Over Zoom, Cakes Da Killa and I chat with a disarming familiarity. We greet each other with a sigh of relief, an unspoken sign of solidarity. Our first chat was over half a decade prior for a freshman-year final of mine about the double-edged sword that is queer representation in hip-hop. As two people who have voyeuristically watched each other's growth through social media over the years, the digital space between us was filled with a familiar understanding of the turmoil of the past three years. As the conversation unfolded, there was so much more to Cakes that no one knew.
Born Rashard Bradshaw, the New Jersey-born rapper was slapped with the "queer rapper" label for much of his early career, navigating the booming underground world of the New York club scene. While intertwining with nightlife legends such as Mykki Blanco, Cuntmafia, Susanne Bartsch, Ladyfag and more, the young musician found himself as one of the defining figures of a burgeoning fascination with the intersection between hip-hop and dance music. Compared to popular bloghaus groups at the time making dance-infused records that packed out the soon-to-be-closed clubs, Bradshaw was deeply immersed in a scene that was indebted to its Black and queer predecessors. From festival appearances to international tours, an appearance on the Netflix show Rhythm + Flow and two acclaimed MUVALAND EPs with Propert Villains, Cakes da Killa was on top of the world. Then, 2020 hit.
As the pandemic grabbed the world by the throat and touring musicians were left anxiously awaiting signs of life, Bradshaw entered the workforce for the first time as a way to support and ground himself amidst the uncertainty. When one goes from jet-setting around the world to clocking into a nine-to-five every day, it feels like a crash landing. For Bradshaw, he channeled that uncertainty and confusion into his short film, Visibility Sucks. In a particularly poignant part, a houseless man accepts a spare Metrocard swipe from a prideful Bradshaw. "Being a bum ain't so bad, is it?" the man asked.
"I'll get back to you on that," Bradshaw replies. As it turns out, the Metrocard had insufficient fare.
Wrapped up in this gripping tale of feeling like a failure was a divine reset. Bradshaw shed his skin containing any remnants of toxic relationships, dying friendships, fear and apprehension, looking inward toward his heart and outward toward the universe for the right time to unleash his long-awaited Svengali, the follow-up to his 2016 debut album Hedonism. As opposed to the raunchy, indulgent sexuality that gripped the tail-end of the blog era and unknowingly became the precursor of today's dance-forward rap hits, Svengali delicately traces relationships with friends, fans and lovers. Interspersed between songs are real voicemails left to Bradshaw, ranging from horny to gracious. As much as Svengali is a vulnerable work of art, it is also an assertion of boundaries. With the trauma of the pandemic, breakups and social media converging, he had to let go to pull back.
Below, read an exclusive conversation with Cakes da Killa as he reflects on over a decade of being at the forefront of the intersection of hip-hop and dance music.
You've been surrounded by this push and pull of press characterizing you as a "queer rapper" and now saying you never wanted to be that. Have you always wanted to challenge that narrative?
It was about people wanting me to present or be who they thought I was in their minds as opposed to listening to who I was saying I was. That's basically what a lot of the issues were, but I've always been a very sure person, so I was able to maneuver that easily. I just play my part. I have a lot of respect for journalism, so I leave it up to them to do what they want to do. I'm thankful that I am operating in a time when those opinions could be combated through my own social media platforms. A lot of artists that I grew up listening to didn't have that. Once an article was printed in The New Yorker, that was the law. There were no other outlets. So now we're in a time where artists could actually speak up, so that evens the playing field. I don't really mind it. For me, I just want people to understand that what I do is something that I'm really passionate about and I try my best to do the best work.
You've been in New York for most of your career and then made the move to Atlanta. What spurred that decision?
I just needed a change of pace. I think as young people, especially creatives, you should just live. I travel so much for work, so I'm blessed to see the world. Americans, we get caught up in having to live in New York or LA and that's not true anymore, thanks to social media. If I can be based someplace else, why not? Especially when you're living in places where people get pressured to be creatives, that just makes the housing market shit. You got to deal with fucking rich, entitled kids. Once you get to a certain age, you don't keep up with that rat race. So you just live where you can afford and where you can get a fab apartment and be yourself.
