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Santos catches star’s shirttail
Lupe Fiasco is one of the fastest-rising stars in hip-hop. At one time, the artist was known simply by his given name, Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. Now, after two electrifying albums filled with slick, socially conscious rhymes (2006’s Grammy-nominated “Food & Liquor” and 2007’s “The Cool”) the 25-year-old Chicago-based MC is being touted as rap’s savior.
Up-and-coming singer-songwriter Matthew Santos, also 25, has been lucky enough to do more than just watch the ascension; he’s been along for the ride.
The two musicians met through a mutual friend several years ago. The introduction resulted in Mr. Santos, who was relatively unknown, performing guest vocals on the “Food & Liquor” track “American Terrorist” plus two songs from “The Cool,” including the still-chart-climbing first single, “Superstar.”
Mr. Fiasco recently decided that he liked his backing singer’s sound so much that he might as well bring Mr. Santos along on his latest tour as well. The string of concerts, which began early this month and likely will continue into March, has been selling out and earning heaps of praise for the rapper and his touring band.
For Mr. Santos, the tour is just the latest segment of an incredible journey to recognition. He sounds both exhilarated and a bit tired when he talks to us before a Las Vegas House of Blues gig.
“Lupe’s being compared to Mick Jagger in his prime,” he says, “and this is something bigger than hip-hop; it’s a whole new movement. I’m happy and honored to be a part of it. He has opened up a lot of doors for me.”
Interestingly enough, Mr. Santos doesn’t come from a hip-hop background — or even an R&B; background. Whereas his tour mate has idolized MCs such as Jay-Z, Nas and Ice Cube, Mr. Santos’ musical heroes have tended toward songwriters including Bjork, Martin Sexton, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Alternating between an ethereal falsetto and a muscly growl, his voice also betrays a penchant for Jeff Buckley and Dave Matthews.
The musician admits that getting a career boost from the hip-hop world “is a very untraditional way of going about things,” given that he’s a self-professed indie/folk/jazz/rock/blues artist. Yet it’s been highly effective so far — perhaps it’s just the kind of alternative approach that’s required in the face of a changing music industry.
Mr. Santos grew up in Minneapolis and took to music as a youngster. “Initially, I figured everything out on my own, playing by ear,” he says. “I’d hear songs on the radio and go to the piano and figure them out. It was a real help for me to try to understand the language of music.”
Mr. Santos relocated to Chicago in 2001 to study music formally at Columbia College, but he decided to leave school early to focus full time on getting his emotive folk-rock tunes, unique voice and guitar playing heard.
Hooking up with Mr. Fiasco, you might say, was his big break.
As one might imagine, there is quite a contrast between Mr. Santos’ solo shows and his guest appearances with his rapping pal. “When it’s just me and a guitar onstage … there is a stillness to it and a natural, really humble vibe that comes with that,” he says. “Then to be able to play a sold-out show at House of Blues on the Sunset Strip with Lupe and the gang, it’s larger than life.”
Mr. Santos says performing and gaining acceptance in a genre known for its braggadocio, aggression and exaggerated posturing has taught him a few things. For one, he says, “It’s definitely influenced my swagger.” Also, he adds, “It’s really opened my eyes that it’s not about genre; it’s about soul, and if you can continue to express that soul at a certain depth, then it doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re making because people want to and need to feel it.”
Those who have been curious about Mr. Santos’ folkier alter ego have begun discovering his EP, “As a Crow Flies,” and his recently released live album, “Matters of the Bittersweet.” The artist hopes to follow up with a new record soon, and in the meantime, he is scheduled to appear on a number of collaborations, including one with Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo.
“People are labeling me as Lupe’s hook man,” Mr. Santos says, “but my writing has not been recognized yet as far as international audiences go, and I’m excited for people to get into the deeper side of what I’m trying to do.”
By John R. Bolton
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