Many hip-hop heads first learned about Santigold by way of a cameo on Jay-Z’s borough anthem “Brooklyn (Go Hard).” But before Hov made it a hot song, Santi White made it a hot line on “Shove It,” a track off her critically praised ’08 debut, Santogold. Originally from Philly, the BK transplant entered the industry on the executive end before embracing her own creative chops. With her defiant punk-rock-ska fusion, the singer has since earned, as she proclaims, “a place up on the radar.” In an email interview with XXLMag.com, Santigold (she recently changed the spelling of her name) elaborated on her all-inclusive style, recording with Jay-Z and why rappers are helping to spread the word.
XXLMag.com: How would you describe the type of music you do to a hip-hop audience?
Santigold: I don’t have a good definition for my music. It’s something new in that it doesn’t fit into any pre-existing genres. It’s got a little rock, some reggae, some punk, electronic, and some old school hip-hop/dancehall chat style.
XXL: You started out as an A&R at Epic records. What were some of the key moves you made while working there?
Santi: The best thing I did while working at Epic was to take notes on every single thing that went down there. I learned so much in the short time that I was there, and those lessons have been invaluable in my career. But the move that was most important to my career was when I signed an artist named Res to a demo deal. She was an amazing singer and was an artist with a desire to do something different, and I had a great vision of what we could do together. I really wanted to be an A&R at the time, so my main objective was to make a great demo so I could sign her. But in the process, I couldn’t find any songwriters who could write the kind of songs I had in mind. So I decided to write them myself. Once I did that, I realized that I enjoyed the creative side of the music industry more than the business side, so I quit working at Epic, got Res signed to MCA, and executive produced and wrote her record. That experience is what led me to become an artist myself.
XXL: How has that A&R sensibility helped you as an artist?
Santi: It helps to know the business side of what I’m doing. I know how to make an album; I’m a good administrator, running my own sessions, bringing in the producers I want to work with and dealing with the label on my own terms. I have a good sense of which audiences will connect with my music, and I know a good pop song when I hear it.
XXL: When did you first start to notice you were getting a buzz?
Santi: Probably the first time was a little while after I put some demos up on MySpace. I was still working on my record, still figuring out where I was going, and I was asked to open for Bjork. I was surprised, but really excited because I have a great deal of respect for her as an artist. It gave me a lot of confidence because at that point I had been working in a bubble and wasn’t quite sure how people would connect with the music I was making.
XXL: Although you and M.I.A have very different styles, people can’t help drawing comparisons. Why do you think that is? And do you think at this point those comparisons have stopped now that your music is more exposed?
Santi: I think the comparisons have more to do with the fact that we are both women of color making innovative cross-genre music than anything else. We have worked with some of the same producers, but I mean, come on, how many artists do you know who have worked with the same producers and don’t get compared to each other all the time. The press tries to make it seem like there’s only room for one woman of color outside the box. Fuck that. I love what M.I.A is doing and she’s a friend of mine, but we are very different artists. I think moving forward, those comparisons will lessen.
XXL: Since your music crosses so many different genres, is there one genre in particular that you identify with the most?
Santi: No, I’ve always felt connected to many different genres ever since I was a kid. I get something very different from rock than I do from Hip-Hop, and something else completely from reggae. There is a similar raw, grimy quality in each of these genres that resonates with me, however, so that is an energy that is a constant in my music.
XXL: Can you talk about how “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” came about? Did Jay-Z call you about it or through his people? Did you meet him?
Santi: I’d met Jay a couple times before and we’d talked about wanting to work together. So when Kanye made that beat, it was the perfect opportunity I guess. Jay called and said he wanted me to get on this track. I was on tour at the time, so he sent it to me and I loved it. Kanye had sampled the first line of my song “Shove It” that said “Brooklyn We Go Hard” and put this super dark, epic-sounding beat underneath it. I recorded my vocals in London and sent them back, and then when I got back to New York, I went and met Jay at the studio and listened to his part and how he’d put the whole thing together. Kanye played me the final mix when we were on tour together in the U.K., and like, the next day it was out. It’s amazing to me how quickly those guys move. When they say they want to do something, it’s done.
XXL: Does it surprise you that many hip-hop fans first got introduced to you through that song?
Santi: No, not at all. These days, hip-hop’s not the same as it used to be. Hip-hop used to have influences from all over the place. The producers used to be real music collectors with broad tastes. Nowadays, people don’t even listen to other genres of music because they love it; they just skim records for samples, or they use a bunch of stock sounds that come with the machines… As a black female artist, it makes me really proud to get so many messages from young ethnic kids who tell me that they didn’t feel like they fit in, but that I have inspired them to be who they are. For a long time, we have been letting other people dictate what “black” is or isn’t supposed to be, and it’s really created a mess. If I believed everything I saw and heard, I’d feel like a worthless piece of shit at this point. I have so much respect for people like Jay-Z, Kanye, and Pharrell for trying to broaden the scope, for being confident enough to continue to take creative risks, and for attempting to revive the adventurous spirit of hip-hop simply by expanding its definition.
XXL: Besides “Brooklyn Go Hard,” Lil Wayne and Drake’s “Unstoppable” also sampled your song and “Swagger Like Us” sampled M.I.A. What are your thoughts on rappers taking these indie records and bringing them to a broader audience?
Santi: I think it’s great. It takes artists like them to open up the minds of the mainstream audiences. Hopefully it will inspire people who only listen to hip-hop to do some research and check out other kinds of music.
XXL: What is the rest of the year looking like for you?
I have a couple months of touring left. Then, I’m going to start my next record. I can’t wait to get back in the studio.-Clover Hope