You've lived a very nomadic life. Do you think you'll eventually want to settle down somewhere?
Romantically, maybe! I just had a thought that maybe I'd be the person that moves every 10 years, but also that seems really stressful because moving is so stressful. I would definitely love to get my roots planted somewhere. The type of aesthetic I want, I cannot afford in New York and I probably never will. So if you know what you want, you kind of have to...I don't want to call it a sacrifice. You have to make the life adjustment to get it. So that's just it is what it is.
People must look at you and think you're living lavish, traveling everywhere, getting huge checks. At the same time, you took a huge step when you released Visibility Sucks and opened up about having a nine-to-five job at a grocery store. What was that like?
Period! I come from working-class people so the concept of working is not shameful to me because as an adult, you do what you have to do to handle your business. I think what was shameful was the moment of me feeling like a failure. Dealing with thoughts like, "Wow, where are my savings? What did I do to fuck this all up? Where am I at now?" But that put a fire underneath my ass to get myself together and make sure that I always have multiple streams of income coming in. That made me work harder. The moment that it clicked for me was when I was working one day and another rapper, who I will not name, came into the store. We kind of had a tumultuous relationship before. When they saw me, they wouldn't even acknowledge me. I'd become dirt to them. That really, really broke me in that moment. I realized I never wanted to be that kind of person. I also realized I needed to get the fuck up out of there.
Was that the first time since starting your career that you've had a nine-to-five?
Yes, and it's like culture shock. Mind you, I've been to other countries. Working a job was the real culture shock. I really tip my hat to people who get up and do that every day because we need those people. Those are the people that run society, but that lifestyle is so foreign to me.
What was your day-to-day like? Were you still working on music? Did people you worked with know who you were?
Well, the day-to-day was kind of typical. What I had to realize is that I needed that balance. There are a lot of creatives and I was blessed to be able to be a creative that was able to see money early in my career to sustain myself. The majority of creators do live that duality of working a job and creating, so I just did that, which is how I was able to work on mixtapes like Muvaland Vol. 1 and 2 and also work on the script for Visibility Sucks. If I wasn't still tapping into my creative outlets, I would have fucking gone crazy. To speak on the people I was working with, I don't want to say I tried to keep a low profile, but I'm kind of a loner in general. It wasn't like I was there trying to make friends. But soon the word gets out and then they find my Instagram. So it kind of became weird in some instances, but I dealt with it.
I definitely was trying to not do that. People say I look younger than I am, so then you have people in college asking what grade I'm in. They're trying to be friendly so they're like "What's your social media?" It felt like I was trying to have a secret life. But after a while, I just got used to it.
You said you were a loner, what does that mean? Do you have trouble with long-lasting relationships, or do you just naturally withdraw yourself?
I definitely have really lasting relationships. I'm still friends with the people that I went to high school with. I'm a social butterfly. I think I don't actively move through the world seeking that validation from other people or seeking that attention from other people, which may seem really odd considering the fact that my whole career is about attention. I don't really move like that. In essence, I am kind of a loner because I spend the majority of my time alone. Unless I'm turning up, then I'm just... the worst.
Have you noticed disadvantages in your career navigating it in a way where you don't seek validation?
I think the way artists handle that has a lot to do with their personality type. We all have different personality types. For me, I've never been the type of person to send people my music. If you discover me, that's great. I think different people operate in different ways. For me, this is why you put a team together because you do need to have both. No one likes a chronic ass-kisser. That gets overwhelming. In our industry, who's on top and who's on the bottom — no pun intended — changes constantly. I will never kiss somebody's ass or force someone to kiss my ass. I work a room like an old drag queen, so that's why I have a manager who was able to make sure after I work a room, he gets everyone's contacts. You have to have the balance or team to pick up where you lack.
Speaking of having a team, you had Sam Katz produce Svengali. What was it like entrusting one person to produce the entire album?
It was very easy. I think for me, especially a Black queer voice, I am bombarded constantly with predominantly white male dance DJs and producers. It's never that they want to build my brand, they want my voice to add to their brand. I knew I wanted to work with one person who I trust and one person who actually understood me, and also someone that was weird and quirky enough to just do something that may not be marketable or make sense. Me and Sam have worked together since the beginning of my career, and it was easy. The only difference is that he's based in Mexico, and at the time, I was living in New York. It was a lot of Zoom calls and a lot of emailing, but we're already wrapping up the follow-up album now!
