This interview was first published in the Wears The Trousers 2011 yearbook, available from our online shop.
“‘Satisfaction guaranteed’ – you hear that term a lot in music,” says Stasia Irons, the emcee half of Seattle duo THEESatisfaction, explaining their nom du rap in a quiet, amiable monotone. “We want to be that – the ultimate satisfaction.”
Their official biography defines the pair as ‘Queens of the Stoned Age’, a description which makes them break out in giggles before Stas explains, “That’s kind of what we’re living in now, right? Everybody is getting stoned [I get the feeling she means this both figuratively and literally] and we call ourselves queens because that’s what we are.”
Wrapped in winter coats, we’re huddled in a booth on the deserted second floor of London’s Jazz Café, along with Stas’s girlfriend and THEESatisfaction vocalist Catherine Harris-White. The lights are low and our conversation is peppered by an occasional bongo beat as their labelmates Shabazz Palaces, whom they’ll be supporting later that evening, soundcheck downstairs.
It’s Cat and Stas’s first time performing in London and they’re bright eyed and eager, a long way from the first flushes of the college-days crush that brought them together. “We were at different colleges in the same area,” remembers Stas. “There was an open mic night at my school, and Cat would sing there; she was studying vocal jazz. I was an English major, so I would do poetry. We’d watch each other,” she says with smile, “and there was chemistry. We started working together at a coffee shop, and then…bam!”
That was back in 2007. Five EPs, one mixtape and a live recording later, THEESatisfaction landed a deal with Sub Pop, making them only the second hip hop act, after Shabazz Palaces, ever to be signed to the label.
Cat and Stas came to Seattle independently around fifteen years ago: Cat from Hawaii, where she’d spent the past ten years, and Stas from a town just outside of the city. These days they’re plugged in to everything that goes on there, influenced by everything from its traffic to the weather. “It rains a lot,” explains Cat. “We get a couple of weeks of sunshine a year. It feels like fall most of the time. There’s a lot of forest area, lots of trees, so the air is really clean.”
Up until the Sub Pop deal, THEESatisfaction were a proud DIY enterprise. The pair would write, produce and record themselves, and what emerged were bright, abstract Afro-futuristic rap songs, with Stas’s conscious flow and Cat’s rich vocals weaving across a collage of “music appreciation” samples and chopped-up electro beats.
Stas originally worked as a producer under the name Neon Warwick but now works together with Cat as beatsmiths, bouncing between computer programmes to keep things fresh as their songs evolve out of their domestic bliss – art and romance blurring together sweetly. “We live together so we sing around the house. A lot of the songs start off that way,” explains Cat.
Their releases to date are deceptive as a chronological progression of their music, reveals Cat. “We tend to piece things together, release-wise. Not all the songs are made at the same time, or for the same projects, or with the same tools.” It’s an interesting admission, especially considering the seemingly unifying themes on EPs such as Why We Celebrate Colonialism, which names each song after a US president, and THEESatisfaction Loves The Sa-Ra Creative Partners, which is big on queer feminist narratives.
“We made Colonialism at Thanksgiving,” nods Stas. “It was originally a Neon Warwick beat tape, and we wrote music to it. The names were one of the very last things we added. It’s more about the sounds and how they flow than anything else.”
The sweet, smart releases were clearly enough to pique Sub Pop’s interest, but band and label came together more organically than the usual process of demo submission. “We were in this MTV mockumentary Seattle music thing called ’5 Dollar Cover’,” Cat reveals. “It was part improv, part scripted. They chose fifteen bands from Seattle to be in it, and Sub Pop was one of the sponsors of the project. That was our first exposure to them.”
As openly queer women of colour on a label famed for boy-centric grunge, THEESatisfaction stand out. How much does their queerness inform their music? “It’s not the main focus,” says Stas, “but it’s a part of it. We are [queer], so naturally it’s going to come out in what we say or how our music sounds.”
