Photography by Sohvi Viik
A somewhat uncertain folk roam the cobbled streets of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, as if they are waltzing through a kind of culturally restrained ballroom. After all, the tiny Baltic country has experienced invasions courtesy of the Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians. Estonia did enjoy a short-lived period of independence in the early 20th century—but it lasted until the Soviet invasion in June 1940, which absorbed Estonia into the USSR until it finally declared independence as the Republic of Estonia in 1991.
Imagine a boy born into that moment, when it's finally time for Estonia to build a culture from scratch after the stranglehold of the Soviet regime. The country is still tightly bound to its years of Russian culture, so this boy grows up in a predominantly Russian 'hood in Tallinn. The skies are as grey as the apartment blocks and the locals are as lifeless as their clothing. A horrifying echo of routine silences the streets. As he grows up, he listens to Kanye West sitting on his bed. He goes to school but he’s an outsider and a loner. He finds a sense of freedom through dance, then through fashion and finally through hip hop.
This boy is Tommy Cash. His history has meshed with Estonia’s; as a result, he’s special—an unrestrained splatter of color on a black and white canvas. He portrays an extreme uniqueness through his art as a multitalented, fearless and creative young Eastern European lad. He is a statement and almost an example of rebellion—and in Estonia, that doesn’t go down easy.
“If you have a pink sweater on people will say you’re gay, but I don’t care about that,” Tommy remarks. “I was always the weird guy growing up in the 'hood. At some point, I was walking around where I live in a kilt in the middle of the summer and no one said anything. It’s because they recognized me—it would’ve been a different story if I wasn’t from round there.”
That brutal environment is what sucked Tommy into music in the first place. Just imagine growing up in the 'hood in Tallinn—an area run by Russian guys who will, as Tommy says, "fuck you up if you don't speak their language." Like with many young creatives, music provided a detachment from his surroundings.
"I have always been a loner,” he divulges. “I would listen to stuff the other kids weren’t listening to. I always had my mp3 player on, playing some weird music.” He explained that he went through many phases and became attached to a lot of different music and especially spoke fondly of Kanye West's Graduation. "When I would listen to that album I used to imagine myself performing to a lot of people," he recalls. "Kanye has always encouraged me with his lyrics - ‘go on chase your dreams’, stuff like that - and it really pushed me to chase what I wanted to do.”
Tommy’s eclectic taste is evident in his music; just take a look at his videos. Portraying his thoughts and ideas, they're a journey through the mind of Tommy Cash—a mind that's as messed up as it is consistently professional and flawlessly unique. Tommy writes all the scripts to his videos and recently edited his video for "Leave Me Alone"—an impressive visual which looks into the grim abandon of the outskirts of Estonia, symbolizing his boredom and yearning to leave his home country. “It's showing the things I have achieved, but emphasizing that I'm still stuck in this dump. That’s kind of a deep thing for me.”
If you come across Tommy online, the first thing you’ll probably think is: where on earth is this guy from. That astonishment will quickly turn into a nicotine-like addiction as you find yourself craving more and more from his otherworldly music, cinematic visuals and arresting style. Asking Tommy about his influences, stories of his dance background emerge. “I started dancing when I was 15. It made me feel really free,” he elaborates. “Some girls I knew said they were going to a hip hop dance class and I was like, why not. I loved it and I really went hard."
For Tommy, that initiation into dance opened up a rich world beyond it—a world of style, of music and the intersections between the two. "The first time I smoked was with my dance teacher, Jon," Tommy recalls. "We were close homies: he was like a mentor to me and I learned about style from him. He had really good taste. He had old-ass adidas tracksuits and some Bape pieces, and we would listen to old Pharrell together. I think that really got into my brain and influenced the way I dress.”
Considering Tommy’s hybrid of Soviet and hip-hop influences – in both fashion and music – it’s no surprise to hear him bring up a young designer named Gosha Rubchinskiy. An exciting Russian street wear designer currently making a lot of noise in the industry, there are definite connections between his work and Tommy’s. “I actually knew about Gosha before he got big. I really wanted to connect with him, but I screwed up my contact because I wasn’t quick enough or something,” Tommy says. “He’s being true, you know. He’s doing his own shit and it has that Eastern European vibe; that’s what’s cool about him.”
Tommy’s nose for that Eastern European vibe is naturally accompanied by a fascination with Russia—with its parties, its energy and its large population of “fucking crazy people”. Estonia borders Russia so it’s a matter of jumping in a car and driving a few hours to a party which may last for days. I asked Tommy if he’d heard about the ‘witch house’ parties. These notorious raves are Russia’s take on the aesthetics and sound of Crystal Castles, mutated with a fetish for bleak hopelessness and (of course) ruthless amounts of drugs. “Yea, dude, I’ve performed at those a couple times,” Tommy says nonchalantly. “It’s an amazing movement—pretty dark but I love it. Imagine performing to 1000 people drugged out of their minds and it’s only 3PM.”
Aside from the twisted parties, Tommy describes Moscow as a land full of opportunities— an inspiring and twisted plateau which he wants to become more involved with. It seems as though Moscow is the London of Eastern Europe and Estonia is the slightly less exciting Ipswich; as with all artists, you have to eventually head to the bigger cities to make connections. With nine dates planned, Tommy is gearing up for his first tour out there.
Ultimately, Tommy isn’t just a rapper. He’s a symbol of individuality. Best part? It’s completely natural. Some artists put every ounce of their energy into being different to gain attention, yet it’s the ones who are “true” who become noticed. DJ Premier once said, “it’s all about being original and having your own style. That’s what hip-hop is about”. There have been so many hip-hop references to ‘keeping it real’ over the years, you almost can’t help but believe there’s some truth in what those old hip-hop guys were saying. Tommy is, without a doubt, making those guys proud—and you can’t really fault him for it.
You may see Tommy riding a horse through a McDonalds drive through on a Wednesday afternoon in Tallinn. Why? Because he has a horse and he fancied a Big Mac. It's simple, really. Tommy is just... different. Don’t take it from us, though. Just go and listen to him.