One of the first rules of a photoshoot is this: try not to set fire to the subject.
Yet that’s a genuine concern when Tommy Cash joins NME at the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, London, on a bitterly cold February day. We’ve decked the place out with a neon cross, a gold throne and dozens upon dozens of candles, which threaten to set the fringes of his flowing garments ablaze.
Tommy’s stylist has lined up an outfit that might put the willies up a member of Slipknot, including a horrifying mask studded with real teeth, animal origins unknown. It’s an outfit that sums up Cash fairly well: while he may be a dancer, rapper and artist, the best catch-all term for him might be provocateur, and this outfit is certainly provocative.
On this point, Tommy has form. He first came to widespread attention in summer 2016 when he released ‘Winaloto’, which NME approvingly named ‘the most unsettling music video of all time’. In it, we saw Tommy’s distinctive face – pencil tash, chipped tooth, wonky smile – superimposed between a woman’s legs, her pubic hair doubling as a mohawk.
It’s a video you simply cannot unsee, and it set the tone for subsequent releases: ‘Little Molly’ saw Tommy playing an array of creepy little girls, Pussy Money Weed’ saw him body-popping with paraplegic dancers and recent single ‘X-Ray’ saw him imagining what a Tommy Cash cult would look like. And that’s why we’re here today, squinting in the glow of Tommy’s neon crucifix in freezing temperatures, with Cash the twisted messiah on his golden throne.
Tommy is so taken with the throne, in fact, that he offers to buy it. You wonder how he’d get it home: he’s arrived from his native Estonia wearing a Vetements coat that doubles as a sleeping bag, and his only luggage is a tiny bum bag containing a pouch of tobacco, his passport and a book (Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of TIme – “pretty fun,” he says).
Science and religion? Welcome to Tommy’s cult, a haven for what he describes as “the outsiders, the weird kids, the art people”. His theological viewpoint is this: we are all gods.
“Absolutely I think that,” he says. “But we’re so dumbed down, and I feel that social media is dumbing us down more. We never think about ‘what are we?’ or ‘what are we made of?’. We feel like we’re just bodies. We’re using only 10 percent of our brain, and people are just, like, ‘Yeah, that’s normal’. Why is no one every day like, ‘Yo, we can do so much more,’ you know? Like, how do I get to 11 percent?”
As with a lot of people who are outwardly quite frightening, Tommy Cash is a bit of a sweetheart. There’s a charming naivety to him, and he’s honest and open in conversation. At the shoot, he tells me he has two go-to looks if time is short: ‘stoned Tommy’ (eyes rolling back) and ‘evil Tommy’ (brow forward, look of menace). They’re really quite convincing when seen on the printed page, but not so much when you’ve had them explained.
The shoot passes, happily, with no pyrotechnic accidents. Though, perhaps, Tommy wouldn’t mind if it hadn’t. He says his three greatest inspirations are “JJJ – Janis [Joplin], Jim [Morrison] and Jimi [Hendrix]”. He’s just read a book about the Doors frontman and his head is full of Morrison mythology. They are, I note, all members of the fabled 27 club. And Tommy is…? “27! Actually I was thinking about it the other day. It’s very dangerous… tempting… because, you know, this is the year. If I would die this year it would be making everything more known to everyone. But that’s the easy way.”
We sit down for an interview in the kind of South London pub where a glance in the wrong direction might help Tommy’s death wish along. He looks genuinely delighted when his coffee arrives with a spread of custard creams and digestives. Perhaps it’s the biscuits that keep him coming back to the UK: Tommy has worked fairly extensively over here with like-minded people from the PC Music collective, whose A.G. Cook and Danny L Harle collaborated on second album ‘¥€$’, which hit Number 25 on our list of 2018’s best albums. His debut, ‘Euroz Dollaz Yeniz’, was released in 2014.
But really, Tommy’s music owes the most to two places: Estonia, and the USA, home of the trap music he’s appropriated. One of his most frequently quoted lyrics speaks of being “stuck in this dump when I should be in Miami”, but for now, it’s something he wants to keep as a dream, not reality. “I still haven’t been to the USA,” he says. “I feel it will be so inspiring for me it will just blow my brains out.”
Tommy makes hard, modern hip hop with a twist. The twist is his Slavic accent and a hint of Europop. The bit at the start of ‘X-Ray’ where he does a “skibbidi bibbidi bop”? “Oh, that is 100 percent a shout out to [1993 novelty hit] ‘The Scatman’,” he says. It’s him embracing the kind of high-energy European chart fodder that the UK has always had a sweet tooth for, even if we pretend to think it’s a load of old tosh. “You shouldn’t forget your roots, or who was before you,” says Tommy. “‘Trash’ is beautiful. And, actually, the further we go from trash, the trash looks even more beautiful.”
