Cakes da Killa's rhythm and flow have never been as tight as they are on his new single, "Don Dada," but the rapper was still apprehensive about dropping a new track during a global pandemic and societal reckoning with systemic racism. Cakes ultimately followed his intuition, for which those of us who needed to dance are grateful. "I will never let things that are wrong or the world mute me," the rapper tells PAPER. "And also a lot of this shit that's coming to boil and the world is not really new to me. I've been Black for almost 30 years. So this is not breaking news to me. I'm just happy that it's now being put on the main stage."
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Cakes, an indie rap darling and nightlife maven for almost a decade, recently accessed an entirely new audience as a contestant on Netflix's Rhythm + Flow. But in the wake of that mainstream attention he's doubled down on the sound that first captivated his original audience: House beats, relentless momentum, wickedly sharp lyrics and an effortless swagger. With an EP, second album and a book of short stories on the way, he's got no plans to slow down anytime soon.
Was part of the reason you decided to stick with releasing "Don Dada" that we should be celebrating Black artists now more than ever?
I think this should be the time where we celebrate Black artists. Tomorrow should be the time of celebrating Black artists. We should be doing that all the time. I mean, people need to really just realize that the field has not been a level playing field. And at the end of the day, Black people contribute so much to this country in art and music and fashion in general. And a lot of the times we are not compensated or respected, or we're stolen from. So I feel the people that have this energy now, they just need to continue it for the rest of the time because bad people are not going anywhere unless you get on a spaceship. I didn't get my invitation to the flight yet. So I'm still waiting.
How long have you been working on new music?
Well, this new project is pretty much a new thing that me and Proper Villains put together. We first started working on it during quarantine and he basically sent me a bunch of beats. And I just wrote to it, kind of sulking about being stuck in the house as you know, I'm very much a psychosocial butterfly.
So dealing with that anxiety, we put together an EP talking about that and then the fucking race war started. That just made me even more like, we need to drop this music because I do believe this is a very transformative time. People always need time to let their fucking hair down and also just enjoy Black joy. House music is one of the staples in music and Black music.
Is there more music coming?
Yeah, of course. I'm going to drop an EP that I'm working on now. Well, the EP is kind of wrapped. We're just getting all the rollout situated for that and then we're going to drop a video. And then after that, we're going to be putting out my second album. So she's staying busy, basically.
If you're thinking about putting out your second album, what's changed in your life since the first one?
Well, a lot has changed since my first album. That was so long ago. As an artist, I definitely developed. I definitely have matured a lot because I've grown in age and wisdom and all that cliche shit. But I think aesthetically, I'm reverting back to how I was when I first started making music. And that's basically pretending to just the freedom that I have where I'm just like, I'm just doing whatever the fuck I want to do. I felt like a lot of the time with my releases, I was being a little bit mindful about what would make sense radio wise or with placements and what would please what person and was it hip hop enough? Was it dance enough? And now I just don't give a fuck. And I felt that that energy is what made people fall in love with me in the first place. So they're going to see that all through the EP that I'm about to drop and definitely in the album I'm about to release in the future.
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I think you've always made music that you want to listen to, but are you bringing that energy even more to everything that you're doing?
Yeah. I think I've definitely grown in my song writing. I think I've always had a strong, clear taste. So that's definitely evident. This new music is me showcasing a different side of my brain. I think if anyone follows me on social media, they know my references and know the type of vibe I'm into. But this is a more fully realized project where you get the full scope where I'm not putting myself through any type of filters or lenses to appease anyone.
The girls who know what's good have been fucking with you for a very long time.
I mean, the girls with taste.
The girls with taste. Exactly. But you got exposure to a whole new audience thanks to Rhythm + Flow. What has that been like?
