American Hedonist: Cakes Da Killa Interviewed
, November 9th, 2016 09:21
Gary Suarez talks to the rapper about glass ceilings and the importance of live performance
Portraits by Eric Johnson
Hip hop poses a variety of pitfalls, snares, hazards, and other such traps for those who choose to cover it. Despite a supernova-like presence in contemporary Western culture, it remains largely black and American, subject to all of the inherent thorny socioeconomic and racial issues that comes with simultaneously being both. The African-American communities that produce the majority of the rappers and producers being written about and listened to today are too scarcely represented in the ranks of those journalists and content creators tasked with reporting on them. As such, rap writers regularly make mistakes, misusing slang, downplaying struggles, or somehow revealing the disconnect between their world and that of the artists and listeners who can identify.
The likelihood and magnitude of this grow exponentially when writing about a black LGBTQ rapper. “I completely get that not every straight person is gonna wanna hear about me giving someone a blowjob,” says Cakes Da Killa. Self-described as openly gay, the New York based artist assuredly has had to contend with countless journos not only misrepresenting him and his music, but systematically othering into an all too convenient category. “I’m still waiting for the day when someone’s gonna say Cakes Da Killa really can rap,” he says.
Let me then be the one to say it: Cakes Da Killa is easily one of the best rappers to come out of New York this side of the millennium. Anyone who’s had the opportunity to see him live ought to admit that to themselves. Onstage, Cakes brings the energy of a club at peak time, spitting bar after bar of lyrical heat. His stage show brings him to venues and festivals all over the globe, performing on bills with a diverse set of acts. “I gotta get those checks,” he laughs.
Though he’s proud to say that he’s made enough off his art without having to hold down a day job, monetization and compensation nonetheless remain an issue for Cakes as he releases Hedonism, the first studio album of his career. His subject matter unfairly distances him from the heteronormativity of rap’s traditional commercial avenues, radio station airplay and gentlemen’s club appearances and the like. “With this project, I feel very pressed about this glass ceiling I’ve been dealing with,” he says. In actuality, he’s stuck between two panes. Cakes knowingly places a certain amount of blame squarely on LGBTQ consumers for not materially supporting artists like him with their disposable income.
“Everyone is always talking to me about how I deal with homophobia in hip hop,” he says. “If there was money behind what I’m doing it wouldn’t be a conversation.” Constantly fielding questions about his sexuality could fatigue a lesser artist, but Cakes insists that he’s “suited up and ready” to handle them. “I don’t get tired by it, because I think it’s really good for the culture and for visibility,” he says. “My thing is, let’s also talk about the music!”
How important is live performance for you as a working artist?
Cakes Da Killa: In this day and age of social media, where everything is so centred around how many Instagram and Twitter followers you have, what’s keeping me afloat is the fact that my live performance is something that people can enjoy. I’m an artist who’s constantly working.
It’s also part of the hip hop tradition that’s a bit lost now. Seeing you live, part of what strikes me the most was how dextrous you are on the mic.
CDK: For me, that was really important. Coming into this, making music, I knew that was something that was going to be held over my head. Okay we get it, you’re openly gay, but do you know how to rap? Can you really rap and deliver? And I feel like I have that pressure put on me that other artists don’t. A lot of people don’t have to focus on being so lyrical and actually putting on shows. Before anyone was gonna tell me I was bad, I was gonna prove that I was good.
I like to consider myself a student of hip hop. There’s a certain level of certification and wit and craftsmanship that comes with rapping. As rap progresses - it’s a young genre - it’s becoming way more mainstream, crossing over to different lanes. I feel like it’s losing its essence in a way, because it’s getting commercialised. I want to keep it fresh and keep it progressive, but I also want to respect the foundation of what rap is about.
I think it was poignant that you included that [Hot 97 radio show] Ebro In The Morning shoutout on 'Revelations'. Listening to that song as well as the rest of the record, it seems like you were raised on classic emcees.
CDK: Well, I wasn’t really raised on rap. Some people’s parents listened to a lot of hip hop around the house. My youth wasn’t really hip hop driven like that. I had to discover rappers by myself. Obviously rap was always around because I’m black. You can’t avoid it! When I started rapping I became more of a crate digger, listening to older music and discovering what I liked. Becoming a rapper made me appreciate rap more. I started listening to old Foxy Brown, old Lil Kim, old Busta Rhymes albums, old Missy albums. I feel like my generation was fed on singles and videos. Back in the day it was all about listening to a record cover to cover.
A lot of the production on your album skews more towards dance music than mainstream hip hop. What motivated that?
CDK: I’m always going to have club elements in my music. Even though my flow is grounded in the template of rap, I’m a club artist. That’s where I blossomed, in nightlife, in underground scenes in New York.
For this album specifically, when I was writing it I was in Europe for two months. I’ve been travelling internationally my entire career. It’s always about finding that balance between a good hip hop record and something that will translate when I’m playing a Melt! Festival in Germany. The Peaches song ['Up Out My Face'] is more of a festival moment. But then I have to do songs like 'Revelations' where if I go talk to Ebro he can play that. It’s all about the balance for me.
Given the higher tempos of dance music compared to hip hop, do you find it at all a challenge to rap over those beats?
