A party in the middle of winter. The house is surrounded by dark trees. The party has no end in sight. People are still arriving. Everyone is talking with everyone. One conversation is happening right behind me. It's between a man and a woman. The woman is blond and young, and the man is eager. Is he making a move on her?
The man: "What do you do for a living?"
The woman: "I rap and make beats."
The matter-of-factness of her response would make perfect sense in a world where rapping and producing hiphop beats were common career options for blond women. Because we do not live in such a world, it unbalances her interlocutor. He begins to mumble and meander. He's obviously wondering why in the world she didn't say something sensible like: I work at Nordstrom, or Microsoft. That would have given him something to talk about.
The statement "I rap and make beats" was one of the few things said or done at the party that survived the dead-drunk sleep and the brutal ocean of a hangover the next day. A woman who makes beats! Women rappers are common enough, but female producers are extremely rare. My knowledge of hiphop history, which is by no means encyclopedic, but also nothing to laugh at, cannot recall even one woman who has made a name in shaping the sound of hiphop. Not one. Zero. Zip. Zilch. (Those who point to Missy Elliott are doing so out of desperation.)
Hiphop has been around for more than three decades. In the same amount of time, modern jazz (1939 to 1969) produced brilliant and celebrated female composers—Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone. In fact, if you go all the way back to the middle of the 1920s (not exactly the best time for any kind of woman in this country), you will find Lillian Hardin composing and arranging songs for Louis Armstrong's groundbreaking Hot Fives. There's none of this kind of history in hiphop. From its beginnings in the poorest parts of New York City to the present day, hiphop production has been dominated, to an unusual degree, by men. If you are wondering why this is the case, then you must be from another planet whose higher animals have evolved a completely different, and possibly more equal, system of reproduction. To make things clear for such an alien, here is a 2006 interview with the R&B singer Joi Gilliam by the site Honeysoul:
Joi: The [hiphop] industry is horrifically chauvinist. And racist. But horrifically chauvinist. There are no female producers. Name me one. Besides Missy!
Honeysoul: I was about to say Missy...
Joi: Besides Missy, name me one. You can't. There aren't any.
Surprisingly, our city, whose hiphop scene has been thriving since 2005, currently has three emerging female hiphop producers, one of whom, Katie Kate, is the producer I overheard at that party. "Production is a male-centric thing," she agrees. "Boys with toys. Just like any other technical thing men get into. They think they know all about wires. That's why women in music feel they need a male producer to get their shit out there. So one of the things I made sure of when I made Flatland was that I produced every track." This was said in Kate's little kitchen. We were sitting at her small table. A side of her blond hair was recently shaved.
Her October 2011 album, Flatland, is one of four (according to the combined hiphop knowledge of myself and Larry Mizell Jr.) local hiphop albums fully produced by women. She made it in her bedroom, where there is a long synthesizer, a small mixer, a shiny microphone, and a laptop. This equipment is arranged along a window that has a view of the west part of Capitol Hill, parts of downtown, a little bit of the Olympics, and lots of sky and scattered clouds when the sun is out. "I've always been an outsider," she says. "I was an outsider in my town and my high school, and now I'm an outsider in this city. I have never really belonged anywhere."
Born Katie Finn on December 30, 1986, raised in Voorheesville, a village in upstate New York that's 98.7 percent white, and educated at the whitest schools, the young woman who would later work under the name Katie Kate was exposed to a lot of hiphop, which has its roots in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City. She caught hiphop on the radio—in fact, she once won a rap contest on a local radio station—and from people she hung out with. After all, by the '00s, hiphop had become a universal culture: In the '80s, it was a culture emanating from two great American cities (NYC and LA); in the '90s, it spread to many cities (the Bay Area, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle); in the '00s, it was everywhere. Along with this exposure to hiphop, there was Kate's engagement with traditional arts, with high school musicals, plays, and music education—flute, piano, and vocals. Talking with Kate about her past, one rapidly realizes that, for her, art (be it music, dance, or theater) was not simply a way of escaping the realities of small-town life, complicated relationships with her parents, and the betrayals of bad boyfriends. Art—learning it, creating it, loving it—was simply and naturally a part of her life, and still is.
By 2005, her last year of high school, Kate was listening to a lot of Jay-Z, Atmosphere, and Kanye West, particularly The College Dropout. She applied online to Cornish College of the Arts, and because it was too costly for her to fly to Seattle to audition for the school, her father bought her studio time to produce a demo. On the demo, recorded in Bethlehem, New York, she performed a piece of flute music, sang Ben Harper's "Another Lonely Day," and played Ben Folds's "Smoke" on the piano. "I sent the tape and thought it was not going to happen," she says.
But something did happen. While rehearing for a high school production of Beauty and the Beast—she was dressed as a teapot—her drama teacher, Mr. Lopez, informed her that her father was in the auditorium and wanted to speak to her. She walked to the auditorium's doors, opened them, and there was her father. The teapot asked what the matter was. The father handed the teapot a postcard from Cornish. On one side, it had Andy Warhol–like pop-up art of Nellie Cornish (the woman who founded the school) and on the other, the word CONGRATULATIONS.
"I fucking lost my shit. I lost my shit. I felt delivered. I could leave this town. I could do my own thing. I started weeping. I fell on the floor. I rolled all over..." She was a teapot on the floor. For her senior solo, she played the Counting Crows song "Round Here" ("It's about a small town—I thought it was deep at the time"), finished, received applause (even from one of her bad boyfriends), stepped off the stage, and never looked back.