It’s easy to misread Tommy Cash at a glance. He’s a rapper who has a dollar sign tattooed on the palm of one hand and a Euro sign on the other. He raps about familiar tropes. As mentioned, one of his tracks has all of them in one go: ‘Pussy Money Weed’.
But there’s more going on than first meets the eye. It’s hip hop culture viewed through a unique lens, from a distance, and, yes, occasionally from the vantage point of a face that’s sprouted from between a woman’s legs. Is it satire?
“What is real, what’s not, you know?” Tommy says, answering a question with a question. “Is it satire? I mean, everything I say is for real, but life’s a joke, you know? It’s funny. Living is like art. But definitely when I took the name Tommy Cash I was like, ‘That’s funny’. It’s the most typical fucking rap name ever. But it’s not a character, it’s me. Definitely me. It’s a fucking pain in the ass to be a character. The concept is interesting but characters are for movies.”
Hipsters love to think of former Soviet countries as one giant brutalist concrete Instagram background. There’s a fetishisation of the Soviet years that ignores both the lived experience of that period and the changes after.
Born in 1991 around the time of the fall of the iron curtain, the reality of Cash’s childhood is not so different from yours or mine. When Cash talks about hustle in his rap, he’s not speaking of time spent dealing crack on street corners but of years spent sweeping up popcorn in a cinema, where he’d sneak off to watch films on shift, or hide in corners drawing pictures as his walkie-talkie went wild with line managers trying to locate him. “I was fired from every place I worked,” he says, unsurprisingly.
“Nothing changed for about decade after the [fall of the] Soviet Union,” he explains. “Stuff started to really change about 2007, 8, but it depended on your class. I was growing from a poor-to-middle family, so we didn’t have any flashy stuff and the place we lived was shitty.”
A self-confessed loner who struggled to make friends, Cash dropped out of school as a young teenager, with the precocious aim of becoming an artist – a visual artist or a dancer, primarily. “I found what I wanted to do so I left school,” he says. “But it wasn’t a career choice. I had zero idea about that. For me it was passion first, money second.”
It was Cash’s love of Eminem, whose music had landed in his world around 2003 when “it was already old”, that really gave life to the man we see today. Eminem – and rap in general – was popular with Cash’s peer group. What’s different about Tommy is he thought this: I could do that. And look at him now.
“I’m the most famous Estonian in the world,” Tommy tells me, with not a hint of boastfulness. “I’m like Justin Bieber. I’m literally the most famous Estonian in the world, definitely.”
Cash still lives in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in an abandoned toy factory. The image it conjures up is very, well, Tommy Cash-y, but actually it’s a luxury apartment block. “It’s much nicer than it sounds – it has concrete floors, very minimal.”
At home, Cash kicks it in the very highest echelons of society. Outgoing Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves fostered a friendship with Cash, inviting him to functions at the presidential palace and posing for pictures with him. “I think it was his last year so he just thought, I’m gonna go all in, you know?” says Tommy. “Like, ‘Come play at the castle, we don’t give a fuck.’ Peace out, bro.”
Though he may scoff Ferrero Rocher with statesmen and women, Cash keeps his music decidedly apolitical. While we, over here, are obsessed with politics right now because there’s just so much of the goddamn stuff around, for Cash, music is supposed to be escapism. “It’s just like, OK, I don’t have many friends, but none of them are into this shit. I don’t have any friends who come into my home and starts talking about Trump. And back home, my parents never talked about politics,” he says.
“I wanna do escapism. I want to take people out of their shitty lives. Out of their shitty nine to fives. Out of their shitty relationships, shitty weather, to this magical world where you can disappear for a couple of hours and get inspired, like in a movie. That’s how I approach my stuff, so I don’t see the point of going there. I don’t know about politics, it’s a deadly circle where it just goes round and round and nothing changes.”
It’s a viewpoint that explains much about Cash’s musical and visual identity, a world that’s hyper-real, like a David LaChapelle photo brought to life. “I feel like art should be realistic but twisted,” says Tommy. “I’m a surrealist. I feel there should be ground rules and a good technique, and then you can mix it up. I feel like when art is flipperty flopperty and people are all over the place, it doesn’t work. And I don’t like art that tries too hard to be deep.”