Cat agrees. “We don’t try to write a song like ‘Sexy Girlfriend’ or ‘Bisexual’. Those songs just came about because they were things that were on our minds rather than us trying to attack them as subjects. It was the same thing with ‘Pause’.” ‘Pause’, for those unfamiliar with the context, is a term deployed in hip hop to nullify lyrics that may be read as homosexual. “We wanted to address it.”
“I love my niggas, but where’s my bitches?” raps Stas on the opening line of the song. Is this a statement on hip hop, music, politics, or the world in general? “All of them,” she says. “It’s a phrase you hear a lot in hip hop songs. You can use the words differently from the way the guys do; they’re always talking about how much they love their dudes. Is it a gay thing? We played around with it.”
Stas and Cat understand the power to be had in repetition, so taking those timeworn phrases and “flipping” them is a powerful statement. They’re also aware of the limitations of being stuck in a queer ghetto, but they shrug these away in the same way they dismiss the idea of being a strictly hip hop outfit. “We can sing and rap about anything, all the time. Anything is up for grabs. We never want to be boxed in,” says Cat. “We just do what makes us feel good.”
They’re politicised, but THEESatisfaction are far too joyful to be didactic with it. “You’ve gotta keep it that way,” says Stas, “or else it’ll get too violent, too angry.” “Or too sad,” adds Cat. “You’ve got to dance through the pain,” says Stas. “Exactly,” nods Cat. “Work through it.”
Having adopted their blog title, Black Weirdos, as a tour banner last year on a stint that included a spot at SXSW, is it important to THEESatisfaction that people see black folk deviating from damaging popular stereotypes? It’s an issue Issa Rae addresses in her web series ‘The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl’, a show the pair both applaud. “There are a lot of weird black people in the world,” says Cat, “and I think it’s something to embrace. We’ve always been called weird, or strange or awkward. We’ve met a bunch of weird people across the tour too.” “They find us, we find them,” Stas adds with a happy shrug. “What is normal anyway? Is it being a straight white man?”
THEESatisfaction may be a romantic, artistic, DIY endeavour between Stas and Cat, but the pair put great stock in collaborations. Is there a specific DIY community that they feel an allegiance to? “There’s definitely a DIY scene in Seattle,” says Stas. “But we knew not everybody would be down for what we were doing at first,” finishes Cat.
“We searched for people who seemed like they’d work with us, but we didn’t push for anything. There’s a huge all-black DIY scene in LA in a place called La Mert Park, and a queer black women collective in Brooklyn called the Boihood too; they have parties, events and calendars, but I don’t think either of them would call themselves DIY.”
Is it the DIY label, and its white/punk connotations that these collectives aren’t keen to attach themselves to? “Maybe,” says Cat. “They might like the strategies of punk but not all the ideas that punk comes with. But we take it, toss it and use it as we need to.”
Their sound may be a mix of eclectic record samples and new-school GarageBand beats but they place themselves proudly in the wider tradition and legacies of groundbreaking hip hop women. “We’re definitely a part of that. None of them gave a fuck,” says Cat with approval. “Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim. They said whatever they wanted to say. And Missy! She sung, she rapped.” “And she made her own beats,” adds Stas. “That’s really important to us.”
After four years of independent grind, THEESatisfaction are enjoying the rewards of label resources, having holed up in a Seattle studio with local producer Eric Blood to create their debut album, awE naturalE. With the record signed and sealed, the pair now find themselves fidgeting, awaiting its spring 2012 delivery. “We released all our EPs and mixtapes as soon as they were done,” explains Cat; they’re not used to waiting.
The rest of us have plenty of reasons to be expectant too. While others like Missy Elliott broke ground in hip hop circles with implicitly queer music, THEESatisfaction herald a generation of fully out and proud, talented hip hop women. “If I already put it out there” says Cat, “there are no secrets. I can say, ‘This is me’.”
awE naturalE is released through Sup Pop Records on March 26.