This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Tommy Cash, the cult "post-Soviet" rapper from Tallinn, Estonia, has built up a devoted following in recent years, becoming an artistic muse for designer Rick Owens. Following the release of his innovative, electronica-tinged debut album '¥€$,' we caught up with the self-styled Kanye East for a trip to the heart of his surreal pop culture vision.
It is difficult to determine the qualities that make a rising talent a true 'rock star' in the multitudinous world of music in 2019. Whatever they are, Estonian rapper Tommy Cash has good reason to believe he qualifies, making his fears of joining the infamous '27 Club' not entirely unfounded.
"I’m safe and everything, but damn, I’m 27. It’s a sketchy year," he tells me when we meet in Berlin, the latest stop on his tour to promote debut album ¥€$. He does not plan on partaking in any of the city’s storied nightlife opportunities during his visit. The past year has instilled a cautiousness in him that is seemingly at odds with his manic public persona. "I try to keep it safe, but it’s hard because this club is dope, or that club is dope, but I have to keep on doing dope shit. Being dead is, like, the best promotion, but that’s what I’m afraid of. 27 is weird."
Does that mean he’s had difficulty navigating the transition from underground rapper in a niche scene tucked away by the Baltic Sea to burgeoning global superstar in a span of under three years? "No," he answers flatly. "I was born for this. I’ve been training for this. I’m ready."
Indeed, Cash arrived on the musical landscape with the full package already intact: an arresting sonic and visual palette, a magnetic sense of charisma, and a wholly unique point of view — the holy trinity of talent that artists spend a lifetime hoping to unlock. His breakthrough single "Winaloto" spread like wildfire upon release in 2016, aided in no small part by its unsettlingly visceral video. It remains the gold standard for the Tommy Cash ethos. Jarring beats blare beneath bars such as "Why have abs when you can have kebabs?/ No Houston trap, but only hot Russian raps," while the accompanying visual presents an orgiastic fantasia of nude bodies, where stretch marks and imperfections are celebrated and Cash’s face is morphed into a vagina.
His earlier work seems all the more impressive when you consider that he had no formal training or background in music when he decided to pursue it as a career. "Winaloto" exemplifies his adventurous ear and creative rhymes, and while the strength of that single alone built the majority of his international fanbase, his earlier outings introduced an MC capable of juggling styles with aplomb. One of his very first releases, 2013’s "Oldkool," finds him spitting over a subdued, Madlib-inspired beat that is stoner rap at its finest. The following year, Cash dropped mixtape Euroz Dollaz Yeniz, a full-length that jockeyed between trap-inspired bangers and frenetic, techno-oriented floor-stompers, often blending both at once.
A cursory look at his lyrics and videos might lead some to interpret his style as satirical, but Cash’s work hinges on its ability to interpolate or pay homage to different cultural signifiers as it dissects his own experiences. The Slavic folk tale of the Baba Yaga is the subject of one of Euroz Dollaz Yeniz’ more angular thrashers, while the video for the mixtape’s title track shows figures from his native suburb in Estonian capital Tallinn engaging in stereotypically gangster behavior to often hilarious effect — the pinnacle of which is Cash holding a baby while making stacks of money fly between his enormous nail extensions.
On that note, more impressive still is the extent to which Cash built a fully formed artistic vision using the limited resources available to him growing up in Kopli, one of Tallinn’s poorer neighborhoods. In previous interviews, he has described being raised an only child in a one-room apartment with his parents, with whom he still has a "dope" relationship (he mentions that Mom and Dad maintain a wall at home to house his growing collection of music awards). Before getting into music, he spent his days "just serving people at restaurants and collecting popcorn from the ground." The latter activity refers to a job at a cinema. "That’s where I think my love for videos comes from," he says.
“ Let’s use this money for better stuff. Let’s go fucking destroy this building with our paint.”
