In 2014, Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning brought on Cakes Da Killa for an interview. Sitting next to host Peter Rosenberg and across from Ebro Darden, the New Jersey native was prompted to answer as many questions about his sexual orientation as about his rap career. Both hosts took every opportunity to point out they couldn't fully relate to the music because they were straight, and they expressed a level of surprise that Cakes could spit just as well as, or better than, any straight rapper. It is frustrating to watch.
"Having the gay conversation is always cool as far as visibility, but nigga I rap," is what Cakes tells me when he comes to the VICE office to chat. "That's the thing. Focus on that opposed to the other stuff." The constant battle against being othered is one that Cakes is ready to put to rest as he looks to enter a new chapter in his career.
When Cakes meets me outside of the office, he laughs at my offering of a KitKat bar, expressing that he'd much rather have a beer. His hair is faded so sharply that he has to have come straight from the barbershop. He's wearing all black—a thick sweater, jeans, and sneakers. The rapper's debut album, Hedonism, drops on Friday, making it exactly five years since his debut mixtape, Easy Bake Oven, Vol. 1, was released in 2011. In the space between those two bookmarks, he's released four projects filled with his signature hyperactive, club-ready production and stellar, tongue-twisting raps, which have afforded him the opportunity to continuously tour between Europe, Australia, and the US. In 2013, he was introduced to most of the world with his Mishka-released mixtape Eulogy, a project highlighting not only his technical skill but his capacity for raunchy humor, transparency about his sexual desires and takes on contemporary pop culture. On Eulogy's "Da Good Book," he gives a hilarious new take on Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You" where he reworks the hook with "I been thinkin' 'bout dick. Oh na-na-na."
Hedonism, like much of his earlier work, shows him in collaboration with producers who typically play to the underground nightlife and rave scenes, flipping those producers' beats on their asses and weaving through them with lightning quick raps. If there's any contemporary comparison to this combination of production and rap, it's probably Danny Brown, who is also fond of taking production usually reserved for non-stop sweaty dancing and turning it into a lyrical exercise, often with humor, that the outside world has difficulty accepting and understanding.
"I was in this headspace where I wasn't feeling appreciated," Cakes tells me as we sit on the office's roof, his hands moving just as fast as his words. "I felt like the media didn't appreciate me. I was getting treated like a joke." Hedonism, which is being released through his own label Ruffians, was born out of these feelings. It's Cakes' push to be judged solely on his skill apart from his identity, even as he acknowledges the role his identity provides for queer people coming of age who may not have anyone else to look to. At 26, having taken his art across the globe and hoping to maintain the lifestyle he enjoys, Cakes feels a necessary shift coming in his career.
"I feel like this glass ceiling that I'm dealing with is not just me, and I think that's the bigger picture," he tells me. "I'm trying to work for myself and get myself in situations I feel like I deserve, but this shit is bigger than me."
Noisey: Compared to when you first started five years ago, what do you need now to feel like you're successful?
Cakes Da Killa: Well initially when I first started it was about getting drink tickets and getting in the club for free. That's what it was all about. It was the turn up. Then slowly it became, I wanna travel and as soon as I started traveling it was, "What else could you fucking do?" Based on what the media was telling me and how I felt, I wasn't progressing in my career. It was like, "Nigga you gonna be drinking and traveling!" But for somebody who went to college, that's great. I do my little editorial work here and there, and I just get paid to do this shit. Now that I'm dropping an album, I want an Apple commercial. I want also to be respected. That's the main thing with this project. Having the gay conversation is always cool as far as visibility but, nigga I rap. That's the thing. Focus on that opposed to the other stuff.
What are you learning on the business side?
That's longevity. When we look at other artists in hip-hop who actually have legacies and have businesses, these people aren't just looking at it from one side of the game, just trying to be a rapper or a writer. These people are learning about licensing, learning about publishing, learning about all the other aspects of running a label. Even on my project I'm putting out, I have a distribution deal but I'm putting it out on my own label. It's always learning lessons and trying to dabble in other things whether it's acting or other shit in media. I'm getting older. I'm not gonna be able to be rapping forever. It's only gonna be cute but for so long.
