Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“It’s not like, ‘oh, I need to make sure I have this music about Muslims and sevens’, and stuff like that but it just comes and intertwines itself in our music.” Over the phone from their hometown of Seattle, THEESatisfaction’s Cat Harris-White and band-mate Stasia Irons’ are explaining their fascination with numbers, its connection with belief systems and how that comes through in their music.
“Seven in Christianity is considered good sometimes and it has also come up in Judaism; when you have the seventh day you’re supposed to rest, you’re not supposed to drive vehicles,” adds Stas, “Also in patterns and design, you’ll see odds and evens playing against each other in different ways. Even numerology is a culture of its own and it’s interesting to see how it all weaves into the same thing.”
Irons is referring to the track Deeper, the sixth song of the 13-track listing of their first album ‘awE naturalE’, out in the UK via Sub Pop on 9th April. What the significance is of these digits is anybody’s guess but it’s clear that, for this track in particular, numbers have everything to do with it. Rushing across a frenetically felt, phonetically focused vocal line, lyrics like “seven brings us the math, seven days to a week and on the seventh day it’s a sabbat” express a fascination with the language and culture of numbers, while the break of “to know you, is to love you,” is a clear appeal to the source and intent of THEESatisfaction’s own inquisitive nature.
“It’s just very interesting how repetitive this kind of information is, in all cultures; how different numbers are relevant,” Cat continues, “It can be the same numbers or a different number for some reason and it’s just interesting how connected we are at the basis, at the creation of everything.”
The neo-soul hybrid band of African-American origin are part of a rising crop of Seattle-based artists making their mark on the world. THEESatisfaction’s sound and very essence is an idiosyncratic fusion of hip hop, science fiction and social critique. A similar preoccupation with Afro-futurism in music made friends, collaborators and Sub Pop label-mates Shabazz Palaces one of the top new bands of 2011 with the release of their own debut album ‘Black Up’. But, of course, it’s become more apparent that THEESatisfaction and their contemporaries are hardly a new phenomenon. Cat and Stas themselves have been vocal supporters of the so-called ‘206 hip hop’ community from whence they came. Named after the Washington city’s postal code, theirs is a pocket of musicians with their own, if lesser-known, tradition of rap and soul music.
“Seattle’s had a hip hop scene as long as anybody, I’d say. I mean, hip hop roots from the black struggle, in the simplest terms. There has always been a strong black community that’s not mentioned a lot but it’s been here the whole time,” Cat chuckles as she continues that – outside of grunge and Jimi Hendrix – the music of the 70s and 80s has left a rich legacy of artists for THEESatisfaction to draw from, including Ray Charles, Ishmael Butler of the now-defunct Digable Planets, as well as Shabazz Palaces.
That sense of history and culture doesn’t stop at THEESatisfaction’s small part of the world either. Their focus on origin extends well beyond music and into their own cultural history, with Stas taking a life-changing trip to Cape Town in South Africa during college and the band exploring their shared origins as Africans in North America:
“We just want to know as much as we can and embrace our own culture because now, with black people and African-Americans being in the US for so long now, we have our own kind of culture, which plays into how we live out here. So it’s interesting to look at ours and compare and contrast it with other African cultures as well.”
That’s why lyrics like, “my melanin is relevant as something to be had” are so significant. In among its investigation into numbers and their connections with identity in Deeper, the song, and THEESatisfaction in general, explores the histories they didn’t have the opportunity to learn at school.
“Even our hairstyles are mathematical and that’s a science of its own,” says Cat, “Braids, corn rows and other African hairstyles are very mathematical and I think that just comes out in our music, without trying to point it out specifically.”
You also might note THEESatisfaction’s fascination with puns and wordplay. There’s one of several self-released EPs ‘Sandra Bollock’s Black Baby’, Stas’ production side-project Neon Warwick (inspired by New Jersey soul-singer Dionne Warwick) and even a pre-Egyptian pun in ‘Queens of the Stoned Age’ as part of their Bandcamp biography. And, as Stas explains, there’s more to it than just staying ambiguous and having fun:
“There is definitely the conversation that the English language is not ours. But now it is. There are different words that have been incorporated; that African Americans have taken into their own culture. Like ‘swing’ and ‘jive’ in the 70s and everything like that. It’s just a way to play with it and languages to us are really here to be played with and changed around. Realistically you can do whatever you want with language, it’s yours now.”
In subverting the role of language as a symbol of oppression and the African diaspora, THEESatisfaction use and play around with it as a mode of liberation. In the same way, their mode of Afro-futurism – along with the likes of Sun Ra and Janelle Monae –reconfigures and revises the Western-dominated tradition of science fiction to establish their own culture and critique of the African-American experience.
“We like to just play with different concepts of who were are as humans and then who we are as black people and how it varies,” says Cat, “Who we are as black women and how different it is to what is pumped into the world ever day, it just varies so much. Everyone is different and, I can’t speak from everyone’s standpoint, but for myself as a black woman, I think it’s important to show how many varieties there are. From our shapes, to our heights, to our facial expressions, our complexions and everything like that. It’s very important to just explore that.”