Artist Spotlight: Santigold (or, 99¢ Is a Fair Price For a Life’s Work)

Did you come from a household with a lot of music? I did, but next to Santi White, I feel like I squandered the potential. White’s father was big into music, and took her to concerts all the time. One of her first concerts was Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti.

“My dad was into Fela. He took me to see Fela when I was seven, at a 400-capacity theatre,” White said. “He had all 27 of his wives on-stage, topless, dancing, and I was seven being like, ‘What the fuck is this!?’. My mind was blown forever, I’ll never forget. At some point soon after my dad had some politician come over to our home for a meeting, and I came downstairs, like, ‘Hi! I can do the African dance!’, and got on my knees, and everyone was like, ‘NO!’ – I was an interesting child.”

Soon, White would start writing her own songs. “I started writing lyrics because I wanted to be a rapper when I was nine, ten years old,” White said. “I bought Salt-N-Pepa’s records, it was one of my first records and I literally wanted to look just like them. They were so exciting… There were not a lot of women rappers: it was them, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah, and they fucking killed it. I would literally write rap after rap to try and be like Salt-N-Pepa and that’s how I learned to write lyrics.”

Later, White attended and graduated from Wesleyan University with a double major in African-American Studies and music. After graduation, she worked as an A&R executive for Epic records. Soon, she was contributing lyrics to other people’s projects. She wrote lyrics for GZA, and then ultimately left Epic Records in 2001 to write and produce Philadelphia singer Res’s debut album How I Do.

Stiffed – Sex Sells EP (2003) / Burned Again (2005)

Soon, White hooked up with Punk / New Wave / No Wave band Stiffed. Through hard constant rehearsing and touring, including a successful showcase at CBGB’s, Stiffed caught the attention of Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jennifer, who produced their EP and the full length.

Stiffed also went on tour opening for Bad Brains, where White was pleased to hang out with vocalist H.R., who is one of her idols. “Bad Brains were hugely important to me, because they were a punk rock, hardcore band, and they were black and from DC, and they were Rastafarian. They were especially interesting to me as a young girl – I didn’t get to see them live in their prime, I was too young,” White said. “There weren’t many black singers you would hear about in rock, so for me as a kid it was great to see that they were black and sick and legit… They were innovators: they took gospel drumming and sped it up, and that’s what hardcore was based on. They claimed a space and didn’t let anyone put a box around them and what black music was supposed to be.”

Stiffed seems to be largely wiped from the internet, and overshadowed by Santigold. While a part of the band, she was offered a solo record deal. “We were getting so much press. I moved back to Philly to sneak away from it,” White said. “I had been living in New York but I wanted to learn how to sing and have some space to not make money and work on music.”

Santogold (aka Santigold) (2007)

Before working on what would become her debut solo album, she did writing, producing, and remixing for Lilly Allen, Blaqstarr, and Spank Rock, and performed guest appearances with Trouble Andrew, Hezekiah, Mark Ronson, and GZA.

London based label Lizard King Records had signed White, now writing and performing as Santogold, and she went into the studio with Stiffed bassist John Hill as producer. Hill and White did most of the music together, and then additional production was done with Switch, Duplo, and Disco D. There was additional help from multi-instrumentalist and session player, and Stiffed drummer, Chuck Treece. In addition to working with Bad Brains, Billy Joel, and Busta Rhymes, he was also the first African-American skateboarder on the cover of Thrasher magazine.

Lizard King Records, however, was not all it was cracked up to be. “Lizard King didn’t allow me any freedoms. The label was a joke and I’ll say that on the record. They weren’t involved at all and pretty much got in the way,” White said. “So, Atlantic stepped up. They let us do our own things… appreciating that I had got a lot going on and done a lot of it on my own and that I know what I’m doing. So, they’ve been very supportive and not really pushed anything on me…They asked me not to change anything on it — if anyone had tried to get in my way I’d have been like ‘fuck it, I don’t need your stupid record deal’.”

The single, “L.E.S. Artistes”, was released ahead of the album, originally a B-Side to “Creator” but also released as its own single later. While the single(s) were received positively, it also was a double edged sword. The press pounced on Santigold, calling her a clone of M.I.A. “I think that the press has got a little ahead of itself considering that they haven’t heard that much music…. Diplo worked on two tracks, and press are going to be putting their foot in their mouths with the M.I.A. comparison when the record comes out because it is so different,” White said. “She’s cool, she’s my friend. We’ve worked with some of the same people and both are brown girls who aren’t just doing and R‘n’B or rap, but have similar influences. But the way we go around implementing those influences are very different.”

