2018 is the year of independence. After the grime revolution of 2014, a new wave of British icons are embracing a DIY approach, founding labels with friends and promoting a grassroots approach to collaboration to spread their music throughout the British underground. Aaron Unknown and Santino Le Saint are at the forefront of this movement. Deliberately independent, they take pride in being in total control of their careers, deciding who to work with and which path to take in a bid to navigate the industry on their own terms. Both born and raised in London, they’ve seen icons like Skepta carve their spaces and are in the process of following suit, having created labels such as Aaron’s Unknown Records, and creative networks, Santino’s Cloud X.
Aaron is the more established of the pair, having worked on music in some form or another for almost a decade and already counting a Stormzy collaboration among his discography. He’s also a successful model on the side. Meanwhile, Santino is a relative newcomer to the scene, a guitar-wielding prince of moody, experimentally flavoured R&B that draws on everything from James Blake to the darker D’Angelo moments. Both Santino and Aaron are taking part in SuperdrySounds, a new global campaign by the British brand aimed at championing the kinds of creative innovators such as these. Together they appear in Superdry’s SS18 collection and will perform at a series of intimate shows across the globe. They’ll also serve as ambassadors for the campaign and the brand all summer, sporting the latest Superdry collection in their videos and on stage at festivals.
Earlier this year they marked the start of the collaboration with their joint single ‘How Do You Feel?’ a track that showcases the best of both talents. In honour of the summer of SuperdrySounds, we sat down with Santino Le Saint and Aaron Unknown to talk the reality of being independent and the importance of controlling your image.
Notion: How did the track come about?
Aaron Unknown: I don’t really know, it kind of just happened. We were already linking up for sessions. I think knowing that we were going to be joined by [the Superdry] campaign anyway it just kind of made sense. In our heads, we were like it’d be sick if we could create something. [To Santino] So, I came around yours a couple of times, and you had this one beat that was like ‘oh my days’. Obviously, Santino produces as well which is amazing. It was magic, it just worked. I had the bars ready, he had the
Santino Le Saint: I made it that morning before he was coming down. I put the hook down, and I was like ‘I like this song a lot’, and then he put the bars down and I was like ‘that has to be the song’.
A: It was actually so quick man, I’ve never done a track that quick before.
It’s out on Unknown Records – is there a plan for a collaboration on Cloud X as well?
S: Cloud X is like more of a label of everyone I’m working with. It’s like six or seven people. We put it out through Aaron’s channel because it just made sense. It’s [his] label, created by him, whereas Cloud X is more of a group you know what I mean?
A: I hadn’t released anything since November on that label, so it made sense to refresh it, keep the release numbers up. We’re going to work together a lot more anyway so where it’s distributed is the least of it, we only care about the music. It was such an easy conversation, I thought it was gonna be awkward, but it was calm.
Why did you both choose to start Cloud X and Unknown Records in the first place?
A: I felt isolated, I’ve been making music for ten or eleven years, but I’ve never had much musical direction. Being in the fashion industry for years and learning everything I’ve learned, to learn something it takes time, and I feel like I got to the point where I was so frustrated that I needed to just release music. I had a friend that was like ‘why don’t you just start your own thing?’ and I was like ‘oh yeah’.
He showed me, and we did it in like one day. It was almost too good to be true, then I see the certificate come through from Companies House saying ‘you have your own company’, it was weird but it just made sense for me and my vision and what Unknown stands for. It’s not to say I’m by myself or that I want to be individual, it’s like I’ve been left on my arse so many times, this is me picking myself back up kind of thing. I felt like I needed to do it myself.
What about Cloud X?
S: I’ve been making music for like six years, but I’ve been kind of selfish because I was like I could be in a band, or I could do everything myself and I did that until I was like 18. Then I started doing some gigs and live shows, and I started understanding how important it is to have people around you, whether that’s friends or people you work with on features or videos or whatever.
So when David and Ben, who started Cloud X officially, came along they were like we want to make some music with you, then it turned into a management thing a few months after. It made sense, it’s not like I have managers and they manage me, I’m working with these guys on a management basis as a separate thing but Ben will make some of my visuals, and I’ll play the guitar on a track for him, and Dave will do the same. It’s just like bouncing off of each other. The label side is just an official way to release it.