Has it been like that for your entire working relationship?
No, we actually met in New York. So that was just the only difference. Sam actually was one of the first people that recorded me over original beats. He basically was interning at a gospel studio and asked me to come there to record. It just was such a weird experience.
I don't know if you remember a lot of my older material but if people think I'm like vulgar now, I was definitely balls to the wall disgusting before. So imagine rapping the way I was rapping then and you see gospel awards around you. Like if I wasn't going to hell before, I'm definitely going to hell now.
What was your relationship with spirituality like when you were growing up?
It's human nature to want to belong and connect with others, and religion fills that need for most people. What fills that for you?
For me, I think it's my creativity and the relationships with people that I do have. The older I've gotten, I think I work harder on being more active in people's lives and reminding people that I do love them because once you get to my age, life is short and people start dying.
Our generation has to deal with so much death, and it's something I don't think any of us expected. It's terrible.
It is, but we got to keep the show going.
Speaking of shows, you were on Netflix's Rhythm + Flow, and it seems like you've formed a complicated relationship with it.
I don't want to say I have a love/hate relationship with it because I don't. I only see reality TV on Black Twitter, but I also don't watch TV. I was around when reality TV was first getting started with shows like the The Osbournes and America's Next Top Model. I see how it started and how it has since decayed and become something really ugly. For me, I just think the plug needs to be pulled if it becomes something that's detrimental or not progressive anymore, and I don't think reality TV is progressive. Does it make people a lot of money? Does it get people a lot of attention that they crave? Yeah, but I think social media has made that a problem. But it also shows the other side of that where these people who get all this attention and all this money actually don't live any better lives than you. I don't want to know what toothpaste Kim Kardashian uses. I don't care.
It goes back to how social media has made us all realize we know far too much about each other.
I was thinking about that the other day! I'm a creative or whatever, but I'm still a civilian in the main scope of the world. We don't really think about how the pandemic really affected the rich people like because they're rich so they should be good, but that probably fucked a lot of them up too. And I think that's why a lot of celebs now are really cuckoo. I just feel like it sucks because now the newer generation that is coming up after us feel like that level of transparency and sharing is necessary. And it's really not. So like even with my niece, she knows how to intro a YouTube video and I'm like, you're only six! Who you even talking to? I think this time will be assessed in the future.
Going back to the show, what was the process and aftermath like?
I've been talking about it more which is funny. Now all the journalists ask about it. As I said, me being a loner in the industry, reality TV was not something I was chasing. I've had offers in the past to be on different reality shows, but none of them seemed appropriate especially when you're an artist like me. I don't make art to be visible on the platforms. I'm more of a touring artist as opposed to being "Instagram famous." I would much rather do two months in Europe. That's kind of my reality and what I found is most people can't get both. Rhythm + Flow seemed more focused on talent than on antics. At the time, I also needed a resurgence or a reintroduction, because as an artist, you always need to have splashes of moments. I've had them in my career, like when I did "Don Dada," or when I dropped "Truth Tella". You need to have those moments and that was just that kind of moment. I was one of the older people who were more seasoned and it was just funny seeing young kids who have never been to LA before. Meanwhile, I was just angry because there was no alcohol on set! It was a very good experience, but like I said, the more you maneuver through the industry, it's kind of like the Wizard of Oz. You get to see behind the curtain and while it's glamorous, it's work. It's way more calculated.
I used to be a big singing show fan and I remember the controversy whenever it was uncovered that someone has a successful career prior to joining the show. Did you deal with that?
With that crowd, I don't think a lot of people knew who I was. People were there making friends. I know even some people who met their partners on the show and they're still together! People were legitimately getting to know each other and I was just in the corner like, what the fuck am I doing? What's the task at hand? That's just how I operate. Also, I did college already and it kind of felt like college to me. I was just not there for it. But there were people like Sasha Go Hard being there. That's somebody who I was familiar with and she's very much my generation, so it was good. Producers put people together that they think make sense. It's not necessarily about the talent. As you progress, it's also about your story and how you make sense and all that. When I left, I kind of needed to because I had booked a ticket to Ghana before I got confirmed for the show and I was like, if I don't leave, I'm gonna miss my flight. Thank God I was eliminated. I got on my flight three days later, so it worked out.
