How Estonia’s self-described product of “chemical waste and cum” became the world’s most unlikely hip-hop star.
There is no Baltic rap scene. But if there was, the situationist rapper Tommy Cash would be its dark lord. He describes himself as a product of “chemical waste and cum”, forging his name in the West by blending trippy versions of hip-hop kitsch with smirking subversion. “I’m Estonian,” he tells Jazz Monroe, “but at the same time, I’m not at all.”
Tommy Cash made his rap debut in a friend’s flat, a late-night freestyle delivered in good company, stoned but otherwise sober, during a teenage holiday in Barcelona. His craft was unrefined – “you rhyme ‘cat’ with ‘the hat’, with ‘bat’ and ‘brat’,” he recalls, smiling – but didn’t lack passion. Backed by a homemade GarageBand loop, he spat some fledgling verses and, when he was done, looked at his girlfriend, who scanned his face for sanity. “What the fuck is this?” she asked. “You should stop, this is awful.” He began to suspect she wasn’t joking. “It will never happen,” she went on, and – for good measure – “you should never do it.” Like countless outsider artists before, the Estonian rapper thrived on rejection. In the years since, he’s masterminded an ersatz, emo-tinged kind of trap he describes as “post-Soviet”, a style largely devoted to themes of money, death and the greatness of Adidas. For early press shots, he rode a horse through a McDonald’s drive-thru. He plays shows in white fur coats or floral dresses with Russian boots, delighting raucous fans with his name tattooed on their bodies. In his 2016 video Winaloto, among various CGI spectacles, his moustachioed face appeared between a woman’s naked, parted legs. The video attracted six million YouTube views and comments such as: “This guy is the uncle you were told not to hang out with.” Now 26, Tommy Cash is an unprecedented presence – voluble, energetic, with dips into disarming introspection and vulnerability. In a London café that apparently does his “favourite eggs”, he speaks in fitful reveries over a jarring soundtrack of tepid post-Britpop – exclaims, pauses and chews a lock of hair before finding his rhythm, plunging into verbal streams as his gaze dances across the ceiling. It might be unnerving if it weren’t for his wide-eyed and constant smile. Somewhere in there is a manic desire to be understood. His live-wire intensity figures heavily in his work, of which music is a fraction. He’s clearest-eyed in his shock art videos, some of which, he says, draw from filmmakers such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, the master surrealist who demystified social hierarchies. Others, such as the promo ProRapSuperstar, exist in a world of symbolic overload – brand logos, sports cars and instruments of war adrift in a CGI abyss. It has the disorienting effect of a shopping-mall display, comprehensible only to those fluent in the strange, aspirational language of consumerism. Inanities rub up against faux-profound taglines, lifestyle signifiers stacked up to make a clothing rack scream, “This is the life you want.” Cash traces his aesthetic to a teenage obsession with hip-hop designers Pen & Pixel, whose album covers resemble über-capitalist royal portraits: rappers cut’n’pasted between champagne bottles, poker chips, helicopters, bears, gilded thrones, muzzled dogs, gleaming palaces, shining orbs and anything else tenuously signifying wealth or power. He points out that for modern people, it’s second nature to parse inscrutable symbolism. A network of references envelops us, he says, like an onion: “Layer and layer and layer. You kind of get it, but you don’t. That’s the world.” He grins, revealing a chipped front tooth. “But an artist should know his onion.” Tommy Cash – sometimes styled TOMM¥ €A$H – chose his name to parody rap excess. It’s a dicey premise: hip-hop satirists tend to overlook rappers’ selfawareness and gallows humour. But in conversation, the gangsta rap aficionado doesn’t scan as a charlatan. Instead of fetishising black struggle, his songs use irony to explore terrain already covered by rappers such as Lil Wayne: the bottomless allure of money and its queasy, anaesthetic effect on the rich. The challenge of selling Baltic rap is, for Tommy, fundamental to his identity and his country’s. Estonians, he says, “are torn apart by not understanding who we are. We’re a Baltic country who’ve been Soviet, and now we think we’re Scandinavian.” To re-route this national character, he’s drifted into a league of his own. “I’m Estonian, but at the same time I’m not at all,” he says, mostly serious, arms spread across the table. “I’m the antidote to Estonia.”
Tommy Cash was born Tomas Tammemets in 1991, the year Estonia clasped independence as the Iron Curtain fell. He grew up in Tallinn’s Kopli district, the kind of neighbourhood where wooden houses rot and nobody bothers to fix them. When his mother was young, her family was rounded up, put on horseback and sent from Russia to Kazakhstan. She met his Beatles-obsessive father, a Ukrainian construction worker, on a cruise ship before moving to Tallinn, where she sold cheap clothing and eventually became head teacher at a preschool. In his youth, Cash’s all-Russian household isolated him from “the Estonian Estonia”, he says. Even when he found pop culture: “I hated everything – the music, the film, the Estonian mentality. No emotions. Very slow jokes.” So, he reasoned, why not make his own? While his hometown offered little inspiration, its spirit is encoded in his DNA. Picture its great monument to outsiderdom:
“I’m a unicorn. So you’re going to learn to dance for seven years, kick your tooth out and grow a bad moustache? It’s hard to be me.”
the DM Baar, a red-leather sofa’ed shrine to Depeche Mode nestled on a side street. In the ’ 80s, the Basildon group had hypnotised Eastern Europe with visions of glistening factories, dark sexuality and epic devotion. The effect, as band scholar Sascha Lange once wrote, was to open “a cosmos of endless yearning” in pop-starved Soviet teens. That consumer desire erupted when the Curtain fell. Western money surged into Tallinn, bringing waves of foreign investment and dirty deals. In tandem with US hip-hop’s lurch into materialism, ’ 90s Estonia swung toward individualism. Strife hit not just the economy – all income received a 26 per cent flat tax – but Estonia’s soul, swapping decades of communism for a capitalist frenzy. The context is key to the Tommy Cash mythology. His life began in economic whiplash: Estonia’s hairpin turn into the maximalist, just-can’t-get-enoughness of Western excess.