That pragmatic approach probably has something to do with Cash’s upbringing. His parents were market traders who brought fake Adidas gear from Moscow to sell at the bazaar in Tallinn. Today, Cash has his own clothing line, which plays on the bootlegs he grew up wearing. There are socks sold under the name Adimas, or Adidag, or Adidsa, and there are hoodies bearing the name Pavel, playing on Kanye West’s Pablo merch. For this, Cash goes by the name Kanye East.
It’s a satirical take on the fashion world, even if the fashion world has spied in Tommy just the kind of alien-on-earth entity they want present at all the best parties. He’s regularly asked to shoot for fashion magazines and attend shows, but reckons that world doesn’t do much for him. “There’s no energy in clothes,” he says. “It’s just fucking stuff, you know? Stuff you buy. So I don’t fuck with fashion. But I fuck with the people who do [fashion] for art.”
In a way, with his knowing, bootleg clobber, Cash has joined the family business. Are his parents proud? “Of course,” he says. “My dad tries to push me ideas all the time – ‘You should start selling posters,’ that kind of cute dad stuff. And mum is very proud. I just won a couple of awards in Estonia and all the trophies are at my parents’ place. I won hip hop album of the year and best video of the year, but only my videos were in the list. It was the first time that had happened in history, ever. A year ago I told my girl: this time next year there will be only Tommy’s videos, and it came true. Russian blood is very true-ish – ’if i said it, it will be like this.’”
So what are you saying now that’s going to come true in the future?
“I don’t know, I already said a lot of things I forgot about. I will have an art exhibition with [designer] Rick Owens in three months at the biggest museum in Tallinn, our version of the Tate. It’s my stepping into the art world. I was wishing for that two years ago when I was drawing. I forgot about it because there are so many things going on. But now it’s happening.”
Here are some things you’ll find on Tommy Cash’s very arty Instagram: a picture of Tommy ironing his legs on an ironing board. A picture of Tommy riding a horse and cart through a McDonald’s drive-thru. A picture of Tommy on a Segway on a treadmill. A tour poster with a picture of a tiny Tommy chilling out inside a spunky condom (or a normal-size Tommy chilling out inside a giant spunky condom). There’s a sense that as much care, attention and creativity goes into an Instagram pic as does a song or a video.
But before we meet, Tommy’s Instagram has been oddly silent. He explains it’s because he’s just returned from Thailand, and every time he tried to access the app it was blocked as a suspected hacking attempt. Tommy went on holiday there and learned a little about what might fashionably be termed self love. “I was resting, by myself, for 10 days – it was my first trip alone and I was afraid to go,” he says. “My team was, ‘Yo, Tommy, you have to go away before the tour,’ because I work all the time if they let me, but I was very afraid. The first three days were awful. Beautiful resort, super fancy, palm trees, but I was so sad. On the fourth day, it got so much better. I started reading, and I started to feel myself again.”
Around that time, Cash also ventured out to see some of Thailand’s more outrageous delights. He’s a person, he says, who relishes new experiences, and so made his way to a ping pong show, watching a woman produce a live parrot from her vagina among various other things. His favourite part was when she smoked a cigarette using the same orifice. “That changed my world,” says Tommy, wide-eyed. “They saw in me that I’m literally the happiest person in the club. I think people go and see it like it’s a freak show but I’m literally so inspired. This is real, this is no CGI… she kept on smoking, smoking, smoking to the end, not just a few puffs, and in the end, she gave the cigarette and what I did?” He mimes putting the cigarette in his own mouth and finishing it off.
The reason for this rather lurid tale is this: Tommy says he wants attendees on his tour, which is working its way around Europe, to look at him the same way he looked at that woman, with a sense of awe, wonder, amazement and joy. “I feel like my live show, every song is a weird energy like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” he says. His sole UK show is on March 1 at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, a venue so small you suspect he’ll be back in a bigger room very soon.
After that, Cash has big plans for 2019: “In May I have the exhibition, and I will concentrate on videos a lot because I have a lot of ideas brewing; in summer, a lot of festivals, then after that i think it’s the time for new music. I want to do some club songs.”
You hope he doesn’t make good on his suggestion of joining the 27 club. We need people like Tommy Cash spreading magic in this world. A thought hits me after he’s gone: he might have already reached 11 percent brain capacity.
Pictures: Jenn Five
Creative Production: Emily Barker
Stylist: Jayson Hindley
Set Stylist: Jade Creighton
Grooming: Chloe Botting
Tommy Cash plays Electric Ballroom on March 1. The album ‘¥€$’ is out now.