The album was a pleasant surprise for me. I’m sure based on my other installments, this seems like something out of my wheelhouse. A friend of mine heard Santigold when she took her 9 year old daughter (at that time) to see Coldplay, and Santigold opened. She shared the video for “L.E.S. Artistes”, and I thought it sounded pretty good. I was surprised, because how good could a tour-mate of Coldplay be? Eventually, picking up the album, I was shocked by what came out from the speakers. A template of dub reggae, with electro, hip hop, and indie rock slathered heavily on top.

After great reviews, she continued her work as a song doctor, but got some flack for working on an album for Ashlee Simpson.

“Come on. It’s just money,” White said. “I go into the studio, everything you order comes on a silver platter — and I’m not kidding. They bring you chocolate chip cookies on a silver platter. A REAL silver platter… It’s a formula, for all that type of music you hire the same producers and you get a certain level of quality because you pay for it. But it’s a different thing entirely — it’s not the same as artistic music. That’s not the sort of pop music I talk about. It’s a different world and it’s for different people and for me the experience of doing that is very important.”

Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub (2008)

In 2008, she was part of a “mixtape” with Diplo. It’s pretty rare, but if you have $931, you can buy a used copy on Amazon. Parts of it are on YouTube, but most of the tracks are private videos or deleted. So, here, check out one of the survivors.

In 2008 and 2009, White recorded with Jay-Z, Kanye West, N.A.S.A., Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and Basement Jaxx. As well as a stand alone single with Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and N.E.R.D.

In February 2009, Santogold changed her name to Santigold, because of a pending lawsuit from Santo Victor Rigatuso. Rigatuso had infomercials for a mail order jewelry business called “Santo Gold”, and also played a character named Santo Gold in a movie he also produced called Blood Circus (oddly, Seattle band Blood Circus was never sued).

Master of My Make-Believe (2012)

In 2010, White remixed Norah Jones and wrote and performed with Scissor Sisters. She also lent her voice to the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaborative album Here Lies Love track “Please Don’t”.

As if she weren’t busy enough, White also appeared on the final single from The Beastie Boys, “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, from Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Not long after the release, Adam “MCA” Yauch died of from cancer at the age of 47.

“Working with the Beastie Boys was an amazing experience, most importantly because I formed some very valuable friendships with those guys,” White said. “They’re role models to me all around. I’ve loved them since I was 11… They’re so down to earth, real, grounded people… With MCA, I don’t really like to talk about it. He was really special, someone you connect with instantly. So open, inviting, immediately accessible and friendly… He was the warmest, friendliest dude. It’s such a great loss. lt really hurts my heart.”

White began working on the second Santigold album, but it was tricky to avoid the sophomore slump. She started working with a “big pop writer”, but no one was happy with the results. “I was just accommodating people asking that I try,” White said. “Then the process was stripped of everything that’s exciting about the process of writing a song. I think everybody was like, ‘OK, maybe you shouldn’t do this’.”

White brought back Switch, Diplo, and John Hill, but not much was accomplished with them. Diplo and Switch had their profile raised significantly, Diplo moving on to work with Usher and Switch moving on to work with Beyonce. Some of their work remained on the record after a bout of initial writer’s block, but more collaborators were brought in, such as Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Dave Sitek (TV On the Radio, Jane’s Addiction), among others.

The first single, released ahead of the album, was “Big Mouth”. Normally, when writing these things, the music press doesn’t play a huge roll, but this is a little different. I guess because Santigold is a type of pop music, she lends herself to more attention than other artists I’ve covered (I think I would call her advant-pop, or pop adjacent, she doesn’t seem to have the visibility required to be pure “pop music”). At any rate, this song and video caused a stir.

The press immediately thought she was taking shots at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, and said the music was derivative of M.I.A. (again). Many outlets reported as fact that this was an intended dis, then criticized White for talking shit when White herself wrote for Ashlee Simpson. “That was actually not intended in the way everyone thought,” White said. “I am not that familiar with Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, I swear to God. I missed that. I can’t say the director missed that, though– it might have been his brilliant interpretation of my song, but we never discussed it.”

White went on to say, “I’m disappointed with the state of music right now, but it’s not really about anybody specific. I think there’s a lack of true art, and the fanfare is valued over actual substance… I watched a music awards show last year and started crying afterwards. I just felt really sad that people go along with stupid whack shit. I’m sorry, but LMFAO performed at the Super Bowl? Aren’t they a joke band? That type of shit makes me cry. I’m like, ‘Really?’ So, lyrically, ‘Big Mouth’ is about being able to have a vision, stand behind it, and then actually deliver.”

The second single was “Disparate Youth”, and accounts for Santigold’s only second charting single (the first being “L.E.S. Artistes”).  The song is a great mix of dub bass, new wave keyboards, and frantic guitar. White said of the track, “We’re in a weird place. There are so many riots and rebellions going on. It seems like a truth is coming out. Like, ‘Disparate Youth’ is about the youth creating their own world and not having to take this broken shit that’s handed to them.”

