Catherine Harris-White, known best as SassyBlack, got her start in music as part of hip-hop duo THEEsatisfaction, signed to the iconic Sub Pop Records but she’s since struck out by herself and has found her own voice as a solo musician.
The Seattle-based producer, singer, DJ and actress is comfortable in states of flux, moving effortlessly between genres and mediums. Classically trained as a jazz singer but with a deep seated love for R&B, she creates an entirely unique blend of soul, jazz, funk, house and electronic music. A natural entertainer, she’s also starred in HBO’s Vinyl, has performed around the world and continues to prove her mettle as a true Renaissance Woman. The mixtape she’s prepared for FvF captures her influences and is a blend of low key artists like Wu-Lu and Musiq Soulchild alongside Beyonce and Usher. Cat has an intuitive sense for picking out grooves and pressing on them—then moving effortlessly into something equally as funky.
Kaytranada – Weight Off Ft. BADBADNOTGOOD
Camp Lo – Gotcha Ft. Tyler Woods
Janelle Monae – It’s Code
Beyoncé – HOLD UP
Musiq Soulchild – Infatueighties
James Mason – I Want Your Love
Usher – Just Like Me Ft. Lil Kim
Muhsinah – Something Nice or Nothing At All
Erykah Badu – Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long
J*Davey – No More
Wu-Lu – Open Rising Ft. MNDSGN
The Internet – Something’s Missing
Digable Planets – Rebirth of Slick
“It’s intense working solo. But super freeing. Because I can say, ‘Well, what’s my next album going to be?’ Anything I fucking want!”
In addition to being a musician you’re also an actress—you were in HBO’s Vinyl?
Yes, I’ve been acting longer than I’ve been professionally singing. I’ve been a professional actor since I was 14. I was in plays mostly but I stopped when I started THEEsatisfaction in 2008—I couldn’t act and do that. I didn’t tell anyone I was in plays or anything but HBO reached out to my record label at the time, Sub Pop, and they asked for me to audition. I played a small part but the casting was between me and a woman who was acting on Broadway. I got to work with Martin Scorcese! So my acting resume is looking pretty good already!
So, how did you come up with the name SassyBlack?
I came up with the name because I wanted to be able to say and do whatever I wanted to without having to make a disclaimer all the time. At a show I’m going to complain about some shit, have all the opinions and do some comedy. It’s intense working solo. But super freeing. Because I can say, ‘Well, what’s my next album going to be? Anything I fucking want!’
You’re a classically trained jazz vocalist, how did that start?
I always loved jazz music and singing, but I hated school! The only reason I would go to school as a kid was to learn about acting or music—so I auditioned for jazz because that’s the closest thing to soul music. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and I learned from a handful of legends that have played with Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra. It made me love jazz and the science behind it.
“I’ve got shades of Beyonce-ness in my spirit so she always finds a way in there.”
What genre do you identify with most then? There are so many influences in your music—jazz, soul, R&B, funk and hip hop.
I was listening to all these R&B records the other day and realized they’re all like 15 song records with 13 slow songs crying about whatever. It made me think, ‘Damn, am I really R&B?’ And soul music has a tinge of politics with funky, sassy, sexy, ‘you better respect me’ kind of lyrics. I fall into that a bit more. But I think I’m more of a hip hop singer than I realize—like a hip hop jazz singer. When I produce, I use certain concepts that don’t fit into the other styles of music—but lean closest to hip hop. Someone will listen to my music and say, ‘Hey you’re a rapper!’ and I’ll say, ‘No I’m a singer!’ and they’ll say ‘Well, the way you articulate your words while you’re singing is like rapping.’
Who are your biggest influences?
Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock does whatever he wants all the time! He’s jazz, funk, hip hop and everything. And everyone will want to work with him forever. There’s never going to be a time when someone says ‘Herbie Hancock? I guess…’ He’s literally worked with everyone!
How did you select the tracks for this mixtape?
I made this mix at 3AM! And I always have to put Beyonce songs in my DJ sets at least once. I’ve got shades of Beyonce-ness in my spirit so she always finds a way in there. I’ve been listening to a lot of R&B records like Usher’s “My Way” or Brandy, Mariah Carey, plus music by Kaytranada and The Internet. But before them I was listening to people like Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clark so I’m getting into the newer scene—these new, legendary artists in the making.
Thank you Cat, for putting this mix together for us. You’re a legendary artist in the making and we’re happy to step into your musical world and see what keeps you moving.
Extra thanks to Africanist for the photos of Cat.
Catch SassyBlack at this year’s Pop Kultur Festival in Berlin for yourself.