Surely she wouldn't want to set off on a rant here, but... "I'm starting to get really sick of the indie hip-hop scene," says Concetta Kirschner, a.k.a. Princess Superstar, from her cellphone, tripping around Manhattan. "With the exception of a few people, like DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, hip-hop is stagnating -- not just on the majors, but on the indie level too. People are so concerned with keeping it real that they're not experimenting as much anymore.
"That's a blanket statement and there certainly are people who are innovative, but currently artists are staying very safe, when the underground is supposed to be a place where creativity can flourish. I don't feel like that's happening -- instead, a lot of things are sounding the same."
The dis is as much a hip-hop staple as the breakbeat, but what the Princess is on about isn't a vacuous attention-grabbing technique. She's a long-standing member of New York's indie hip-hop scene, and her criticism has a legitimate claim to validity, given that it's coming from the parent of one of the more refreshing hip-hop albums of the past year. With Princess Superstar Is (out on Studio !K7's Rapster Records) as the pudding holding the proof, Princess Superstar walks it like she talks it.
An example of the free rein that's a bastion of any truly alternative scene, Is is an uninhibited, eclectic affair. Varied production jobs from the likes of Herbaliser, the High & Mighty and the Princess herself (who invents "medieval chant-hop" on "You Get Mad at Napster") support lyrical foils from trashy Kool Keith and Jzone to folk hero Beth Orton (who coaxes the Princess' vulnerable side on "Untouchable Part 2"), and the disc boasts the sort of blind ambition that would lead to a complete mess in lesser hands. However, through the strength of Kirschner's plentiful charisma, the 16 tracks are unified by the Princess' comic sexuality, hooky choruses and let-your-hair-down sense of fun. It's a mixture that recalls the spirit of the old school, back in the day when prime De La Soul and Beastie Boys were unabashedly combining humour and experimentation.
"That's the element that's missing for me," says Princess. "That was my favourite time for hip-hop, from '88 to '91, and I'm trying to bring that back, but in a new way, reviving the humour and the fun and the sexiness too with a modern update."
Countering the Princess' libido-driven performing persona is an astute business sense acquired from running her own label, the Corrupt Conglomerate, and fending for herself as an independent artist since she started recording in the mid-'90s on a tiny Canadian label. Obscure even in Ontario circles, Windsor's 5th Beetle Records enjoys the claim to fame of putting out the very first Princess Superstar album, 1995's Strictly Platinum.
"When I first started making four-tracks, I got a lot of attention from major labels," she explains, "and 5th Beetle, who heard me through this guy I was seeing at the time, was also interested. While all the majors were giving me the runaround saying they wanted me to change things, promising me millions of dollars and telling me not to sign with anyone else, 5th Beetle said they wanted to put a record out right away and told me I was brilliant and could do whatever I wanted. That's how anybody good starts out. I'm proud of the fact that I'm from the underground and from obscurity." Numerous references to the temptation of the majors reveal that her independent stance is hardly steadfast, a dichotomy that's not far removed from the minds of most up-and-comers thinking they can successfully make the jump to the big leagues, surviving the often harsh realities of the bottom line while taking their music to the next level. (Mo' money, mo' problems, anyone?) The Princess has had the forbidden fruit dangled before her but has yet to indulge, an abstinence that may be forsaken soon enough.
"I'm not interested in signing to a major at this point," she says, "but I can't say about the future. For now, no, because I've always lived my life fighting the system and being independent. The name of my label is the Corrupt Conglomerate, and that sums up my feelings toward the industry. On the other hand, I'm tired of not being able to pay somebody and experiencing situations like that. But right now it's the art first, the music first and then the money later."
"It's not so touchy anymore," she shrugs. "I used to get mad when people compared me to him, but Eminem's a good lyricist, he's doing very well for himself, so it's almost flattering. But if people listen to my entire record, it really has nothing to do with Eminem; they should listen to what I've done before making a false comparison like that. But I don't give a shit anymore because it's better than being compared to fucking Britney Spears. And anyway, I've got four records out -- how many does Eminem have?"
— Ryan Watson