Interview: Cakes da Killa

Photo by William Chu
Photo by William Chu

I caught up with Cakes da Killa recently for a chat after his performance at the Spirit World IMVU Festival, a three-day jam-packed lineup of virtual performances presented by Spirit Twin and including names like Yves Tumor and Pussy Riot. Cakes performed as part of the underwater-themed fantasy stage “Sirius B,” his avatar decked out in a glittering mermaid tale and fins while surrounded by pink and blue streams of bubbles, dolphins, and sunken undersea ruins. His virtual mermaid form delivered a high-energy retrospective of his past decade of music including a new track off his upcoming EP, MUVALAND. I had a conversation with him on how it’s been quarantining in New York, the new direction of his upcoming album, the recent increased spotlight on Black artists, his reflections on the New York scene and the music industry at large, and if we really should want to scrap the whole thing, after all.

Where are you right now, what are your surroundings like?

I’m in a photo studio in Brooklyn. It’s a very spacious studio space… very “brick walls, vegetation”. The shoot is for a zine they’re putting together for a night life relief fund.

So you’ve been in New York for a while now – have you been there for the entirety of quarantine so far?

Yes I legitimately moved back to New York maybe a month before this happened… so just on time!

Oh damn, that’s a bit much actually – how have you been feeling about that?

Pretty triggering – um it’s been ok I mean, roll with the punches y’know. But it’s been a little overwhelming because every day seems to be new information about what’s going on. But it just is what it is.

Have you been keeping in contact with people or keeping it solo?

It’s been a mixture of the two, since I kinda had to get a job…(laughs) Because all my tours got cancelled. So for me I haven’t fully been quarantined and stuck in the house like a lot of people, I gotta work to pay my bills. But I’ve also been taking a lot of time to y’know, do more reading, do more writing, having that moment of alone time but… I just miss fucking clubs y’know?

Yeah. Definitely feel that.

Part of the reason we connected was Spirit World, the virtual festival you performed in. I was really curious what it was like preparing for that set – the music, your avatar… What was it like “performing” in that way?

Well the process was kind of different for me because I’m not really from that sort of community – I’m more of an IRL kind of girl y’know? So it was more me getting comfortable with how to work the app and all that shit since I’m more of a Golden Girl when it comes to technology at this point. Like how do I do this? So the team definitely helped me out. 

For my set I wanted it to kind of be a retrospective, and started off with an unreleased song on my EP that’s coming out in the fall. Then I wanted to add some live elements, so there’s a section of the set where it’s actually me rapping over a live audio. I kind of wanted it to be interactive and give people a good show even though it’s y’know me sitting on a train as this is happening. (laughs) Like me leaving work as this is going on. 

Yeah there were parts of the festival when I had to leave and run an errand, or take out the trash because the fruit flies were getting aggressive – so I’d leave and come back and feel like, what a strange way to experience a festival.

Ha ha yeah – Also though people take it really seriously. Like I’ve received more congratulations and followers from that show than a lot of real-life shows that I’ve done in New York. That really made me feel like this is a real thing like, this is not a joke. People are like oh my god that was such a good set and I’m like – but it was pre-recorded… But to some people it’s like a second life. So I’m like ok actually – thanks guys. 

Do you have any personal experiences with virtual spaces like IMVU?

Not really. Social media would be like it… Well I mean in my day girl, we would get on phone chat lines. Like hot lines… Yeah I’m that old. And then we would have AIM I guess which would be virtual chat. But nothing as committed as y’know like, having a life. Well, not for me – I’m sure people did commit to it that much because this is not really anything new. I just think the tech is now keeping up with people’s needs and desires.

I wanted to ask about your upcoming EP, MUVALAND which is coming out this fall. It’s your latest release as a full album since Hedonism in 2016. How do you feel you’ve developed as an artist and a person since then?

I’ve developed a lot as far as my lyricism, and I’ve developed as an adult, I’ve developed as an artist… But it’s also a weird thing because I kind of reverted back the person I was when I made my first project which was like “I don’t give a fuck”. So now it’s that, “No fucks given” mentality with the evolved-ness of the journey of a 30-year-old. I’m not 21 anymore writing songs about sucking dick, I’m 30-years-old talking about my pansexuality. It’s an evolution y’know? A full-circle moment.