I saw online that you had expressed some interest in permanently leaving the country. Is there somewhere specific where you think you'd be accepted or able to thrive more?
I don't think Europeans consume what I do differently, I just think that, being in New York, it doesn't have a consumer culture. Everybody's a journalist, everybody's an artist, everybody's a rapper. You can't do a show and expect everybody in the audience to be like, "Oh shit, you're blowing my mind!" Either they gonna feel like you wack or they can do what you're doing better. But for me, the shit is just getting too expensive and I'm getting to the point where I'm exhausting all my resources. Everything that I could do as far as opportunities in this city, like, I used them already. Where else could you go? You can live a much cheaper life and be good someplace else. My manager just bought a two-story apartment in Portugal and he pays 900 Euro. That's basically how much I pay for a damn room. The older I get, I think to when my mom used to tell me, "I don't know why you moving to New York. It's so expensive, just stay in Jersey." She didn't realize I had to make that sacrifice and pay that money to make my connections. And now that I did that already, it's like, what the fuck am I still here for?
Is there a ceiling here in New York, in your opinion?
The thing about New York is I had to be here. I will always love New York because it has a pulse about it. It's very necessary to creative person like myself to be here. You can only be in New York or LA if you really trying to make moves. For me, it's more like the cost of living. And America ain't really cool right now anyway. People be asking me about politics and shit, I'm like, "I don't know. The shit is just crazy." I can't make sense of this shit from the politics, to the gentrification. The shit is just not fun. They shutting down all the clubs that used to be fun.
Did you prepare Hedonism any differently than your previous work?
With this project, I just had one organic experience with Noah Breakfast. He decided we'd do the beat from scratch. We were in the studio, and I wasn't really used to that because I'm from the Soundcloud generation. It's like, "You like this beat?" That is what it is. Noah asked "Do you like this sound?" I'm like, "What the fuck do you mean? I mean, it's cool." Other than that, it was just thinking, maybe not cursing on every other bar, thinking about radio. It's me becoming more polished about it. It was supposed to happen because I'm due for an upgrade. I'm due for a promotion.
Did that experience with Noah Breakfast make you want to be more hands on?
I like having input, but that situation was like, "We about to make this baby together," and that was a lot of responsibility. It was a good learning experience, but I fuck with producers too much. Like if I fuck with you, I trust you.
LSDXOXO shows up more than any other producer on the project. Is he, or any other producer, someone that can bring something specific out of you?
I don't think necessarily a producer can bring something out of me. I think for what I do, I have to make music that appeals to so many people. Not only do I have to make rap music that's gonna appeal to an old nigga who grew up listening to Biggie, I gotta also appeal to that white, gay person living in Ohio who just coming out; he don't listen to rap, but he like the sounds of it, and he can relate to it. Then I gotta appeal to the bitches. It's so many people. The main thing with LSDXOXO is, I think I relate to his sounds more because of his experience. Me and him have a similar experience, and he makes shit that's moody and very me. I like everything. If I rap on a beat, I have to like the beat.
Were there ever any pressures to fully change your formula?
Of course people would come to me from me working with sponsors and working with managers, but at the end of the day, I don't give a fuck. I came out in the third grade; everybody know that old ass story. I know I rap well because I write and been reading books. I'm very comfortable with what I'm doing, and I'm only getting better at what I'm doing. My whole thing is, respect what I do as a lyricist the same way you respect what Young Thug or Lil Yachty does. We're not gonna do the same thing.
Yeah, that Hot 97 interview was annoying.
Even with the Hot 97 shit, it's like come on. How many times do a gay boy go to college, come back for the holidays and their little cousin like, "Why you talk like a girl?" I'm used to that shit. That didn't affect me at all. I'm just happy we can have those type of conversations, and everybody is not built to have a conversation like that. Sometimes when I interview with gay media outlets, they like, "Oh, it's so bad! I was so uncomfortable." Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable with shit to get over it. I just want the album to be like, I can rap. People can say what they want about me. Like, I'm gay, I'm fat, I'm ugly, I don't know how to dress. Not too many people gonna say I don't know how to rap. [Laughs] That's the thing I'm trying to say. Just give me that. That's all I really want.
Photo: Eric Johnson
Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter.