Where the Boys Aren't

Hip-hop threesome Northern State brings fun, funky feminism to the mainstream.

There's no crying in hip-hop! Northern State was once - moved to tears by Pete Rock.
There's no crying in hip-hop! Northern State was once moved to tears by Pete Rock.
Legendary producer Pete Rock has undoubtedly moved a few hip-hop fans to tears during his career. But it's probably never happened quite the way it did with the girls of Northern State.

Already overwhelmed to meet one of their idols, the New York rap trio was sent over the edge when Rock began singing the hook they'd written for "Time to Rhyme," a song he was producing for their major-label debut.

"I just couldn't take it anymore, and I just started crying," recalls Northern State's Julie Goodman, aka Hesta Prynn. "And pretty soon all three of us were crying, and he was like, 'You girls are so sweet.' And I was like, 'You have to understand, I'm sitting here and you're reciting a hook that we wrote.'

"And I was just like, 'Who am I? I'm like, a fuckin' white girl from Long Island. How did this happen?'"

That may well be the $64,000 question in the hip-hop world this summer, when Northern State's album All City drops on Columbia. How did these twentysomething white girls from Long Island -- Goodman, her childhood friend Robyn Goodmark (Sprout), and Correne Spero (Spero) -- crack the hip-hop mainstream with their decidedly old-school beats and defiantly feminist rhymes?

Part of the answer is that there's no one else quite like them. In a genre where women are most often seen in an advanced state of undress, "What people like about us is that we're presenting sort of an alternative to the image of women in hip-hop music," Goodman offers by cell phone from New York.

But the presence of respected producers like Rock and Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs should demonstrate to doubters that Northern State is no novelty act. And whatever your opinion of the group's unabashedly leftist politics (Goodman, who studied acting at NYU, also interned for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign), the rhymes on All City are about as free from pretense as mainstream hip-hop gets these days.

The proudly suburban verses are also untainted by the guilt that's afflicted white rappers since Vanilla Ice. "I think the reason our music doesn't offend people is that we respect hip-hop culture," explains Goodman. "We're really keepin' it real. We're keepin' it real to what our lives are. I don't have to defend what I do, because it's real. And I keep it real so I don't have to defend myself.

"I didn't grow up in the projects, but I got divorced," she adds. "That's something that people can relate to and will relate to."

Growing up, Goodman, Goodmark, and Spero related easily to the hip-hop beats they caught t Goodman's Manhattan apartment that the trio decided to try giving the music they loved their own pro-female spin.

They began weekly writing sessions and bragged about their new hip-hop group to friends. "But they didn't know if it was a joke or if it was for real, and we kinda didn't really either," remembers Goodman.

Then a friend offered them the chance to open for his band at Manhattan's Luna Lounge in April 2001. And to prepare, a hastily arranged gig was set up for about 100 friends, at a housewarming party in Goodman's new digs.

"And we performed, and we were terrible," says Goodman, laughing. "But we were good compared to what people thought. And people were just overwhelmingly positive about it. I mean, we did it a cappella, with our friend banging on an African drum. And I really think, if people hadn't been so supportive, we probably wouldn't have done it anymore. If they'd have said, 'You guys sucked, and that was ridiculous,' we probably would've gone, 'Yeah, you're right. Let's forget this idea.'"

Instead, the newly named Northern State recorded a four-song demo, Hip-Hop You Haven't Heard, which won a four-star review in Rolling Stone from the "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau, and further praise for their feisty feminism and literary leanings. (Goodman's stage name, a reference to the adulterous heroine of The Scarlet Letter, is only one of many shout-outs the band gives to great books.)

A full-length debut, 2003's Dying in Stereo, was similarly well received; the group opened shows for progressive-minded hip-hop acts like De La Soul and the Roots; and Columbia came calling. They recorded All City in Philadelphia, with a small but eclectic guest list that includes neosoul rocker Martin Luther ("Siren Song") and old friend Har Mar Superstar ("A very cool and crazy dude," Goodman says, laughing), who crooned the lascivious hook to "Summer Never Ends," a celebration of hot time, summer in the city.

Those checking the album for evidence that Northern State has become part of the hip-hop mainstream will have to search pretty hard. "We really haven't had to make any compromises to Columbia. Every time I say that, people don't believe me," Goodman says. "People talk a lot of shit about major labels, and I understand that. But our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I mean, Columbia sees what you see. There's no way they signed us thinking we're going to wake up tomorrow wearing bikinis, with six-packs."

A frequent expectation, however, is that Northern State will become what the late Luscious Jackson never quite morphed into: the female version of the Beastie Boys. But Goodman notes that the comparison rests largely on the groups' shared "white, upper-middle-class, Jewish" roots.

Not that she minds being linked with the guys who once penned an ode to "Girls" doing their laundry. "Hey, if you're gonna be mentioned in the same sentence with somebody," she says with a laugh, "the Beastie Boys aren't too bad."