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Santogold - All That Glitters Is Santogold

Author: Cyclone
Thursday, 1 May 2008

3D’s Cyclone ushers in the era of attitude with Santogold, already staking a serious claim to be this year’s definitive breakthrough artist.

In recent years pop culture has spawned a succession of plastic female starlets. From the Spice Girls with their ‘girl power’ reign, to Simpson sisters Jessica and Ashlee, who opportunistically change direction every album, to RNB’s Beyonce clones – few have understood the real potential of Madonna’s post-modern manoeuvres in the 80s. No academic could convincingly write a treatise on the feminist dialectics of Britney’s career.
It's almost depressing that Britain's Q magazine should lately dedicate an issue to 'women in rock' featuring old-school eccentrics like Kate Bush, Dolly Parton and Ronnie Spector, the tributes courtesy of (mostly lesser) contemporary acts. However, amid a mounting backlash to formula, pop is evolving. Personality is back.

Arguably UK soul diva Amy Winehouse is the one ‘keeping it real’. Still, Amy's troubled life has been co-opted as a marketing angle. The public knows her more from paparazzi images than music videos. The real rebels inhabit the overground. Uffie, Amanda Blank and Ebony Bones are pop’s new bluestockings. And now we have Santogold, an early contender for 2008's breakthrough artist, bringing her ‘future flavour’.

Santogold's eponymous debut is not merely another ‘mash-up’; she marches through a jungle of punk, electro, dancehall and hip hop, waving her revolutionary flag. But, guerilla or not, she isn't averse to negotiating with popdom. The thirtysomething, nostalgic for the 80s New Wave, can pull out a hook when necessary, ensuring her freedom. She’s nu, nu New Wave.

Santi White, aka Santogold, originates from Philadelphia, as with The Roots, but currently resides in Brooklyn. She studied African drumming at college but ended up employed in A&R at Epic. There’s a myth that every A&R is a closet artist. As it happened, White quit her post to guide her old pal Res' debut, How I Do, of 2001.

Santi denies that she was the archetypal frustrated artiste, although she did initially freak out her boss. “I was working at record companies for a while,” she recounts. “I actually started interning at record companies when I was in high school, “cause I thought I wanted to own a record company.”

“I signed Res to a demo deal when I was an A&R assistant. I was good friends with the Executive President of the department at the time. He really had faith in me and gave me a shot and let me sign somebody to a demo deal. Then, when I did it, I wanted it to be really good, 'cause I wanted to get a chance to be an A&R! I couldn't find anybody to write songs good enough to get me to be an A&R, so I wrote them myself. My boss said, and he was kidding, ‘Ah, that’s a red flag – you’re writing songs for your artists now-’ He thought that [Res] was great, but he didn’t get it. He wanted to put her in some pre-existing RNB group. I was like, ‘No, you don’t get it, that’s totally not what I’m trying to do.'"
"At that point I was just starting to get frustrated because, even though the people there were really nice to me and wanted to see me move forward, they didn't get any of my creative vision."

Epic was in the market for artists who sounded like Puff Daddy affiliates. It was the beginning of mainstream music's stagnation. The days of A&Rs uncovering nascent music scenes, be it punk, hip hop or grunge, and, in effect, playing a part in the cultural flux, were over with majors instead operating according to strict – and safe – business dictates. Risk taking was forbidden. Artist development was ditched in favour of cloning, the same hit-makers steering everyone. Then, Santi rues, came reality TV.

“Any wack artist who they discover on television who has no talent can just call up that same producer and have a hit record. The whole business changed from being art-based to an industry-based thing.”

White resolved that she aspired to be a songwriter, not an A&R. Santi executive-produced Res’ LP, composing the bulk of it, but, again, felt thwarted. With so many cooks, among them perhaps Res, Santi’s flavours were diluted. “I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t really love writing for other people. I wanna have the songs come out the way I want them to sound.' That’s what led me to become a singer myself and do my own stuff.”

An alt-soulster, Res herself didn't fit the corporate mould. It wasn't until the Philadelphian released a third single, They Say Vision, that she enjoyed a hit. Tellingly, Res split from MCA, disseminating her next album digitally.
In the meantime, Santi switched focus, forming a ska-punk band, Stiffed. The outfit cut an EP, Sex Sells, with Bad Brains' Darryl Jennifer, but they weren't to last.

White relocated to New York to plot a solo career, signing to Downtown, an indie founded by another major label refugee, Josh Deutsch. Santi's experiences in A&R have determined her course. Warner is distributing her album in the UK, but she's not in their clutches. Once, as a woman of colour eschewing ‘urban’ music (hip hop and RNB) in a segregated market, Santi would have slipped through the cracks, like Res. But the bloggable renegade has benefited from the very technologies undermining the corporates – and radio. “Because the industry is falling apart, anyway, they’re not in control anymore,” Santi says. “They don’t know what they’re doing and they’re just scrambling to figure it out.”

“Everything is very DIY these days, anyway, and with things like the internet and MySpace, you don’t really need a label to get your music heard. “People have finally just said, ‘who cares what they’re telling me I can or can’t do- I’m gonna do whatever I want. Then, if people like it, they don’t have much of a choice!’”

Ironically, Stiffed's demise occurred largely because of bad luck with indies. “It was a hard road, honestly,” Santi sighs. By 2005's LP, Burned Again, they'd exhausted themselves. "Right after we signed with Lizard King, the band broke up."

Stiffed allowed Santi to develop confidence as a performer. She continued to collaborate with bassist John Hill, aka Johnny Rodeo, simultaneously reaching out to a new community of music pals. She covered The Jam's Pretty Green on Mark Ronson’s Version. And Santi befriended Diplo... and then Switch.

Santi headed into the studio with Switch and his cohort Freq Nasty. Switch had bonded with Freq on tour here in Oz. She’d never heard of them; they’d never heard of her. “They’re like, ‘Do you rap-’ I was like... [sounds circumspect] ‘No.’ And they were like, ‘OK, can you try-’" White toasted down the mic – and the trio exited with Creator. “We were all very excited about how that song came out. It was not what I expected, [or] what they expected, and it was pretty different from the rest of the stuff I'd been working on for my record up until that point.”

Santi entered an alternate sonic universe. “I learned all kinds of stuff,” she reveals. “I learned lots. I learnt Pro Tools, I learned a lot of technical production stuff, and I learned a lot about mixing... I learned various elements of how to make songs build better and how to blend several different elements and to make it work in a song. It was a really gradual process.”

Santogold may be a collaborative project – others involved include the late Disco D, the ghetto-tek pioneer – but Santi White is in the driving seat. And, while Santogold has street cred to burn, she’s influenced more by the Pixies than crunk n B princess Ciara. If Res was ahead of her time, then Santogold has been fortunate, embraced by hipsters. White is routinely compared to MIA, usually on the basis of Creator. Yet Santogold has an ethos of her own, and she’s a songwriter.

Bizarrely, White still moonlights. She’s contributed to Ashlee Simpson’s latest bid for chartdom, Bittersweet World, the most try-hard (albeit OK) electro-pop album since Holly Valance’s State Of Mind. Santi co-wrote the lead single, Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya), which Timbaland produced. Play it backwards and you might just hear Santi having the last laugh.

Santogold has gigged with Australia’s Architecture In Helsinki, opened for the iconoclastic Bjork, and performed at this year's Coachella. Will we witness her Down Under soon- “Definitely,” she says. “I’m definitely gonna come tour there. I’m not sure when yet, but it's in the works, for sure.”

WHO: Santogold
WHAT: Santogold out now through Inertia