What were you in Ghana for?
I was going to Ghana to visit my ex. That was quite a tumultuous story.
So you talk about a chaotic relationship on the album. Was that the ex?
He was part of it. I think it's not necessarily one person or a person in general. The album is about me breaking up with people and experiences and bad routines and you know, New York. It's about a bunch of breakups, to be honest.
What has been the hardest breakup so far? Was it a friendship, a partner, leaving New York, a musical decision?
I think friendships. Friendships are definitely the hardest breakup. I don't know if you've ever been ghosted by a friend but that is way more sad than being hosted by a flame or a lover.
How do you nourish these friendships that you do have?
Since we're all old, I make sure I always call them so they know what my voice sounds like.
If you asked me six years ago if I'd prefer people called me, I would shut that down. As we get older, we realize how important it is to hear each other!
You know what I did a couple of weeks ago? I went through everyone's Facebook and I put their birthday in my phone. So now I get a notification! I wouldn't have fucking cared about that five years ago. Now I really need to know when your birthday is in my head. Things change.
As we get older, we learn what our values are and I think that process shows in how you're discussing this album as it centers around your want to be a better person for yourself.
Right? It's that but it's also the fact that the time is now. I'm gonna strike while the iron is hot. I want my roses before I'm fucking cremated somewhere. That's also the reality too! I'm not dirt poor, but god damn, throw a bitch a bone.
Do you feel like you've gotten your flowers or do you think you're not at the point yet where you feel like you could ask for them.
I definitely feel like I deserve my flowers just based off of... you know. When someone calls you a pioneer or someone labels you as one of the first to do something, I do think you do need to get your flowers. But we're in a society where history and paying dues don't matter anymore when you have people who just go viral for being like "periodt" and then they're the moment.
But that's just the society we're living in. I'm not gonna wait for P Diddy to be like, "Cakes is a good artist!" I'm just going to take it now because I feel like we're living in a world where people only want to give you your due when someone on the mainstream approves you. That's not where I come from. I come from the underground. We have our own legends. We have our own system and I just feel like people should respect that especially as queer people. Queer people are not historically mainstream people. This is only now a new thing. I feel like losing that history or that knowledge of the underground is what's kind of fucking shit up.
There was that whole conversation around people like Drake and Beyoncé making house records, and mainstream culture briefly forgot where that music came from. What was that like to see?
It's kind of disheartening, especially for me as the person that loves queer history. I've always been very respectful of the people who laid down the infrastructure of nightlife specifically in New York, whether we're talking about the painters or the poets or the DJs. And as we move more and more into the digital space, that history and appreciation for that get erased. I just always think it's funny because I deal with these people now, especially these new DJs or performers with no concept of history. They're living in the moment — which is very good — but I'm like, "Your moment will end too." As a creative, you want your art to stand for something and you want it to become part of a legacy. If you're not respecting the people before you, the people after you are going to treat you the same way. To me, thank God I was in a good spot where if they talk about queer people making music, I would always be a part of that footnote. But now, generations are happening every three years as opposed to 10 years. Are we really going to remember these people in five years? It's kind of sad. That's why I always tell the younger generation to be mindful and learn from the past and respect it because you too will one day be a part of the past.
You lived through the transitional period in New York where the nightlife scene was changing. What do you remember and what is it like to reflect on that time of your life?
It was the middle ground where I could still be out and see remnants of old New York. When I say that, I mean going to clubs and still seeing people like Kenny Kenny working the door or going to warehouse parties hosted by Contessa where we may get locked in the building. It still had that old New York feel to it, but slowly gentrification was changing the city. I kind of had the best of both worlds. What I'll say about New York is it's still my favorite city. I always love it, but New York is an unforgiving bitch and she will always change her wig. Now she just changes her wig every three months. It's always an influx of new kids coming. There are new DJs and new parties, there are new "It" people. For me, you get to a certain point where you don't want to keep up with that anymore. I'm happy that I came to New York and blossomed at the time that I did because I was able to establish myself and actually make a lot of great connections with people who are amazing. I was able to meet people like Shayne from Hood By Air, and Raisa Flowers, the makeup artist and this choreographer and this artist, so I think it was really great and I'm happy I did it.