Until recently, Tallinn’s Kopli neighbourhood was the site of mafia turf wars, poverty-stricken and polluted, and on its dirty walls the teenage Cash would spray graffiti, the thrill of public art tangled up with the first flush of lawbreaking. On the streets he’d wear a kilt in summer and get away with it, tolerated because he spoke the dominant Russian dialect. At home, he filled sketchpads with colourful doodles inspired by Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist and Kanye West collaborator. “People always said I had this shocking element,” Cash recalls of his art, which is perhaps unsurprising given his milieu of “giant penis swirls exploding on each other.” After a frustrating art school stint, he took up dance, learned body-popping and street styles, complementing his dalliances in rap. After fretting over his conflicted identity, he finally realised his Slavic phrasing, outsider aesthetic and meticulous choreography made him unique. Early hit Guez Whoz Bak styled him as a product of “chemical waste and cum”, an Eastern interloper smirking at Western niceties. “Fuck you” – the words tattooed on his right thumb – serve as a loudspeaker statement to those not on his wavelength, which includes his Estonian contemporaries. Compared to metropolitan Tallinn’s music landscape, his self-funded videos, such as this year’s typically disconcerting Little Molly, draw “different numbers, different everything”, he points out. “I’m a unicorn – I have nothing to do with the scene.” At the same time, he admits sheepishly, he’s far too weird to rip off. “So you’re going to learn to dance for seven years, kick your tooth out and grow a bad moustache? It’s hard to be me.” He’s at pains to establish an expansive empire. “We’re in a time right now where artists are everything,” he says. “If you’re only a musician, you’ll be the guy playing guitar in a tunnel.” He sells a line of merchandise titled “Life of Pavel”, a Slavic twist on Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo LP, as well sportswear similar to those his mother used to sell for a living. His topsy-turvy fashion sensibility speaks to the cultural landscape he inhabits. “The word ‘ironic’ is not relevant right now,” he says, highlighting the slew of designers appropriating working-class Soviet fashion. “Are they kidding? No, these shoes cost € 2000.” While South African rap terrors Die Antwoord have informed his aesthetic, it’s London label PC Music that best reflects the Cash worldview. The label’s uncanny,
“i feel like i’m unveiling myself, a new level of self-expression. i’m getting my mind fresh to pull up with a greater vision – to ‘build the onion’ again.”
quasi-pop style creates an “immersive world of ideas and references”, founder AG Cook has said, blending “kitsch imagery, catchy hooks, synthetic colours and fun sound effects” to harness the “extravagant and banal potential of commercial work.” Last year on a trip to London, Tommy met producer pen pal felicita, who sent him to meet Cook for an impromptu session. Excited to find himself in a “real studio” – he usually records in closets – Cash laid down trap single Pussy Money Weed (four million views, elaborate video with amputee and contortionist dancers) in “about 20 minutes”, he says. It was through Cook that he found his way onto Charli XCX’s Pop 2 mixtape, spotlighting a route to swankier mainstream prospects.
Since turning 26, Tommy has streamlined his artistic and commercial ambitions. But he’s also become obsessed with something he’d never seriously considered: what is Estonia’s national character, and where did it come from? “I’ve even gone back beyond the Soviet times,” he says. “Lithuanians came with Christianity, and bam, everyone forgot the history. They burned everything and said, ‘Let’s fuck it up.’ But what were we before?” This year, he bought 15 books on Estonian religious beliefs, grappling with that very question. Aside from the nagging fact all his friends “look like fucking Vikings”, he wanted to understand the country he once dismissed. “We had all the forest gods,” he recalls, raising his voice as The Bluetones come on the café stereo. “And in the Viking time, we had the Saaremaa” – an Estonian island with a major Viking stronghold. “And no one knows about it. I’m very fascinated in their beliefs, how they lived for higher things than fucking money or followers.” The pursuit of transcendence ripples through his recent work – opulence, excess, perfectionism. You sense it in his manner of speaking: he’ll dive so deeply into an idea that he has to lunge for breath, gasping for epiphanies that only sometimes materialise. As he prepares his debut album, the inward journey is intensifying. He still dances every day, one of many pursuits he wants to channel into a visual-art masterpiece, taking after the noir-musical Climax by Gaspar Noé. “Lately, I’ve started to ask much deeper existential questions,” he reflects. “I feel like I’m unveiling myself, a new level of self-expression.” As we stand to leave, he reaches down and adjusts a tartan kilt, then looks at me with a serious expression. “I’m getting my mind fresh to pull up with a greater vision – to build the onion again.” For a moment, at least, scepticism of his delirious ambition falls away: if anyone knows his onions, it’s Tommy Cash.
Aphex Twin, eat your heart out... stills from Tommy Cash’s surreal Little Molly video, 2018.
Show me the money: Tommy Cash, London, 2018.