Sept 2005 – After seriously deliberating on who should be our first feature story interview, I thought someone who worked in the music business would be ideal. I spoke to one of my family members who had a connection with this guy in the music business named Lenny Santiago. From the title of his business card read Vice President of A&R of Island Def Jam Recordings. I was very skeptical by doing this interview because I didn’t know who this guy was, and I really wanted to interview someone to the likes of Jay-Z or Beyonce.
Our Marketing Coordinator and I walked in to the Def Jam offices. We waited a few minutes before an intern or Lenny’s assistant came to us and told us that Lenny was in a meeting and that he will be with us shortly.
We were later escorted to Santiago’s office certainly wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting a big office with one of those grand recling chairs in front of the New York skyline- you know what I mean? Instead of one of one with wall to floor windows of the Manhattan skyline with a grand reclining chair, Santiago’s office was simple, along with his attire, a gray Rocafella polo shirt with jeans and Bathing Ape sneakers. Along the walls were posters of Trina on the cover of Smooth Magazine and a very young Lil’ Kim- before her appointment with Dr. Nip-N-Tuck.
Starting his music career from the bottom in 1995, Bronx native Lenny Santiago worked for Bad Boy Records as a promoter- the guy who staples posters to the lightpost or hands out flyers. While at Bad Boy, Santiago set his sights on Rocafella Records. While at Bad Boy he had his eye on rapper Jay-Z. He looked at Jay-Z and saw someone who was going to a never lose popularity?].
Santiago was interviewed by rapper Jay-Z, Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke to get the job at the Roc where he worked street promotion. Santiago was quickly promoted to head of Promotions and eventually head of A&R. Santiago left Rocafella Records for a brief time to go to Virgin Records, but then left to join Jay-Z at Def Jam.
HarlemLIVE: What is A&R and what does it stand for?
Santiago: Well… A&R stands for Artist Repertoire. I serve as an artist rep, for the label, meaning if we have someone like Ludacris- I serve as the manager. I help the artist record their album, get them to the studio, work out a budget to record an album and keep the artist within budget. I also help get a producer for a track. I tell artist what I think is hot and so on… A&R also signs artists’, we help put the album together, I try to go to as many show casing as I can to look for new talent.
What do you think contributed to your skills while at A&R?
I always had someone who believed in me. I have that ear of music, when I was at the Roc, I sort of got tired of street promotion so I went to Dame and explained to him that I was getting restless so he hooked me up with an A&R guy named “Hip-Hop.”
Who are some of the artists that you helped sign?
I found this kid named Stimuli from Brooklyn- he’s not out yet. Sometimes you find hot talent but sometimes the label doesn’t agree with you. While at Virgin Records, I came across this talented guy named Webbie from the New Orleans area but Virgin didn’t see what I saw. Webbie was picked up by Warner Brothers and now has a hit song out titled “Give Me That.”
Does your career affect your relationship with your family and do you bring work home?
Absolutely! It affects family a lot, only because at A&R we work hard—24 hours a day. I absolutely do not bring work home; I try to turn everything off including my Blackberry and pager. I started out by making Sundays my “no work day,” it’s a family day. This is a demanding business; you’re like a doctor you have to be on call 24/7. You have dozens of artist who have dozens of different schedules that you have to see or rep for them. This job can be very stressful.
What do you think is the hardest part of your career?
Well…I think it’s to stay on top and not become what people call “Hollywood” or “Boogie.” A lot of people in this career often forget where they came from, and get big heads. I try and I have remained humble and I think that’s why a lot of people gravitate to me and want to deal with me. Where I am, some people may think I can let my ego run with it because Jay-Z is my right-hand man and because I’m working at Def JAM and with the Roc. But I don’t do that… I still chill with the public and go to show casings.
Do you have a greatest career moment?
Yeah, I have a few… My greatest moment was “The Jay-Z Fade To Black” concert at Madison Square Garden. That was just a triumph, it seemed that we won over everyone. I DJ’d for Jay, and to do something like that at the Garden was just an incredible night for me!
How do you think you have grown since you started?
I’ve matured. I’ve learned how to keep stable and how to be consistent. It’s important to treat people with respect. I believe as long as you give it, you’re going to get it back.
How has the music industry changed since you first were introduced to it?
People don’t sell as many records as they once did. In the South, they [people who buy music] tend to support their favorite artists but in the north we don’t really tend to do that. If we had fifteen artists, ten of them would be selling great records. Now, we only have three or four, we have Jay, Nelly, 50 Cent and Eminem selling good numbers and the rest do just okay.
Is that because of talent?
Maybe. A lot of these recording companies like to put their friends and family members on, I don’t feel like people are seeking talent. I am a strong believer of going out to see what’s new and hot- something that is going be a change. I like to sign a movement.
There aren’t a lot of artist from the North, why is that?
Well, a lot of them are very local, they speak of what their neighborhood knows. A lot of them don’t speak universally. They talk about their block, and their hood- they’re people in North Dakota, Miami, and California that you also have to relate to. Don’t get me wrong- some of them are very talented but I think that’s a problem.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
This job is very stressful, so I hope to be out of it by then. I just want to be the head of a record company. I even may do publishing, which is another division of music- they sign writers. I would like to deal with a variety of artists and not just one label. I would love to have signed an artist who have became huge and made a difference in Hip Hop.