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Santogold: the Future of Pop

A day in the life of the genre-smashing star-in-the-making

Brian Hiatt Jun 10, 2008
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© Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis

Not for the first time today, Santi White has no idea where she’s going. So far on this Monday afternoon in LA, she has left her car keys in a pile of shirts at an Urban Outfitters (which she just calls “Urban”); gotten hopelessly lost on her way to her producer Switch’s house in Silver Lake; agreed to, then cancelled, a photo shoot for a DJ’s clothing line; and misplaced her backing-track CDs after performing on the taste-making radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic. And if White doesn’t find her hotel soon, she’s going to be late for a meeting with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. “Welcome to my life,” she says, laughing, as she steers her rental car into an inexpert U-turn somewhere near downtown LA. “It’s always like this.”

Somehow, inside this vortex of hipster chaos, White – who is becoming better-known by her childhood nickname, Santogold – managed to record one of the most exciting albums of the year so far. Santogold, her solo debut, forges candied new-millennium pop out of Eighties synths, indie-rock guitars, dubby sound manipulation and churning, ultracurrent electronic beats, provided in part by British dance producer Switch and Philly DJ Diplo (who have both worked with MIA). Switch wanted to push the whole thing deeper into electronics, but White held tight to her rock tracks, which she produced with her co-writer, John Hill: “I’m like, ‘All this really cool shit is great for the cool kids,’ ” she says. “But I wanted to keep the record accessible to everybody.”

Santogold has been embraced by tastemakers from Björk to Mark Ronson – and by Ashlee Simpson, or at least her A&R reps: White helped write two songs for Simpson’s new album, Bittersweet World. “It’s fucking hard,” White says of songwriting-for-hire (she also co-wrote ‘Littlest Things’ for Lily Allen) – but her pop savvy should help her reach beyond those cool kids: As she drives around, we discover that local rock powerhouse KROQ has started playing her single ‘LES Artistes.’

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Like her Downtown Records labelmates Gnarls Barkley and her friend MIA, White – who grew up in Philadelphia and lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn – is making music that’s as impossible to pigeonhole as it is to resist. “It’s the same for my whole crew,” White says as she cruises down Sunset Boulevard, finally heading the right way. “We’re breaking down boundaries of genre restrictions, and, you know, race restrictions and, like, all kinds of shit.”

In the back seat, playing with their cellphones, are two members of her crew. One is Martelo, a British DJ with an ironic, shaved-on-the-sides Eighties haircut, who just flew in a couple of hours ago. (“It’s hot in America,” he notes.) The other is White’s fiancé, Trevor Andrew, a professional snowboarder who has started recording “electronic skate rock” under the name Trouble Andrew. (He also added Iggy Pop-like vocals to the Santogold song ‘I’m a Lady.’) With his purple hoodie, oversize red Oakley sunglasses and Spicoli-ish blank expression, he’s a cartoon of cool.

So perfectly formed is White’s aesthetic that everything around her seems to reflect it, from her companions to her clothing. She’s wearing a designer Back to the Future-themed T-shirt covered with the number 88 (as in the speed it takes to achieve time travel in a DeLorean), a pair of fake-vintage grey acid-washed jeans, bright-green open-toe shoes, a black cap decorated with skeletons riding skateboards and enormous gold hoop earrings. On the middle finger of her left hand is a preposterously huge ball of gold and diamonds that turns out to be a $30 piece of costume jewellery. “Ooh, look,” she says as the sun shines through it, creating a sparkly effect on the car door.

White was a smart and “ultrasocial” kid, despite being the only African-American in a fancy private school. Her father, a lawyer whose death from cancer in 2004 was a pivotal event in White’s life, took her to concerts by Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and James Brown. (“I remember I asked my father, ‘What’s wrong with his legs?’ and he was like, ‘He got soul!’ ”) Her sister, meanwhile, introduced her to Eighties rock: Bad Brains, the Smiths, Gary Numan and Tom Tom Club all became influences. When she was 15, White wrote in her journal, “I know there’s music in me – I don’t know if the type of music even exists yet, but I know it’s there.” Like her parents, she attended Wesleyan – where she majored in music, specialising in hand drumming. (She’s vague about her age, but an alumni Website lists her in the class of 1997.)

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White had no real expectations of being a pro musician. Instead, she took an assistant job at Ruffhouse Records after school, which turned into an A&R gig. But when an old friend, Shareese Ballard (aka Res), got in touch, White – who had written three songs in her life up to that point – found herself co-writing and producing How I Do, Res’ 2001 debut. The album didn’t sell, but White found herself inspired: She started the New Wave-y punk band Stiffed (and soon got so tired of questions about being a black woman in rock that she banned the subject in interviews).

The band broke up in 2006, and she began work on what would become the Santogold project. “I had the idea to jumble up everything,” she says. She dedicated the album to her father, whose last words to her were: “The world isn’t ready yet for the sounds in your head.” For the liner notes, she wrote a response: “Has it been enough time yet?”

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