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If Northern State's Julie Potash was bitter, no one would have blamed her. Although All City, the New York-based hip-hop hybrid's first release for Columbia Records, made Rolling Stone's list of 2004's top 50 albums, the relationship between band and corporate master soon soured, preventing Potash and her fellow rhymers from putting out their latest disc—Can I Keep This Pen?, issued on Mike Patton's Ipecac imprint—for more than two years. Yet she's the opposite of angry.
"We lost a lot of momentum," she says. "But we self-managed ourselves into the best record of our career."
The DIY mentality proved key to this comeback, just as it did to the group's initial rise. Potash, Correne Spero and Robyn Goodmark, known as DJ Sprout, put together Northern State in 2001 as an antidote to male-centric (and often virulently sexist) rap music. Dying in Stereo, on Startime International, a first-rate indie, hit stores the following year, and the thoroughly entertaining mélange of spare grooves and smart/sassy couplets instantly attracted label interest. According to Potash, Columbia won out because "they allowed us to A&R our own album, whereas some of the other majors we were talking to weren't so into that." The trio subsequently recorded with favorites such as Muggs from Cypress Hill and producer Pete Rock and opened gigs for the Roots. But by the time All City was complete, she says, Columbia had "merged with BMG, and nobody on our team was there anymore. It was a real shit show."
The prolonged legal wrangling that resulted nearly sent Northern State south. "We didn't know if we were allowed to make another record," Potash notes. "We didn't know if we wanted to." In the meantime, she collaborated with Chuck Brody, an engineer on All City who became an in-demand producer (he helmed tracks on Jennifer Lopez's latest). When Spero and Goodmark heard the results, they were eager to contribute, as was Adam "Adrock" Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, who'd done a Northern State remix Columbia never released. "I still have it on my shelf," Potash points out.
Upon completing the album, the Staters sent it to several labels, and Ipecac was immediately enthusiastic. "They sent us a deal the next day," Potash recalls. "That's a really good example of the differences between a humongous major label that takes forever to get deals done and an awesome indie that gets everything done overnight."
Of course, Ipecac has fewer resources than Columbia—but it managed to land a Northern State tune on a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy anyhow. That sort of coup makes it easier for Potash to be magnanimous about even her career's ugliest turns. "We've bounced back," she says, "and I'm really proud of us."