With swagger, smoothness and effortless charm, they’re spreading positivity wherever they go.
When Crack meets up with THEESatisfaction, it’s just a couple of days after the release of the video for single QueenS. Showing the girls dressing up, laughing and dancing with a bunch of impeccably stylish friends at a women-only party, the video is directed by dream hampton, the influential hip-hop journalist and filmmaker who insists on a lower-case spelling in a referential nod to black feminist author bell hooks. It totally captures the essence of THEESatisfaction, and the gesture of celebration is perfectly timed considering their present wave of success.
THEESatisfaction are far from new to the game. Since 2008 they’ve been uploading self-recorded mixtapes to various file-sharing sites, some of which now cease to exist. But right now they’re enjoying a wider level of attention following the release of first official album awE naturalE, put out by legendary Seattle label Sub Pop.
With a heritage which leads most to associate Sub Pop with the early 90s grunge explosion and a current roster of artists that’s predominately ‘indie’ based, the signing of avant-rap group Shabazz Palaces caused some initial fuss. THEESatisfaction’s guest appearances on Shabazz’s acclaimed 2011 album Black Up was a major career boost for the girls, and the tight affiliation between the two continues to be emphasised by both groups. awE naturalE is a culmination of all the sounds THEESatisfaction have experimented with in the past, yet sensing that they’re reaching out to considerably more people this time round, the group have ensured it is undoubtedly their most polished and consistent set of tunes to date.
Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White first met in Seattle during their college years. They studied different courses, but through mutual friends gravitated towards the same house parties. Their musical relationship began just as friends sharing tunes – Stas was introducing Cat to classic hip-hop gems while Cat showed off her encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz. From being close friends, Stas and Cat eventually became an item. And after a brief spell as members of a chaotic neo-soul band, they began making music as THEESatisfaction some time during 2007.
On THEESatisfaction’s records, Stas takes care of most of the rapping, while Cat saturates the tracks with her warm, jazzy, R’n’B singing. However, their voices often intertwine as they harmonise and back each other’s punch-lines. The beats they create reflect their comprehensive music taste, with elements of soul, flickers of psychedelia and that jazz- influenced hip-hop sound that recalls the old-school Native Tongues groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Yet they’re also known to explore darker sounds, embracing lo-fidelity and minimalism on the Sandra Bollocks Black Baby EP and messing with warped dystopian vibes on tunes like Enchantruss.
THEESatisfaction’s lyrics range from surreal mysticism and sci-fi imagery to dancefloor-filling party commandments. When they take on social and political issues, they do so with a tone of defiance and afrocentric swagger. THEESatisfaction’s method of fighting oppression and discrimination is positive and empowering. Their gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are characteristics which they proudly embrace.
In person, Stas and Cat are relentlessly energetic and radiate good vibes. During our interview, they speak passionately, often overlapping each other and finishing each other’s sentences. When we meet them, they’ve come straight from an in-store performance and claim to have had an hour’s sleep since last night’s Dublin gig. Yet they remain hyped for the evening’s set, despite the fact that they’re due onstage at 1 a.m and their train to Glasgow leaves at 8 the following morning.
So you guys have been touring Europe to promote awE naturalE. How are you finding it?
Cat: Good. We were in France for a few weeks, then Portugal and Spain and now we’re in the UK, it’s all very exciting.
We get the impression that playing live is something you’re particularly passionate about?
Stas: Oh yeah, we love it. It’s just very fun, very spiritual. When we’re up there we connect like no other way.
You’ve been releasing music independently since 2008. Your collaboration with Shabazz Palaces last year gave you a lot of exposure, and now you’ve got an album out with Sub Pop. Do you feel as if things have progressed at a healthy pace, rather than there being a sudden rush of hype?
Stas: Oh yeah, it’s been a very natural progression. You know, we’re really happy with anyone listening to our music. I mean, just being around Shabazz is cool enought for us! Then collaborating with them on Black Up was very cool. It’s been a nice pace. We don’t feel like anything has been too rushed or hyped up.
Cat: We put a lot of work into this and nothing’s happened overnight. We were literally packaging our own mixtapes for a really long time. We’d buy a big box of CDs, go print out the CD covers, get the CD cases and use sharpies to write on them, cut shit out, glue it together … and then we were getting to the point where we were buying bigger stacks of CDs and kept having to burn more and more copies of our older mixtapes.
It seems like you guys are really pleased to be signed to Sub Pop.
Stas: They’ve been really good to us. We’ve had fun working with them since the beginning. Before we got introduced to them we kind knew each other just from being around in Seattle. It works because we have this high level of respect for each other.
When Sub Pop signed Shabazz Palaces and then you guys, people were initially surprised that they’d started putting out ‘hip-hop’ records. But actually, it’s more of a diverse label that people perceive it to be isn’t it?
