Tommy Cash has company. “This is Sphinx,” says the Estonia-born rap provocateur. Sitting on an east London hotel balcony on a blazing summer’s day, he gestures to a leopard-shaped plushie backpack, the kind usually worn by teens with snakebite piercings and aggressively straightened fringes. “She doesn’t like the heat.”
Picking up Sphinx by the scruff of her neck and moving her to his air-conditioned suite, he reveals that, inside, there’s a clutch of recent vinyl purchases, including Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker”. The artwork’s grotesque body-swap horror, by Chris Cunningham, beams up at us as we speak.
Like Cunningham’s videos, Cash’s freaky self-directed visuals have met with accusations of poor taste, but his flair for warped world-building is undeniable. The video for trap banger “Winaloto” (2016) pairs intricate choreography with deliberate gross-out moments, like when a woman spreads her legs to reveal Cash’s CGI-imposed face. Another, for this year’s AG Cook-produced “Pussy Money Weed”, features talented disabled dancers, and an amputee with scythe-like blades extending from her thighs, as well as one uncomfortable scene where Cash uses a wheelchair as an accessory to body-pop in. More successfully, he uses fantastical settings as an allegory for his own upbringing in the low-income area of Kopli, Tallinn, where he still lives. In one early video, “Leave Me Alone”, Cash slurs lyrics about the seductive chokehold of drugged-out, dead-end living, while Japanese banknotes spin in a washing machine (literally: money laundering). He gnaws at stale bread in a filthy bathtub, in a shot that brings to mind an eastern European Gummo.
Cash’s earworm hooks, like-or-loathe imagery and fluency in shock value have given him an outsider caché, upwards of 20 million YouTube hits, and famous fans including Charli XCX, who featured him on her ravey heartbreak ballad “Delicious”. In June, Cash soundtracked and opened Rick Owens’ SS19 menswear show, a vision of goth futurism in Paris’s opulent Palais de Tokyo. “Tommy’s music is intimate, raw, modern and weird,” says the designer. “I wish I was him.” At the hotel, Cash carefully rolls a spliff and lets loose on his astrological connection with the designer, Russian witch-house raves, and what he has in common with Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup.
How did your collaboration with Rick Owens come about?
Tommy Cash: Six months ago, he asked to use my music in his women’s show, but he ended up using it in this men’s collection instead. We figured out that we have the same birthday – November 18. We’re both Scorpios. I see myself in him a lot, because he doesn’t do compromise. He told me, ‘Tommy, I don’t listen to no one, I just do what the fuck I want.’ He told me to do that, too.
I read you got your start as a dancer, right?
Tommy Cash: Yeah, mostly popping and stuff like that. I was just a young boy who thought, ‘I want to dance like Ne-Yo!’ My teacher was a cool guy called John; he knew a lot about American style, which post-Soviet countries were slow (to catch on to) before the Instagram era.
You grew up in Kopli, a Russian district of Tallinn. What was that like?
Tommy Cash: Boring as fuck. It just looks destroyed. There were a lot of abandoned houses that were rotten inside because they’re built from this material, I don’t know the name. They would smell bad – like, really bad. There were a lot of junkies. But this nothing-and-nowhere made me into something. I don’t want to move.
“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap...” — Tommy Cash
What jobs did your parents do when you were growing up?
Tommy Cash: They still do the same jobs. My dad is a builder and my mum was a kindergarten teacher, and now she’s the headmistress. I got everything I needed – food and a roof – but we weren’t rich or anything. My parents came to Estonia in Soviet times. They would bring stuff across the border from Russia to sell in the market, like boots or adidas stuff.
What were you like at school?
Tommy Cash: I wasn’t the bad boy, but at one point in seventh class (age 16-17), I understood how pointless school was and how much I could do by myself. Things like dancing told me you could just start doing something and become (good) at it.
Did you get expelled?
Tommy Cash: Yeah. By then, my grades were slipping. I didn’t care.
Recently, Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid talked about the country’s ‘unicorns’ – wealthy tech companies – but you’ve spoken about pretty poor conditions in Tallinn. What did you make of her comments?
Tommy Cash: In every country the politicians say things, and if you go there you’re like, ‘I don’t know if it’s that real.’ You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of hype, but people still only earn €2.50 an hour for working at a restaurant.
Your song ‘Leave Me Alone’ deals with mental health, and your hometown. What were you going through when writing that?
Tommy Cash: No one was noticing me at that point. I thought, ‘I’ve done all this stuff right, but I’m still stuck in this dump.’ But even if I’m low, I don’t really show it. I’m built on good things, like the Powerpuff Girls
How are you like the Powerpuff Girls?
Tommy Cash: You know the beginning (of the show)? When the professor adds sugar and spice and the fluffy toys, but then he adds Chemical X? I’m mixed up – a lot of things together. If it was only Chemical X, I think I would be much darker.
“I don’t want to be like Jay-Z; I want to be like Steve Jobs” — Tommy Cash
Why did you cast disabled dancers in the ‘Pussy Money Weed’ video?
Tommy Cash: I wanted to express that all people can have superpowers, and I wanted to show the beauty of it too. I got the most heartwarming comment underneath it. A girl wrote, ‘I am in a wheelchair, and I feel represented.’
What’s your favorite tattoo that you have?
Tommy Cash: I like the last one I got, in Prague a couple days ago. It says, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.’
You made a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Kanye East’. What were your intentions with that?
Tommy Cash: It was just my first merch line, but it got a little bit more attention because Vogue asked about it.
Lots of designers are making clothes inspired by 80s Russia and eastern Europe...
Tommy Cash: Ugh, yeah. I mean, it’s good for eastern Europe, but for some people it’s being a culture vulture. Say, if you’re a guy from New York who (wears) Russian but doesn’t even know what it means.
Do you spend much time in Russia?
Tommy Cash: Yeah, usually to perform. I visit my friends, so then I stay to party, of course. I’ve only been to the raves which are witch-house parties. Like, thousands of underage kids doing hella drugs and dancing till ten in the morning.
Do you feel a connection with American or European hip hop?
Tommy Cash: No. I don’t want to be like Jay-Z; I want to be like Steve Jobs. I want to be iconic, and innovate by having a goal like he did. I want my work to be legendary. I want to create product that has never been created before, and I want this to inspire people and let them see things differently.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
Tommy Cash: Crocs. I’ve loved them for years. You can see my old-ass tour poster and I’m rocking Crocs there.
Are you being ironic?
Tommy Cash: No. I also want to work with smelly trees. You know the things that go in cars?
The tree-shaped air freshener?
Tommy Cash: Yes. The brand is called Wunder-Baum and it comes from Germany. It’s one of the most legendary things and it’s in every car, everybody knows about it. I swear when you put it in the magazine, Vetements or Balenciaga will do this in a couple of months.
Tommy Cash’s debut album is due this autumn
Hair Chi Wong at Management + Artists using Bumble and bumble., make-up Sergio Corvacho using Anne Semonin Skincare, photography assistant George Eyres, styling assistants Florence Armstrong, Nico Carmandaye, production Lolly Bedford-Stockwell at Mini Title, post-production Phylomena Studio, processing L’Atelier Publimod, special thanks Andrew Thurlbourne at Wandering Star Facilities