Cash found himself gravitating toward a more street-oriented crowd immersed in dance and graffiti, all of whom were united by their dire financial outlook, unable to go clubbing and rarely even "having money for a taxi." As a result, their attitude was demonstrably punk, intent on disavowing a world they could not access. "Like, ‘We don’t want to go and hang out with pretentious people — they just do shit,’" Cash illustrates. "‘Let’s use this money for better stuff. Let’s go fucking destroy this building with our paint,’ right?"
When not wreaking havoc on his hometown, Cash was most likely in a basement with his crew, honing his rapping skills. "I rapped over anything," he says, depicting nights full of drinking, smoking, and marathon freestyles. Whether it was classic beats from the likes of Wu-Tang and ODB, tracks created by friends, or random videos from the bowels of the web, he spat over all of them, informing the spastic array of styles he has incorporated on each of his releases. It didn’t take long for Cash to rise to the top of the local scene, albeit by default. When asked to describe Tallinn’s rap scene at the time, he says it was "just me."
Not to suggest that it was all just for fun. To the contrary, this was a period of solitary, focused work with a clear-cut goal of making good music. Cash is highly attuned to the singularity of his output. “No one has done shit near me like what I do, literally no one,” he says. "I don’t know where this shit is coming from. No one from my family, no one from my friends, no one is like me. It’s very weird, because usually you get inspired by someone near you, or draw inspiration from people that do something similar to what you like. But I didn’t. I never had a group of friends, so basically my mentality was ‘I just do me.’ And it still is."
He’s not wrong. No one in hip-hop has presented anything as incisively oddball as Cash’s take on the genre. He rapidly developed a cult following, branding his artistry "post-Soviet rap." Fleshing out the sonics he tinkered with on Euroz Dollaz Yeniz, he refined a sound that utilized the tropes and touchpoints of US hip-hop while drawing equally from the worlds of Eurodance music and the Russian rave scene (predominantly witch house). The mash-up ultimately reflects his heritage on the whole, with Estonia being home to a sizable Russian minority. "Our little Baltic country has a lot of Slavic culture in it," he says. "I was born in it and I’m kind of a mix of two worlds, of this super-trash and this very European aesthetic."
The stylistic result of this combination of cultures is striking, to say the least. Cash’s visual identity — chipped front tooth, John Waters-esque pencil moustache — makes good on his self-proclaimed status as the "white trash Rakim," while his wardrobe is the stuff dreams are made of. When we met last year at a festival, he was rocking a custom adidas three-piece suit with Margiela sneakers. Today, he greets me in a floor-length lime green Vetements trench coat.
Even before the release of ¥€$ late last year, Cash had developed ties to the fashion world. His merch line, named Kanye East after one of his aliases, received a bounty of attention upon its initial drop, including a Vogue profile. Consisting of the usual fare alongside quirkier items such as door mats, the collection is riddled with what he refers to as "meta-jokes," riffing on the work of Virgil Abloh and Kanye West with titles such as "SeaAsOn 01 BoOtleg" and "The Life of Pavel."
But things took a turn from the meta to the very real when Cash was contacted by none other than Rick Owens. The maverick designer had discovered Cash’s 2018 single "Pussy Money Weed" and wanted it to soundtrack his SS19 men’s show at Paris Fashion Week. Not only did Owens’ models walk to the song, Cash was among them on the runway. It proved to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
"We went to Paris and Rick was like, ‘Come to our place, let’s have dinner,’" Cash recounts. "We went to his place and we had dinner and hung out for hours, and that’s where it started. We just became friends from there on." Both share the same birthday, November 18, and Cash, perhaps unknowingly, points to qualities in Owens that seem indicative of their similar sensibilities, citing the designer’s "strict workflow" and describing him as someone who "does a lot by himself."
When ¥€$ arrived, many were shocked to find Owens listed among the guest artists, augmenting the track "Mona Lisa" with a spoken word section that references, among other things, “black magic fuccbois.”
"Being invited to enter his world was something I never knew I wanted," Owens says via email. "I set up a microphone alone on my terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea last summer and just made something up. I feel kind of ashamed of how satisfied I feel listening to it over and over again. And the whole album. I am completely seduced."
Cash divulges that we can expect a full gallery collaboration between these two kindred spirits to be shown in Tallinn later this year. "This is my first step into the art world," Cash says, keen to differentiate how much more serious he is about taking this foray than he was while making his first cheeky steps into the world of design. As for the actual content of the exhibition, he remains tight-lipped, answering only that it will be "nothing that I’ve done before."
Owens elaborates only a little on the project when prompted: "Maybe it’s just me getting less uptight, but I just trust him. I am letting him play with my work his way and I feel he’s gonna do something sophisticated and raw. And those are my favorite things."
Pre-2018, few would have imagined pairing Cash with a creative icon such as Owens, but the two share a strict devotion to process. "I don’t really want to talk," says Cash. "Talking is not my thing. I’m way better at this now, but before, my mindset was like, ‘I don’t need to talk with anyone. I’ll just make my product dope.’"
It’s something the often lighthearted nature of Cash’s work can easily disguise. His 2017 single "Surf," for instance, came from an experiment to see how giving up sex and masturbation would affect his creativity. Short answer: it did. He began dreaming of intercourse on a monumental scale, expressed in a highly suggestive music video in which tower blocks are enveloped in condoms.
So powerful is the impact of his subconscious that Cash admits he is often "afraid" of his brain, acting with precise care not to overload it with unnecessary information. "I’m really very picky what goes inside me," he says. "The internet is a massive weapon of inspiration. We’re like superhumans and we take everything in and get inspired by stuff very easily. I don’t want to get inspired by stuff. Even if you don’t fuck with something, it still inspires you in some way."
This vigilance extends to his social media activity. While Cash often blesses the world with uproarious Instagram posts, he doesn’t spend a moment more than he needs in the digital realm. "Of course, you need to use [social media]. It’s important," he says. "But I don’t want to get lost in it. It’s a little bit like sickness. It’s stealing our time. And I don’t have time for that. I don’t even want to know what the fuck is going on, bro. I got plans."
Few could argue that this philosophy of prioritizing his brain’s own content served him anything less than spectacularly well when crafting ¥€$. Even without the left-field addition of Owens’ spoken word, the album is a tour de force of creativity and innovation. Featuring input from revered producer Boys Noize and PC Music’s A.G. Cook, it’s a record that harnesses the duality of Cash’s artistry with precision. Heavy-hitting raps are sequenced against go-for-broke ’90s rave-outs like “X-Ray,” a track that has more in common with Vengaboys than any rap contemporaries. Lyrically, he extols the virtues of vegetarianism while comparing himself to Russian literary master Dostoyevsky in his skills in the bedroom. ¥€$ is a bricolage of pop culture both high and low, a combination that is the lifeblood of Cash’s work.
That Cash can attract cosigns from the cultural elite and collaborate with the industry’s best without truly breaking into the mainstream is telling. He is a radical. His concepts are weighty and often layered in ambiguity. More than anything, what distinguishes him from his peers is his unwavering commitment to inclusivity. As a total outsider breaking into the industry, he carries with him an outsider’s perspective, which translates to honoring and celebrating difference. It’s there in the festive portrayal of bodies of all types in the “Winaloto” video and in the casting of dancers with disabilities for “Pussy Money Weed.”
“We’re getting there, but I’m not thinking about it. I want to wake up and feel like I’ve done fucking nothing, so I can keep on hustling.”
And it is most certainly there in his live shows, which I have had the pleasure of seeing on three occasions. In addition to visual touches like gay porn playing behind him as he raps, Cash makes his message of empathy, affirmation, and self-love profoundly clear to his audience. At the close of his most recent Berlin show, he screamed at the crowd, his voice close to breaking, “DO YOUR SHIT! DO YOUR SHIT! DO YOUR FUCKING SHIT!” It’s a message too profane to be found on any motivational poster, but it carried an emotional heft rarely felt in his typically wry composure offstage.
“I still don’t feel that I made it somewhere,” Cash says when measuring his success over the past few years. “We’re getting there, but I’m not thinking about it. I want to wake up and feel like I’ve done fucking nothing, so I can keep on hustling.”
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 18 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.