“The Keepers” was released as the final single, and is one of my favorite tracks from the album. I always thought of it as being just shutting themselves off from the world around them and turning a blind eye to the problems we all face, and it turns out I was almost correct. “Honestly, it’s all of the citizens of the world, not just America,” White said. “It’s all of us who live on the planet and have a responsibility to treat each other properly, and we’re not doing a good job right now… It’s a call to take responsibility for all the things around us that are not how they should be but to know we have the power to change it. We are rulers of our reality. We have the power to create the reality we want.”

I don’t usually talk about singles this much, but a big part of Santigold is the visual component, which she is very hands on with. That being said, Master of My Make-Believe has album tracks that are all just as good. “Look at these Hoes” pokes fun at the vacuous side of hip-hop, and “GO!” is a duet with Karen O. “I was with Q-Tip and he was going through all these records, playing samples, and then I just thought ‘Punk rock drums. Karen O’.” White said. “So, I got a friend to come in and play, and I told the engineer ‘Can you just distort the drums so it sounds totally fucked up’, and he was like ‘OK but I don’t think…’, he did it but he wasn’t convinced … but I was like ‘That’s it!’ And then I was like ‘Karen, you wanna get in on it?’, and she was like ‘Alright…’ I wasn’t sure she’d like it. But it worked.”

99¢ (2016)

Going into 99¢, the music industry had changed a lot, well, had been changing all along. Santigold found herself struggling with the celebrity portion of her career. “I’m terrible at social media, and it sucks for me, because I know I have fans. But if you go by my Instagram you would think, No one listens to her music! It’s not fair,” White says. “My Instagram is not my music. I have real-life stuff to do that I would rather do, and you’re not allowed to say that. [99¢] is about the experience of being an artist in the time when everything is about being a product and marketing yourself constantly in this culture of hyper-consumption. [Social media requires] always having this facade on. It’s a really narcissistic culture, where you’re constantly supposed to take pictures of yourself and push it out… I miss mystery.”

In regards to the title, White said, “So, I’m a product. And also, everything is undervalued, so I thought 99 cents is a good price for me and my life and all my hard work.”

Another problem she was facing was the commodification of the music industry, and the desire for labels to only want hits. “There are so many rules for mainstream pop now. The tempo has to be one thing, the lift has to happen in the same place,” White said. “A friend told me there’s a computer program which can check songs for top hit potential. Why not just remove people from the equation and be done with it? Pop’s gotten so narrow that it’s crazy.”

There’s also that part where she had just had a son. “I literally am just trying to be a mom and do all the record stuff,” White said.

This time around, the mashup of rock, reggae, and punk is still there, but she leans much harder into the 80s New Wave synth this time around. I think the album has what is her absolute best song in “Rendezvous Girl”.

Conversely, 99¢ also has what is absolutely her worst song, “Who Be Lovin’ Me”, featuring ILOVE MAKKONEN. It’s terrible. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That dichotomy aside, there are plenty of other good tracks to fall in love with. There were three singles released in advance of the album. “Can’t Get Enough of Myself”, “Who Be Lovin’ Me” (*barf*), and “Chasing Shadows”. “Myself” takes stabs at narcissism and selfie culture, while “Shadows” is about White’s personal feelings trying to create something meaningful when talent is obsolete.

I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions (2018)

Rebounding quickly, Santigold turned up and released an album with a single day’s notice. A “summer reggae” album leaning heavy on dancehall, and mixed like in a continuous fashion like a mixtape. The album is much more spontaneous, but also has some remnants of a musical White was writing that didn’t come to fruition. “When we were putting stuff together, I found songs I had on my computer that just fit the project perfectly,” White said. “’Run the Road’, ‘Crashing Your Party’, ‘A Perfect Life’. I wrote a musical movie a couple years ago, so I was trying to save those songs for that. But I never finished that… yet.”

“We used to go to Jamaica every year when I was 10 until I was 16,” White said. “I started going on my own when I was 18. It felt like a second home for me. I remember being a little kid and buying these mixtapes of local music; they had some amazing stuff on it.”

The album is very feminist and socially conscious, but more direct than usual. “When I wrote ‘Disparate Youth’, it took me three months just to come up with the right words,” White said. “I wrote the melody in one take, but sometimes I get stuck on a word because I want it to be the exact right thing. But this was different—quick, fun. A lot of songs on this record I wrote in the studio. The whole point was: These are the issues on my mind right now. Just throw it down. Don’t be too precious about the lyrics.”

“Coo Coo Coo” is a song talking back against women being cat-called in the street, while “Crashing Your Party” is a call for the feminine future, and how the birth rate is declining because there is no real support for working mothers.

And that’s all that Santigold has been up to, except a track on the Grinch soundtrack from 2018. So, be like me, sit back and enjoy what’s out there, and be ready to check out whatever Santigold does next.

Thanks for reading, see you next week!