CDK: Obviously it’s really fulfilling for me to rap over fast beats. It’s like those kids in middle school who when they solve a math problem they feel really good. Their mouths are watering. For me, doing that is really good creatively. As someone putting out so many projects, I realize that sometimes the whole record can’t be at that fast BPM because no one can understand what you’re saying! I’m trying to slow it down a little more. There’s a record called 'True Luv' that has me rapping at a slower tempo, being a little more mindful of people understanding what I’m saying.
I rap fast because that’s how I rap. Rapping slow is not my thing. I talk fast.
Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot could pack a lot of wordplay into a sixteen. That’s quite a good tradition you fall into.
CDK: It shows your wittiness. For you to be able to rap fast and fit many words into a bar, that’s what rap is about, the showmanship. That’s the thing we’re kind of losing now. I’m not saying that the music now is horrible. I mean, I don’t listen to it. The showmanship and creativity in rap is what made it special and what made it different.
There’s something interesting about naming an album Hedonism when so much of what goes on in popular hip-hop right now, what you hear on the radio during the day, is very hedonistic. Is deliberately naming your album that a cultural thing or a more personal choice?
CDK: Hip hop in and of itself is very flashy. I think I do have a lot of qualities in my personality and in my music that aligns myself with other rappers, except I’m not talking about bitches and selling drugs. That’s not my reality. For awhile now I’ve been given this really weird reputation of being this nympho sex-crazed character because I’ve never shied away from talking about sex in my music. For this album, I claimed it and owned it. I polished it up a little bit. But talking about sexuality and things I want to talk about, I’m always going to do that in my music.
Considering that reputation, the album cover is so classic. It’s not an outlandish cover. It’s a very straight-on portrait shot of you.
CDK: That was very calculated. Being the character that I am, the things I’m going to say are very outlandish. They’re going to be pushing certain people’s boundaries of rap. Me as a person, a lot of people don’t really get my presence in rap music. I knew for the packaging of the project I wanted to be able to have my record next to a Busta Rhymes record, next to a Cam’ron record. I worked with Eric Johnson who shot Lauryn Hill’s album cover, he worked with Maxwell. I wanted something that looked timeless and let the music speak for itself.
I just wanna be like, this is a great rap record, Cakes Da Killa is a great New York rapper, you should listen to Cakes Da Killa.
CDK: There’s always going to be that disconnect because of the fact that I talk about strong gay narratives in my music. The one thing I always say with people when I have discussions about me is: I need you to say whether or not you think I can rap. People can say what they want. I’m too feminine. Gay people say I’m too masculine at times. I have people say I’m pushing this gay agenda. I’ll take the L for putting a little bit too much sexually explicit content in my music, but I have the privilege to do that because it’s my music. I can do what I want. Let’s just talk about the technical aspect of it and the craftsmanship and we can move on.
Right now, one of the biggest songs in the U.S. is from Young M.A. 'OOOUUU' is a sexually explicit song and it’s on all the rap radio stations, all the Spotify playlists, it’s huge on the Hot 100. Are people opening up or is it anomalous?
CDK: Me and Ebro were talking about this. For him being a straight identifying male, in his mind that’s like, wow we have this strong lesbian personality in hip hop who’s made this record that’s really pushing it. This is a step in the right direction. I do think that’s really cool that we can have a lesbian woman make a record talking about a strap-on and it be cool in the club.
The one thing I’ll say is: with life and music, people are cool with masculinity. It’s femininity that people are uncomfortable with. For a female to be a lesbian and to put out a record like that, I’m not saying she’s not going to have adversity or pushback from the industry, but it’s not going to be the same as the pushback that I’m gonna get. If I was a little more masculine male and I was still gay, I would probably have a different journey. But I choose to be myself and express my masculine and my feminine side, it’s a different situation.
That’s an excellent point that gets lost in the conversation. How many feminine rappers are on the radio? How many rappers are getting to explore their feminine side?
CDK: Everyone thinks everybody’s being so feminine now. You have rappers wearing skirts and pushing boundaries with the words they’re saying and how they’re presenting their gender. But if you’re not going to go on the record and say you’re not straight, you have a privilege that I don’t have. Someone could wear a skirt and it’d be cool or a conversation piece. Me being an openly gay person, I can’t wear a skirt in my music video without it being a touchy subject. I don’t have that same privilege.
I think about somebody like Young Thug who can do that and tweak gender norms. At the same time, if someone asks why he’s wearing a dress, people say well his shit goes hard.
CDK: I was speaking at a Spotify panel with this organization called Out In Tech. I was saying us as gay consumers, if we actually supported these gay artists and pumped money behind them the same way they pump money behind these divas, a conversation of homophobia in hip hop wouldn’t be. Because I would have the money and the revenue coming in. It’s not about homophobia or who’s going to push back. It’s all about who’s supporting you and where there’s money from.
How is the early response been to having these tracks finally recorded and out there?
CDK: I think a lot of people are happy with how it turned out. I’m really happy with how this is the first record I recorded and had to sit on, putting it through the channels of PR and the label and all this. I’m coming from an independent mixtape kind of lane. This is my first taste of the label route. But I’m happy it’s out. I’m always on to the next shit. I think people are pleased. I think people who are discovering me off the record are happy with it. I also think a lot of people who’ve been following my career all these years are pleased too. That’s all I really want.
Cakes Da Killa is on tour...