist Tendai Maraire, and now they're back in the UK supporting Little Dragon, a band whom they're also big fans of. “We did a show with them in Seattle years ago, we opened up for them, and we just connected immediately,” says rapper Stas, the smaller-'froed half of THEESatisfaction. “We did another festival with them and kept in contact.”

Stas and Cat, partners in music and life, meet me in their sweltering dressing room at Kentish Town's Forum, where despite the mild weather outside they've cranked the heat up to tropical inside. Tonight's show will be one of their biggest, but they're not sweating it. “We get a little nervous,” says Cat, the larger-'froed band member with the sultry jazz voice, “but then we get on the stage and that character of THEESatisfaction comes out, so we can just sit back and go somewhere else.” Their show, much like Shabazz Palaces' live act, is stripped back and sassy, the two women in full control of beats and vocals, even throwing in a casual dance routine or two. “We've had offers from people to be our hype man, but we just hype each other on stage,” says Cat.

At college back in Seattle, the pair had circled each other for some time, meeting through friends and when Cat was doing spoken word nights. “I'd be performing and we'd kind of catch each other's eye,” she laughs. They started to hang out, and then date, and now it seems they eat, sleep and breathe with each other, making music at their home in the West Coast city.

Cat spent her early years in Hawaii, where keeping up with music meant playing the tapes her brother had sent over from the mainland. Everything on the island was a step behind the trends, so she turned to jazz, funk and disco for her musical nourishment, as well as Senegalese music and even dance acts like Technotronic and, charmingly, Pet Shop Boys. “I remember when they opened a Walmart on the island,” she recalls. “That was such a big deal!”

Meanwhile, Stas was absorbing the gospel music of her Baptist church in Tacoma, Washington (where members of the congregation included Tendai of Shabazz Palaces, she later discovered), before being turned on to gangsta rap as a teenager and later the neo-soul of Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild.

Pooling their influences in THEESatisfaction, Cat and Stas take elements of De La Soul's Daisy Age positivity, Sun Ra's cosmic Afro-futurism, '70s Black Power funk and Brainfeeder jazz-hop to create a sound that has its roots in the past while firmly looking to the future. New single 'QueenS', for instance, has a groove that unravels like J Dilla retooling Stardust, with Stas exhorting the dancefloor to move “from your limbs to your Tims”. Casting has just finished for the track's video, but details are under wraps, says Cat. “We've gotta keep it a secret, but we're casting 20 black women from the New York area and we're filming in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks.” The look of the duo, from their glitzy vintage bomber jackets to the striking album cover art, is as much a part of the project as the music itself, and it all stems from the pair's particular synergy. “The art of THEESatisfaction is partly an expression of our relationship,” they explain.

Having put out a whole catalogue of mixtapes, the release of awE naturalE came as a relief after nearly five years of working on their sound. “If we had our way we'd have released it as soon as we finished it,” says Stas. The album sidesteps hip hop conventions in favour of an eclectic mix of styles. “We just wanted to make something we really liked, and sounded good to us,” she adds. Surprisingly, none of the music on the record comes from samples, all of it made at home on a laptop and drum machines, with the exception of vocal and percussion contributions from Shabazz Palaces on the Afro-jazzy tracks 'God' and 'Enchantruss'. It's an organic process, says Cat. “We live together so we just write when we feel like it, if we're in the groove, when we're feeling happy or feeling sad.”

They spotted Shabazz's Ishmael Butler on the Seattle scene, then performing under his Cherrywine moniker, but it took a while for the cent to drop. “We loved Digable Planets, and when we heard Ish perform we were like, wow, he sounds like Butterfly [Butler's stage name in DP] – but it took us a while to realise!” Still, it was only a matter of time before the city's small hip hop scene brought the musicians together. “We'd seen him around so many times, we knew we had to meet him,” says Cat.