What does it mean to you both to be independent in today’s music industry?
A: That’s a good question, it’s not really something I think about. It definitely means a lot more work, for me it’s like a sense of pride because I can see my platform building. I always used to think that if you did something yourself, it would just stagnate
but I’ve seen massive growth, especially more recently. It’s cool to see it growing organically. The impression is you have to do it through a major label to be successful but in a few years, who’s to say Unknown Records won’t be a major label. I don’t see any restrictions other than resources and finances, but I’ve learned so many things through trial and error it gives you that sense of pride.
S: I think you’re right, it depends what kind of artist you are. There are pros and cons of signing to a major; you can sign to a major and have all the money in the world but lose your creativity and having a say in what you want to do and how you want to present yourself. I think as an independent artist there’s those challenges too, but you feel freer. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I don’t think everyone could get up in the morning and go find the studio, the producer to make the songs, do everything themselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – some artists are just meant to be like that. For me, personally, I’d rather wake up in the morning and be creative and then go the shop and get a sandwich, come back and play guitar, rather than where the label says ‘do this, do this, do this’ right now anyway, that’s for the future.
There’s a lot of talk about independence at the moment, but I think people lose sight of the day-to-day reality of being in charge of your own music in that way. What’s that process like for you?
A: I’m glad you bought that up. Like Santino was saying about getting up and being creative, that’s what you want to focus on, but there’s so much admin you have to do. Like I’m personally the first point of contact for emails and stuff like that. That just adds so much stress, well, not necessarily stress but it takes up space in your head and energy and time. You can’t do it all. I’ve learned now that with that growth, while it’s great, the label is growing, I need to bring in a team within the label. My thing has always been ‘be independent, do things yourself’ but now I’m at the point where I can still be independent through the label but also have a team, and so I’m expanding this year, that’s the main aim.
That makes me think of positioning and representation, who you associate with and what you associate with. How important is that thing of putting your name or in the case of this Superdry campaign, your faces to something? How does that impact your careers?
A: I suppose you never really know until it happens but you always think that the whole point of doing that is for a positive reason. For me personally, I don’t think it changes who I associate with or the reasons that I do. I’m still friends with the same people I’ve always been friends with. I don’t think you need to associate with a certain circle in order to progress. I don’t look at someone and say ‘you’re not part of Unknown, you can’t chill with me’ that’s not what we’re about. I think this campaign’s definitely a positive, that’s why we’re here.
S: I think sometimes I’m over obsessed with image, maybe in a good way or a bad way because I don’t want to be placed as a pop
R&B singer ever. In that sense I’m very like position me like this, make me look like this, I don’t want to do this’ but also it’s not like I’m not going to collaborate with someone because they’re not cool enough.
[To Aaron] Like with you, you understand. That’s why I enjoy working with you, I think you just understand, sonically you don’t have to do this because it’s what you know, you can just go in and be creative and whatever comes out has no boundaries.
A: It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like. Looking into the scene right now, there is a lot of that, and I don’t want to say it stresses me out, but it comes through you know.
S: That was my issue, I was always trying to make sure I’m not perceived a certain way instead of just doing things to just make me happy, and people will understand that.
A: I think the foremost for me is talent, I know in today’s age it’s not. To the listener as well, everything is visual, the visual comes first.
How does the modelling relate to your music? It’s very image focused, is there overlap or even conflict between those two perspectives?
A: Yeah, I’m going through that now, I just shot a front cover for a magazine that I’m not happy with. If music weren’t at the forefront of what I was doing right now, like a few years ago, I would have just been like ‘yeah, whatever’ but when you shoot certain things now, I have to think how are my fans going to perceive that? How is that going to change how they think of me and my art? So many people are image focused, they’ll look at that say ‘ah I’m not listening to his stuff’ so now I have to pull certain strings and make sure that I’m protecting my own image.
Before, it was harder because I was a model, I was doing music, but I was a model, whereas now it’s being taken more seriously because things have progressed. They don’t really conflict though, they boost each other generally. Everything I’m booking now is as Aaron Unknown anyway, which is nice. I feel like brands want me more now as a musician anyway so it’s fine.
If you just released music and you didn’t do anything to control your image, do you think you’d be able to survive as an artist? In the way Frank Ocean does for example.
