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THEESatisfaction: Rappers’ delight

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Carefree: Catherine
Harris-White and
partner Stasia Iron

Carefree: Catherine Harris-White and partner Stasia Iron

Carefree: Catherine Harris-White and partner Stasia Iron

The early word on psychedelic rap duo THEESatisfaction is that they're a hip-hop outfit for people who don't like hip-hop. The absence of swearing, misogyny and casual homophobia from their songbook is certainly striking. It's almost like you're listening to urban music from an alternative dimension.

There's an argument to be made that Catherine Harris-White ("Cat") and Stasia Iron ("Stas") are indeed from a parallel universe.

As lesbian lovers in Seattle, they couldn't be further detached from the mainstream of their chosen genre and its culture of bling worship, woman hating and gauche self-aggrandisement.

More to the point, their tunes are carefree and weightless, unblemished by tower-block angst or crotch-hoiking swagger. Amidst the colour-saturated 70s beats and jazzy time signatures, debut album awE naturalE proffers a manifesto of smooth vibrations and brotherly love.

For anyone ground down by mainstream hip-hop's endless solipsism, the effect is intoxicating and it is no surprise to learn they were a sensation at the recent South By Southwest festival in Texas.

On a characteristically overcast morning in the Pacific North West, however, Cat and Stas don't quite live up to their cuddly, feel good caricature. It's notable that they are not especially enthusiastic about their billing as the anti-Odd Future (a group that spits sexist expletives). In the appropriate circumstances, offensive lyrics are fine, they say. Gratuitous nastiness has its place in art.

"If Tyler, The Creator called ME a bitch, in the context he uses it, well I'd have something to say about it," says Cat, the chattier of the two.

"But when he throws that word around, I don't necessarily feel he is talking to me or people who feel they aren't bitches. They aren't referring to ALL women. Musicians say things they don't mean all the time. A lot of playfulness and sarcasm is involved [with Odd Future]. You don't have to agree with everything you listen to."

Such protestations are, it should be pointed out, at odds with with THEESatisfaction's lyrics, which can sometimes verge on crusading.

A case in point is the track Bitch, which sets out to reclaim the 'b' word so beloved of the rhyming community. "People ask us a lot about misogyny in hip-hop," says Stas. "We use 'bitch' as a form of empowerment. We are embracing our own definitions as to what it means."

As you'd expect, they also have little truck with rap's embedded homophobia. Again, though, they are anxious not to be perceived as preachy.

"I don't feel we're trying to be spokeswomen," says Cat. "I feel that, merely by our presence, we are able to show people that things have got to change. Simply by being in the mainstream eye of hip-hop, we are mixing things up.

Besides, it isn't as if gay rappers are THAT much a novelty," she says.

"Hip-hop exists in so many forms. You already have a queer hip-hop scene. As is often the case, the best stuff is underground. You have to dig for it."

Intriguingly, she hints that some of rap's more homophobic talents may be over-compensating. "Sometimes you don't know if an artist is queer and not comfortable with saying 'yes, I'm gay'. They could be hiding behind the homophobia. That is where we are different. We're visible."

The capital of the super-liberal Pacific North West, Seattle is regarded as slightly removed from the rest of America, and less racist than other major cities. It isn't as ghettoised as LA, New York or the South, say THEESatisfaction. Nevertheless, tensions fester. Because you can't see them doesn't meant they don't exist.

"Seattle is one of the whitest cities in the country," says Cat. "You have a kind of passive racism. Racism is all around. It takes on different forms depending where you are. Seattle is going to be different from California or New York."

She allows that things are improving. The old days when black and white barely rubbed shoulders are at an end. "The expensive neighbourhoods are predominantly white. As is the case all over the world, though, the old structures are coming down. Places that used to be all black now have an influx of Asian emigrants. And with gentrification you are seeing hipster-white people moving in. Everything's mixing up. I feel like the whole world is living a nomad existence right now."

One quirk in Stas and Cat's story is that they're signed to Sub Pop.

While the label is one of Seattle's most venerable, it is intimately connected with the local rock scene and was central to the genesis of grunge 20 years ago.

Hip-hop seems slightly outside its comfort zone.

"We were looking for a nice home and didn't necessarily want to reach out to predominantly rap labels," says Cat. "Our music doesn't fit into people's idea of hip-hop all the time. Sub Pop is about good music, about artists that are ground-breaking.

"We had some out-of-town interest from Warner. We didn't receive any real schmoozing, however. Nobody schmoozes you up here."

They bridle against the notion -- widely promulgated through the rest of America -- that the North West constitutes an urban music backwater. The scene is in rude health they say, pointing to the success of label-mates Shabazz Palaces, a convention-upending crew dearly beloved of the hipster set.

"You had Jimi Hendrix. Quincy Jones lived locally. Ray Charles was based in Seattle for many years. There has been a great jazz scene. Occasionally it ebbs and flows. But it's part of what the city is about."

By the time they hooked up romantically, Cat and Stas had passed through a succession of local rap and neo-soul groups. Initially, their kinship was musical. Over time, stronger feelings blossomed. Today they are one of those couples who finish each other's sentences.

"It's like any relationship -- it has its ups and downs." says Stas, the laconic half of the partnership. "You learn to become understanding of one another. Everybody fights. You fight with your parents, your sibling, your best friend. That's part of life. We're very close. Above all, we're good friends."

awE naturalE is released today. THEESatisfaction play Twisted Pepper, Dublin, on Thursday, April 19

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