Stas: Yeah, I mean they really have a good ear for music. And I think they do look beyond genres, I mean it’s been known to be like a ‘grunge’ label but Fleet Foxes isn’t exactly grunge, you know what I mean? I think that Sub Pop is like the cream of the crop when it comes to tastemakers.
So you two first met each other in 2005, but when did you form THEESatisfaction and was there a turning point when you realised that this was really going to take off?
Stas: We worked together for a long time. Cat actually got me a job at Starbucks, and then later we started working at Costco and during that time we started working on music together as THEESatisfaction. So that was like 2009. But when we were working at Costco we were just miserable. They never gave us time off when we needed it and there was just one breaking point where we were on this MTV show called Five Dollar Cover. We just didn’t have time to balance our music career and Costco. And Costco sucked, so we were just like ‘fuck it’.
Cat: We were like ‘OK, MTV has given us a couple of cheques that’ll be OK to live off for, like, a couple of seconds!’ So we just did that and figured it out from there.
Stas: That was a pretty hard time.
Cat: Yeah, it is still hard. But now we’re down as ‘Performing Artist’ on our tax forms …
Stas: And we’ve got business licences and stuff.
Cat: But THEESatisfaction is still a pretty small business! [Both laugh]
What is your creative process behind making a tune, do you start off with a beat?
Stas: When we’re working on beats, sometimes we work together. But sometimes we’re separate, like tucked away in different corners with our headphones on. But we definitely come together. I might have something and I’m like ‘Cat, get on this right now, I know you’re gonna be feeling it’. Or sometimes I’m like ‘I need to keep this beat for me’, or she just wants her beat for herself. It’s just really whatever we want.
Is it true that you’re always singing to each other, just around the house and stuff?
Cat: Yeah, it’s great, it’s beautiful. We can’t help it, we do it all the time. That’s just how we grew up in our households. We were always making up songs, singing and dancing around the house.
Stas: Both our families are very musical, so when they came together it was just like magic.
Cat: Yeah, now our families really like each other and hang out and dance around! Haha!
Stas: We’ve had family dance parties! [Both laugh]
It looks like you had fun on set making the QueenS video?
Cat: Oh my God, it was 13 hours of amazingness!
Stas: It was an incredible experience. The whole set was basically a bunch of black women, the caterers, the costume design, the make-up people.
Cat: There were only four men on the whole set.
Stas: Everyone there was just so cool and involved in the scene, you know? There was film makers, a bunch of college grads; just black women who are on the rise, movers and shakers.
Cat: They were people who were doing all kinds of things. There was lawyers in there and school teachers …
Stas: The vibe was so cool, everyone was so young. I mean, we cast it ourselves and the women were between the ages of 21 and 30. It was relatively young, black women around our age.
Did you want to represent different variations of beauty?
Cat: Definitely. I mean those are the kinds of women we hang out with. Like half, maybe two thirds of the cast are our friends. These are people we see in our everyday lives, but they’re not presented enough to the rest of the world. It’s like you often only see one form of woman, one variety of women.
Stas: One shade.
Cat: With black women it’s really cut short. So we wanted to show that there’s a different side. And that’s the side we see more often than not, like we don’t really see so much of these women that are advertised in the mainstream a lot, that’s just not our reality. So the QueenSvideo was like a glimpse into our reality! laughs
The video was directed by dream hampton. What do you admire about her and how do you feel about the fact that she supports THEESatisfaction so passionately?
Stas: I used to read her articles way back in the day when I was a kid and she used to write for Vibe and edit The Source. She’s done so much for hip- hop and black music in general. So when we first met her, we were just like ‘Damn, this is so cool!’. She reached out to us and said she wanted to work on a video for QueenS and we were screaming ‘Yeeeeaah!’laughs
Cat: It was crazy, she’s really an inspiration. She did a short film with Ish from Shabazz called I am Ali, which she wrote with Q-Tip. We’re just really inspired by her, so to have her interested in us is really cool, we have a good connection with dream.
You’re addressing certain social and political issues with your lyrics, but you always seem to emphasise the fun element of your music. Do you think encouraging people to have a good time helps promote positive ideas?
Cat: Music can be a cure. There’s a definitely a lot of sadness out there. Everyone has their different way of dealing with these things. Things have been terrible for us sometimes, but there’s always a way to work it out. And this music is what’s worked best for us.
Stas: We all obviously go through bullshit and drama in our lives, but sometimes you have to dance and laugh your way through that. Because if we just sit here and preach, that’s not going to get anything done. We have to actually work and actively do things. And I feel like if we dance and we share and we feel good together, then that’s a good way to go about it.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
awE naturalE is out now on Sub Pop
Words: David Reed