You mentioned in another interview it was very much a house project for you. I’m curious what inspired that direction.

Basically I’ve been dabbling in and out of house music for a while, but I’ve never really committed fully because I was so pigeonholed as, “Gay hip-hop artist”. At the beginning of quarantine it was fun, I wanted to collaborate with Proper Villains, and I just wanted to make a house project but I didn’t know it would progress into a full-on release with a label. But that’s kinda what happened because… quarantine didn’t end. 

Did you feel like leaning too much into house would feed too much into the “Gay” part of the “Gay rapper” pigeonholing you experienced? Did that factor into your decision to keep away from a house sound previously?

I don’t know if it was that. I just felt like I had something to prove and at this point I’m like it’s been a whole decade like… bitch, you already proved it. I think I was applying pressure to myself to deliver things to people which I thought they needed from me as an artist, as opposed to telling people what they needed from me. Which is how I started my career like, “This is great shit, you should like this.” Now I kind of have that freedom again where I’m not thinking about what I should do.

So this album you’re releasing through a label, have you worked with labels before? Since I know you mostly work as an independent artist.

Yeah I mostly work as an independent artist – I had a distribution deal with my album that dropped 2016 but I like to keep y’know, my shit under control. This one [MUVALAND] is coming out with Classic Music Company.

Working as an independent artist also means you’ve had to do your own promotion and media. Have you had any particularly frustrating experiences with that?

Of course. One of my most frustrating experiences was when someone wrote an article that tried to imply that I was racist against white people because at a show I did I told white people to get off stage and wanted to make space for Black people. Which was kind of a joke but also a serious thing because it was Black history month. But someone took the footage and tried to make it seem like it was a bigger thing not knowing that I went to school for journalism too and I could write my own rebuttal with a different magazine so – I don’t like the clickbait aspect of a lot of things but, as far as I’m concerned, the media is just gonna do what the media does so I don’t take it too personal.

Do you feel like having a background in journalism also gives you an extra edge in navigating these types of situations? 

It definitely does. Imagine how frustrating it would be to have a magazine tear you apart and you couldn’t even put the words together to have a rebuttal! That’s why people fight, shit like that… It’s very annoying. But also it comes with the territory.

There’s also been such a huge renewed amount of visibility and interest in Black artists from non-black people recently, has that been having a positive or negative impact for you?

It’s been both. I think the attention is good, but I think it needs to be from a place of actual sincerity and whether or not it’s coming from that is a case-by-case situation. Because it’s not like Black artists have just popped out of nowhere and it’s like, “Oh my god this is just here now!” I think it can be kinda back-handed… but also I don’t really have the time to think about that because I just have to focus on maintaining my own reality. 

In addition to media, in relation to the broader music industry, there’s been a lot of renewed discussion recently about just how bad the industry is to its’ artists and – 

Right. (laughs) Run it to the ground, run it to the ground.

Yeah I mean – that was my question, what have your thoughts been about the industry, what conversations have you been having?

I think there are some things in the industry that do need to come back though – because the wild wild west that’s going on now is a little too much… I think it needs to be restricted and needs to be filtered, but who is in charge of the filtering and in charge of the gatekeeping is what needs to change. I think those opinions and those presences in the industry needs to be more diverse. But yeah I still think there needs to be people being like, “Your music is shit”. (laughs)

How would you like to see the local scene in New York change after the lockdown?

Oh my fucking god… I just – ok. This is such a triggering question. I just want nightlife to come back better than it was when I was here because I was kind of over it. And I want nightlife to go back to where it was where everything was mixxy as opposed to being so queer centric and one note. Because I think it’s great that we have queer visibility, but nightlife is not about… community… it’s not about sisterhood or brotherhood. It’s about talent, and it’s about dog-eat-dog world, and it’s about who rises to the top. And taking that edge out of it it’s like why did I move here? So that’s the one thing, that people need to get real about what night-life is about and put the talent back into the club. 

Cakes da Killa’s single “Don Dada”, a collaboration with Proper Villains releases this October 9th on Classic Music Company, with his full EP MUVALAND out later this fall.

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