“When shit goes the other way,”—and by that, Santogold means not her way—“I really know how to snap, flip it and reel it back in.” These are the wise words of a woman who's been toiling in the creative underbelly of the music biz for many years and through just as many reincarnations. Santogold, nee Santi White, a Philadelphia born and raised, BedStuy, Brooklyn transplant, has gigged at Sony (as an African-drum-playing music major turned disillusioned A&R underling with big dreams), and fronted the now-defunct punk outfit Stiffed (as a financially sidelined entrepreneur looking for a new venture). Most recently, she’s evolved into an avant-garde mash-up artist and critical darling on the brink of mainstream adulation. Her debut effort, I Believe in Santogold, an exercise in bravado, experimental vocals, dub, new wave, electro-grime soundscapes and quirky, hood swagger, is due out this spring.
But Santogold is not so much hellbent on success as it may sound—it’s more a matter of haphazard perseverance. “I think I've gotten here from getting rid of the need to understand in any firm way exactly what it is that's going on and where I'm headed,” she says. “It wasn't until I let go of thinking like that that I even got anywhere.” And by “anywhere” Santogold means touring with Sri Lankan rebel-yeller M.I.A. and Icelandic anomaly Bjork; working with master production craftsmen like Mark Ronson, Switch, Diplo, Jon Hill, her partner in Stiffed, and the late Disco D; penning lyrics for R&B siren Res, the GZA, Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson; rocking the mic with raunchy rhymeslingers and Philly brethren Naeem of Spank rock, Amanda Blank et al; and loving her some Trevor Andrew, Olympic snowboarder/hipster music man and her boyfriend of more than five years. And this is just a brief rundown of her sprawling and perpetually spawning curriculum vitae.
“It has been a whirlwind,” she says summarily. As a songwriter, producer, performer and fashion frontierswoman (her fave style icon is Eazy E), Santogold is everywoman. She excels at wearing many hats—and glasses, and animal-prints and gilded accoutrements— and most importantly, making lemonade out of life’s sour moments. In a moment of crisis, she’ll turn chilled gutter runoff into Pellegrino and jump hurdles like Jackie Joyner.
2001’s critically acclaimed How I Do, a project that a very green Santi wrote and executive produced for Res, a family friend, is a testament to her then-broken heart and spirit: “I was coming out of a terrible relationship. I had just quit working for Sony [in New York]. I was this big ball of anxiety–and I was miserable!” she cringes. Nevertheless, her time at Sony was well spent; this is where she met Jon Hill, her creative partner and later Stiffed’s bass player—and the same person who would later become a springboard into Santogold. After leaving New York, Santi moved back to Philly and started Stiffed, a “fun and silly” distraction from her then-ailing pockets. “I had all this debt because I started this website that was like a boutique—and then the whole industry crashed,” she recounts. “And instead of working in New York and paying it off, I was like, ‘I’m outta here!’ I moved back in with my parents. I was snowboarding and starting a band. I was in a nice place.” Stiffed had its day in the sun and eventually dissolved; Santi decided to go solo, only to see the cycle of crisis and opportunity repeat itself once again.
Santogold is her first creative outing since her father, a prominent lawyer, died while involved in an FBI investigation on municipal corruption in Philadelphia. During this period, Santi endured “a whole lot of crazy shit,” the details of which she avoids altogether, and emerged “mature and frustrated with the state of things – state of people, state of our country, art, how no one speaks or stands for anything.” But it was exactly at this time that Santi White got just what she needed. Having returned to New York, and busy working on a new sound as Santogold alongside Hill, Santi stumbled upon a network of new friends and music minds. “I met Naeem [of Spankrock] through [party promoter] Roxy [Oxy Cottontail] at a party in New York. He introduced me to M.I.A. Diplo introduced me to Switch … and Amanda [Blank]. Everybody was exactly what I felt I had been looking for—a really progressive group of people who were doing something really interesting. Real people—not fake and all industry. I had finally found people that were on the same page as me.”
These experiences, reinforced by Santi’s anti-establishment lean, and her love for longtime influences Bad Brains, Nina Simone, Devo, The Smiths, Tina Turner, Grace Jones and the B52s were the fuel for I Believe in Santogold. “Shove It” is an in-your-face chant track in the vein of Gwen’s “Hollaback Girl,” Lil Kim’s “Lighters Up” and Aretha’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” “Lights Out ” is a deceptively sweet rock ballad. Both deal with her disillusionment with the government. “Creator,” which made it onto an episode of “Entourage” last season, is a boast-and-toast digi-jungle banger where Santi lays down the law. (M.I.A.’s “Come Around” featuring Timberland also played on the same show.) “Ann,” about a drug addict, features a Kraftwerk sample, and on “I’m a Lady,” Santi goes for a sound she describes as “Johnny Cash meets Cocteau Twins.” “LES Artistes” purrs with vulnerability and gives downtown scenesters a good ribbing.
So far, Santogold has proven herself to be versatile and resilient, if not Darwinian. After many a lesson learnt, she’s taken control of her career by becoming a shrewd businesswoman and a smooth operator. But if there’s one thing this fly girl is, it’s what’s she’s called herself at least a dozen times during this interview: “silly.” Case in point: her ultra raunchy verse on Spank Rock’s “B.O.O.T.A.Y.”
“Naeem told me I had to be super nasty if I wanted to be on the song. And I really wanted to be on the song because I loved it,” she says, gushing like a kid in a candy store—or in her case, a kid with a soft spot for Uncle Luke. “I was the first person in my neighborhood with a 2 Live Crew cassette. It was awesome! I played it for everybody. ‘I’m the Peter Piper of the 1980s and I got a hard dick for all of the ladies.’ Obviously, it’s fucked up, but it’s still good and funny.”
And judging from the red-light special she served up for Naeem, she ain’t lying. “He was dissing me and saying [what I wrote] wasn’t nasty enough. Personally, I like to gross Naeem out. I don’t talk about sex the way he does—I talk about shitting and farting all the time. And it really grosses him out. He wanted me to say something about pussy—but I decided to talk about dookie shoots and assholes!” she says, cracking herself up.
It’s this candidness and penchant for flaunting taboo—be it the bathroom humor, eccentric attire or the plain fact that she’s a black woman with punk roots steadfast in her rebellion against the hip-hop/R&B norm—that’s led her to so major opportunities with megawatt personalities. She’s always herself no matter what—except for when she doesn’t have to be.
“I really can get into character for different stuff. It’s like acting, I guess,” Santogold explains. “That’s what’s so thrilling about songwriting. You get to experience different parts of your psyche and personality that don’t have another way out.”