Who are those artists you feel indebted to that you don't want to be lost to time?
It's not even like a lot of musicians, you know, because there were very few. We have people like RuPaul, who to me was very influential because RuPaul had a talk show growing up and I was gagging. To be a young queer person seeing not only a feminine Black man, but a Black man in drag interviewing Lil Kim is crazy. So definitely RuPaul and people like Sylvester. Also a lot of writers and directors like Marlon Riggs and people like E. Lynn Harris and Richard Bruce Nugent. I kind of always want to move in their steps because it's about telling Black queer stories from our own perspective and not watering it down. It's about Black queer people loving on other Black queer people and what actually happens in reality and not what the media wants to paint it as.
You've been branching out into more mediums, from movies to an upcoming novel. What spurred that decision to do those things?
This just happened because of the fucking pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I was very comfortable in my space. Once you're an artist and you're eating off your craft, you're not really thinking about savings or the bigger picture or disposable income or multiple streams of income because you're just living life, especially when you're in your 20s like I was. It wasn't until meeting people like Matthew Morgan, who runs Afropunk, and he would always tell me, "You're bigger than this. You need to get out of this scene." I never thought about it like that until it was all taken away. Now, I'm not just a creative in music or in performing. Writing was always my first love. That's what got me into writing music. So to me, it's about always tapping into all your, creative outlets.
You've said you wanted to create something that will stand the test of time. What does that longevity mean and look like to you?
I think that longevity looks like the newer generation of queer people of all colors knowing that their dreams are not limited. That they can actually do what they want to do and operate in any room that they want to operate. The mission is to make sure that the generations after me don't have to deal with the glass ceilings that I've dealt with. You know, I think a lot of the time people get caught up in that tokenism without even thinking about it. For me, it's about changing the whole climate of the industry as opposed to depending on just visibility. That's why I named the movie Visibility Sucks because it's not just about being visible, it's about actually having media that showcases what the actual world is.
And for you growing up, what was that kind of representation and visibility like for you, besides RuPaul, if you had any?
It wasn't many. I think my only instances of seeing alternative life or queer life were always spectacles. I mean, I grew up during like the talk show era. So seeing the club kids on those types of shows, that's how I kind of saw it. It was never a good thing. But also, there's an affirming instance where my grandmother had a best friend named Migo who was gay and I just remember every time he would come visit, it would be like Christmas. He was handsome, he was like skinny, all the things I wanted to be. He was effeminate but still masculine, he dressed great. Having that kind of person in your life also be accepted by your family was really cool to see.
I love that all of our grandmothers and mothers all had that one gay friend.
My mother is not a hag, but my grandmother was definitely a hag. She would tell me things about going to Studio 54. Lorraine was definitely one of those types of girls. It was really great to see that one of her closest friends was just a gay man. It wasn't like when he would visit he would be like talking about his sexuality. It was just very evident that he was a gay man, but it wasn't a hot topic.
On Svengali, I loved the creative liberties you took with adding voicemails and ambiance and all that. What was the creative process behind those elements?
Growing up in the 90s, albums were immersive experiences that were like soundscapes. They basically took you out of your reality and put you into a different world. I kind of wanted to give the listeners that same experience. I think nowadays, artists are really focused on singles, which is great, but when you put them all together it kind of feels more like a patchwork quilt. It doesn't feel like they're saying anything. I know with this album, especially it being my sophomore album, I wanted to say something that was cohesive.
How does it feel to relinquish control when you finally release your music?
It's been something I always look forward to because I'm big into purging — even with my personal possessions. I like nice things but I'm not an overly materialistic person or a hoarder. So for me, you put all your energy into something and it's like a child and you send it out into the world and hope it does its best, then you focus on the next thing. Me and Sam are wrapping up the next project already., I write all my own music. I A&R my whole record. I can't really focus too much on the past or what was done because I'm already focusing on the future.
Svengali and Svengali (Remixed) are available on streaming now.
Photo courtesy of the artist
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