S: But Frank Ocean does do image stuff, that’s the thing. Everything you do is your image, it’s important, but it’s also not important. He disappears for five years, but he makes music with certain artists, and his covers look a certain way so when he puts it out, subconsciously, without even knowing, people see it.
A: You’ve literally spun the whole thing, I’ve spent the whole time slating image, and now I’m going to say why it’s important! I would be more than happy doing that, when I first came up with my name and did my warm-up session and everything, that was my path, I was going to do the whole mask thing, go incognito, and no one would know who I am. Then I thought, ‘Nah, I’ve already built up massive experience in the fashion industry, massive networks’, that was my advantage, I had connections, so to brush that to the side would have been silly. Now it’s good for me to be a bit more separate and then when it combines it makes it more relatable because they’ve seen the clothes and the modelling. So, it is important, but I don’t think that should ever come before the talent side of things.
You think it should complement it?
A: Exactly, that’s why we’re doing this. However, I can give you names of ten artists right now who care more about how their life looks than the music.
A: Ha! Nah, nah. Here’s the thing, I’m not going to do that, I like my career you know what I mean?
If you’re doing the development yourself, whose careers do you see as a model for your own?
A: J Cole, I don’t know how independent he is but…
S: People perceive him that way.
A: Dave, Stormzy, I should’ve mentioned UK artists first really. I try to not see me as anyone else. I feel like both of us, me and Santino have seen the whole industry and gone ‘nah, we’re gonna carve our own lane’ so you can’t put me into a box.
S: My arch-nemesis the Weeknd, who doesn’t know that he’s my arch-nemesis, but he’s definitely my competition. I used to get compared to him a lot I think just because people heard dark R&B music and were like ‘oh Weeknd, PARTYNEXTDOOR’ it’s like yeah, but think more. Early on when I started making music, I heard his first album Trilogy and liked it and saw how he went through the whole leftfield thing and bought it into the centre but still made dark music and I like that, but I’m not trying to be like anyone.
Is there anyone that hasn’t done it that well?
S: I’ll happily send shots…
A: I’ll just smile and wave innit. I’ve definitely seen that, but I’ll keep quiet about that.
S: I actually think there’s a couple of people, and these are people I like and listen to so, but for example do you know Corbin, y’know, Spooky Black?
A: BRUV! That was on my tongue.
S: Nah, I love him though, he took a certain path a lot of artists might be scared to take because he might not make any money, he
releases songs on SoundCloud gets ten million plays and then doesn’t do anything for years, I kind of really respect it.
A: He shouldn’t have changed his name, that was part of it, as an independent artist if I went away for two years and then changed my name that would bury most of what I’ve worked for. Someone like that who you really love as an artist, I just want to shake him and be like ‘Why did you do that? You had it all.’
S: I feel I’m sending bare shots but also yeah, PARTYNEXTDOOR as well. I just think, ‘what are you doing?’ He put a new album
out, and I just don’t understand. It makes me realise that there’s no type of career you have to have though, you don’t have to do
a Weeknd and put out a big album and get fifty producers on it and get fifteen hits if that doesn’t make you happy. There’s no real
right or wrong way.
It seems like you both enjoy having to do the business and marketing side of things. Do you think you have a mind for it?
A: I kind of haven’t had a choice, I threw myself into the deep end with that one but yeah, I think it’s the best way because when you’re in that position you have to listen to yourself, you always get an instinct response to everything and if you don’t go with that it’s going to be someone else’s idea anyway. I’ve appointed myself to do it, so I have to listen to myself, I really enjoy liaising with people, organising my own days and stuff.
S: I think a lot of artists like us, who are really into the music and into the process and everything, we’re kind of like, not control
freaks but you want to have a grip on your life because at the end of the day, you organising that shit is your life. In the same way, I’m always pestering Ben and shit it’s because I want to know what’s going on, in the same way, I want to produce all my songs because I enjoy the process. I think as an independent artist, and maybe as a young artist as well, I want to be able to control things, maybe that’s bad, maybe that’s good.
Superdry’s SS18 collection is available online and in store now. Aaron Unknown and Santino Le Saint wear all looks Superdry.
Superdry’s SS18 collection is available online and in store now. Aaron Unknown and Santino Le Saint wear all looks Superdry.
Written in collaboration with Superdry.
Follow Mike Vinti on Twitter