TOMMY CASH

Q (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS: MARCO VITTUR

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.

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