The two other female hiphop producers in Seattle, Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White of the rap duo THEESatisfaction, don't share Kate's opinion about the lack of female producers. The reason for this is that THEESatisfaction, who recently signed to Sub Pop and were raised in South Seattle (they attended Renton High School), don't isolate their work in the tradition of hiphop but see it as part of a wider and older and richer tradition of black music. "There are many female producers of black music," they write in an e-mail from Europe, where they have been touring. "We follow in the footsteps of Patrice Rushen, Bobbi Humphrey, Muhsinah, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Missy Elliott, Esperanza Spalding, and more."
THEESatisfaction cannot offer sharp criticism of hiphop because they see an abundance of women producers rather than a scarcity. This sense of abundance is reflected in their music, which draws from genres within and outside of the black spectrum—new wave, punk, electroacoustic—and in their raps, which are about black liberation politics, bisexuality, science fiction, American history, black American history, their personal experiences, and, of course, gay feminism. (It might be safe to say at this point that Irons and Harris-White are the most famous openly gay rappers/producers in the history of hiphop.)
The music on THEESatisfaction's first record, Snow Motion, featured male producers, but their new album, awE naturalE, due for release a month from now, doesn't. It was produced entirely by Irons and Harris-White, with Erik Blood on the boards. (Blood, who has worked with Shabazz Palaces and the Moondoggies, helped THEESatisfaction transition from a low-tech sound to a fuller and more finished sound.) There's probably no chance Seattle will drop a better hiphop record in 2012 than awE naturalE.
As for Katie Kate, she is on track to become one of the leading names of the scene. Like THEESatisfaction, she has national-recognition potential. Liberal-minded Seattle might be the place where hiphop history is made, though that doesn't mean the usual bullshit doesn't apply here. When Kate began to promote her completed album at venues around town, she hit the next and much wider level of male chauvinism (it impacts all genres—rock, soul, punk, hiphop): sound checks at live shows.
"I know how to plug in a mixer, I know how to follow my signal path. I know what I'm fucking doing. But at a show, inevitably, the sound guy doesn't talk to me if there's a problem, he talks to one of the guys," Kate says with a good dose of world-weariness. "I had an experience with Mad Rad once at Neumos. There was a problem with the sound, and I kept suggesting how to fix it, but no one would listen to me. Then the sound guy suggested exactly what I had been suggesting over and over. Everyone listened to him and it fixed the problem. You know, I was invisible. Women are invisible to them!"
Kate is one of two women in the Out for Stardom crew—Mad Rad, Metal Chocolates, Fresh Espresso, Don't Talk to the Cops!—and she got involved with them more or less on accident. She was in a coffee shop, and the man behind the counter was hitting on her and her friend. The coffee shop was Joe Bar, a small cafe in a leafy and elegant corner of Capitol Hill, and the flirtatious man behind the counter was Gregory Smith, aka Terry Radjaw, a then-emerging DJ/rapper. Kate's friend was Hanna Benn, another music student at Cornish. Kate and Benn were in a band, Bakemono, that made what can only be described as urban folk music. The duo's first big show was opening for Radjaw when he opened for the veteran rapper Talib Kweli at the Showbox on November 19, 2006. The two performed a folk version of R. Kelly's "Ignition Remix."
Radjaw happens to live in a Capitol Hill apartment building managed by Marcus Goodsell, a dubstep producer who works under the name Dash EXP. The month Katie Kate completed her senior recital at Cornish, in January 2011, she met with Dash EXP at Espresso Vivace. The meeting was about him possibly mixing her unfinished, three-years-in-the-making first album. She gave him two tracks. He listened to them, was impressed with what he heard, and agreed to be her mixer.
Though Kate's ear was trained for classical music and she knew how to program a beat, she didn't know how to translate the beats you make in your bedroom to the beats you hear in a club. Dash EXP taught her this while mixing her album in his apartment in the spring of 2011. She would bring him her files, and he would clean them up. "I'd look over his shoulder while he worked and see this is your sub, and this is your kick, and these are the decibels that it lays in. I'm a control freak. I don't like people messing with my work. But I really trusted him, he had a great ear, and he tolerated my pickiness."
Dash EXP made Kate's album sound hiphop-hip, Euro-slick, and ready for the club. "Here is something he knew that I did not know. The kick always lays in at around 60 or 70 decibels. That's something you don't find in a book," she says. "It's something you can only get from a mentor."
While the album was being mixed, Katie Kate began doing shows around town. To get a handle on this side of the business, she turned to Radjaw, who was by then a member of the rap group Mad Rad. To be a rapper is also to be an entertainer, a fact that many indie MCs in this city are ignorant of and a fact that Radjaw impressed upon Katie Kate. "Radjaw is really about that kind of thing. He is into the performance and rocking a show," she says. "When I did my first show at the Rendezvous, I was a little worried, so I had my back to the audience and rapped to Radjaw [who was DJing]. After the show, he told me that if I ever did that again, he was going to kill me. 'You do not rap to me, you rap to the audience. You're there for them, not for me.' So if people think I got too much attitude on the stage, you can thank Radjaw."
Though Kate clearly has a talent for her hiphop production—the heavy, deep, sexy beat for the Flatland track "Totebag" is, in my opinion, a local classic—she is not keen on making the next big step: producing for other rappers. (THEESatisfaction, on the other hand, are keen on doing this, and I can easily imagine them being something like the Neptunes of the new art of hiphop.)
"The beats I make are personal; they are really about me, where I'm at in a given time and place," she says. "It's hard for me to imagine someone else rapping to them. Maybe I will get over that, but for now, the music is too much about me."
And this, to conclude, is the essence of Katie Kate. Despite dealing with male chauvinism on a regular basis, her music is not at all political. It is instead about her mode of being in the world, which tends to be cold, closed, and reserved. Indeed, no matter how present she is (on a stage, on a song, or sitting across the table from you), something about her remains far from where you are. She is like a distant star that's bright but has no warmth.