Like Black UpawE naturalE holds numerous allusions to ambiguous spirituality and personal politics. “We are spiritual, in that we believe in something bigger, but not in terms of organised religion,” says Cat, revealing the influence of Sun Ra's unique brand of out-there cosmology by adding, “We believe in other galaxies, other worlds – we believe in life, I guess!” She goes on: “We believe in living, truly living, to the fullest extent in a positive manner, you know? That's like our daily belief, to live and do the things you want to do without harming anyone else, if possible.” Is that attitude something that's missing from contemporary hip hop? Thinking a second, she decides: “I think it's missing from the world.”

Cat and Stas wear their personal politics on their sleeves, too – or rather, their heads. Rocking a natural afro is still a brave and unusual move for a black woman, even – or perhaps especially – in the 21st century. “Yeah,” agrees Stas. “I mean, I don't look down on people who don't have natural hair, you can do whatever you want, it's your hair. But for us, this is just what we want to do, it's just easier for us, it feels better and it's healthier. It is a statement. We walk down the street anywhere and, well, we were in Brooklyn and people were like, 'Angela Davis!' [the veteran afro-sporting black activist]. It was amazing and also empowering – there were a lot of older people who were like, 'right on!'” “But we've been seeing more afros,” adds Cat. “Last time we came to the UK we saw a lot of 'fros, and we're seeing more and more.”

Their collection of tattoos is also revealing. They sport matching 'Thriller' tats in honour of their hero Michael Jackson, as well as a treble clef and bass clef for Cat (“I can sing in those ranges, and it looks like a 'CS', which is Cat Satisfaction”) and for Stas, South African song lyrics around an outline of the continent. “I went to Cape Town in 2008, and we went to this township and were taught this song – the title means 'what have you done to deserve this?' – and it was running through my head the whole time.” Is the symbolism of Africa still important, for them or for black music? “Yeah, I mean you always got to connect, or at least try and remember, think back to where you came from,” says Stas. “Even if you don't exactly know where, just always keep that feeling and memory of 'I was from there', you know.”

Standing out from the crowd has placed THEESatisfaction in a strange bracket of hip hop oddballs and outcasts, few of whom have much musical ground in common. Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael agrees that the 'blog rap' niche they share with artists as diverse as Lil B and Odd Future is an appropriate grouping in terms of their attitude, experimentalism and underground popularity. Referring to Berkeley rapper Lil B and Los Angeles' Odd Future, Stas says there is definitely a connection between the West Coast acts. “Both of those artists are definitely challenging what rap and hip hop are. Like Lil B's album, I'm Gay, that shit was fly to me. There's a lot of people that hated him, he got so much flak for that, but I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. He wasn't gay, but I mean, the concept of being gay in hip hop...” Even saying it makes a statement? “Yeah. And same with Odd Future, they're like punk rock kids, coming from broken families, and I know in the '80s there was a lot of black kids who grew up without their dads, so just having that energy and going against all the auto-tune rappers is cool.”

Cat agrees that the new wave of hip hop is all about punk rock attitudes. “One of our friends would always play this song that starts, 'I got something to say, I killed a baby today' ['One Last Caress' by Misfits] and that's a really punk rock song – you're like, that's so terrible! But at the same time, sometimes with intense feelings, somebody needs to say it.”

Despite the historical plundering that provides the building blocks for awE naturalE, they still keep an ear out for new artists. “We're always looking to see who else is out there,” says Cat. “We just found this one girl, she's amazing – Lianne La Havas. We're hip to her. And The Internet [side project of Odd Future producer Syd Tha Kyd], Esperanza Spalding – she's a jazz singer and bassist, she's really amazing.”

Meanwhile, Stas gives her stamp of approval to M.I.A. and Azealia Banks. It's to be expected really – two bold and bolshy women with smart mouths and even smarter talents? That's THEESatisfaction all over. They're coming back for their headline UK tour in April, so get hip to the lo-fi rebel playlist and get satisfied.

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