Dance, Dance … Revolution?

What if hip-hop embraced third-wave feminism? Scream Club, Northern State, and Gravy Train!!!! attempt to find out.

Kathleen Hanna, what have you done? If Bikini Kill were the urtext of riot grrrl, and vocalist Hanna the author, then Le Tigre are an ass-shaking Athena axed from the godhead. Le Tigre’s late-’90s formation invited third-wave feminism to the transgressive danceteria for nerdy girls biting sexed-up style from early Madonna. Athena’s wisdom—that even smart girls shake their tits, and that the revolution can be and should be danced to—became a battle cry to artsy chicks (Tracy + the Plastics), tough electroclashers (Peaches), and neo-garage gals (the Gossip) alike. As the Psychedelic Furs might say, they’re “an army on the dance floor,” and it’s no coincidence that with Bush in office, their ranks have swelled.

Cindy Wonderful, of Olympia’s femme duo Scream Club, calls her brand of booty couture “more whorish . . . more fun,” on “And You Belong,” the opening track on Don’t Bite Your Sister (Tiny Sensational), the duo’s debut. It’s lovely to find that the greaser she snags with the slut duds is her Mohawked partner, Sarah Adorable. But over synth beats, lazy sitar samples, and Adorable’s sung chorus, Wonderful raps in the Queens-vernacular of Salt ‘N’ Pepa, who also mixed talk about sex and political power, particularly on 1990’s Blacks’ Magic, whose title track combats the misogyny of black culture, spits at those who called hip-hop a fad, and adds a cur-ious proviso that “Making them dance and laugh is somethin’ quite unique.”

The question, then, for the lo- fi schlock that spews from Don’t Bite Your Sister, full of so-duh double entendres, spotty production, and warbling raunch, is this: Salt ‘N’ Pepa opened hip-hop to this shtick 14 years ago. Why bother to take Pepa’s gait? Love? Theft? The Club’s approach is typically college town— part parody of a long-diffused style, part overblown joke best left in someone’s dorm room. Their lyrics present impossible solutions to vague problems (“Let’s nominate bell hooks for president,” they decide on “Don’t F*** With My Babies”) and cheerleading for pet identity politics while leaving all the juicy first-person feelings for tales of lurid girlie sex. When they call themselves “gaysymmetrical superheroes,” they get it too right—they’re dual self- righteous fashionistas making music so two-dimensional that it’s hard to believe that it or they are real.

Where Scream Club play up their Evergreen fringe associations, Northern State twist their Long Island tough through the austere activism of Vassar. After 2003’s mini-album, Dying in Stereo, the ladies signed to Sony and took a year to tour and record the new All City. On opener “Ignite” playground chants give way to dark strings before the opening lines, “Don’t hate, congratulate/You know we’re knocking down doors right out the gate,” set the trio up for 41 and a half minutes of preemptive defense. The short verse and do-what-we-do-best chorus are a good template for them, though, and their mostly sung refrains translate into acceptable hip pop if only Hesta Prynn’s reedy Long Island sneer and still sloppy flow didn’t stick out.

The State’s acceptance anxiety was absent on Dying, where the crew delivered witty literacy with naive bravado. On All City they shed the fun for credibility trials—see the industrial grumble of “Style I Bring,” the box beats and plunk of “Time to Rhyme,” and “Think Twice,” where we’re informed, “You can fear me, you can feel me/You could like me, you can hate me/Either way we’re making history.” Fine, except a list of four does not an “either” equal, and being first to the party does not make you popular or best, just first—that’s a record, not history.

For this record, a cadre of guest producers, including the Roots’ ?uestlove, Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, Pete Rock, and the High and Mighty, pushed for dynamism and dramatic breaks. The problem is that Northern State’s greatest power lay in their amateur freestyle over basic beats, à la Dying in Stereo‘s “Trinity,” or “Rewind,” from the four-song demo that got the band noticed, where there’s no pretense of art and the surprise of an occasional genius metaphor. All City‘s allusive cheap shots or shouts to Patty Hearst and the Kennedys are dull needles lost in stacks of blah that could be cut-ups from the Beasties’ new album rhyme books (William S. Burroughs?). Weirdly, the only explicit fem-tastic track here is “Girl for All Seasons,” a timid diet basher starting like a Casio disco toss-off that explodes into ill-advised rap metal.

There’s a lot of talk about body image in the third wave. Where Northern State bridge with “Girl for All Seasons” with “We can try and we can fall/And we can try to make it better,” Scream Club just shout, “Riot not diet.” If this topic is the hothouse blossom of white female hip-hop radicalism, then Gravy Train!!!!’s new Ghost Boobs EP (Kill Rock Stars) embodies the decadent/art end of the argument. Three hot hoochies and one queer boy from Oakland wrote the title track as a keyboard-preset epic of loss—specifically, breast flesh lost in a misguided diet. The jinx? The phantom cups return, haunting our protagonist until she laments, “I thought I was fat, so I went on a diet/ If I knew they’d split, I’d never a tried it.” Of these strategies—the middle-class plod against the glass ceiling, ghetto- angry advocacy to arm, and fuck it all, let’s dance with our sorrows—can any one bring about the girl utopia? Should we spring forth nipples, heads, or fists first?