In their heyday, the ladies of Northern State (Hesta Prynn, Sprout, and Spero) could rock a mic. The first time their name entered my ears was in 2002 when they appeared on a segment of “You Hear It First” on MTV News. For me, they were a novelty act: Three brainy liberal arts-educated White girls from New York (Long Island, to be exact) with a sometimes rock-inflected production and tag-teaming rhymes consisting of humor, random literary references, and social commentary. Because of their sound, they had apt comparisons to the Beastie Boys: The somewhat husky-voiced Spero resembles MCA, with the contemplative Sprout in the middle like Mike D., and lastly Hesta Prynn, the nasally-voiced emcee leading point who is reminiscent of the King Ad-Rock (who actually served as a producer on a later album by the group).
I saw them perform in 2004 at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club when they opened for then label mates, the X-Ecutioners, months before this album dropped. They weren’t the most skilled on the mic, but they had a passion and enthusiasm for the music that attracted the likes of Pete Rock, ?uestlove. and DJ Muggs. “All City” was their first and only major-label album and arguably their best. Their debut EP, “Dying in Stereo” had a clear do-it-yourself aesthetic in the choice of production which makes their full-length LP a vast improvement on the sound. They rapped about feminism in a male-dominated medium that is hip-hop, partying, and mic skills. In 2004, it was a welcome addition to the summer for the New York hip-hop scene.
The album starts off the with Manifest produced “Ignite”, which begins with girls performing a double-Dutch chant outside on a city block. Driven by a string sample, the “all the girls who live hip-hop” line in the hook raises a sharp point about how female rap fans are looked upon with skepticism. The group assists with the production as well, giving Manifest a hand on “Nice With It”. With the addition of DJ Drez’s cuts, this is a straight-up NYC beat, one worthy of the album title. Dana Klein also sings the hook. The first single is the DJ Muggs-produced “Girl For All Seasons”. Feminist, but about self-love and self-respect, Northern State wants you the know the difference between them and “Girls Gone Wild” over the heavy guitar-driven synth beat:
Several of the album’s tracks have the added bonus of live instrumentals in the production. “Last Night” starts off with live guitars and the Groove Brothers’ production is in a full summer party club hopping vibe, especially when the ladies sing the hook, “Last night, that was a good look and/ last night, I lost my bank book and…” One track with production credited solely to Northern State is “Don’t Look Down”. Over layered guitars, piano, drums, and multi-tracked raps, the biggest takeaway for me is Hesta Prynn being the only rapper I’ve ever heard who name-checked 2Pac and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” in the same verse. The live aspect continues on “Think Twice”, featuring Eastern Conference’s the High & Mighty, and produced by the latter. It has the sound of live drums and guitar and has high energy all throughout. This was the track that made me purchase the album from FYE after previewing it in-store 16 years ago. Mr. Eon raps the hook with the girls, one of whom (Sprout) spat this rather peculiar rhyme in one of the song’s verses: “I do all the wrong things / Like picking up the phone every time it rings”:
The Roots’s Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson is behind the boards for “Siren Song”, where the drums often shift to an old school-sounding beat. Despite the title, it’s not a warning or a signal, but simply the ladies desiring a man. Martin Luther’s soulful bridge is accentuated with finger snapping snares. DJ Muggs reappears on “Style I Bring”, bringing a low-key and dark menace to the track’s overall sound. The self-produced “Speaking For Me” has the vocals sounding very lo-fi and the musical backdrop sounds minimal, I like this track the least as a result. Though the album closes with “Summer Never Ends” featuring the shirtless Har Mar Superstar, “Time to Rhyme” piqued the curiosity of many hip-hop heads back then because of Pete Rock’s appearance on it. The Chocolate Boy Wonder rapped the bridge and provided the ladies with a lush boom-bap beat. Though I think they’re legit, they’re conscious of how they’re perceived and throw this valid question out there in the track: “How come a girl like me ain’t real hip-hop?”
Northern State broke up several years back, though Hesta Prynn remains involved in the business as a deejay. If this album was released today, Northern State would be unfairly written off as ironic hipsters, Iggy Azaleas, or cultural appropriators. Though some thought that the hip-hop co-signs they received at the time of the release of “All City” was due to their label paying good money for them, Northern State were not ripping off hip-hop. Though widely unnoticed at its release, I’m going to reiterate: “All City” was a welcome addition to the summer for the New York hip-hop scene.