I step into the back room of The Earl — that notoriously stuffy, sweaty, cramped back room — and am shocked to find that it’s cool, breezy, and almost entirely empty. It’s already an hour after doors, yet an off-duty bartender is still lingering over his lonely little supper at the bar, nobody’s even touched the stage yet, and hardly a soul has showed up for what promises to be an amazing indie hip hop show. The quadruple-billed lineup, headlined by da ATL’s own MC-DJ extraordinaire Rock Most, features two other exceptionally talented, locally based acts (Trü.ski the Transmitter and Jahah), as well as Sub Pop’s breakthrough sensations, THEESatisfaction.
If you’re like me, you might automatically associate Sub Pop bands starting with “Thee” with Billy Childish’s folky garage rock band Thee Headcoats, but the only thing THEESatisfaction has in common is its head-on approach to music and its deep-rooted DIY sensibilities. Surely among the brightest rising stars in the Sub Pop galaxy, THEESatisfaction is a Seattle-based outfit comprised of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White. Stas and Cat met as college students, bonded over their love for spoken word and soul music, and started jamming together in 2008. The rest, as they say, is musical history. A much-heralded appearance at SXSW 2012 put them on the map for legions of hipsters and underground music enthusiasts, and their unpretentious DIY rap-soul duets have earned them street cred with discerning hip hop tastemakers. After putting out a couple of mixtapes over the past few years, including the well-received That’s Weird (recorded in a closet in 2008), THEESatisfaction recently released their first full-length album awE naturalE on Sub Pop Records in March of this year.
After refreshingly down-to-earth headliner Rock Most warms up the audience with some bangin’ house party music, featuring soul-tinged turntablism and some not-half-bad scratching, the modest crowd begins to multiply. Then local mixmaster and rapper Trü.ski the Transmitter goes on, first rhyming over Rock Most’s beats, then taking the turntable reins himself. He does about four or five songs total, including his single, “Land of Longing.” His charmingly herky-jerky flow belies the profundity of his deep philosophical rhymes. Intense!
Atlanta prodigy-in-the-rough Jahah comes on next. Even though he’s already put out a handful of albums and has multiple high-profile credits to his name, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of him. But once he starts his set, it’s all “Where you been all my life??” This guy can really effin’ sing! Not just that, but he raps like a champ, and his flow is unassailable. His vocals approximate Cee Lo Green crossed with Montell Jordan, and fans of Gang Starr would also be into his sound. And although he’s of small stature, Jahah’s witty-yet-suave stage presence is larger than life — sorta like if Kanye was actually smart. Jahah’s vocal stylings are accompanied by an unremarkable backup singer and a stone-faced guitarist who strums away stoically like a reggae-tinged George Benson. All I can say is I’m an instant convert.
While I’m busy rocking out to Jahah, I notice that both members of THEESatisfaction are dancing in the crowd right in front of me. (I also see Rock Most and Trü.ski mingling with the audience. It’s that kind of show.)
Jahah finishes way too soon, and after a brief intermission, Cat walks up on stage, places a Macbook on a low table, and starts fiddling with it. Stas is walking around talking to folks in the audience, and Cat soon joins her. There’s a decidedly defiant down-to-earth vibe about the whole thing, as though you’re watching some old friends prepare for their first live show. Then, without any warning, the beat starts up as THEESatisfaction takes the stage and nonchalantly proceeds to blow the roof off the place.
Backed by sample-laden drum machine loops spit out by their trusty Macbook, THEESatisfaction’s performance is part poetry slam, part soul sista throwback, with adorable synchronized choreography that immediately wins me over. Cat, clad in a vintage flowered dress, sings in a deep, earthy voice à la Lauren Hill. Stas, who is dressed more casually in a button-up shirt and white-rimmed hipster shades, handles rapping duties with a confidently straightforward style that evokes MC Lyte. They go back and forth effortlessly, with Cat singing and Stas rapping and then back again, all laid over scratchy retro samples, smoky horns, and glitchy beats. You can totally imagine them dancing around and riffing off each other in their dorm room. The way these two play off each other is simply amazing, as evidenced by the audience’s reaction: half the crowd is dancing up a storm, and the other half is standing stock still with their mouths agape. These girls are gonna be big. Crazy big.
THEESatisfaction’s songs manage to come off as intensely personal while somehow staying refreshingly universal and relatable, with pop culture references left and right. There are recurring themes (feminism, blackness, identity) but the presentation is so unpretentious and accessible that anybody can appreciate it.There’s also a vaguely spacey, futuristic vibe that calls Sun Ra and Janelle Monae to mind. It’s kinda like reading a hip black feminist earth-mother cyborg’s multimedia diary.
Rock Most is on next, but I can say that my night has already been made. THEESatisfaction definitely stole the show with their endearing stage presence and quirky, soulful approach to indie hip hop. Fans of A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, De La Soul, and The Fugees will likely dig, as will anybody who appreciates honest, genuine musical labors of love. To paraphrase THEESatisfaction: Whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove. Y’all.