It was cute. I mean, to me, I've been courted throughout my years to be on reality television. And it definitely wasn't my deal. I always felt I wanted my music to speak for myself, but the landscape of media and entertainment has changed so much where if you're not on a reality show, no one gives a fuck. So that was unfortunate. But when they pitched me to be on this show with Cardi and Chance the Rapper and T.I., I was like, well, I have to fucking do it.
So for me, I just took it as a cute little walk through and it was cute for me to meet a bunch of different artists from across the country and have my moment with Cardi. I mean, I brought Netflix cameras to Mood Ring, right? Like, come on, that's going to go down in the history books.
How have you seen the queer music landscape especially change in the past decade?
When I was first coming out, it was a bunch of what ifs. Like how am I going to be respected as a gay artist? Is this going to make sense? Is this marketable? Where now the industry ran with a lot of my prototypes and Mykki Blanco's prototypes. And they applied it to a lot of other people where they don't have to have that same what ifs. They could just do it. And I think it's great. I think all voices need to be heard if it's of quality. Shout out to all the girls doing it.
As an artist who came up through nightlife, what is it like to not know when that's going to be back and that when it does come back, it's probably going to be different forever?
The fact that nightlife is gone, it's really disheartening, especially when I moved to New York for the nightlife and to be a curator and all that shit. So the fact that it's not here, I could be living in fucking Wyoming. It's like, what the fuck is really going on? But I'm aware of the severity of what's going on. A pandemic is nothing to play with. I do feel the city has definitely lost its glamour, but there will be different ways where people will figure out how to make it make sense. People are doing Zoom parties and all these types of online shit that I'm just happy to be invited to because I still need that stimulation every once in a while to even pretend for a moment.
"I think this should be the time where we celebrate Black artists. Tomorrow should be the time of celebrating Black artists. We should be doing that all the time."
Do you think that that's sustainable or do you think people are always going to be seeking out a way to party IRL?
I don't think it is sustainable. People are always going to do things and break the rules. And they're always going to need that because I feel as humans we need that. You still have people hooking up on apps. People doing what they have to do, it just is what it is, unfortunately. But I do feel there's a land for people who will grow and progress during this online takeover that we now have. And I do feel like it doesn't make a lot of opportunities for the industry since the industry has been in sleep mode at the point where people can not really focus on things where there was so much white noise before. But now people who really are about this life are putting out products and putting out work that people could really look at. Especially because now everybody's fucking leaving the city. I could actually breathe a little bit.
I've been thinking about the ways in which this has made the release of media more egalitarian than ever. You don't need to have a huge promo machine behind you because no one can really do huge promo right now. So you as an artist dropping a single online have the same tools as artists with bigger platforms and machines behind them. Are you feeling that you have more of an opportunity to break through the noise right now?
Yes and no. For me, I'm always going to ride the fence with that. I'm going to straddle the fence because it's like, obviously you want to have some air of independence. You always want to know what's going on. I've been independent for the majority of my career, but that doesn't mean that I'm recording labels and doing what I have to do. Because I do feel it is a give and take. There's a lot of things in the industry that are still prevalent, like PR companies who place your fucking phones on the Spotify playlist. You need to have someone who is handling your things and your placement. So there definitely are still industry aspects involved in making music. It's just a little different now. They're trying to get their bearings with this whole online shit. And my heart goes out to people who own clubs, like the bar owners, the bartenders, the security, because those people are fucking completely in limbo right now.
I was thinking about that today as I was getting ready to call you, because the first time we met was when you played my party, almost 10 years ago now, in a loft in Brooklyn. When is the next time people are going to be able to do that? Thinking about all of these underground spaces and small queer-run bars... what's going to happen to them?
Unfortunately a lot of that is going to be gone. And when we come back, even if we are going to be building back up to what it used to be, it's never going to be what it's going to be. I feel they're going to cut the number of people that are allowed in spaces in half. Because even when they're going through these phases of opening up the city, there's still going to be people who are extra cautious because we don't want to be in this situation again. But I'm just like, it is what it is. I feel New York, I wouldn't wish a pandemic on anything, but this city is too over packed anyway. It's like, what the fuck? I think that this is good for the people who run these cities to really reassess how we are living on top of each other. It's just, it's ridiculous.
