Photos courtesy of the artist
If you took a standard-issue rap video — one with viral dance moves, flashy streetwear, crowds of dudes jumping around, voluptuous asses — and left it out in the sun for a week, you might end up with a Tommy Cash joint. The dance moves are now stunted and jerky, hair has started growing in weird places, bodies bleed together beyond recognition, the English language is distorted, the beats are warped like old VHS tapes. Some foods, like tomatoes, get richer in flavor with a sun-dried treatment, while others, like mayonnaise, become inedible. Cash's gorgeous-but-disturbing visuals split the difference between them: they're far more vibrant than their garden-variety peers, but they might make your stomach churn.
Cash was born in Estonia in 1991, just a couple of months after the small Baltic nation reclaimed its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. While growing up in a one-room flat in the impoverished district of Tallinn, the country's capital, he was part of the first generation of post-Eastern Bloc residents to access American culture. Cash was enamored from an early age, especially with hip-hop.
Though he's released music and built up a regional fan base since the early 2010s, Cash started getting international attention with his video for 2016 slapper "WINALOTO," definitely his most experimental offering at the time. Amid a sea of depersonalized bodies used as drums, landscapes, and peace signs, the slender, mustachioed Cash is a captivating, baffling presence. He contorts himself; he does rap hands; his face is mapped onto a woman's genitalia; he declares, "All I do is success!" The love for American rap is unmistakable, but it's filtered through Cash's Eastern European identity, and more importantly, his oddball vision.
Since then, Cash has made some valuable connections outside of Estonia. He befriended A. G. Cook of experimental pop collective/label PC Music, which led to an appearance on Pop 2, the hyper-futuristic album Cook produced for Charli XCX last December. Cook has also contributed to Cash's two 2018 singles, "Pussy Money Weed" and "Little Molly," both of which were released on the PC Music label (and accompanied by characteristically batshit videos). Considering the crew's reputation for blurring the line between bald-faced parody and earnest celebration of web aesthetics, it's easy to see why Cash fits in. With both his music and his recent Life of Pavel streetwear line, he continues to evolve his skewed-but-celebratory take on American materialism.
Before he embarks on a European tour and locks in with PC Music for an undisclosed project (hopefully a solo EP or album), Cash caught up with MERRY JANE via FaceTime direct from Tallinn. We spoke with him about his homeland, his "Kanye East" nickname, and his equally disquieting and ebullient music videos.
MERRY JANE: How's it going, Tommy? What have you been up to lately?
Tommy Cash: I'm great. I'm working as always. I have a big-ass concert here, back home, this Friday, so I'm prepping myself for that. And, you know, making content, creating every day.
When was the last time you had a big hometown show like that?
It's rare for us to perform, so last time was I think eight months ago. It's such a small city that we perform there rarely.
Do you have more fans in Estonia or abroad?
I have a big following in Russia, and Europe also. Here, I'm known too, very well. Eastern Europe and Russia I think are the top places. I'm pretty underground. Not too many people know me in the States, but there are some people that do.
What's something about your home country that you don't think the rest of the world knows?
I don't know if there's something to know about it. I don't know, we invented Skype. But they sold it very quick, so that was dumb.
As far as art, music, and fashion go, what did you grow up experiencing or enjoying?
You know, American culture. Absolutely, 100%. Everything that came from America was like, it. I was born in that time where like, to get an original pair of Nikes or [name] brand clothes was a big thing. You could get a banana, but if you got Coca-Cola... that was cooler than drugs. As kids, I remember especially how our family friend was working at the airport so she got those cans of Coke and Fanta, and all these snacks, and it was the best thing ever. Yeah, so I was grown on American culture.
How has that affected your music and fashion work? You seem to either parody or celebrate lots of aspects of American culture.
Can't go around it, you know?! But I'm very into my stuff, my Eastern European aesthetic. Sometimes I play with, like, the American way — there's a lot of funny things that should be played with and I kind of mix it with my Eastern European, post-Soviet movement. Like tracksuits were very cool here before they got trendy [in the U.S.], before Kanye West got signed, you know? [Laughs] In the '90s, it all started from the Russian Olympics team rocking Adidas, so everyone tried to get the tracksuits, but no one could get them, so everyone was wearing fake [clothes]. It got very big, so it's like a symbol here.
So that was the style in the '90s, but it's not cool anymore?
It still is. You go to a poor area, there's still a lot of people who are not on Instagram or Facebook, but they look like they're dressed in the latest Balenciaga and Adidas.
I read that you got kicked out of school for smoking weed. How strict are the drug laws in Estonia?
Oh man, they're fucking crazy. They're nuts. You can have like zero-point-one [grams of cannabis] and you have to fucking do a piss test, do all those tests, and they will hold you for four or five hours, maybe more. And you'll be in this small cage and [cops] will be like, 'Yeah, you're a fucking drug addict,' and all that. It's fucking harsh. It's not good. My friend had, I don't know, like 30, 40 [grams], and he went to jail for a year or two. It sucks.
How does that compare to the rest of Eastern Europe?
Russia, it's even crazier man. They are more harsh there, and the police are very corrupt. You can kind of buy a golden ticket, right? So you can buy yourself out, but on the other hand, if they find weed on you, they can put you away for a longer time. I heard they'll like, throw some weed or drugs in someone's car and say it's theirs to get money off of you. It's like that. It's not like I'm worried to keep it in my pocket or walk around, but it's not good here yet.
Does that negatively impact the music or party scene?
No, not really. People are still partying and doing everything. It's no problem with that, at least if there are no grumpy neighbors or sound limitations. We have those, you know, industrial clubs, those techno clubs. They're pretty away from all the family life. You can make a lot of noise there.
Were you ever into the techno scene, or has it always been American rap for you?
No, I mostly grew on American rap and psychedelic music, like Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and The Papas. That stuff's wild. I've read, like, everyone's autobiography book.
Apart from Kanye, who are some of your other favorite—
Fuck man, Kanye's going crazy!
Oh yeah, what do you think about all of that, as a big fan of his?
Dude! I don't know what to think about that! I'm glad that it's back to music. But A. G. [Cook] told me that in America, it was pretty fucked up, right? When he said those things.
I was very shook, too. I didn't know. I was just thinking of getting this tattoo — I have this alter-ego, I call myself Kanye East. I wanted to tattoo it on my feet, but on that day I couldn't go for some reason. Two days later, there was the Trump thing with Kanye. So I was like, Oh shit. I don't know if he will keep going on this side, you know? Also, a couple days ago I saw the [new Netflix] documentary about Robert Kennedy. I don't know nothing about politics, but I thought shit, there were such good men before, trying to really change [things].
Before all this though, I imagine Kanye's willingness to do and say anything he wanted was part of the reason you liked him.
I kind of feel what he is going for, but he could also start supporting nuclear bombs, you know? He has a lot of young listeners, and they fucking just follow [him]. It's just dangerous at a point. In an artistic state of mind, I'm really up for being free as fuck and saying whatever the fuck you want, but if you're one of the top artists or musicians, you can't just say anything. For him, it's a no-go.
Speaking of saying or doing whatever the fuck you want, let's talk about your videos.
Well, I can! I'm not Kanye.
When did you start getting more experimental with the videos?
After "WINALOTO" — it was like a year and a half ago, soon it will be two years. I understood like, Oh shit, I can go in even more, go deep inside of me, make these kind of visual drugs, and experiment.
How often do people tell you they're disturbed by your videos?
I don't know! [laughs] One in five comments is, 'I'm disturbed.' But I'm trying to find a balance between, 'It's beautiful' and 'I'm disturbed.' Like a good movie has everything in it. I'm still young, I'm trying to find my signature, I'm trying to find my style. I'm sure I'll be doing fucked-up love stories soon. I'm very interested in how this shit works, where you go to the movies, and you wanna cry a little bit. So it's a different way, another tunnel where I wanna go also.
I thought the "Pussy Money Weed" video was beautiful in very non-traditional ways.
Oh, thank you, thank you. I think it was one was one of the most cinematic videos we've made.
That was the first song you did with A. G. Cook. How did you link up with A. G. and the PC Music crew?
We just were talking on SoundCloud, nothing big. I even didn't know the guys were from PC Music. I went to England for the first time a year ago, and they took me to A. G. and we recorded "Pussy Money Weed." From there, we just kept on working.
Are they working on an album with you?
Yeah, there's something coming...
Photo by Mia Haggi, courtesy of the artist
That's cool. And through them, you also ended up on Charli XCX's Pop 2?
And you came up with the title for that album?
Yeah, that's actually true. We were in England, we were working with A. G. in the studio. I think we just woke up, we went to the studio, and they were bouncing around names for Charli's second album that A. G. did. And I was sitting quietly, and I was just like, "Pop 2!" And A. G. was like, 'Whoa, that sounds very good.' He wrote to Charli, and Charli loved it, like, in a second. And that was it.
Another key collaborator for you has been Anna-Lisa Himma, who's worked on all your recent videos. How did you meet and what did you bond over?
We bond over horses. She's my girlfriend. When we met, she wasn't doing any art stuff before me. So we met, and she kind of slowly started to do these clothes, the art design, yeah. She's super cool. I feel like the less people we have on set, the better. That's why we wanted to do maximum everything by ourselves. It's easier so your vision stays [true]. People pay crazy money for videos, and there's a lot of shit. There's not many people doing good videos.
Stay glued to Tommy Cash's wild YouTube channel.
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