Do you see yourself in New York forever?
I'm in the midst of writing this collection of short stories that I want to get done before I'm 30. And I was like, oh, by the time I write this book, I'm just going to move. I'm just going to leave New York. It's going to be my love letter to New York. And then I went to my gentrified roof in Bushwick. And I was like, actually, there's no other place that I'd be. I was blessed with the opportunity to travel around the world. I've been to a lot of cities, had opportunities to move to different places. And nothing feels like New York even in this turbulent time. So it is what it is. I just need to lower the damn rent. Can we get that petition started?
Exactly. Wait, tell me about these short stories you're writing.
I'm just putting together a collection of things I've been writing throughout the years. I figure a lot of these Black gay voices are not pushed anymore because we have this whole queer takeover and it's very much we don't want to really hear too much from men. But I still feel Black gay men still need to be able to have channels where if they want to read from other Black gay men, they could still do that. I think that's important. Me growing up I read a lot of E. Lynn Harris books and a lot of Black gay anthologies and that definitely motivated me. It solved a lot of questions that I had in my mind and made me laugh. And I think we need that as a community specifically.
What do you want for the next generation of Black queer people?
Well, I obviously want them to grow up in a world that's better than mine, but I also want them to be appreciative of the past. I feel a lot of these people, the younger generation, have no respect for the past. They don't want to know about it. And that's why a lot of the things that are happening now creatively are shit. People are just copying and pasting the same thing over and over again because people are not immersing themselves in different art forms, watching documentaries, going into museums, having fulfilling relationships. So everything just seems really flat. And that's the one thing I would wish for the next generation. Just read a fucking book.
We'll read your fucking book.
Or you read my fucking book when it comes.
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It's Pride, which I guess like, I don't really know what that means this year. But it's always a time to be reflective on your queerness and how that relates to the rest of your identity. And I'm sure right now, you're thinking about that very intersectionally. What are you feeling proud of this year? Or how are you feeling about pride itself?
I'm always proud, so I don't really need Pride to make me be proud. I don't need any acceptance or attention from anybody else to be proud to be Black either. I mean, I'm a proud person just in general. So you know me, it just is what it is. But I think I'm proud that I'm living in a time that's so transformative and people are trying their best to be mindful about other things. And that's not saying everyone always gets it right. But I think I'm proud that we're actually having these conversations that are generations in the work.
I love that you're writing your memories, because how else are these children going to learn not only what we went through, but what came before it? Especially if they can never go to a party again the same way we did.
But I mean, do these kids even like clubs? That's also the other thing. I'm like, people wasn't even appreciating nightlife in the same sense any fucking way. Just wipe it all clean and let's start over from the ground again, when people would sneak into the fucking warehouses and shit, you know what I'm saying? Let's just take it back to the essence. Fuck all these companies buying these buildings and trying to reproduce this rave feel. Just throw a fucking rave. That's how I'm looking at it. Who am I but an older queen?
Well, I think it's time to do it. Let's go find a warehouse, break in and throw a rave.
Right. Before the second wave of corona, we definitely need to. We definitely need to do it.
That might be the second wave of corona. Is that what you miss the most about real life? Being out at parties with people?
Yeah. I mean, I definitely miss it, but even when I was out before all this shit, I missed the tension and nightlife. Everything was wrapped in saran wrap and I'm like, this does not feel the same. But obviously when there's a changing of the hands, things are not going to feel the same, but I just felt I lost a lot of the quality. Hopefully now the kids are taking their time at home to actually practice, to learn how to fucking do a DJ transition so when things come out it's of quality. And then I'll shake these old bones out on the floor when they open up.
Cakes da Killa was photographed by New York-based photographer Oscar Ouk using Zoom.
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